Hesperian Health Guides

Inequality: Cause and Effect of Environmental Health Problems

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HealthWiki > A Community Guide to Environmental Health > Chapter 3: Protecting Natural Resources for All > Inequality: Cause and Effect of Environmental Health Problems

A starving child begs. Many environmental health problems relate to:

  • scarcity (not enough) of essential things we need for a healthy life, such as clean air and water, healthy soil and forests, safe and comfortable shelter, and safe working conditions.
  • excess (too much) of harmful things we do not need, such as trash, toxic chemicals, pollution, and junk food.

In the story from Ecuador, health problems were caused by the scarcity of basic necessities such as clean water, toilets, and trees. In a story from Bhopal, India, health problems were caused by an excess of toxic chemicals.

In each story, improving environmental health depended on people preventing the conditions that caused both a scarcity of essential resources for life and an excess of pollution. By protecting our communities and our natural resources, we are protecting the future for our children, and our children's children.

Townspeople clean up trash from a waterway.

Too many people, too few resources?

The amount of water, trees, minerals, and other natural resources on Earth is limited, while the number of people using these resources is growing rapidly. But the number of people is not the real problem. The problem is how these natural resources are distributed and used. Any time one person or a group of people uses more than their fair share of resources, or causes an excess of pollution, this imbalance can lead to environmental health problems for others.

The rich man's explanation of poverty and environmental destruction: too many people, too little land and resources.
A fat man with a money sign on his tie points his finger.
Crowded stick figures covering a cartoon earth begin to fall off the edges.
A man in a suit smoking a cigar rips a giant cartoon banknote away from a starving family.
The poor people's explanation of poverty and environmental destruction: unfair distribution of land and resources, too much in the hands of too few.

Some people believe the best way to prevent harm to our environment is to reduce the number of people. This way of thinking leads to 'population control' programs. These programs have failed to improve the lives of people anywhere because they do not address the root causes of environmental destruction, poverty, and poor health. When families have the resources they need to live with health and dignity, many choose to have fewer children. Only when communities, governments, and development programs plan for the survival of children, and the improvement of the social, political, and economic status of women, will the so-called "population problem" be solved.

But reducing the number of people in the world will not address the problem of the unequal use of resources. The best way to reduce the harmful effect people have on the environment is for the rich to use fewer resources, and to use them in a way that conserves resources for the future and does not create an excess of pollution. By first changing the behavior of those who use the most, we can begin to make sure there will be enough for a healthy life for everyone.

Corporate control is bad for our health

The health crisis on the coast of Ecuador was caused by a big corporation that paid local people to clear the forest. Not only did people lose the trees that kept the soil healthy and protected them from storms, they also lost important resources for daily survival such as food, fuel wood, medicines, fiber, and other basic needs. When a resource like a large forest cannot be put back, it is the same as if it had been stolen ­ from nature, from communities who rely on it, and from future generations.

When corporations control resources — whether timber, oil, water, seeds, or the labor power of people themselves — they gain profit for themselves, and have little reason to protect or improve the lives of the people who need those resources to survive. Corporations may provide short-term jobs or income, but if their interest is to export local resources, when those resources are gone they will leave too. And people will be left in deeper poverty than before.

Children hang a banner between two trees.
When we have cut down the last tree, polluted the last river, and cooked the last fish, then we will realize that we can’t eat money!