I’m speaking to a group of minority higher education students in a few weeks about “green” careers, and so I was doing a little research on how those get defined these days. (In a 2-for-1 bonus, it wasn’t a bad leg up on exploring my personal options.) I think I found myself once again frustrated by a lot of the standard definitions, like the one used on Monster.com’s Green Careers website, because they seem to focus on the environment so exclusively without looking at the needs of people. This gets me off on my standard diatribe: being sustainable isn’t just going to be about doing things in a way that doesn’t harm plants and animals, it also has to be about doing things in a way that doesn’t harm other people. Even CNN’s Planet in Peril series is starting to focus on this; the new special report that will air in December specifically looks at the way that battles between people over access to and profits from natural resources are integrally tied to environmental degradation. If you’re not also addressing issues of global poverty, economic and social justice, and public health, these battles will continue, because the underlying reasons for them remain.
This is slowly becoming a more common part of the conversation, but economic and social sustainability remain the ugly stepsisters of the sustainability movement, no matter what any equilateral triangle diagram may tell you. The equity piece is especially ignored; while folks definitely want to encourage people to be green by looking at the economic benefits they can accrue, no one wants to talk about ho underlying inequities in our economic system continue to promote unsustainable practices no matter how many fluorescent light bulbs we install or Whole Foods stores we patronize. The effects may be more dramatic globally, but they are still visible locally; my favorite current example is the way that economic rationalizations about good market locations for stores that offer healthier foods continues to prevent easy access to healthy groceries for many neighborhoods in the urban core (and I’m not just talking about organic foods, I’m talking about even basic access to grocery stores with decent food). We could also talk about the variety of government subsidies that make high-calorie/low nutrition food dirt cheap to produce, while organic or locally grown food remains out of reach for a significant portion of our population.
This is an old rant of mine, but every so often I need to rage on it to let out my pent-up energy. And then I’m going to start working on a knock-your-socks-off speech that will encourage all of these college kids to not only hug a tree, but also hug their neighbors.