Poverty and environmental destruction have many things in common, including this: They’re frequently hidden in plain sight.
I thought about this last month, when I wrote about Latino neighborhoods in my blog Finding Your Way, and on a recent drive through West Virginia, when I saw a series of high, utterly flat ridges. Nature didn’t create perfect table tops in West Virginia. The mountain peaks that used to sit on top of them were blasted away by coal companies.
And I thought about this last week as I sat by the stream that runs past our family apple orchard and wondered about all the silt that’s in it. Was it a natural load, not too heavy for the stream to absorb? Or were the operators of the dam just upstream once again illegally dumping soil into it?
For many years I wrote almost exclusively about nature, landscape, and environmental controversies. After we lost our son, I decided I wanted to find ways to help people in need. Nature is still dear to my heart, though, and for a time I felt a little schizoid about this shift.
But the two go hand-in-hand, because environmental injustice breeds social injustice and poverty. You can see this in coal country, which is home to some of the most impoverished zip codes in the country. Appalachia’s squalid living conditions helped launch the War on Poverty—which is indisputably still being waged. None of the wealth generated by coal trickles down to those communities. Instead, their wages are a smorgasbord of diseases, a polluted landscape, and a bitter lack of opportunity.
Making the world a better place means caring for everyone and everything, human and nonhuman. This point is driven home beautifully in Paul Hawken’s wonderful and hopeful book Blessed Unrest.
Hawken writes that there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps even a million, nonprofit citizen groups throughout the world fighting for environmental and social justice. No one has ever managed to count them; they’re too widespread and numerous. But together they form the largest political movement in history. Although they work largely alone, they form a kind of immune system, an army of white blood cells, for the Earth and humanity.
The largest political movement in history—I love that idea. But here’s the rub: Nothing’s going to come of it unless the people working for environmental justice cooperate with those fighting for social justice, and vice versa. Both groups want the same thing: a more equitable world. And they need each other. Hawken ends the book with these words:
There is no question that the environmental movement is critical to our survival. Our house is literally burning, and it is only logical that environmentalists expect the social justice movement to get on the bus. But it is the other way around; the only way we are going to put out the fire is to get on the social justice bus and heal our wounds, because in the end, there is only one bus. Armed with that growing realization, we can address all that is harmful externally. What will guide us is a living intelligence that creates miracles every second, carried forth by a movement with no name.
Effectively helping others is all about creating miracles—by living in the moment, doing things for people without expecting any reward, and staying open to the goodness we hold within. That’s the “living intelligence” of which Hawken writes.
So get on the bus, the only bus there is. Stay alert for people in need. They’re all around us. And stay alert for things that are going awry with the natural world. Protecting what is still right and healthy within it is going to take effort from us all.