Davos: It’s Not an Option to Keep People Poor

I recently had a chance run-in with Dr. Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate for his work with Grameen, a pioneer in Microfinance.

People often tell me, when I say what I do with Sama, that they’re concerned about poor people moving up the economic ladder because of future increased consumption, and an even warmer planet.

“What will we do if they want the same things we have? If they fly in airplanes and drive SUVs and purchase a lot of stuff made in China?”

I asked Dr. Yunus how he answers this question, which always baffles me. (Why is it OK that we followed one very polluting path to economic success, only to deny others the same chance?)

He replied, with a twinkle in his eye. “Obviously, they should stay poor!”

I looked at him, clad simply in his Bengali uniform (made by Grameen artisans), and grinned. Dr. Yunus has a way of neutralizing terrible arguments with humor and grace, making everyone around him recognize absurdity while staying positive.

The following day I posed the same question to Diane Regas, ED of the Environmental Defense Fund. She’s working on critical climate issues (did you know that environmental causes receive 3% of all funding?) and thinks through the link between poverty and carbon emissions. Regas had a similar perspective.

“From a climate standpoint,” she shared, “it’s simply not an option to keep people poor.” We have to address both global poverty and emissions as the two are closely linked — economics drive many low-income families to participate in environmental destruction, and those same families are often those most effected by rising seas, increasingly unpredictable weather patterns, and scare resources. (I also asked her what average people can do for the climate. She boiled it down to one thing: VOTE.)

This is such a powerful lesson for those of us in the social justice sector. Human needs and the planet’s needs are not at odds with each other — unless we frame it that way. Any real solution to rising global temperatures must also involve fighting poverty. And vice versa.

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