“Poverty is the worst environmental pollution,” said Indira Gandhi, prime minister of India at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment in Stockholm in 1972.
Since then her statement has been quoted and interpreted by many. What did she mean?
Did she mean that the poor are to be blamed in flooding the earth with rubbish?
It may seem so because the poorest communities on earth often look like a huge waste ground.
Visiting Romania a couple of weeks ago, I was introduced to the poorest communities in Bucharest – the Roma communities – who live next to such a waste ground.
It is a place where everyone who cannot or doesn’t want to pay for waste collection services dumps their rubbish.
And so do the Roma people because this is all they have seen and this is all they can do. If you don’t have money to school your children, you cannot pay for waste collection.
Have the Roma people voluntarily chosen to live in such a place and in such a way?
Most probably not because Project Ruth, started by a Baptist pastor and his church in Bucharest, offers the Roma community a change through education, humanitarian help, health care and fellowship that values and respects these people.
This offer is very much welcomed and appreciated by the Roma community because it changes their lives.
Through different programs implemented by Project Ruth, “children are encouraged to reach their full potential, to integrate in communities and to develop an attitude of acceptance for others,” as their mission statement proclaims.
Little by little, the lives of these children, young people and their parents are transforming. And this is the beginning of transformation of their community and their neighborhood.
Or did Gandhi mean that it is because of the poor that the economy needs to grow at the expense of environmental degradation and pollution?
Ironically, the economic growth brings riches to those who already have more than enough while it steals a dignified life from those people groups who are dependent on their natural environment.
Economic growth and human rights don’t always go hand in hand.
One example of this is a category of people who have emerged in recent years.
They are environmental migrants – people who have fled their homes because of extreme weather conditions, triggered by environmental degradation and climate change.
In 2008, 20 million people have been displaced because of extreme weather events. The estimate is that by 2050 the number of environmental migrants will increase to 200 million.
Vandana Shiva of India stated rightly that the economic growth based on human greed “privatizes profit and natural resources, and socializes pollution.” It socializes environmental degradation that affects mostly the poor communities.
Such unsustainable economic growth reminds me of an old Estonian story of Tall Peter and Small Peter, illustrating common human greed.
Two fellows go together to work in the field and take their lunch with them. When it is time to take a break and have lunch, Tall Peter says, “Let’s eat first your sandwiches, and then we will eat my sandwiches.”
“All right,” says Small Peter and happily shares his food with his partner.
When his sandwiches are finished, Small Peter says, “Shall we now share your bread?”
Tall Peter answers, “Your food is eaten; don’t expect anything else!”
After “eating together” with the people of the developing countries for centuries – using earth’s resources to the extent of overexploitation and death of natural habitats, expanding industry to a degree of climate changing carbon dioxide emissions (these are only a few examples!) – we need to recognize the harm done to the earth that is created to sustain life for us all.
We need to reach beyond our own desires for bigger comfort and affirm everyone’s right for a dignified life.
We need to learn how to look at this world with the eyes of Jesus, to see the oppressed and be there for them in their suffering. We need to learn the ways of justice the Bible teaches us and share what is created for sharing.
Jürgen Moltmann, interpreting Ghandi’s claim, says, “Social justice and ecological wisdom correspond, just as social injustice and crimes against nature also go hand in hand.”
Much poverty is caused by environmental pollution, and some environmental pollution is a result of poverty.
It is the profound interdependence that characterizes the bonds between different members of God’s creation, human and non-human. God’s justice embraces them all. But do we?
The words of the Old Testament prophet Micah still sound provocative: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Ecological concern linked with human rights is just one of the ways in which European Baptists will mark the BWA Human Rights Day.
Helle Liht is the assistant general secretary at the European Baptist Federation.
Assistant general secretary at the European Baptist Federation.