Justice and Environment

Justice and Environment

Discussions on environmental issues in academic circles tend to focus on science and economics, leaving out the vital component of social justice.

Linking social justice as a core issue in scholarly treatments of environmental protection and preservation has been comparably sparse. When we think of the environment, we think of natural resources: mountains, bodies of water, flora and fauna and of the sciences and economics of undertaking how they serve humankind. We hardly place as much scholarly emphasis on the dynamics between winners and losers of the use and misuse of environmental assets. To be sure, there have been many studies of these and advocacies to advance these issues in recent years. But given the deaths and losses of properties and opportunities associated with environmental decay, we could do with more.

At this time, when the common concern of nations across the globe seems to be intensifying economic competitiveness, achieving social justice appears to be a struggling secondary priority. It is pushed farther down the priority list when viewed in relation to the environment. Oftentimes, in the context of multilateral agreements that set caps on carbon emissions, or on moving towards “green technologies”, you will observe governments arguing how the move would compromise their economies. There is little consideration made on the ultimate threats to human existence.

The issue of social justice continues to linger. But it has not been this pronounced. There remains vastly unequal access to natural resources and environmental services. Most of the world's resources are sequestered to satisfy the needs of the rich. Such injustice explains as much deforestation and fisheries loss as do traditional concepts of illegal logging and fishing. It does, in the same way, explain as much climate change as a result of unjust distribution of wealth and resources as do principles of globalization.

When flooding hits us, who are the ones most affected? Too often, they are the poor. They get displaced, further threatening what already is a diminishing livelihood that can hardly bring food to the table and exacerbating their lack of access to land and other resources. But does our concern go to this vulnerable sector? Look around and see what almost always preoccupies our governments: trade, military, politics, power and money. Not the poor. They talk a lot about the poor; but never do much for them.

Studies on the impacts of environmental phenomena tend to focus more on the alteration to the biophysical attributes or to the diminishment of an area's investment viability. Interventions lean more towards an approach that is either scientific or too capitalistic. This approach, while necessary, unfortunately leaves out the marginalized sector. It moves away from identifying potential damages to a sector that is thought to be the least-contributing. It feeds on a materialistic culture that develops neglect to the effects on human kind in the long-term, and at the least, the last and the lost among us.

Traditional concepts of environmental studies trap us in the misconception that the ones who are high-risk or have more stakes are those who generate bigger taxes and revenue for the government. The lower your place in the social strata, the less contribution you can give. Following this, the tendency is to draw safeguards for the better off, while ignoring the less off.

To me, academic institutions have to take on the challenge of shifting public attention to this most vulnerable sector. When flooding occurs, who are the most affected by it? When weather patterns change drastically, whose economic opportunities should we be most concerned about? When sea levels continue to rise, who and what should matter most in developing our disaster risk management plans? We have to elevate discussions to include them in the overall picture of environmental protection. Must academic circles promote the concept of “economic efficiency” to give more environmental assets to those with more to invest to transform these assets to wealth, or to give more of the same assets to those with the least to survive?

Linking causes of environmental deterioration to both traditional and social factors, to include issues of justice, would seem to be the only way to enrich understanding of environmental phenomena and formulate solutions for them. And this challenge is on us as academic institutions in as much as it is on the rest of humanity.

Since climate change is one of the most significant faults produced by human civilization, it is natural that humans have to mitigate it. A concerted action by nations and communities is therefore needed to deal with it. However, the existing climate related initiatives at the global level seem still far from perfect. Countries still fail to bring the notion of solidarity to the meeting room.

Rigoberta Menchu, a Nobel Peace Laureate from Guatemala, once said that “Nothing is larger than Life co-existence”. Life co-existence is also easily found in many Christian teachings. If co-existence is the most important aspect of life, it is imperative to promote the value of solidarity in the face of climate change. Clearly, the current attitude of countries toward the common challenge of climate change tends to deny the most important aspect of life, i.e. life co-existence. In this case, education, especially Christian Higher Education has a deep moral obligation to put the value of solidarity in all efforts to combat climate change.