Europe’s “refugee crisis” and sustainability (continued…)

By Joern Fischer

Almost two months ago, Julia Leventon posted an emotional outburst on the so-called refugee crisis. I found little to disagree with in Julia’s post — but it’s been two months, and if anything, the issue has intensified in public discourses.It hasn’t gone away. Just yesterday, the irony struck me of how similar the current pictures from Hungary are to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s scenario “Order from Strength”. Like Julia’s post in the past, the following reflection may not be “hard science”, but in that respect, it’s no different from dozens of other posts on this site (or many other academic blogs, for that matter).

On the positive side, some national governments in the EU have explicitly expressed that they felt a duty to take refugees. Also on the positive side, there has been a lot of public support for refugees in several EU countries.

On the more problematic side, it remains unclear how long this good will is going to last. And it’s even more unclear whether, as European citizens, we start to see the bigger picture associated with “refugees”. Sure, the current wave of refugees is quite specifically the outcome of a war in the Middle East, in which terrorism plays a substantial role. But once you scratch below the surface, you find that countries like Germany are among the largest arms exporters in the world. You find that countries like Germany love to import cheap products from developing countries. You find that climate change is caused by carbon-excessive lifestyles in the Global North, while the impacts are felt most strongly in the Global South. You find many Western democracies supporting non-democratic governments all over the world because it suits their military interests.

Global sustainability will remain elusive unless justice considerations shift to the centre of our discussions. Intergenerational justice is on the radar — future generations ought to be able to enjoy the world in the same ways we are. But intragenerational justice, or justice amongst those living right now, is a topic most (nationally elected) politicians (and in fact, many sustainability scientists) don’t want to go near. Face it: the level of wealth currently enjoyed by citizens of the Global North has partly resulted from the direct exploitation of the Global South; and while (population growth aside) the major drivers of global change reside in the Global North, most of the consequences are felt in the Global South. In short: the current wave of refugees won’t be the last one.

We can wait for our politicians to change policies, but more fundamentally, it’s citizens of the Global North who need open up, emotionally for a start, to those who are less privileged. For what it’s worth, the current signs in Germany are positive. People’s compassion is being extended — possibly more so than ever before — to strangers who speak different languages, have different values, and come from far away. Perhaps there’s hope that with more tangible exposure to people from far away, more people will more readily extend their radius of empathy to our “global family” of sisters and brothers? A broader beam of compassion may yet turn out to be the most powerful tool for sustainability. It’s not until we want to change our lives, because we feel and experience how we affect others, that we will.

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2 thoughts on “Europe’s “refugee crisis” and sustainability (continued…)

  1. Really good post Joern. I completely agree that intragenerational justice is key and we need to ‘want to change our lives’ for the sake of others. I think sustainability research needs to start exploring how this can be achieved. I wonder if we need to focus much more on how people’s moral and ethical frameworks are developed (see http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/60/7/539.short). I think emotional connection is just the start – we need values that compel us to act compassionately because it’s the right thing to do, not just because we feel like it.

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