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Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sustainability and the poor

We frequently hear about ‘the economy’ and ‘the environment’ being pitted against each other in a kind of zero-sum contest, never feeling very sure of what side it is in our best interest to root for. But in our work with the poorest families in the world, we often see this paradigm undone.

Where we work, the economy (or ‘means to eat, be housed, and be clothed’) and the environment (or ‘place from where you get that which you eat, wear, and live in’) are not really different things at all. Families in the Dominican Republic, for example, have an economy because they have the land and water to grow their crops. They can’t have one thing without the other. Because this concept is so elementary to them, ‘sustainable’ practices often come naturally. In fact, all over the world, HOPE International Development Agency families easily choose practices that protect their land as well as bolster their economies.

What is sustainability? It is nothing more than ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The reason a Dominican farmer uses techniques that nurture rather than deplete the land is not because he feels guilty about global warming, or because HOPE won’t help him unless he sacrifices some economic advantage in order to be ‘green’. The reason why the Dominican farmer chooses to be sustainable is because he is well aware that his children and grandchildren will have no future unless he keeps his land healthy and productive for them.

This brings us to the most important lesson the poor have taught us about sustainability. Sustainability comes from having a heightened sense of the welfare of your children. It means doing what you have to do to ensure that the things you have today can be passed down to the generations that follow you. Poor families, who might not say the word ‘sustainability’, understand and practice the concept instinctively.

A friend of ours, Daniel Schellenberg, is a champion of applying lessons learned from the poor about sustainable living. Having spent many years in Kenya, he now resides with his extended family on a beautiful homestead in East Texas. Their ‘Propagelle Project’ is an attempt to find a way of living which is most mindful of the generations to come. Daniel’s blog is well worth reading for its insights from a person who approaches the situation of the poor and the environment with a balanced, informed, and passionate advocacy.

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