Bringing ‘the environment’ back down to earth

Today is UN World Environment Day, but unlike other more straightforward occasions, it is not always clear just how to celebrate this one. Here, Daniel Morchain suggests some possible ways that those involved in the debate around development and our world can bring the concept of the environment back down to earth.

While almost everyone recognises the importance of ‘the environment’ in our lives, its vastness, as well as the uncertainty surrounding its meaning, makes thinking about our individual contribution to environmental stewardship quite an overwhelming thought – and therefore one that it is tempting to dismiss.

Keeping it simple and real might help people and organisations interested in doing something about the environment by giving it more substance. Why not, for instance, try to understand the environment as a predominantly social concern, as something inseparable from our lives, which we humans can choose to make or break? Why not think of it as the foundation of our lives and of all that we depend on, as opposed to a competing priority for monetary resources in political agendas? Why not understand and recognise that environmental problems have direct social dimensions and implications –
and that, as such, environment and people are inseparable?

Why not try to understand the environment as a predominantly social concern, something inseparable from our lives which we can choose to make or break?

In political narratives and for organisations not focused on environment or conservation, ‘the environment’ is often presented as a stand-alone, technical issue. In this way it is easily disregarded; as a niche topic that can be let go of, so as to avoid over-complexity or distractions from the main objective. This, I think, is partly due to the relatively slow pace of change in nature, which facilitates temporarily burying, masking or blaming the causes for environment-related troubles on something else – thereby diminishing the influence of
environmental concerns in decision making.

To illustrate, Dr. Saleemul Huq recently commented that one reason for the insufficient pull of the climate change agenda in UN negotiations throughout the 1990s was that the negotiations were led by environment ministries. Their low levels of influence ‘back home’ made it difficult to further the climate change agenda and generate meaningful change.

But one thing is certain: when it comes to the environment, bad decisions are eventually going to come back and bite us all. And, as environmental and social issues are so intertwined and inseparable, that bite will fall most heavily on the poorest and most marginalised. As Oxfam’s new report, Let Them Eat Coal (publishing 6 June), demonstrates, climate change will severely impact developing countries, partly because
of yield losses to staple crops which will affect poor people the most.

World Environment Day should remind us of the inseparable links between nature and development. This is as important a message for development agencies as it is for multi-laterals organisations, governments and communities themselves.

Environmental and social issues were here combined and compounded to the tragic detriment of the rural poor.On a drive from San Pedro Sula in the east to western Honduras a few months ago I saw a landscape once dominated by a variety of crops, including the staple food maize, that had given way to large-scale palm or sugar cane monocropping in the fertile valley areas. Poor rural populations had no other option than to grow their maize by the roadside, in a marginal no man’s land that had become, nonetheless, an important
component of their food security: quite the telling visual of their marginalisation. Environmental and social issues were here combined and compounded to the tragic detriment of the rural poor – on one hand, through water over-extraction for irrigation and soil degradation resulting from monocropping and over-use of chemicals, and, on the other, through the forcing out of small-scale farmers, rendering them landless.

Here at Oxfam, our country teams, in Honduras and around the world, are increasingly working with a conscious, holistic focus on the social-ecological landscape – that is, aligning the social and environmental goals and demands of stakeholders in both the short and longer term. But much more remains to be done.

Recognising that environmental boundaries largely determine the potential for social development and for reducing poverty sustainably not only represents value for money, it is also a necessary mindset, which all those working in the development sector or with control over development budgets must enter into.

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Author: Daniel Morchain
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.