Friday, March 19, 2010

Social justice - Environmental justice

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Among the many problems that plague humankind, two are particularly serious: social injustice and environmental injustice. Both must be addressed together if we are to put humanity and the planet Earth on a secure course.

Social injustice is an age old problem, derived from the economic model that, in addition to plundering nature, generates more poverty than it can handle and overcome. It involves great accumulation of goods and services on the one hand, at the cost of glaring poverty and misery on the other. The figures speak for themselves: there are billions of people living on the edge of survival with only a dollar a day, and 2,600 million people (40% of humanity) living on less than two dollars a day. The consequences are perverse. Just to cite one fact: there are 350 to 500 million preventable cases of malaria, with a million victims a year.

This anti-reality had remained invisible for a long time to hide the failure of the capitalist economic model, developed to create wealth for the few and not well-being for humankind.

The second injustice, environmental, is linked to the first. The devastation of nature and the current global warming affect all countries, irrespective of national boundaries or levels of wealth or poverty. Naturally, the rich have more means to adapt and mitigate the damaging effects of climate change. Given extreme events, they have refrigerators or heaters, and can build defenses against floods that destroy entire regions. But the poor can not afford to defend themselves. They suffer harm from a problem they did not create.

Fred Pearce, author of Peoplequake, wrote in the November 2009 New Scientist: "the world's richest half-billion people-- that's about 7 percent of the global population-- are responsible for 50 percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Meanwhile the poorest 50 percent are responsible for just 7 percent of emissions."

Like the other one, this environmental injustice can hardly be made invisible, because the signs are everywhere, nor can it be resolved only by the rich, since it is global and affects them too. The solution must be born from the collaboration of all in different ways: the rich, being more responsible in the past and present, should contribute much more through investment and technology transfer, and the poor have the right to environmentally sustainable development, that brings them out of poverty.

Surely we can not neglect the solutions, but they alone are insufficient, since the global solution goes back to a previous matter: the paradigm of society as reflected in the difficulty of changing lifestyles and consumption habits. We need universal solidarity, collective responsibility and care for all that lives and exists (we are not the only ones who live on this planet and use the biosphere). The awareness of interdependence among all and the unity between Earth and humanity is essential.

Can the current generations be asked to govern themselves by such values if they have never before been experienced globally? How do we bring about this change urgently and quickly?

Perhaps only after a major catastrophe that would afflict millions and millions of people could we count on this radical change, if only because of survival instinct. The metaphor that comes to mind is this: if our country were to be invaded and threatened with destruction by some external force, we would unite beyond any differences. As in a war economy, all would be cooperative and supportive, and accept giving up and making sacrifices in order to save the country and life. Today the country is imperiled life and Earth. We must do everything to save them.

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