I remember the first time the thought of caring for the earth ever occurred to me. It was 1989 and I had just moved to the capital city of Harrisburg, PA. I had grown up extremely poor in rural western PA, and for the first time in my life, I was not surrounded by poverty.
It was during this time that I learned some new words: recycling, environmentalism, organic, and vegetarian. At the time these were not concepts being discussed where I grew up. A colleague of mine also turned me on to Greenpeace and spent some of her time showing me around town to the best organic markets and restaurants.
It was also during that time that I also went to my first earth day celebration where I attended a seminar and decided to go meatless to have a lower impact on natural resources. And while this made me the butt of family jokes at Thanksgiving, I remained fascinated and committed to the concepts and ideas revolving around caring for mother earth.
I guess maybe this experience seems extremely naive, and I’ve given it some thought recently. Looking back, I wondered, was it the times or was it that I lived in a rural area? Why were people in my new space talking about the earth and working to make it better when they weren’t back home? The conclusion I came to is that poverty was the common denominator.
Unfortunately, when you’re struggling to keep the electric on and food on the table, the last thing that comes to mind is how your consumption may affect the planet. You go for purchasing items and foods that will stretch the farthest and get you through the short term. The luxury of choosing one pricier organic apple over a bag of pesticide apples is non-existent. You page through the Sunday coupons and buy the cheapest foods. This is the reality for most families below the poverty line.
The paradox lies in the fact that people most affected by poverty also tend to rely most on natural recourses for their survival. I remember that it was commonplace where I grew up to throw things in the local dump, which sat right on the edge of the same creek that most of us used to fish for trout that we fried up for dinner. Batteries, aerosols, plastics, and other toxins often blew from this dump into the creek. We discarded our trash in this way because most couldn’t afford garbage pickup, but in doing so we were also poisoning our water and source of food.
This is just one example among many that I recall from my childhood, but I believe it’s safe to say that things have gotten way worse since then for areas stricken by poverty. Think of the water situation in Flint Michigan or the families that live and work close to oil refineries and factories. They are most affected by environmental hazards but often have little to no resources to combat the problems affecting the health of their families and of the earth.
I don’t have all the answers, but I do know that it will require unified efforts by those in positions of power and privilege. It means that we need to join forces to see how we can all work together to solve the symbiotic issues of poverty and the global environment. In next week’s blog, I’ll discuss how my local community is tackling some of these problems.