Poverty And The Environment: More Connected Than You Realize?

Exploring the intersection between poverty, the environment, and climate change.



ne of my favorite local papers, Street Roots, recently reported on a homeless woman camping under a bridge along the Springwater Corridor, the iconic 21-mile scenic walking and biking trail that criss-crosses Johnson Creek and traverses wetlands, meadows, wildlife refuges, and neighborhoods around Portland, Ore. She is one of a growing number of homeless people who have been forced out of downtown, where most shelters and other services are located, and who take refuge in parks and natural areas outside the city center.

Part of a 40-mile loop connecting parks throughout greater Portland, the Springwater Corridor is a major green space project several decades in the making. Since 1981 the state has invested considerable resources to eradicate invasive plant species and restore the area for fish and wildlife. As homeless people have set up camps, the state response is to sweep them out because people are bathing and defecating in the creek, leaving trash, and despoiling a protected habitat. But even representatives from Oregon Department of Transportation, the agency responsible for the sweeps, recognize they don’t work. People are displaced and the few belongings they have are sometimes confiscated, but others move in. Far from solving the problem, the sweeps just perpetuate the cycle.

Though it might not seem so on its face, the story of homelessness in Portland is a perfect illustration of the connection between income inequality and environmental degradation. When society doesn’t support people who have the fewest resources, they have to fend for themselves, and in this case that means retreating to protected nature areas. Portland has one of the tightest rental markets in the country and comparatively little affordable housing. While Oregonians who are not homeless cherish wild spaces for recreation and communing with nature, homeless Oregonians need those places just to find shelter, which compromises those habitats. With our current approach, we aren’t protecting people who are most economically vulnerable, and we aren’t protecting refuges for wildlife and flora. We are failing other species as well as our own.

If we can’t figure out how to provide suitable shelter now, how will we manage when the climate becomes even more extreme?

Climate destabilization will only make the situation worse. The woman profiled in Street Roots was camping outside during “Snowpocalypse,” one of two blizzards this past February in a city that usually sees serious snow only every few years. More extreme weather will not only endanger people who are living outside but will create more homelessness. Hurricane Sandy ranked in the top 10 global disasters that caused massive displacement in 2012. After Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, it took seven years for homelessness rates to drop to pre-Katrina levels. Portland, like many other cities, is predicted to be hit by more frequent and severe winter weather in the future. If we can’t figure out how to provide suitable shelter now, how will we manage when the climate becomes even more extreme?
Is Nature “Out There”?

Despite growing public discussion in the U.S. about income inequality and the environmental crisis, few people are talking about the intersection between them. What lies behind our inability to connect the dots on poverty and conservation? Among various answers to this question, one in particular stands out for me: Western culture’s dualistic view of humans and nature, as if humans and all we create are separate from the natural world.

I used to believe the purpose of conservation is primarily to protect wilderness. Then in 2007 I moved to the Ecuadorian Amazon on behalf of a small non-profit organization in Napo province. Almost every week for five years I traveled by bus or canoe to rural indigenous communities to work with them on health, conservation, income generation, and education projects they designed and managed. The experience caused me to re-evaluate my concept of “conservation,” and understanding how people co-exist with nature and manage natural resources took on an entirely new dimension in my life.


A woman cooks in the Ecuadorian community of Palma Amazónica.

Traditional Kichwa culture values equilibrium between human activity and the natural world, and the lives of most people I knew reflected this complex relationship amidst the pressures of modernity. Families grew some of their own food on small mixed-crop plots, hunted, used medicinal plants, and built thatched-roof houses out of wood and palm fiber as their grandparents had. On roads that had been built to open up the Amazon to oil drilling, mining, and monoculture farming, they traveled to town to sell their crops and buy medicine and school supplies for their kids. Most people had electricity, and some had running water, but almost none had a safe way to manage sewage. Many rivers and streams were polluted with human waste or industrial runoff, and most primary rainforest had been cut down. Some people wanted the jobs that oil and mining companies promised; others decried the devastation they left in their wake: oil spills, mercury poisoning, and high rates of cancer.

So the effort to “save the Amazon rainforest” is not a question of cordoning off what primary rainforest remained. It requires an understanding of how people interact with that highly diverse habitat as members of it. In general, people who live in rural areas (as opposed to outsiders who financed or executed big development projects) have a keen awareness of their reliance on other species. There is little separation between spaces where people lived and nature “out there.”

I felt this in the city where I lived as well. The provincial capital of Tena has a population of about 20,000 with widespread internet access, numerous mom-and-pop stores, some paved roads, and a sewage system that dumps household waste directly into rivers. To the north lies a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and to the west lies the Llanganates Mountains, which are covered in lush forest spanning the transition zone from cloud forest to lowland tropical rainforest. After work I would sit up on the roof of my apartment and watch the chaotic dance of paradise tanagers over the tops of palm trees. I would stroll along the airport tarmac—a single strip of pavement used only during the day for military planes—and listen to the cacophony of frogs and toads. One night as I was walking back from the town center, I saw an owl sitting not ten feet from me on a chain link fence in my neighborhood. Even as I worked in an internet cafe or stood in line at the bank, I never forgot that the jungle was all around me. Everything I did, including flushing the toilet, had an impact. I began to rethink the distinction between the natural and built environment, and I began to think we need a conservation ethic that helps us narrow the gap in our perception of the two.
Conservation Is Compassion

Now I live in Portland, where bioswales, tree plantings, and even the Springwater Corridor are evidence that the conceptual gap between the built environment and the natural environment is shrinking. While I see this as a step in the right direction, I realize it isn’t enough. The benefits of a greener city are felt mostly in middle-class or affluent areas. There are many neighborhoods, especially those where more low-income families or people of color live, that don’t have parks, community gardens, or trees. Air quality is worse, public transportation is inadequate, and housing is costly or substandard. The plight of the homeless population may be the most extreme, but it is hardly the only example of exclusionary policies and practices and the inequality they produce.

We cannot put poverty and homelessness in one silo and saving the planet in another.

Despite our increasing ability to intertwine nature into to the spaces where we live, we still do not understand what co-existence really means. Just as we need to see that we humans are intrinsically linked to other species in Earth’s ecosystems, we need to understand that we are intrinsically linked to each other. BK Loren, one of my favorite writers on the topic, defines conservation as compassion. Compassion is about recognizing that thing in some other being that connects with something inside of us. When we make that connection, we understand our fates are ultimately bound together. We make choices that reflect our recognition that we have a stake in the fate of other beings.

For all the strife and suffering the climate crisis is predicted to bring, it also offers an unprecedented opportunity to create a new conservation ethic based on inclusion, not isolation. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gives a 15-20 year window to cap greenhouse gas emissions and avoid the worst effects of a warmer world. But this will require us to understand and confront the root causes that connect what appear to be separate problems. As the failed homeless sweeps in Oregon show, it will also will require us to break down barriers in our approaches to those problems. We cannot put poverty and homelessness in one silo and saving the planet in another. To put it in more fundamental terms, it will require us to cultivate compassion and put it into action in the precious little time we have to make a difference.
Putting Compassion into Action

So how do we take steps toward cultivating compassion and acting on it? I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, but when I think about how I’ve tried to do this in my own life, conversation is the key. I read what others are saying, comment on blog posts, and bring up the topic with friends and colleagues. I support organizations that are working to dismantle silos, such as Green for All, the Global Fund for Community Foundations, and the Social Justice Fund, but there are many other worthy groups as well. Finally, I try to observe my surroundings and put myself in new environments. Then I talk about what I notice and the cycle begins again, but with deeper understanding, new questions, and greater momentum. That momentum is what fuels change for societies as well as individuals, and conversation is an essential catalyst.

Mary Fifield

Mary Fifield’s work has appeared in journals and anthologies including Midway Journal, Colere, and Women Reinvented. She holds an MFA from San Diego State University and is currently working on a book about living in the Ecuadorian Amazon. She blogs at Earth In Here.



  1. It seems to me that poverty has come with colonialism and corporate takeover of our environment. Poverty always follows. The top one percent controlling the wealth also does not care about the environment or people with less. Unless we turn that around and move away from capitalism with its principle of greed that we will just be spinning our wheels trying to save our habitat and do right by all the people.
    It has always been important in my family and people to take care of the environment and it comes as second nature to do so. I was taught we all have to work together in our community to do that.
    I see homelessness as a problem for the homeless mostly. They are just trying to live. They can be destructive to the environment but we should help them more. Maybe if people are camping outside providing garbage pick up or helping them dig a hole for sanitation. Busting them is cruel or passing laws that are making homelessness criminal is worse. I always think but for grace go I. I have been homeless many years ago as a child and it is really tough. I have a harder time with people that judge folks for being in a bad situation.
    I think we don’t have to choose between helping people or the environment. If you are living in a functioning community than you do both.

  2. Mary, “Unless we turn that around and move away from capitalism with its principle of greed that we will just be spinning our wheels trying to save our habitat and do right by all the people.” I really believe that to be the heart of the solution.

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