A Sustainability Scientist’s Perspective on the ‘Refugee Crisis’

Today, I was motivated to focus on a more social manifestation of our lack of sustainability: the refugee crisis. In my research I tend to focus on the environmental expressions of sustainability problems. But sustainability is also about social sustainability. My perspectives on the refugee crisis are therefore based on some of the framings I have developed while studying the local and global connections in environmental problems.

**Note: This blog post has been written in anger and disgust, and therefore may not be as articulate as I would like.**

I’m distressed by state of humanity in Western Europe.

  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in appalling camps around Calais, waiting to enter Britain.
  • PEOPLE are ‘living’ in over-crowded refugee centres with little sanitation and facilities.
  • PEOPLE are suffering danger and exploitation, and arduous journeys to arrive in these camps.
  • PEOPLE are drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean on rubber dinghies.

To me, this is the crisis – the pain and the suffering. It is depressing in itself. I find it upsetting that life can be so intolerable that such conditions are better. I lie awake at night thinking about this.

But the final straw for me is our collective reaction.

  • Hungary wants to put up a wall along the Serbian border.
  • Britain and France argue over the responsibility for migrants, and label them as ‘illegal’ based on where they want to register as asylum seekers.
  • Britain, Germany and France turn their backs on Greece and Italy, forcing them to handle the crisis in their already over-stretched public services and charities, arguably making ‘living’ conditions worse for many.
  • Our politicians argue that we don’t have capacity to take everyone, and spend weeks arguing over who should be paying what, and hosting who, and how to stop the flow, rather than saving the thousands of PEOPLE dying on their way here.
  • British holiday-makers complain that their holiday is ruined by there being untidy migrants in the vicinity of their holiday resorts.

These reactions frame the crisis as being the impact to the West. This makes me feel sick and ashamed.

Firstly, because we are talking about PEOPLE. Real, living, breathing, feeling people. And all of them just unlucky enough to have been born into the time and situation they were born into.

Secondly, because I find the social construct of a ‘country’ or a ‘territory’ fascinating (and also the construction of nationalism). I query the validity of borders such as we currently define and enforce them. My sustainability science experience means I am fully aware that we don’t actually live within our borders here in Western Europe – we import materials and products and we export negative impacts. These impacts are in terms of environmental consequences such as climate change, or communities in the developing world living with no clean water because of our need for oil. And impacts are in terms of social consequences; for example political instability in areas we colonized (e.g. Nigeria) or invaded (e.g. Iraq) to secure resources. We do not keep to ‘our’ own allocation of resources in order to support our lifestyles here in the West. And to therefore defend our physical space from people fleeing our exported consequences is essentially saying “what’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is also mine”.

In short, what this boils down to is a call for us all to “check your privilege”. To those who argue that we can’t cope with everyone who wants to come here, I call bullshit. We can’t cope if we don’t change and adjust, and yes maybe make some material compromises. But we have more than enough, its just not distributed very fairly. And it’s us in the West who have too much, who don’t experience the real impacts, and who are reinforcing the disparity.

About Julia Leventon

Research on governance and systems change for sustainability. Head of Department of Human Dimensions of Global Change at the Institute of Global Change Research of the Czech Academy of Sciences.

5 thoughts on “A Sustainability Scientist’s Perspective on the ‘Refugee Crisis’

  1. I’m not sure quite how to complement this post (I want to say it is wonderful, but somehow that does not seem appropriate given the depressing state of the world on which it reflects). So maybe instead I will say it is necessary and inspiring. There was a bit of debate recently about the ‘value’ of climate scientists showing their emotions (harking back to the troublesome ideal of objective, ‘disinterested’ science).. but it was centered around expressions of sadness.

    Both your post and Jahi’s reply to Joern’s post on trade-offs really drive home the point that, for me, we have to put the notion of justice at the center of sustainability science. Perhaps more importantly as people with a voice (as limited and ineffectual as it sometimes seems) sustainability scientists need to express the importance of justice as a lens through which states of the world have to be assessed, and not be afraid that expressions of our anger when we see injustice in the world somehow invalidate our science.

  2. Pingback: Europe’s “refugee crisis” and sustainability (continued…) | Ideas for Sustainability

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