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Environmental issues are social justice issues

By Fr Stephan Alexander, General Manager, CCSJ and AMMR

I may be biased but growing up in Trinidad and Tobago in the 1980s was a privileged experience. There are many reasons why I could say that. However, from my perspective, the greatest reason was the exponential growth of consciousness and the acceptance of personal and communal responsibility that organically emerged out of this consciousness boom.

The impact of Independence and Republican status along with the energy of ‘Black Power’ activism created a deep sense of social responsibility that took hold during the 1980s. Our social consciousness and responsibility were rooted in togetherness and a desire for the common good of all Trinbagonians.

Children of this time may not have been conscious of the political realities, but we were extremely aware of our social responsibility. This was partly due to the Social Studies curriculum in primary schools and campaigns such as the Solid Waste Management Company Ltd’s (SWMCOL) ‘Charlie the Litterbug’. To this day, I still can’t litter because Charlie helped to create a sense of environmental consciousness.

However, in addition to creating environmental consciousness, Charlie caused me to recognise the impact of all my actions on society and fostered a sense of responsibility for ensuring that the society that welcomed my birth would be better because of my life.

Unfortunately, the lack of continuity with effective social and environmental campaigns and a general failure to create new forms of consciousness raising among our population has contributed to a recession of the national/social responsibility that flourished during the 70s and 80s.

The recent oil spill that occurred off Tobago on February 7, demonstrates the need for a renewal of such consciousness. It’s lamentable that in the face of such an environmental and ecological disaster, most Trinbagonians seem unfazed.

Okay, I agree, it may be presumptuous of me to conclude that most Trinbagonians are indifferent towards this situation. However, at the time of writing, with clean-up efforts still ongoing close to three weeks after discovery of the initial occurrence, owners of the vessels failing to take responsibility for their actions, leaders politicising the event, the slow response of international agencies to assist, a lack of help to support the efforts of environmentalists, and the local communities most affected by this trauma, and the failure of citizens to hold elected officials accountable, one could be forgiven for arriving at said conclusion.

Our response to situations like this oil spill must be immediate and more vigorous. Perhaps it would be if we understood that environmental issues are social justice issues. Environmental and ecological matters are deeply intertwined with social justice concerns because of their impact on vulnerable populations and the broader human family.

Catholic Social Teaching (CST), as articulated by Pope Francis in documents such as Laudato Si’, Beloved Amazonia and Laudato Deum underscores the interconnectedness between environmental well-being and human flourishing.

The existence, proliferation and exacerbation of environmental and ecological issues increases the social injustices that vulnerable populations already contend with. The unfortunate reality is that they are disproportionately impacted by these conditions.

An oil spill along the coast of Tobago impacts an eco-system that includes fisher folk, persons employed in low to mid-level areas of the tourism sector and many others. These are usually people with limited resources who would find it difficult to survive if their already limited resources are further threatened because of environmental issues.

Additionally, people of limited resources are more likely to reside in areas susceptible to environmental degradation, such as polluted neighbourhoods or regions prone to climate-related disasters.

Environmental challenges, like the oil spill and other forms of pollution, and climate change, can also exacerbate existing social inequalities. For instance, increased scarcity due to the impact on food and water resources.

CST urges us to remember that the responsibility for environmental stewardship is a shared ethical duty. The Earth is our common home. We all share this home, so it is our moral responsibility to care for the environment, recognising the impact of our actions on the well-being of all, particularly the most vulnerable.

Moreover, access to a clean and healthy environment is a fundamental human right. Environmental degradation that jeopardises this right is an infringement on the dignity and well-being of individuals and communities.

Hence, ensuring a sustainable environment aligns with the principles of justice, as it seeks to provide equal opportunities and a decent quality of life for all members of society.

The consideration of environmental issues as social justice issues reflects an understanding that the well-being of people and the health of the planet are deeply interconnected. Addressing environmental challenges is an integral part of promoting justice, equity, and the common good for present and future generations. In pursuing environmental justice, we continue to fight for the rights of the poor, ensuring that their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.


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