Social construction of environmental issues

Introduction

The environment refers to the central part that links the ecological, political, social, economic and technological aspects. It is a component that integrates these spheres into a whole. This integration is necessary as none of these spheres can work without the others; they mutually depend on each other for the common good of the whole. Despite this, the environment is exposed to major destruction factors stemming from its utility and exploitation mostly by the same humans who depend on it (Reid and Paul 2005). Extensive and long-term destruction exposes the environment to continued degradation which then becomes irreversible at some point due to permanent destruction.

Environmental issues refer to the consequences that arise as a result of reduced resilience to destruction by the environment (Reid and Paul 2005, pp.28-36). These issues are diverse and include factors such as, resource use conflicts, environmental degradation, global warming, pollution, species extinction among others.

Our focus on environmental issues however targets the impacts of the social sphere on the environment. The social aspect considers the consequences arising from human to human interaction that indirectly impact on the environment as well as human nature interactions that contribute to a change in the functioning of the environment.

As Bass (2000) asserts, humans obtain a good percentage of their livelihoods from the environment. These quantities are however variable. Poverty is a social condition that plays a vital role in molding the state of the environment. It has become an environmental issue due to the nature and impact of activities associated with it. It is expressed as a state where individuals who earn below a certain benchmark are said to be poverty stricken. This benchmark is what is known as the poverty line. Currently, the poverty line puts individuals who earn less than a dollar a day as poor.

Poverty is driven by forces such as explosive population growth rates, corruption, high living standards and high inflation rates (Bass 2000). From an environmental perspective, poverty is both a cause and effect of environmental degradation. Poor people are mostly indigenous people, that is, they interact directly with the environment for their survival. They are therefore vulnerable in the sense that when they are deprived of a certain resource useful to them, their livelihoods are impacted on negatively to a large extent.

Population explosions exist mostly in poverty stricken environments (Mink 1999). High birth rates are a common scenario in low income places. This is because health risks are high as people are unable to afford basic health requirements and maintain high levels of sanitation. Due to this, individuals opt to increase the population of their children whereby the death of one can be substituted by the survival of the others. High populations further result in environmental stress as the resources available in the environment are fixed while population levels continue to increase exponentially. From Erhlich’s (2002) perspective environmental stress is felt where the carrying capacity is strained due to inadequate resources such as water that are available as demand for them grows at an alarming rate. This stress is also felt where increased numbers of people look for settlement areas and therefore encroach on pristine and fragile ecosystems like the forests and arid and semi arid lands. This then tampers with ecological balance in these zones. Encroaching into arid and semi arid areas results in exposing these areas to desert like conditions due to land degradation. The degraded environment accelerates the process of impoverishment.

Deforestation-Poverty And Environment Nexus

Deforestation is one activity carried out to pave way for settlement of increasing populations. It is an activity where trees are cut down without being backed by afforestation. This leads to the extinction of valuable species of both fauna and flora.

Deforestation causes environmental degradation where commercial logging is embedded in the policies of a nation for purposes of earning revenue to boost the Gross Domestic Product (Tomich 2001, p.18). Commercial timber benefits driven by government policies as incentives for deforestation in the Himalayas are one example that expounds on this issue. Countries attempting to improve the living standards of their citizens through this contribute to environmental deterioration of their local environments. In Africa especially Central and East Africa, deforestation is common and reduces the pristine tropical forests into shells as indigenous and endemic tree species are exploited for timber, fuel wood, herbal medicine and production of wooden artifacts (Grainger 2000).

Deforestation also takes place for agricultural expansion. Shifting cultivation promotes the slash and burn approach where trees and shrubs are cut down to provide room for cultivation of crops with high market demands. Grainger (2000) observe that this technique results in excessive soil deterioration as it reduces land cover thus exposing the soil to high rates of soil erosion.

The conversion of forests for cattle ranching and mechanized agriculture has also contributed to an environmental crisis. This is common in the Less Developed Countries where agriculture is the main foreign revenue earner as products are exported. In the attempt to meet the needs of its people, these countries practice the aforementioned activities. The production of agricultural commodities such as coffee, tea, among others is driven by market forces of demand and supply.

The need to create grazing land for cattle ranching is also driven by the demand of dairy and meat products. These fields are overgrazed exposing fertile soils to soil erosion mechanisms (Balu 1996).

Impact Of Education

Education which is the acquisition of knowledge is important in the restoration, maintenance and conservation of the environment. This education may be acquired formally through modern acquisition methods such as being taught in class by trainers or informally through indigenous knowledge acquisition techniques. High poverty levels hinder the acquisition of this knowledge due to lack of resources such as reading materials and facilities like classrooms to spearhead the acquisition process. When this knowledge is not acquired, the environment is left at risk. It is exploited ignorantly and individuals usually end up with less environmental resources for use.

Education is important to help communities reduce their overdependence on the immediate environment (Orr 2004). Deforestation is not entirely a cause of natural resource depletion. When carried out sustainably, deforestation can provide essential needs to people. However, knowledge of sustainable application is mostly obtained from education. Clean energy such as biogas can be adopted to provide substantial quantities of gas. The simple mechanism can be practically trained to community members.

In order for relevant education to take place, resources such s human resources, delivery services, financial services and facilities have to be available for use. Human resources involve trainers who have the ability to create a learning environment for people so as to pass on information. Teachers or trainers are competent and understand the needs of local people hence train people on viable exploitation and conservation practices to prevent exploitation that leads to poverty (Wiseman 1999).

On the other hand, financial resources are necessary for provision of education whereby funding for reading materials, tuition fees among others is essential. Lack of funds usually denies an individual the ability to acquire appropriate education hence poverty sets in. The facilitation of education is vital where delivery of services is provided (Orr 2004). In some Least Developed Countries, delivery of education services to remote areas is inevitable whereby people have to travel for long distances just to reach schools or in the case where the teacher has to a certain location and lacks transport. This therefore leads to denial of education.

Another aspect hat promotes lack of acquisition of education is gender bias. Women are denied a chance to education. The boy child is seen as the epitome of the society hence given priority in accessing education {Wiseman 1999}. It has also become a cultural taboo to educate the girl child hence all these aspects contribute to increase in poverty levels.

Lack of education increases poverty in such a way that one is denied access to jobs due to lack of basic skills and knowledge that enable one to gain access to jobs. This leads to crude methods that individuals will adopt to satisfy their livelihoods. Such crude methods include overexploitation of agricultural land, forests and other natural resources at large.

Food Insecurity, Poverty And The Environment

Food security exists when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life (Food and Agriculture Organization).

Food insecurity stages vary from food secure situations to total famine. Famine and hunger are deeply-rooted in food insecurity. This insecurity may be chronic whereby there is a high degree of vulnerability to famine and hunger or transitional which may be short term in nature. Food security situations eliminate this kind of vulnerability. Chronic food insecurity is characterized by undernourishment and is known to exist mostly in poor countries (Clay 2004).

Inadequate human resource development inhibits people’s capacity to grow and/ or purchase the needed food. Human resource development for agriculture is usually facilitated by agricultural extension agents who provide professional agricultural information that enables maximum agricultural produce. Lack of these agents brings about food insecurity in the sense that maximum benefits are not acquired by farmers. Balu (1996), details that farmers acquire sustainable and professional advice through technical transfer, advisory work, human resource development and empowerment. Technical transfer involves a process whereby technical assistance is provided by governments towards technical issues that affect farmers such as funding, of equipment; advisory work is usually provided by private organizations and governments to give advice on issues pertaining to what crop to plant on what type of soil, methods of harvesting, planting and how to use certain equipment.

Human resource development is mostly necessitated by university students and trainers who are competent in the agricultural field to farmers who cannot afford access to extension services. The empowerment of farmers integrates the participatory approach which ensures that farmers acquire practical skills relevant to increase their production capacities. With presence of extension services, food insecurity problems can be effectively minimized. The extension services are affected by poverty in the sense that; there are few extension agents. The ratio of extension agents to farmers is 1:1000; lack of adequate delivery services to deliver extension services to farmers. These are evidences of poverty in that lack of funding to support the provision of adequate extension agents and lack of funds to cater for transportation services. Poverty also causes lack of funds for training and extension materials and tools. This leads to food insecurity since maximum agricultural produces are not attained (Clay 2004).

Due to poor exploitation mechanisms, environmental degradation has been characterized by degraded natural resources. Soils for example have been degraded as a result of poor agricultural practices such as cultivating on hill slopes ad close to river banks; forests have been deforested to meet the daily needs of the people; fisheries have been exposed to siltation situations due to soil erosion, this has reduced immensely the survival of fishes. All these have been capitalized by poverty as individuals aim at satisfying heir immediate needs without caring about the impact of their activities on the overall state of the environment.

As envisioned by Balu (1996), the food insecurity scenario has been compounded by population growth. Land fragmentation is evident in areas where inheritance is widely practiced. The male siblings of households are entitled to a portion of the family land. With the current populations approximating 3billion people, the agricultural land faces fragmentation problems which contribute to the reduction of available food resources as agricultural land is subdivided into small portions thus only small scale farming is practiced.

There is also a general increase in consumer demand for food products. India and China are the leading countries of this demand (Mink 1999). The United States of America has only 1million farmers who are less than 1% of the country’s population. This increased demand outshines the supply curve resulting in less available food resources to cater for the general population. Furthermore, there is a high demand for non food products such as cotton for the production of clothes for people in the world over. This high demand for such resources has resulted in farmers opting to produce them as they boost there levels of income (Kenneth and Piet 2007). They convert their field to produce these instead of food products as food crops do not garner up as much profits as non food crops like cotton which are influenced by fashion and preferences.

In addition, the world oil price has shot up to over one hundred dollars a barrel (Duchin 1998). With the inception of biofuels to counter oil scarcity, most countries have introduced the growth of jutropha, a famous crop known to produce substantial amounts of ‘green’ fuel. Countries such as Tanzania have therefore introduced this crop which has substituted the cultivation of food crops making them vulnerable to food insecurity as there is not enough food to feed its citizens.

Industrialization is one invention introduced to provide resources to the ever increasing populations. As an incentive by governments to industry owners, the decentralization of industries is encouraged to reverse rural urban migration patterns. These industries are meant to provide jobs for the rural folks thus reducing their migration to urban areas in search for jobs. This is however at the expense of rural farmers who have to sacrifice sections of their lands to secure space for the development of these industries (Duchin 1998). The sizes of these agricultural lands shrink and the remaining fields are exposed to adverse effects such as those related to affluence from the industries further affecting the quality and quantity of the products.

Residential areas are also developed to provide residence to the settlers. With high populations, the agricultural lands cannot escape the encroachment of people to these lands. People have to set aside portions of their lands for the establishment of housing units. Wood products that is, timber is required in the building of the residential units. This timber is majorly obtained from forests hence increasing the rate of deforestation that further heightens the degradation of the environment (Duchin 1998).

During seasons of food shortage, poor households often embark on extreme measures in the present, including depriving the family of needed calories, in order to maintain productive resources for the future, such as a plough, oxen or seed stock. This proof suggests that poor African households may, in fact, have very low rates of time preference (Clay 2004).

Urbanization

Bass (2000) describes urbanization as the process by which villages grow into towns and urban centers and towns grow into cities and mega cities. An urban area is a settlement in which most of the inhabitants i.e. over 65% are engaged in non agricultural occupations. For example, commerce, manufacturing, administration, trading amongst others

Urban areas are defined by population size, population function, population density which is the number of people per square kilometer, and legal administration. The United Nations recommended population size to declare a location as an urban area is twenty thousand people. The reasons for rural urban migration which contributes to urban growth are diverse and include; seeking employment due to high underemployment levels in rural areas; searching for settlement as rural areas are widely affected by land fragmentation; searching for recreational and social services (Reid and Paul 2005).

Despite the movement of people from rural areas in search of employment opening, they are not assured of being employed in the end. High and rising unemployment rates contribute to poverty as people are unable to obtain financial resources important for the provision of basic needs. Individuals are forced to relocate to slum dwellings which are uninhabitable. Basic sanitation lacks in such locations with poor disposal of waste taking a centre stage. Common in the slum areas, are ‘flying toilets’ which are used due to lack of clean toilets (Elliot 1997). Satellite garbage sites are a common scenario in the urban areas where proper disposal mechanisms are not a prime consideration. Poor urban dwellers are unable to pay up for garbage collection in cases where this activity is privatized. The amount paid to such institutions is unaffordable for the poor hence satellite garbage sites are their only option. Mushrooming satellite garbage sites compromise the aesthetic value of the urban environment (Mink 1999).

Available amenities are overstrained due to large numbers of people living towns, cities and urban areas. Water resources for example are on high demand while their supply is largely influenced by watershed management and climatic conditions. The quality and quantity of water available in urban areas is compromised by industrial establishment, residential use and commercial utility. Water is mostly polluted when these establishments do not meet environmental standards as far piping and sewerage system is concerned. Clean water may mix up with sewage where the system is poorly done further resulting in water borne diseases. Towns located close to large water bodies contribute to water pollution due to the formation of algae blooms.

Congestion of humans and traffic is another cause of environmental deterioration. This is common in busy urban areas. Unworthy road vehicles pollute the environment with lead and smoke. The congestion of people also increases their vulnerability to air related diseases like tuberculosis (Mink 1999).

Embezzlement of resources accruing from corruption is another cause of poverty. Lack of transparency in government and private sector institutions located in urban areas promotes poor maintenance of services. The fire brigade is an important department especially in cities. Sources of livelihoods like businesses go up in smoke accidentally for example through electrical mishaps and cannot be salvaged due to poor service delivery from the necessary department. People are reduced to poverty which indirectly affects the natural environment. The smoke from the burning buildings also causes air pollution.

Impact Of Rich Nations On The Environment

Extreme inequalities exist in human societies. According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2009, 20% of people in industrialized countries account for 80% of total private consumption expenditures. The poor on the other hand account for a miserable 1.3%. In addition, 1 billion people suffer from hunger and approximately 2-3 billion experience deficiencies in vitamins and minerals. 1 Billion Survive on less than a dollar a day and 2 billion on less than 2 dollars a day. On the contrary, a few hundred millionaires own as much wealth as the world’s 2 billion people.

Decision making on world related issues is usually skewed to favor few narrow interests of richer nations (Duchin 1998). This can be evidenced from the just ended Copenhagen Summit in Denmark. Richer nations who have contributed largely to global climatic changes are unable to commit themselves on a timescale to address the climate change issue. Poor nations are left with no options but to agree with the recommended solutions despite contributing minimally to these changes and yet experiencing immensely to the adverse impacts of climate change (Ehrlich 2002).

Clay 2004 observes that Third world debt ahs made it difficult to prioritize on sustainable development. The Breton Woods institutions that is, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund through the introduction and adoption of Structural Adjustment Programs have destructed immensely environments of countries that have adopted such strategies and streamlined them in policies, rules and regulations. This has set drawbacks on health, education and provision of other necessary services due to a requirement to prioritize on debt repayment. Loans are lent to third world nations at high interest rates and are to be settled at specific timescales.

Structural Adjustment Programs encourage deforestation of indigenous forests and encourage plantation forests (Tomich 2001). Free market economies are introduced by Structural Adjustment Programs where forces of demand and supply determine the selling price of commodities. This is dangerous in economies with high demands and low supply levels of goods and services as more and more people are driven into poverty due to high and fast rising living standards. Basic commodities are difficult to acquire as they are expensive.

Food and farm products flow from areas of hunger and need to areas of with monetary stabilities and high demand, from rural areas to urban zones and from third world countries to first world countries. Third world countries that export unprocessed food products such as coffee beans export them at low prices to richer nations. These products are processed and imported at high prices to third world nations. This creates a vicious poverty cycles. In West Africa, cocoa is harvested and exported to the western world for the production of cocoa. The harvesters are paid meager wages and spend most of their valuable time in the fields. When coca is imported back, it is sold at very high prices resulting in strikes and riots (Clay 2004).

Less Developed countries are used as dumping grounds for goods, industries and toxic wastes. Second hand goods such as clothes are imported at cheaper prices to these nations. Infant industries that produce new clothes shut down as they face the challenge of accessing local markets which are already invaded by foreign commodities whose prices are cheaper (Bass 2000).

Industries that pollute the environment and do not meet environmental standards are relocated in third world countries whose measures are not stringent. They are also able to survive due to poor governance. Mining industries such as those located in South Africa result in worsening the aesthetic value of the environment as derelict holes are left open and become breeding grounds for mosquitoes when rain water accumulates (Elliot 1997).

Toxic wastes from the west find their way into environments of poor nations. The waste impacts negatively on the environment of the recipient nation. Nuclear energy results in the production of toxic radioactive waste which destroys the life forms located close to where it is dumped. The destination for such wastes is large water bodies. Since water in these bodies is mobile the waste finds its way to shores mostly of developing countries due to the proximity of the dumping grounds to the country geographical boundaries.

Corn is a major animal food grown in the United States. The amount of corn produced can feed humans in poverty stricken countries for close to 90 days. This shows that the amount produced is a lot. However, instead of it being supplied to humans it is fed to animals. Rich nations have contributed to the continuity of poverty in developing countries. This is by instituting and entertaining the dependency syndrome (Duchin 1998). Recipients of foreign aid and donor funding have created a perception that it is their right to receive this aid. They are therefore reluctant to adopt self independence practices as they believe that their lives can only be sustained through foreign aid. Poverty then becomes chronic as people are more vulnerable.

Infrastructure And Technology

Infrastructure entails promoting information and communication in vast areas of the country. This communication is better built by increasing access to various parts that are hot spots for the provision of certain goods and services. Infrastructure plays a fundamental role in minimizing poverty. Lack of it on the other hand accelerates poverty conditions (Botros 1997).

Agriculture is one aspect that incorporates infrastructure and technology. Since agricultural products are naturally susceptible to perishing, it is essential that they get to markets early enough before they are stale. For this to be achieved, access roads to agricultural zones should be of good quality. This is not the case however in regions affected by poverty. The poor state of access roads results in losses incurred by farmers as the roads do not favor quick transfer of commodities to markets.

Technology is vital for example in finding the most suitable means of transport for agricultural commodities to markets. Using vehicles are all weather road resistant ensures that commodities reach the market without vehicles getting suck on the way. Fish products require freezing equipment attached to automobiles so as to get to market locations when fresh. If these are not incorporated in the initial stages irreversible losses will be incurred.

For this to be effectively adopted, financial resources are required to purchase the necessary equipment and machinery. Poverty cripples this as it is mainly characterized by lack of resources. When this happens resources are underexploited and sometimes poorly exploited resulting in environmental compromises (Kenneth and Piet 2007, p. 48-53).

Appropriate technology involves the adoption of technology efficient for the exploitation of the natural resources. Technology is important but not all technology is applicable (Botros 1997, p.78). The use of organic fertilisers is for example necessary for the sake of the environment. The use of different sizes of fishing nets could also necessitate the discriminative fishing which ensures that young fishes are not fished out. Biogas production and the use of solar energy protect both the environment and individuals from adverse effects as a result of utilizing poor energy resources. This is propagated by knowledge of the appropriate technology and basic application skills.

Industries require the utilization of sufficient electricity for the production and processing. In order for the industry to be sustainable, the production of electricity can include recycling hot water for driving electric turbines. Industrial symbiosis is necessary to ensure maximum production at lower costs (Elliot 1997). This is where by-products of one industry are used as raw materials for another. This ensures that resources are well maintained and used sparingly to avoid overexploitation.

The development of relevant infrastructure and technology comes at an extra expense. Poor countries are left out as they are unable to raise the funds needed propelled by their state of Gross Domestic Products whose percentage is diverted to this goal.

Health And Environment

Health diseases can be attributed to poverty related activities. In door and outdoor pollution occurs when firewood and biomass energy such as cow dung is used as fuel. This is because carbon dioxide and monoxide gases that affect the respiratory organs of human beings. These gases are also of suffocating nature and cause deaths of close to 1% of its users (Reid and Paul 2005).

Poor people are at high risks of death as they are unable to access basic health care needs. Preventable and immunisable diseases are a major cause of death among poverty stricken people. Burial sites are a common sight in poverty locations and to the pollution of underground water due to sipping of human burial waste in to underground aquifers. Cemeteries also impact on the aesthetic value of the environment.

Conclusion

Environmental issues are complex and require appropriate and applicable solutions. Poverty is a major environmental issue which despite being socially constructed affects the rest of the environmental spheres. Poor populations are widely found in Developing and Less Developing countries. Women are a component of the poverty development nexus and should be actively involved in the decision making process to help reverse the state of poverty in their designated locations.

Capacity development and empowerment are powerful tools that can be employed to contribute to community development and sustenance. This should therefore be promoted in all aspects of development.

References

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