Have you noticed recently that there seems to be an abundance of environmental groups on campus? Barely a week goes by without seeing tabling at the Kansas Union by Environs, the oldest organization, or Students for Bar Recycling, the newest. With all these groups trying to save the world, you’ve got to wonder why the world needs so much saving.
The answer can be found in the changing role of these environmental groups. Environmentalists are no longer just focused on the spotted owl or killer whales. Groups are making connections between the environment and human welfare. Indeed, they truly want to save the world, but they have begun to understand that it’s not the physical world that really needs saving — it’s us. As the comedian George Carlin said “Compared to the people, the planet is fine … The planet’s not going anywhere — we are.”
Good examples of groups that have combined social and environmental issues are those that have made the connection between our environmental degradation and social inequality. The student group Eco-Justice and the Center for Community Outreach program EARTH are good examples. Eco-Justice is a new group on campus that focuses on how environmental degradation disproportionately affects the poor. EARTH grows food on campus — not just for sustainability, but for the poor in our community that lack proper nutrition.
It’s not just environmental groups that have made the connection between social problems and the environment. Social groups, whose primary interest is in saving people, have realized the connection between saving people and saving the planet. Oxfam America, a human rights group, views global warming as integral to the problems facing the world’s people. Anna Hoard, recipient of the 2008 Sustainability Leadership Award and former outreach coordinator for Oxfam KU, said climate justice and social justice were essentially the same issue, and the people hit hardest were often those who could do the least about it.
These groups understand that the time has passed for privileging short-term economic gains that lead to long-term environmental damage. If we fail to protect the environment, we fail to protect ourselves and those around us.
For too long we have marginalized the environment with our mandate for disposable products, which encourages copious consumption. We’ve allowed the interest of economic progress to outweigh our needs for a sustainable and clean environment. We’ve allowed a false sense of achievement to degrade our communities, which has lead to the forfeiture of long-standing social and environmental structures for temporary gains.
We have disenfranchised the weak in other nations, and have exported both our waste and our poverty. Those who have the means to do so cry, “Not in my backyard,” while the poor both nationally and abroad are voiceless against the disproportional weight of our consumer economy.
It’s time for students and social movements to challenge business and consumer practices that accept environmental degradation and disproportionately affect the poor.
Let’s also give a big thanks to the student groups that are helping us work toward a better future.