Over the past month, the developed world in the West has battled numerous effects of climate change and environmental degradation—flooding in England, tornado-snow-thunderstorms in the United States, and, more recently, the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. These cases remind us that state wealth does not necessarily guarantee immunity from environmental harms. Social inequalities, like the effects of climate change, permeate the depths of every nation.
Climate change is often viewed as impacting the developing world more seriously than developed countries. This is partially true because developing countries do not have the adaptation capacity to deal with the effects. Developed countries have more wealth and resources to deal with these problems–but only if they prepare for it. Tornadoes in my hometown of Dallas, Texas, showed me that alert and prediction systems are still lacking or not taken seriously. And the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, a man-made environmental disaster, shows how sometimes this degradation is produced without thorough contemplation of consequences, or without care of the consequences. Our wealth does not make us immune to extreme weather. It may just feed our egos and sense of immunity. Moreover, if overall wealth is not distributed to people or issues in need, then it is essentially useless.
Even citizens’ actions in developed countries or wealthy, urban areas show that we do not see ourselves as vulnerable to environmental harms. During the tornado warnings in Dallas, many people still drove around the city to grab dinner, shop or see a movie. No one believed a tornado could affect them since it seemed tornadoes usually only destroyed the rural, poorer areas of the state. Similarly, in China, Beijing residents I interviewed for my undergraduate thesis felt that environmental degradation was a rural person’s problem.
Had the flint Michigan water crisis occurred in a developing country, we would be sending aid and volunteers. If this happened in China, we would be calling out the government for corruption and possibly even genocide, as Michael Moore has suggested. At the same time, maybe if the crisis was happening in a developing country, we would think it was normal and expected. But because this water crisis is occurring in a developed country, we are alarmed and urgently concerned. We criticize and patronize places suffering from environmental damages, or we ignore the issue completely. For example, Americans quickly criticize the Chinese government for the air pollution in urban areas and pity citizens living in those conditions. At the same time, we ignore degradation issues occurring in the countryside because we expect poorer areas to suffer this way.
This is to say that perhaps we should demolish the rich-poor, developed-developing binaries in climate change and environmental discourse. The compartmentalization is important for realizing unique requirements of different areas, but it also prevents us from seeing the common, shared needs and problems. Demolishing these binaries may save us time and prevent further damage in the future.