Poverty the Environment and Pollution

Regardless of the reason or the area of the world in which a poor population lives, certain reciprocal elements will act on the population and its environment. Lack of education, oppression, lack of appropriate infrastructure—from water-treatment facilities to better roads and communication—all exacerbate the twin problems of poverty and environmental degradation. One cannot ask people to heal the environment, or even just mind it, if they can barely sustain themselves. For example, tropical fish are considered to be either delicacies or exotic pets by people who can pay for them and people in tropical regions can earn good money for catching these fish. But to catch the fish more easily they use cyanide or dynamite to stun the fish. The former pollutes (and moves up the food chain) and the latter destroys the reef environment. Agricultural practices that tax the soil lead to soil erosion, which lowers crop yields and pollutes rivers and streams with silt. The accumulation of the silt—from the loose eroded soil—kills the fish in the river and streams. Another cause of soil erosion is the cutting down of trees, in massive numbers, either for use as firewood (because the winters are harsh and there is no other way to stay warm) or to sell for much needed cash. Eventually, not only will the soil erode to a point where it can no longer sustain agriculture, but the trees would be gone too. The above examples show that practices that fail to consider environmental health perpetuate the poverty cycle, thereby further destroying the environment.

The environment as a whole tends to be jeopardized more in the poorer areas. In the United States, Louisiana is a poor state in which there is an area known as "Cancer Alley." It is a stretch on the lower Mississippi River that is home to 125 companies, many of which manufacture products that result in highly hazardous waste. Cancer rates in the area are higher than the national average, and respiratory illnesses, as well as incidents of liver and kidney tox-icity, are rampant. In one typical area, Ascension Parish, environmental justice activist Robert Bullard points out, "eighteen petrochemical plants are crammed into a nine and a half square mile area" (Bullard, p. 106).

Poor people tend to be less well educated (because they do not have the time and resources to obtain an education), and less politically powerful. Many people in Louisiana's Cancer Alley were never aware of the dangers of hazardous waste as industries started moving in. Many of them, after years of discrimination, are distrustful of politicians and public officials. Their land is cheap, and Louisiana provides the big industries with tax breaks, which appeal to companies looking at the bottom line.

Globally, the large industries find the same advantage in poor nations. Pollution controls and hazardous-waste-disposal regulations are stricter, and more expensive, in the developed nations. Many companies find it cheaper to export their waste to the developing countries, which are starving for cash. The hazardous waste disposal in those countries is unsafe and dangerously polluting. The people handling the waste are poorly educated, and therefore may suffer severe health consequences as a result of their work. However, if they are paid a salary they are better off than many others. In addition, the developing countries themselves, eager to grow economically, may develop heavy industry but not the controls or infrastructure necessary to contain the pollution. It is easy to see, therefore, that there is a huge divide, economically and ideologically, between the developed and developing countries.

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