Sustainability is often discussed with three different perspectives in mind: environment, economy and equity. I believe that equity is, perhaps, the most important of the three.
The global challenge of battling climate change is arrested by the staggering challenges of developing economies. The western world has exploited sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, Near Asia and the Caribbean, while China exploited South East Asia and the Ottomans then the Russians exploited Eastern Europe. The imprint of imperialism has left these regions without modern industrialization and its peoples without education, clean water, proper medical care or economic opportunity. Partly because of this, emerging nations cry foul when developed western nations attempt to impose strict environmental standards. Emerging nations point to the fact that western nations were, and still are, responsible for the catastrophic condition of our global ecosystem and should therefore bear the responsibility of reversing it.
People living under the poverty line cannot be expected to prioritize sustainability goals over health, safety, shelter and even survival.
The relationship between the western world and the developing world is closely analogous to the relationship between affluent and poor communities within Los Angeles (and, frankly every major city in the US). Affluent Angelenos have used local legislation, unscrupulous business practices, institutionalized racism and the brute force of economic power to create a third world of our own, right in our own city. The use of uber-low-cost domestic help, construction labor, etc., can be compared to the Bracero Programs of the early and mid 20th century.
Climate talks in Berlin, Geneva, Kyoto, Buenos Aires, Bonn, New Delhi, Durban, Lima, and Copenhagen all produced questionable results at best, because of the issue of (in)equity. The same challenges exist at the county and city level. People living under the poverty line cannot be expected to prioritize sustainability goals over health, safety, shelter or their very survival. These issues MUST be addressed first—not only by people suffering in poverty, but also by the municipal governments which serve them.
The pLAn, LA’s city sponsored climate initiative, calls out air quality, environmental justice, urban ecosystem and livable communities as issues in the section on equity; however, the city’s directives and progress are focused on generally improving quality of life and not on how to move a person who is not able to participate in the climate change battle into a position of greater empowerment. The pLAn’s air quality initiatives will benefit all Angelenos, by reducing emissions at the port and on city thoroughfares but will do little to empower a person operating a vehicle that is unregistered because it won’t pass the state emmisions test. Populations like this are large and vulnerable not only to concentrated auto pollution, but also to potentially catastrophic law enforcement action.
For the pLAn to be most effective in the fight against climate change, it must be more sensitive to the dynamics of social injustice, not just the current realities of poverty and affluence.