Social equity and justice are issues that are least talked about in the context of sustainability, yet they are likely the most important factor in actually mitigating the effects of artificial threats to the environment such as climate change and pollution. These two things are true for the same reason – almost at any scale, the poorest, most oppressed people produce the least pollution per person while suffering the greatest from the effects. And it is an unfortunate state of affairs throughout history that these populations receive the least consideration in ostensible solutions to challenges that humanity has faced and is now facing.

The people with the least power – political, economic, energy, resources, etc. tend to live in the least desirable areas at high density (though poverty certainly exists in more rural areas, this principle still applies in a relative way.) As we have discovered during the pandemic, these populations can also make up much of the most ‘essential’ workforce. They work under the least safe and most toxic conditions. And, ultimately, no amount of money or power will protect anyone from the worst effects of our environmentally damaging behaviors if we don’t pull together as people. The poor and disenfranchised are simply getting the earliest effects.

The vast majority of these vulnerable populations are the first to be made refugees by war, political turmoil, and environmental degradation. This, in turn, puts pressure on those areas that are less affected (or not affected yet,) causing more turmoil and greater pressure on existing infrastructures, etc. The knock-on effects from this dynamic only exacerbate the underlying issues. Imagine if we had healthy communities living sustainably in what are now slums, ghettos, and warzones. Surely more affluent areas would be better protected from the worst effects of a deteriorating environment and climate. However, if the affluent areas simply try to hold on to their currently and relatively livable conditions without applying the solution to those in greater need, those areas are only forestalling the inevitable demise of their living conditions.

So, even if simple fairness and compassion isn’t enough to put the plight of these people in the forefront of our concern for our fellow human beings, it behooves us to realize that they are simply ‘first in line’ to experience what we all will have to deal with if we don’t all work together for a sustainable future.

Once again, these populations are essential in any efforts, writ large, to stop the runaway train to an unlivable future we are all currently aboard as passengers. We need new infrastructure and we will need to maintain it. We need everyone to help build it and keep it working, just as we did in the Great Depression in the New Deal and the Works Projects Administration, and during the World Wars where Rosie the Riveter rolled up her sleeves, and people everywhere planted Victory gardens . And we must reduce general strife as much as possible in order to reduce pollution, carbon emissions, the spread of disease, the migration of refugees, the endless tragedy of war, etc.

It isn’t just a platitude to say that we are all in the same boat. And we can’t just throw people overboard to prevent the whole thing from sinking. As the saying goes – there is no Planet B. And we need all hands on deck to weather this storm.

see also: Part 1: Definition of Terms Part 2: Environmental Impacts | Part 3: Embodied Carbon | Part 4: Installation Impact
Part 5: Operational EmissionsPart 6: Installation Impact | Part 7: Resilience | Part 8: A Cradle-to-Cradle Approach