This commentary is from Paul Dragon, Executive Director of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity.

The interconnection between poverty and environmental issues is well known. However, the work linking poverty alleviation with environmental justice is underdeveloped and almost non-existent.

We need a new paradigm in our traditional thinking about poverty alleviation and social services to include a focus on the environment, and environmental organizations need to include people living in poverty as they arise. they develop their thinking and their practices.

Environmental organizations and social service organizations have evolved separately in their philosophy, approach and practice. This separation ignores that our lives and the world around us are not mutually exclusive but rather deeply connected.

It ignores the reality that environmental degradation disproportionately affects people living in poverty and, conversely, people living in poverty often have less access to tools to help improve environmental conditions.

I saw this downward spiral as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, where climate change and deforestation were deeply linked. As the hotter and drier seasons extended the Sahara (desertification), people had to walk further and further to chop firewood and building materials, resulting in a mutually destructive process for both people and the land. natural world.

This once distant and extreme example now feels closer and more relevant with each passing season for those of us living in the United States.

We must act quickly to repair this destructive worldview that separates the needs of the environment from the needs of the people living on the bottom of what is an unjust economic system.

First, anti-poverty organizations must include environmental awareness in their strategic thinking and practices, and environmental organizations must include people experiencing poverty to inform their worldview and practices.

Second, we need the two areas to work together and merge their efforts and resources to lift people out of poverty and improve and repair the environment, knowing that one depends on the other.

At the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity, we have 10 programs designed to meet emerging needs (food and shelter), as well as programs to build the future through education and advocacy. A CVOEO service that combines the fight against poverty and environmental work is the Champlain Valley Weatherization Program.

The weatherization of homes has an immediate impact on people’s lives and promotes energy efficiency and a cleaner environment. Once a home is tampered with, there is an average annual energy savings of 31%, putting the much-needed money back into the pockets of those who need it most.

The amount of carbon dioxide prevented from entering the atmosphere by the 648 low-income households altered by CVOEO and the state’s other four weatherization programs in 2019 was 1,620 tonnes. Not only do we protect the climate from carbon emissions that affect human health (asthma and cardiovascular disease), but our weatherization teams also help eliminate environmental hazards such as lead, asbestos and vermiculite.

Weatherization is just one example of a poverty reduction program that is also good for the environment. Let’s challenge anti-poverty and environmental organizations to work together to leverage their collective resources and creative thinking to develop more programs like weatherization to promote economic and environmental justice.