In State of the World 2013, Robert Engelman, president of Worldwatch Institute, echoes Gro Bruntland in saying that societies are unlikely to “enact policies and programs that favor the future (or nonhuman life) at the expense of people living in the present, especially the poorer among us.” As environmentalists around the world struggle to provide for future generations while also protecting the present, they face criticisms of elitism. It is problematic, Engelman says, “to argue that prosperity for those in poverty should take a back seat to protection of the development prospects of future generations. Unless, perhaps, we are willing to take vows of poverty.”
Engelman offers what seems to be a tongue-in-cheek solution. While vows of poverty may be extreme, vows of sufficiency may be necessary. In November of 2009, Dr. Toby Ord, an Oxford University professor, pledged to give away anything he earned over £20,000. He then founded Giving What We Can (GWWC), an organization based on living sustainably and donating excess. GWWC inspires others to follow Dr. Ord’s lead, by taking a pledge stating:
“I recognise that I can use part of my income to do a significant amount of good in the developing world. Since I can live well enough on a smaller income, I pledge that from today until the day I retire, I shall give at least ten percent of what I earn to whichever organizations can most effectively use it to help people in developing countries. I make this pledge freely, openly, and without regret.”
Ord’s pledge has spurred quite a following, numbering 280 members, and raising over $108 million. GWWC has become particularly popular amongst college campuses, despite the fact that most students have little extra money to give. In order to accommodate the high student interest (over 40 percent of pledges come from students), GWWC invites students to commit only one percent of their income until graduation. While one percent of a student’s income is an almost meaningless number, it demonstrates the high interest within the younger generation.
In addition to encouraging pledges, GWWC connects people with charities that will provide the most bang for their buck. The organization provides a list of recommended charities, along with their evaluation methodologies. They provide charities based on the donor’s interests, and include categories of health, education, climate change, and economic empowerment, among others. Ward points out that charities should “focus on outputs, and not get hung up on brand,” a common complaint amongst those searching for reliable, effective charities. The top recommended charities all focus on disease prevention and treatment, as the organization has deemed health-based charities as the most cost-effective.
While providing health services and health education is imperative, GWWC neglects charities that may offer true systemic change. Their methodology focuses on cost-effectiveness, and studies show that climate change initiatives, for example, are far less cost-effective than health initiatives. Luckily, GWWC does understand that in order to achieve genuine sustainability, systemic change must occur, and they continue to research climate change, political empowerment, education, and other areas which may not be cost-effective, but which are necessary to ensure a sustainable future.
After all, as Engelman points out, it is something of an ethical quandary to focus attention on future generations and a future planet when our present security is not guaranteed. For the younger generation, however, protecting their future is not only practical, but necessary. If we are able to develop sustainable boundaries, humans can thrive alongside the environment. Engelman offers a dire warning of the future: “In order to survive, we may find ourselves dragged kicking and screaming into ways of relating to each other and the world around us.” Ord, however, offers a possible alternative in which we are not dragged kicking and screaming, but in which we consciously and conscientiously take the necessary steps to live within the capacity of our single, endangered planet.