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Poverty has drastic effects on the natural world. People living without access to treated water, sustainable fuel supplies, or adequate food can have a huge impact on their surroundings. Slums and destructive farming techniques can do as much damage as SUVs and chemical spills.
To highlight this issue, the UN has an annual event that focuses attention on living conditions. World Habitat Day falls on the first Monday in October. The theme of this year’s celebration is Planning our Urban Future.
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Why should we focus on the urban environment? People are moving into cities at a staggering rate, and the way that these cities grow is going to have a huge impact on surrounding areas. At the dawn of the twentieth century, only 14% of humanity lived in cities. Now, more than half of all people call a city their home. Some of the largest cities have more than 10,000,000 inhabitants.
People who are starving are more interested in survival than in wildlife conservation. When your stomach is empty, conserving natural resources is an abstract concern. Without working sewage systems, trash services, or reliable electricity, people are unable to minimize their impact on the natural world.
Many endangered birds have beautiful plumage or produce enchanting birdsong, but starving people are unlikely to be interested in watching or listening to Blyth’s Tragopan Pheasants or Mandarin Ducks. They’re more likely to eat them.
Poverty is tightly associated with a host of environmental problems, including sewage contamination of wetlands, deforestation, and poaching ( for food as well as profit). When drought or poor management cause crops to fail, baboons, gazelles, elephants, and other endangered animals often show up on the dinner table. Native plants and animals are often featured in local medical and spiritual practices; when these species are harvested with modern technology, they are often unable to reproduce fast enough to replace their losses.
Poverty and cultural attachment were cited as the main reasons for bushmeat exploitation. Bushmeat-eating households regard bushmeat as more tasty and medicinal than livestock meat and fish
Looking down the road, there is major concern that climate change and over exploitation of resources by developed countries are going to make the problem worse. As new land is cleared for human use, wildlife habitat disappears. As the number of people living in an area grows, so do appetites for food and timber.
While a lot of attention has been focused on how McMansions waste resources, poor urban development is a problem that affects both the affluent and the indigent. For example, growing slums are also destroying forests to supply building materials and charcoal (for cooking and staying warm in the winter). Disease and illiteracy are major problems in these shanty towns that can easily affect the wealthier neighborhoods of town.
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Even though poachers earn very little money from killing endangered species, wealth is relative. Small sums of money are often a kings ransom in third world countries. People who have no other job prospects are often tempted to break the law, especially when enforcement is weak or when the animals are seen as a nuisance.
“A villager can earn as much in one night from poisoning and skinning a tiger as he could earn from farming in five years. Eventually, that skin can sell for up to US$6,000 [HK$46,800] in Lhasa.”
To address these environmental issues, it’s important to tackle the root causes of deforestation, resource depletion, and poverty. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon is encouraging leaders to engage their citizens in urban planning and to avoid letting inertia determine how we deal with these problems. If you have an idea or a novel solution to fighting urban blight or dependency, now is the time to speak up and act out.
According to the United Nations, more than 100 million people in the world today are homeless. Millions more face a severe housing problem living without adequate sanitation, with irregular or no electricity supply and without adequate security.
Even if those millions of people are squatting in alleyways, hiding under tin sheets, and digging through garbage today, tomorrow they will move mountains and uproot forests in their search for food and shelter. The question of our generation is how to enlist their help in building a healthier, safer, and greener future.
Photo courtesy of Enzinho83 at Flickr.com