The relation between environment and human standard of living is an area of research that has been given inadequate attention. But there is an emerging consensus among intellectuals and research scholars that there is indeed a strong correlation between the two concepts. In other words, it is rarely a coincidence that poverty thrives in hostile geographies and that affluence is usually seen in ambient landscapes. Apart from the literal sense of the word, ‘environment’ could also be taken to mean the political and socio-cultural context of a particular geographic space. This essay attempts to address the aforesaid correlation from both these perspectives. Examples from recent and far history of the United States are used in support of arguments, while also making relevant references to the rest of the world.
Statistics from eighteenth century shows that Americans had been the tallest people in the world at that time. For example, Americans averaged 172 centimeters in 1750, a clean seven centimeters taller than their Anglo-Saxon brethren across the Atlantic. But since then, the difference has steadily declined and eventually reversed, making Americans shorter than their European counterparts. In the decades following the Second World War, data emerged showing that the Norwegians and Dutch have superseded Americans by a 3 centimeter margin. This is a revealing reversal indeed, for the average height of a population is a
“good proxy for health, particularly the status of nutrition during the youthful growing years. The evidence collected to date on the nation’s average stature challenges many traditional interpretations of history. Most important, perhaps, our loss of international leadership in stature should be a warning to those who think this country provides its citizens with widespread access to the basic necessities of life” (Steckel, 2005, p.13).
This suggests that in spite of being the leading economy in the world, the nutritional intake of recent generations of Americans have been below par. This makes sense when seen in light of the fact that “a nation’s health is particularly sensitive to the distribution of income and the consumption of basic necessities by the poor” (Allen, 2005, p.148). Here, we can see both meanings of ‘environment’ at play. The agricultural tradition of the last two centuries has contributed to the nutritional intake of several generations of Americans. The political tradition, as manifest in public policies and shared values of citizens, has contributed to imbalances in income distribution, and indirectly to reduction in health and well being of citizens (Steckel, 2005, p.13).
This should come as a surprise for anyone, for the United States is often projected as the land of the free and the home of the brave. People both inside and outside the country associate the United States with abundant opportunity for work, prosperity and overall success. While these assessments are not completely imaginary, it does goes to suggest that beyond the ostensible wealth and opulence there is also widespread poverty.
“There are currently 39 million people in America who have incomes below the government’s poverty line. They comprise more than 15 per cent of the population (US, Bureau of the Census 1995). The contrast between poverty and wealth is particularly stark. In most American cities, the living standards of people in the prosperous suburbs are among the highest in the world. On the other hand, urban blight, homelessness, crime and poverty comprise a way of life for many in the inner cities. Similarly, substantial numbers of Americans in the rural areas continue to live in condition of deprivation” (Manila Bulletin, June 2004, p.43)
A particularly stark example of the relation between environment and standard of living unraveled during the Hurricane Katrina episode a few years back. Initially, the displacement, disease and death caused by the hurricane were seen as the consequence of a natural disaster – something no public policy or contingency plan could have prevented. But, as the hurricane subsided and the flood waters receded, analysts were able to see a connection between race, poverty and vulnerability against natural forces. As Stephen Bocking points out in the Jan 2006 edition of the Alternatives Journal, it was clearly evident that this was an “unnatural disaster”. Taking a critical swipe at the Bush Administration’s handling of the hurricane, Bocking asserts that it was “an environmental parable comes to life, testifying to the futility of controlling nature, and the dangers of inattention, ideology and incompetence” (Bocking, 2006, p.38). But, such delicate balances between “site and situation, environmental hazard and economic advantage, is hardly unique to the Big Easy”. More importantly, Katrina demystified the often intricate relations between physical environment and geo-politics. Of all the lessons that Katrina could provide public representatives, the following is the easiest to grasp: “that manipulating nature has consequences. But equally evident is the fact that these disasters fall heaviest on the vulnerable–those made insecure through poverty or discrimination. Environmental justice relates as much to natural hazards as to waste sites and toxic industries” (Bocking, 2006, p.38).