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Healthy people, healthy planet

By Amanda Fairweather - posted Wednesday, 7 March 2007

I have always had a strong concern for needless human suffering. In the last few years, I've been heartened to see the wide-spread movement to try and “make poverty history”. The figures of poverty are alarming: More than 30 per cent of children in developing countries - about 600 million - live on less than US$1 a day. Every 3.6 seconds one person dies of starvation. Usually it is a child under the age of five.

More than 2.6 billion people - 40 per cent of the world’s population - lack basic sanitation facilities, and over one billion people still use unsafe drinking water sources. A child dies every 15 seconds from disease attributable to unsafe drinking water, deplorable sanitation and poor hygiene. Such conditions often lead children to desperate measures - for example, working as child prostitutes, soldiers and sweatshop labourers.

We cannot see this as a far-removed problem. These are human beings - people like you and I. It could just as easily have been our relatives devastated by AIDS or malaria; our grandparents left to work 16 hours a day to provide barely enough food for the family; our nephews and nieces employed as child soldiers and prostitutes. For many of us, the biggest difference is where we happened to be born.


It is certainly man's responsibility to do something about it. We cannot wave our fists, blaming God, or whatever else, for the corruption and greed which has led to such gross injustice. It is often the explicit actions of man - through exploitation, warfare and the inactivity of the “wealthy” - which has led to such situations. Yet, estimates are that it would cost only US$40-100 billion a year to effectively meet all of the millennium development goals. This represents only 0.3 per cent of the world’s total wealth (PDF 202KB).

I believe that many of my generation feel disillusioned with material wealth for material wealth's sake and so we are actively giving of our time and resources to solve a problem that really shouldn't exist. However, in the last few years I've seen another movement well and truly take off, the environmental movement. In the movies, on TV, at my university - it seems I am constantly bombarded with the message of “looking out for our planet” and “being a responsible global citizen”.

Non-humans have as much right to our planet as we do and we ought to look out for them. Man-made greenhouse gases are destroying our ecosystem. Day-by-day we are obliterating our land and waters with our pollution. At first I was intrigued: was my simple urban lifestyle really causing so much havoc? A part of me felt guilty, and I resolved to “do my part”: recycle, limit my energy use, support “greener” initiatives and even sign up to the Australian Conservation Fund's e-newsletters.

As I saw my peers increasingly sign up to the greener Earth bandwagon, however, I started to grow concerned. I was convinced that my generation would be the one to end needless human poverty, but then I realised many people’s energies were being redirected. It seemed we were more concerned with global warming than cheaper HIV drugs in India, prostitute rehabilitation in Thailand, orphanages in Argentina, and so on.

I felt like we were ignoring the very real and measurable problem poverty was having on hundreds of millions of humans.

In the process, I even heard one person advocate “we should just let the babies in Africa die out - overpopulation is destroying our planet anyway”. It was like saying “lets save the trees and let the children die”.


By now I was outraged. How dare they? I thought to myself: “What if it was their child without access to proper healthcare, dying of preventable diseases and needless poverty?” For a time, almost in protest, I sided with the “climate change realists” (deniers?), saying, “you know what? It’s not all that bad: 0.6C increase isn't too bad. We're only inhabiting 1 per cent of the world's landmass, what harm can we do? There's not even a real problem, really.”

But then I came to the epiphany that the two movements are not supposed to be in competition with one another but rather, to complement one another. Yes, as human beings, it is our responsibility to look out for the needs of those who are most disadvantaged among us, empowering them to empower themselves.

However, we must also ensure we have the clean air, clean water and clean food to provide for such people. Four hundred thousand people die from pollution-related diseases in China every year. The rising Pacific Ocean threatens the existence of the Kiribati and Tuvalu countries. The pollution of water ways has led to debilitating diseases among the world’s poor.

To put it bluntly we cannot have safe, healthy people if we do not have a safe, healthy planet to inhabit. I should not be worried, seeing humanitarian aid programs engaged in environmentalism, but thankful that someone thought to see the bigger picture. As humans, let’s work to protect our planet, as well as the basic human needs and rights of the people living upon it.

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About the Author

Amanda Fairweather completed year 12 at the Mac.Robertson Girls' High School and is now studying for a Bachelor Medicine. She has written op-ed articles for the Sydney Morning Herald.

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