So, according to the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), the APA Climate Change Task Force, and other reports, human behaviors over the last two centuries, particularly in the last 75 years, have contributed significantly to global climate change. Particular aspects of human functioning that have contributed to climate change - known as human drivers - include patterns of increased consumption/materialism and increased population. These two primary drivers result in an increase in emission of green house gases, which then leads to global warming and other kinds of climate change. Climate change is currently viewed by many as the biggest threat, on a global level, to health and security.
Unless climate change trends are reversed, or its effects significantly mitigated, there will be several negative consequences across the world. Among these are increased severe weather events, food and water insecurity, increased spread of disease, and patterns of mass migration with the goal of obtaining access to decreasing resources.
Migration trends are changing as more and more people try to gain access to the good life -- in the US, for example, we have many residents from poorer countries who have immigrated, who have crossed our borders with or without documentation, for a chance of access to better health care, better education, safer living conditions. This trend obviously affects our nation's population size -- as have migration/immigration trends from the time that our nation was born.
Immigration - in particular, what to do about individuals who have moved to and established lives in the US without documentation - has long been a hot issue in the US. In the last few years, it has been intensely debated at state levels. Arizona is one state that has been in the news related to its efforts to deal with "illegal" immigration by seeking out those who are here without documentation and finding ways to deport them.
What does this have to do with "sustainability," with learning to live today with the needs of future generations in mind? I had not connected the two ideas - sustainability and immigration - until today. Stay with me - I am getting there.
Driving home from work, I listened to an NPR interview with Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who just this week "came out" as an "illegal immigrant" in an essay in the New York Times Magazine. Read Jose's essay for yourself. Draw your own conclusions about his life in the US, his decisions about how to portray himself throughout his life, his contributions to his adopted country.
My interest was piqued as I listened to Jose speak about his efforts to become an open activist who can foster recognition of contributions of undocumented workers to our country's well-being. I had recently come across information about a group in Minnesota called "Minnesotans for Sustainability" - the group defines a sustainable society as one that "balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period." Good definition. The group accurately describes population growth as a contributor to problems with sustainability. One of the strongest recommendations made by the group to deal with population growth, however, is to deport "illegal aliens" who are using valuable resources that are needed by legal citizens - the presence of the "illegal aliens" threatens sustainability of Minnesota and the US.
My first reaction to this is - I hate, hate, hate the term "illegal aliens" - the term is so derogatory, and calls to mind a bizarre image of criminals from Mars. When I listened to Jose Antonio Vargas, and learned more about his contributions as a working journalist who pays taxes (though under an illegal SSN), I felt so frustrated. He had come here at age 12 from the Philippines, sent here by his mother to her parents with the hope that his life would be better in the US. He described loving the US - school, music, culture - he described his efforts to learn to speak English without an accent by watching Golden Girls and other sitcoms over and over again. He didn't even know that he was not here legally, that his documents had been falsified, until he was 16 and tried to get a learner's permit to drive. His story is compelling, and his courage great - his coming out this week threatens his livelihood and well-being, but he did so as an effort to support the millions of undocumented workers in the US who want to become citizens. Hard to envision him as a Martian criminal...
My second and stronger reaction -- Well. I think a lot about what "sustainability" and "sustainable health and well-being" mean - about what we need to do to ensure the health and safety of us and other species and of our earth. Last time I looked, these issues involve the whole world. Even when we are talking about sustainability of the economy - we live on imported goods, and send goods elsewhere.
To my understanding, if we are talking about sustainability in terms of the environment, climate change is a global issue, and the threats to sustainability know no borders. Air is air - dirty air is dirty air - it drifts across the globe with no regard for human made borders. Temperature, water, weather, birds, butterflies, seeds, soil -- no borders. If the wind picks up the sand from a desert in one nation in the middle east, and carries it to a nation in Asia -- well, can't do anything about it. Our control of things like this is quite limited. Similarly, when the economy hits the skids in another nation - we are affected.
Is it even possible to have one part of the world (like Minnesota) be "sustainable" by moving some people out, without affecting other parts of the world? It is complicated - while decisions to live sustainably are made by individual and communities, in the end these multiple decisions have ripple effects all over the world.
It is pretty well documented (see sources above) that the per capita consumption of energy of residents of the US and Europe is much much greater than the per capita energy consumption of the rest of the world. We are consuming more than our share of what the earth has to offer, and thus we are contributing more than others to global climate change. Our choices may be negatively affecting other parts of the world. As I have said before, I do not say this in an unappreciative voice, nor do I speak from an unpatriotic position. My stance is that, as one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we have much to gain, as do others, if we would take the lead in trying to reduce our consumption and energy use. What would happen if the US loudly and visibly embarked upon a journey toward more sustainable living, which would require international and intergovernmental collaboration and community-building? Would the BRIC nations - Brazil, Russia, India, and China - emerging economic and technological leaders - follow suit? Could all of these wonderful and creative and innovative nation-forces move together toward healthier and more sustainable living?
Jose Antonio Vargas made a decision at some point, when applying for a job, to lie. He had to choose - check the box that indicated he was a documented immigrant or check the box that indicated he was a citizen. He says that he thought about this and, as he made the decision to lie by claiming to be a citizen, he also made the decision to live his life in a way that would earn the right to that title - to be a hard worker who contributed economically, socially, and culturally to what he thought of as his home country, to be a grateful person who could do his part to help those who did not have his advantages. Yes, he lied, and each of us will need to decide what to think about this. I have to think about it as well.
And each of us may have to think, if times do indeed worsen in the future due to the effects of climate change, about whether or not the value of one person's life can be seen as greater than that of another - if one person, or nation, is deserving of greater resources and access to resources needed to live, than any other person or nation.