Once People Stop Fighting for Basic Needs, They Start Caring About the Planet

Updated at: 4 March 2024

Aisha, a young girl in rural India, wakes before dawn each day to help her family collect water. Their village well has run dry due to prolonged drought, forcing them to walk miles to a distant source. This daily struggle for a necessity is the harsh reality for millions living in poverty around the globe.

The statement, “Once people stop fighting for basic household needs, they start caring about the planet,” often arises in discussions about poverty and environmental concern. While intuitive, this claim paints a simplistic picture of a complex issue. This article goes deeper into the issue.

Although we focus on one aspect of environmental protection, we will challenge oversimplification and advocate for a broader understanding of the relationship.

Direct threat to the environment motivates everyone

The title may seem to imply that environmental concern is a luxury reserved for those who have already conquered basic needs, the reality is far more complex. Countless individuals and communities living in poverty demonstrate a deep connection to and care for the environment.

One powerful example is the Chipko movement, which originated in the Himalayan region of India in the 1970s. Faced with government-backed logging threatening their way of life, villagers, especially women, embraced trees (the Hindi word “chipko” means “to hug”) to prevent their felling. This non-violent protest highlighted the crucial role of forests in their survival and well-being, demonstrating their deep connection to the environment.

Similarly, the Indigenous Environmental Network brings together diverse Indigenous groups across the Americas to fight for environmental justice. Recognizing the intricate link between a healthy environment and their cultural traditions and livelihoods, these communities actively advocate for sustainable practices and oppose environmental degradation.

Environmental concern transcends economic boundaries, communities may actively engage in environmental protection within their circle of influence.. For many, it’s not a matter of when they start caring, but how they express and advocate for it. Often, environmental protection and poverty alleviation are intertwined, as communities living in poverty directly depend on a healthy environment for their survival. They are the first to experience the negative consequences of environmental degradation, such as deforestation leading to soil erosion and loss of agricultural land. This creates a strong incentive for them to protect the environment and strive for sustainable practices.

Factors influencing care for the environment

Although we as humans often reach for simplistic explanations, as they foster a feeling of complete understanding which in turn supports the feeling of safety. A more nuanced understanding reveals the interplay of numerous factors influencing the attitude people feel toward the environment, and its degradation.

Access to education

Education plays a crucial role in shaping environmental awareness and equipping individuals with the knowledge and skills necessary to advocate for sustainable practices. Research suggests that environmental knowledge and concern tend to increase with educational attainment.

Cultural values

Cultural traditions and beliefs can significantly influence environmental attitudes and behaviors. Communities with strong connections to the land and a sense of stewardship for nature often prioritize environmental protection, regardless of income levels.

Political systems

The political landscape also plays a role in shaping the way we treat our environment. Countries with well thought out regulations and strong enforcement mechanisms are better positioned to address environmental challenges.

Unfortunately, good regulations exist mostly in a couple wealthy countries as of now.

Income inequality

Research from the World Resources Institute highlights that income inequality, rather than absolute poverty, is a stronger predictor of environmental degradation. This suggests that societies with a high Gini coefficient (significant gap between the rich and the poor) tend to experience greater environmental challenges, regardless of overall national wealth.

A recent study on 42 middle-income countries (MICs) sheds further light on this complexity. The study found a trade-off relationship between income inequality and environmental degradation, supporting the marginal propensity to emit (MPE) hypothesis. This hypothesis suggests that as income inequality increases, so do overall levels of emissions. This finding presents a challenge for policymakers in MICs, who may struggle to address both issues simultaneously due to the perceived trade-off.

Basic needs

It’s undeniable that individuals with greater resources usually have more capacity for certain environmental actions. This could involve having the financial means to invest in eco-friendly products (which are usually more expensive), the time and energy to participate in environmental volunteer work, or the access to information and education needed to make informed choices.

Research in psychology confirms that when basic needs like food and shelter are not met, the human brain prioritizes focusing cognitive resources on fulfilling those needs. This is an evolutionary adaptation crucial for survival.

Therefore, it’s important to acknowledge the psychological limitations faced by individuals struggling with poverty. Denying these limitations could lead to unfair judgments and hinder efforts to address both environmental challenges and alleviate poverty.

Fighting poverty should come first

The Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) suggests that as countries experience economic growth, environmental degradation might initially worsen, but eventually levels off and starts to improve in the long run.

It’s important to also acknowledge other challenges people in poverty may face:

Health:

  • Limited access to healthcare: This includes preventative care, treatment for chronic and infectious diseases, and mental health services.
  • Poor nutrition: Difficulty accessing nutritious food leads to malnutrition, weakening the immune system and increasing the risk of various health problems.
  • Unsanitary living conditions: This can contribute to the spread of diseases, respiratory problems, and other health issues.

Education:

  • Limited access to quality education: This hinders individuals’ ability to develop skills and knowledge necessary to find good jobs and improve their lives.
  • Child labor: Children may be forced to work to contribute to the family income, sacrificing their education and future opportunities.

Safety and Security:

  • Increased vulnerability to violence and crime: Poverty-stricken communities may have higher crime rates due to lack of opportunities and resources.
  • Lack of hope: Living in poverty can limit opportunities and create a sense of hopelessness, further hindering individuals’ ability to improve their circumstances.

For those and other reasons we believe that the fight for a better environment starts with fighting powerty in a sustainable way.

We focus on supporting communities facing poverty in their fight for a sustainable future. This involves initiatives that:

  • Create opportunities: Through providing access to resources and encourage investments in specific areas,
  • Fight diseases: Through voluntary healthcare and medication,
  • Fight hunger: By teaching sustainable agriculture,
Book Cover Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future
Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg
  • Upgrade sanitary conditions: By providing clean water, sanitation facilities, and hygiene education. As the Author of Progress tells a story of a tribe in a sub-Saharan Africa, where the process of implementing rainwater harvesting and sanitation systems transformed their lives. (side note: they were pooping into plastic bags, and then swinging those bags above their heads to then throw them onto their neighbor’s land plots which wasn’t hygiene practice),
  • Bring education: Through increasing access to quality education, and skills needed to improve lives.

By taking an integrated approach that acknowledges the complexities and challenges, we can move towards a future where addressing both environmental concerns and access to opportunities go hand-in-hand.

How you can help

Collaborating with us is a means to support our change projects. You can also find other ways to contribute, here are a couple links to charities we trust:

Autor: Michał KuczekMichał Kuczek

Founder of Biiird Studio, UX designer, business philosopher, psychologist, and conflict mediator.