In Search of Social Justice The Population/Food/Environment Perspective

Address by Anwar Fazal, Regional Director, International Organization of Consumers Unions, at the 1976 General Conference of the International Council of Voluntary Agencies (ICVA) held at Leysin, Switzerland from 6-11 December 1976.

It has been said, “Morally it makes no difference whether a man is killed in war or condemned to starve to death by the indifference of others”.[1]  One could add that there is also no difference when children are born who are neither wanted nor can be provided for, and die in childbirth carrying their mothers with them or suffer a lingering slow death through malnutrition and undernourishment, that there is no difference if people die because the environment is poisoned or rendered so sterile that it becomes incapable of providing air, water and food – our life support systems.

These separate issues - war, unwanted births, malnutrition and starvation, a degraded environment – are rooted in the same injustice of man to man, and man to environment.  The balance of justice and the balance of ecology form the same web of life and the discontinuities in this web must be the concern of those who care.

The intimate and symbiotic relationship between population, food and the environment have been articulated so frequently, so eloquently on many platforms and never more so than in a series of mega conferences that have now become a pattern for world conscientisation.  Three of these global happenings have focussed directly on these very issues – World Environment Conference (1972), World Population Conference (1974), and World Food Conference (1974).  The declarations and plans of actions of those meetings were couched in that special vocabulary of world consensus politics, where masterly drafted statements mask many controversies and mean different things to different people.  Like tropical typhoons they have left behind their own trail of dashed hopes and uprooted ideas while at the same time providing a baseline of consensus on which to strengthen the foundations of lasting programmes for a better life for all people - and for what is described as “spaceship earth.”  These conferences give us an education in the politics of these issues and they show how much more voluntary agencies need to cooperate and work together as a countervailing power of conscience and action.

The Human Rights

Three major “human rights” have been affirmed at these meetings as follows:

  • The World Population Conference asked all countries to respect the right of individuals to determine in a free, informed and responsible manner the number and spacing of their children regardless of overall demographic policies.

  • The Environment Conference declared the individual’s fundamental right to adequate conditions of life, in an environment which permitted a life of dignity and well-being with a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.
  • The World Food Conference addressed itself to the rights of individuals to adequate food.


The Issues

Behind these so easily accepted rights, there were and continue to be a plethora of issues that continue to burn.  Politicians continue to see issues in terms of political points and powers from one election to another.  The environmentalists warn of the mad “techplosion” and its “pesti-herbi-fungi-slimy-suicides”.  Some anti-natalists shout their numbers while some pro-natalists shout theirs and others view with chagrin the industrial-business complexes’ winning streak, as manifested in the growth of an anti-pollution equipment industry and the unabated growth of the pharmaceutical-medical industry and its “cash register” ethics.

There are many legitimate concerns behind the hysterics that sometimes seem to characterise the current debates on the population, environment and food.  The most fundamental concern is that certain basic needs are not being met, that there is unjust ordering of priorities, that issues of population, environment and food are not seen sufficiently in their inter-dependent role, that social, economic and political constraints permit injustices.

The Environment

Some leaders of developing countries have expressed reservations that environmental issues are only a passing fad, are irrelevant to issues of basic needs and only serve to distract developing countries of their efforts to achieve the economic growth necessary for the better life they want for their people.  They are prepared to condemn the rich who destroy the environment through wasteful consumption but ask a different basis of judgment for those who despoil the environment because it is necessary for them to do so to survive.  They have yet to see the injustices to the poor when their fishing grounds are destroyed through pollution or fertility of sensitive soils destroyed through erosion from exploitation of forests for timber or bad farming practices.  The poor man’s natural capital – the free environment – is frittered away.


At the same time, in the name of independence, leaders of many developing countries are moving rapidly to acquire nuclear furniture with little or no debate about the environment or social costs and the new dependencies and hazards the action will generate.  The opportunity-costs of such actions, the obvious environment risk, pose an invisible injustice with the most serious implications to humankind.


The capacity to feed people and their capacity to hold the growing population cannot but be maimed by the ill-considered priority to environment issues.


In the area of food there are more obvious injustices – empty stomachs and the fact that some two million people are estimated to have died as a result of the food crisis of the first half of this decade.  “Cash register” ethics to food problems, the frenzy of speculation in food, a world currency system out of gear, stagflation – all highlight the fact that we have a world system that does not seem able to deliver the basic needs in an equitable way.


The capacity of developing countries to feed themselves has deteriorated markedly.  The “green revolution” with its dependence on high technology and artificial fertilizer has turned sour because its effects on the environment, irrigation systems, the small farmer and his world of exploitative systems and marketing systems were not sufficiently gauged and often reinforced basic injustices in the economic and social systems they were designed to change.

The rush to industrialise, inordinate investments deliberate or through default in the urban infrastructures, neglect of rural areas and the lack of importance of the small farmer have contributed their share of population pressures in cities, urban slums, and move to cities of rural entrepreneurs pulled and pushed into a new urban poverty system and the environmental degradation of many urban centres in developing countries.

From the need to earn foreign exchange and high profits which encourages agriculture for export of commercial crops to the activities of transnational corporations marketing food irrelevant to the basic needs of the mass of people, even drawing people away from sound practices like breastfeeding into pre-packed, expensive substitutes, are only manifestations of the distortions in the food systems and establish a pattern of injustice.


Some 60 per cent of the world’s need to have access to a safe and efficient system of exercising the right to determine the number and spacing of children have still to be met.  Seen in the context of a deteriorating environment and a diminishing capacity to provide food, this has the most serious implication This area of injustice is receiving growing and sometimes spectacular attention.


There has been general discrediting of family planning programmes that do not relate to the economic and social position of the poor.  “Integrated” approaches are now the accepted popular form.  There is also now better understanding that population issues have different facets.  At one stage it was the “population explosion” that seemed to be the issue but now more and more attention is focussed on “population inplosion” – the increased concentration of people in living spaces – and on “population displosion” – the increasing heterogeneity of people and the “population techplosion” – the increased use of technology by people.[2]  The kind of people expressing concerns about population issues have increased – the “numbers” of people have been strengthened by the “equity” people – those who see injustice in the political and economic systems as the root cause – and by the “ecopeople” – those who see the issue from the overall ecological point of view.

A World Perspective

Two broad movements are responding to kinds of injustices at the international level.  The first is manifested in the efforts to establish a “New International Economic Order”.  This sees the injustices as rooted in the unequal economic relations between developing and developed nations, the control of natural resources, world trade and marketing systems of commodities produced in developing countries.  Developing countries are viewing this aspect with an unusual unanimity and commitment.

The second movement is a new appreciation that struggle for a better life for the masses must be viewed from the “bottom-up”.  Too much emphasis was placed in massive intensive high technology projects with the hope that development would “trickle-down”.  Grassroots development, the dignity and respect for the ingenuity and capability of the common man, “growth from below” are all the new languages of this approach that people’s problems must be viewed at the level of people, that is, at the base of the ecological, social, economic and political system.


The Response of Voluntary Agencies

The kinds of complexities that face humankind in the area of food, environment and people have been largely brought to attention by the work of voluntary groups of concerned people usually working in one of three fields.  The new challenge is how many of these “single purpose” voluntary agencies are able to see their work more in the new “multi-dimensional” perspective and join and co-operate in coalitions for actions in a broad front and to have the courage to face the “gut issues” as vigourously and courageously with the same conscience and path-finding spirit that has been characteristic of their own narrow fields of interest.


Voluntary agencies because they are people oriented organisations have a critical role to play in seeking to root out the kinds of injustices that plague humankind, prevent the meeting of basic needs and a decent quality of life.

Because many of these issues are complex and inter-related, it is more and more necessary that voluntary agencies strengthen their co-operation and collaborate in practical terms on the kind of issues we have discussed.

This collaboration should not be only at an international level.  It should exist more actively at the national and local levels.  This would lend strength to these organisations in meeting the kinds of challenges they must face – from so-called “public apathy” to “political antipathy”. 

The idealism, “alarmism” and crusading that will form the most visible effort will have to be paralleled by concrete realisable grassroots efforts.  Political and economic interests in many countries will view action in these areas as subversive and bring to bear all kinds of repressive measures from direct suppression, coercion, to indirect manipulation.  To identify and support individuals and groups that are active in the area of social injustice of pressure is the challenge before us.  Joint activities by different volunteer agencies can provide strength to these efforts.

 Let a thousand coalitions for social justice bloom!


[1] Statement by former Chancellor Willy Brandt of West Germany in his first address before the U.N. General Assembly in 1973 as quoted in “By Bread Alone” by Lester K. Brown with Erik P. Eckholm.

[2] See “on Population and Environmental Policy and Problems” by Philip M. Hauser in “Population, Environment and People”, Ed. Noel Hinrichs, Macgraw-Hill Inc., 1971 for an exposition on this point of view. 

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