The interconnection between poverty and environmental problems is widely known, but the work connecting poverty relief to environmental justice is undeveloped and nearly nonexistent.
That’s why we need a new paradigm in our traditional anti-poverty and social service thinking to include a focus on the environment, and environmental organizations need to include people living in poverty as they develop their thinking and practice.
Environmental organizations and human service organizations have evolved separately in their philosophies, approaches and practices. This separation ignores that our lives and the world around us are not mutually exclusive but rather deeply connected. It ignores the reality that environmental degradation disproportionately affects people living in poverty and, conversely, people living in poverty often have less access to tools to help improve environmental conditions.
I saw this downward spiral as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, where climate change and deforestation were deeply linked. As hotter and dryer seasons expanded, the Sahara people had to walk farther and farther to cut wood for fuel and building materials, resulting in a mutually destructive process, both for people and the natural world. This example, once distant and extreme, now seems closer and more relevant with every passing season to those of us living in the United States.
We need to move quickly to repair this destructive worldview that separates out the needs of the environment from the needs of people living at the lowest end of what is an unjust economic system.
First, anti-poverty organizations must include awareness of the environment in their strategic thinking and practices, and environmental organizations need to include people in poverty to inform their worldview and practice.
Second, we need both fields to work together and merge their efforts and resources to lift people out of poverty and improve and repair the environment, knowing that one depends on the other.
The Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, we have 10 programs designed to serve emergent needs — food and shelter — as well as programs to build futures through education and advocacy. One service that combines anti-poverty and environmental work is the Champlain Valley weatherization program. Weatherizing homes has an immediate impact on people’s lives and promotes energy efficiency and a cleaner environment.
Once a home is weatherized there are an average annual energy savings of 31 percent, which puts much needed money back into the pockets of people who need it the most. The amount of carbon dioxide prevented from entering the atmosphere from the 648 low-income households weatherized by CVOEO and the four other state weatherization programs in 2019 was 1,620 tons.
Not only are we protecting the climate from carbon emissions that affect people’s health — asthma and cardiovascular disease — our weatherization teams also assist in the removal of environmental hazards such as lead, asbestos and vermiculite.
Weatherization is just one example of an anti-poverty program that is also good for the environment. Let’s challenge anti-poverty and environmental organizations to work together to leverage their collective resources and creative thinking to develop more programs like weatherization to promote both economic and environmental justice.
Paul Dragon is executive director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.