Justine Burt
April 23, 2006

When I was thinking about a title for this sermonette, it had been raining for weeks. So it seemed only appropriate to choose something rain-related. I chose "Sustainability: the Biggest Umbrella." Hopefully our water-logged days are behind us as we push on to summer.

Buckminster Fuller dreamed of "a world that works for 100% of humanity, in the shortest time possible, through spontaneous cooperation, in the shortest time possible, without ecological offense, or the disadvantage of anyone." That's a big umbrella. A world that works for 100% of humanity without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.

The sustainability umbrella has been broadening lately to include myriad environmental, social and equity issues. Some argue that sustainability is trying to be everything to everyone, and overextending itself in the process.

I propose that you can't work on any one issue in isolation and move towards a sustainable world. Environmental, social and equity issues are all interrelated and yet organizations working on these issues compete for funding and media attention. By being under the same sustainability umbrella, they'll have a chance to talk and find ways to work together toward a common goal. This makes all the organizations stronger. Consider the Apollo Alliance, which has a stated goal of helping make the United States energy independent. Because they advocate for fuel efficient American cars, they are connecting organizations working on air quality, toxics reduction, climate change, labor issues and civil rights.

What I've been wondering lately is whether this same "expanding the pie" mentality works between environmental protection and eliminating extreme poverty. Does one issue come at the expense of the other or does working on both simultaneously benefit both issues?

Extreme poverty is a situation where people lack:
  1. adequate food
  2. access to basic health care
  3. safe drinking water and sanitation
  4. access to primary education and
  5. rudimentary shelter

Most people agree that everyone in the world deserves a life of dignity, health and economic productivity. But people whose basic needs are not met don't have the luxury to be environmental stewards.

Consider Mexico. The Mexican government has set aside large swaths of land as national forests. It is illegal to log in them. And yet many people living in extreme poverty cut down trees in these forests because they need firewood to cook their meals. You can see how addressing extreme poverty would help preserve these forests.

My questions revolve around helping the 1.2 billion people around the world in extreme poverty climb up to the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Would this ultimately benefit or harm the environment? Here's an example to consider. Women in Nicaragua who join an organization like ProMujer receive microloans to buy pottery supplies. They then sell their pottery and gain a measure of economic independence. These women take the profits they receive and invest them in their children's health and education. This sets into motion other factors that result in these women gaining more control over their reproductive health and ultimately having fewer children.

What I'd like to know is -- does this economic development result in a lower or higher environmental impact? If people are having fewer children, that's less demand for natural resources. But their economic development leads to a higher standard of living and more consumption of natural resources. But it's even more complicated than that because if people are climbing up Maslow's hierarchy of needs - they've met their physiological needs and are working their way up to self-actualization at the top, then more people will have the luxury to protect and care for their environment.

Another question I have is whether we in the U.S. have an obligation to help those born into unfortunate circumstances climb up to the bottom rung of the economic ladder? I'm not talking about endless assistance, just enough basic help to get to the bottom rung and they can climb up themselves from there.

If you are interested in the issue of ending extreme poverty, Jeffrey Sach's book The End of Poverty is a fascinating read. Sachs is a Harvard economics professor who regularly consults to developing country presidents. He details the problems that cause a country to spiral into negative economic growth and the proven programs that can be used to address problems such as water-borne diseases and low productivity agricultural soil. The U.S. currently spends 0.15% of the gross national product to address extreme poverty issues. Sachs advocates for scaling up the fight against poverty by spending 0.7% of the U.S. Gross National Product.

According to The End of Poverty, "Since Sept. 11, 2001, the United States has launched a war on terror, but it has neglected the deeper causes of global instability. The $450 billion that the United States spent last year on the military will never buy peace if it continues to spend around one thirtieth of that, just $15 billion, to address the plight of the world's poorest of the poor, whose societies are destabilized by extreme poverty and thereby become havens of unrest, violence, and even global terrorism. That $15 billion represents a tiny percentage of U.S. income, just 15 cents on every $100 of U.S. gross national product (GNP)."

This year the U.S. military is going to spend $500 billion. What does that say about our country's values and intentions?

Now, MPUUC is a socially active group and many of you want to know what you can do about extreme poverty and environmental issues. Well, here's a small and humble step. I have a friend who runs a program called "From Our Feet." He collects used athletic shoes and sends them over with people traveling to Africa, Asia and South America. His friends distribute these shoes to people who have none. It's a simple effort but it makes a difference. So take a look in your closets and find old athletic shoes you no longer need, dust them off, tie the laces together and bring them to church. I'd like to collect 50 pair so ask your friends and neighbors too. At the end of May I'll drive them over to my friend's organization.

I'd like to close with a quote from Michael Lerner, the editor of Tikkun Magazine. "Energy always flows either toward hope, community, love, generosity, mutual recognition, and spiritual aliveness OR it flows toward despair, cynicism, fear that there is not enough, paranoia about the intentions of others and a desire to control." I propose that we choose HOPE.

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