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Sustainability vs Starvation: A Moral Dilemma


Can developing nations afford SDGs if they can’t afford food? Image Source: Getty Images

We lived by the river, a tumultuous expanse of brown water littered with plastic bottles, broken toys, and scraps of rusted metal. I remember my grandmother taking our trash cans out once a week to the riverbank, emptying the contents into the murky currents.

Here in the United States, we have the luxury of choice. We wake up in the morning and choose what we want to wear, what we want to eat, whether we can afford to hit snooze a few more times… These choices, though small, contribute to the bigger picture of who we are as people. Some of us, for example, choose to follow a vegan diet in an effort to promote animal rights. Others may choose only to buy clothing from local business as a protest against the capitalistic advances of more mainstream retailers. In developing countries, that choice is not available.

Growing up in rural China, my family didn’t have much money. We couldn’t afford a trash pick-up service and didn’t even know that recycling existed. We just knew that we had trash and we needed to dispose of it before the smell got to our heads.

Poverty stricken countries experience this sort of ignorance to a greater degree and have much less control over their situations. In 2016, national governments began implementing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an effort to create a greener future through reformations in poverty, health, and education. It’s great that we’re moving towards sustainability, but the total cost for SDGs in low income countries is $148 billion annually, a target that all low income countries can’t afford (DevPolicy).

Annual cost of poverty, health, and education to meet SDG targets. Image Source: DevPolicy

When asked for a third world perspective on this issue, Muhammad Arif Mustunsir commented “...limiting the [socioeconomic] growth process by promoting the agenda of sustainable development is fundamentally about keeping deprived state/people poor” (Research Gate). While this radical statement has a rather strong political bias, it sheds light on how little developing countries think about sustainable efforts. They are much more concerned about their next meal than they are about climate change or air pollution. So what can we do with our privileged choices to promote both economic growth and green growth?

  1. Donate. There are countless organizations that work in developing nations to fight poverty and promote sustainability. Find one that you identify with and believe in, like the United Nations Development Project (UNDP), the Earth Institute, or Concern Worldwide, to name a few. From there, you can donate either your time or money to promote a greater cause.

  2. Vote wisely. With the 2020 election coming up, it is important to cast your vote for someone who represents your interests, financially, politically, and socially. Even (especially) outside of presidential elections, it’s important that your candidate of choice has values that align with yours. If your prerogative is to promote sustainability and put an end to poverty, vote accordingly.

  3. Keep reading. Stay updated on this issue, watching out for articles that may be written or bills that may get passed either in the United States or in the United Nations and beyond that address this tricky topic of sustainability amongst the less fortunate.

  4. Start with yourself. By choosing to recycle, compost, thrift shop, etc., we contribute to a more sustainable future. While it may not directly impact SDGs, we can decrease the global carbon footprint so that world leaders can focus on cleaning up developing countries.

If we remember to think about the consequences of our choices, and how lucky we are to have that choice, we find ourselves capable of inciting change on a global scale. Even an indirect impact can benefit us and the future of our dying planet.

Photography by Sahil Sethi, Lucy Grossmann, and others
©2020 by SEEC