Director’s Corner: The Sustainability Movement is a Social Justice Movement

“[T]he environmental movement can be seen as humanity’s response to contagious policies killing the earth, while the social justice movement addresses economic and legislated pathogens that destroy families, bodies, cultures, and communities.  They are two sides of the same coin, because when you harm one you harm the other.”

-Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest

One of the biggest misconceptions of sustainability is it is mostly about nature, about restoring and protecting the natural world.

It is about that.  At the same time, sustainability is just as much about social justice, ensuring every human being lives with dignity, freedom, and opportunity, in full possession of their rights as members of the species Homo sapiens.

In his great book, Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken explains that creating a socially just world is the only way sustainability is achievable.  He defines social justice this way: “…the implementation and realization of human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ratified by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948, with the addition of the right to a productive, safe, and clean environment; the right to security from political tyranny; and the right to live and express one’s own culture.”

Blessed Unrest exposes the large gap between the social justice conditions required to achieve sustainability and what we see in the world today.  The litany of failures is as long as it is familiar: the disparities of wealth and power between the small few who have wealth and power and access to them and the vast majorities who do not; great inequities of opportunity, access to health care, adequate housing and education, nutritious food to eat, clean air and water, civic participation and political voice, and decent housing; political corruption; autocratic and oligarchic trends that undercut democratic governance; the destruction of the planet’s life support systems and elimination of its resources for short-term, narrowly distributed economic gain.

While acknowledging humanity’s failings, the main message of this book is inspiring, empowering, and a call to action.  Its subtitle is How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.  Hawken argues there is a large, unseen movement comprised of millions of organizations – from small neighborhood groups to large international nonprofits – working in their own ways to create a safe, just, livable world.

He thinks this unrecognized and disparate movement is operating like a global immune system, fighting off the pathogens of toxic ideologies, greed, ignorance, and hate that are destroying the earth and harming people, families, and communities: “The ultimate purpose of a global immune system is to identify what is not life-affirming and to contain, neutralize, or eliminate it.”

Since social justice is life-affirming and essential for a livable, flourishing world, and since social justice is about relationships between individuals, groups, organizations, and governments, each of us has ongoing daily opportunities to be part of this global immune system.  We can intentionally choose to interact with individuals, groups, organizations, and governments in ways that protect the human rights of all, that are life-affirming, and that contain, neutralize, and eliminate that which is not.

No matter where our focus leads us, to restoring the environment, protecting indigenous cultures, or fighting for social justice in our communities, we are all in this together.  We have tended to perceive issue-focused movements as separate and disconnected, with groups even arguing among themselves over whose issue should come first. The environmental movement specifically has long been criticized for focusing almost exclusively on the state of the natural world while ignoring civil rights, poverty, and in general the vulnerable condition of too much of humanity.  This is changing, but we must do better.

Blessed Unrest’s last call is for us to understand and embrace the oneness of this movement: “There can be no green movement unless there is also a black, brown, and copper movement…. There is no question that the environmental movement is critical to our survival.  Our house is literally burning, and it is only logical that environmentalists expect the social justice movement to get on the environmental bus.  But it is the other way around; the only way we are going to put out the fire is to get on the social justice bus and heal our wounds, because in the end there is only one bus.”

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