People, Poverty and our Planet – Surviving vs. Thriving

​In 2010, I began what I would say was somewhat of a humanitarian awakening. A sign-post year in my life, that gave me a new understanding and direction. You see before that year I used to think that there were a few “helper” lanes you could travel in if you were the bleeding-heart type like me. There was the people that care about people, the ones that care about animals and those greeny/ eco-warrior types that cared about environmental issues


From quite a young age, my empathy radar had been off the Richter scale at the sight of human suffering, so I had lumped myself into the ‘people’ lane, and I was cruising. I steered into jobs with youth-at-risk, into the Disability sector and then in 2010, I found myself with a BA in International Development, taking on my first position in a foreign country focused on poverty prevention (the material kind – I think it’s important to make the distinction).

As I reflect on some decisions I made, I think to cope, and what may have been a subconscious attempt at self-care, I managed to turn my interest level and care factor on issues about the environment and/or animal welfare to very low. At that same time, my interest in matters of social justice and human rights (mainly focused in on gender justice, women’s empowerment and child rights) was cranked at maximum volume. The program I was working on was based in Cambodia and was quite integrated and based in a few remote and impoverished provinces across the country. Positioned alongside the “gender specialist” her and I would sporadically do homestays to some of the villages. We would be there to measure program impact or build the capacity of families, farmers, children and women to address particular needs; child marriage, low education attendance, gender-based violence, financial empowerment, sustainable farming, enterprise development et al. it was the full integrated gamut of projects focused on the same outcome – poverty prevention and the increased well-being of human life. Less suffering, more opportunity.

It was during my time living in Cambodia, on one of my sporadic visits out to the provinces that some things started to click for me. I was staying in a remote village (no electricity, running water, no school or health clinic for tens of miles) with a beautifully hospitable Khmer family. Throughout the few days in the village, we were committed to getting to the bottom of why children were being trafficked from the region, not attending school and work through some local solutions to these tragic social problems. The problem was in our chats all roads seemed to lead back to weather chat. Now, as a rule, I generally despise small talk and go to great lengths to avoid it. To me, 'weather chat' epitomises the worst kind of small talk, in my everyday life back in Australia. But here it was different. It was during these conversations that I began to realise that the weather, the rain, the crops, the soil and seasons were what conversations about education, trafficking and child vulnerability kept coming back to because that was where many of these social issues were found be rooted.

Now, I want to add that, of course, these are complex issues, and I am not for one minute claiming that one quick fix will provide one size fits all to issues of human trafficking. But my ‘aha’ moment was when I realised how wrong I had been to choose a lane early on in my career. Poverty and the environment weren’t separate issues. They are one and the same. What I realised in these weather chats was that where people live, how they live and the way our most significant resource (the natural world around us) is provoked and politicised has a direct impact on how people will live out their lives. Either vulnerable to a range of social problems, struggling to survive or alteratbivel in my own personal reality, with freedom and opportunity to thrive.

Similar to how I had, for many years assumed science and spirituality to be at odds, and then realised that the mystery of life and the search party into that mystery and wonder are complementary pursuits. So too had I begun to understand that people and the planet go hand in hand. I couldn’t be a humanitarian without being an environmentalist and vice versa.

In the years eight years that have followed my time in Cambodia and the tens of conversations I have had with farmers and families across Asia, The Pacific and Africa my work trips, I have rarely discussed the semantics of ‘global warming’ or ‘Climate change’. I have however witnessed the poignant truth of it. I have seen what an unpredictable year of seasons turned inside out means for food security- whether in the hills of Nepal or the plains of Zambia I have had farmers, teachers, men, women and kids explain to me that the land they have farmed and the techniques they could rely on for generations upon generations have now been dismantled. This has not been by choice, and most certainly it has not for the better. Fewer crops, harsher sun and sporadic rains. It’s become seasonal schizophrenia. The equation means a decline in food production. Families without meals. Children not being fed and while I remain passionate about getting girls to school the more pressing issue has become how do we ensure they are being fed. In every social issue, I have been involved with on a working front, whether it’s the trafficking of children, the spread of malaria, the lack of education, healthcare, nutrition, shelter, protection, abuse all roads will lead back to a source. The ultimate source of life, our planet. A girl born in a remote mountain village vulnerable to child trafficking is because her family are lacking food, working long hours or caring for younger siblings in the home alone. The spiral begins with what resources that family can draw on. Water, basic food, power, shelter. When those things can be obtained, protection and education are being provoked.

The tides turned for me since that shifting year in Cambodia. Now I would argue that the single best thing you can do for people is love, care and nurture our planet. My work has been a generous and rich experience. It has allowed me to learn one of my greatest lessons yet: that people and the planet cannot be an either/or. Poverty and the environments are frenemies and peace and security in our world can only be met when our greatest asset is shared and valued. Being a humanitarian is to me about celebrating the beauty around that sustains us all within, while also preserving and fighting for a Just world. A world that is adored and protected, where the resource is equal, fair and shared in a sustainable way that celebrates her. Our earth.

A bit of an aside - but just the other week as I was patting my 4mth old to sleep in her cot, I couldn’t stop thinking about the many ways in which I could become a survivalist. Now, I know it isn’t an odd thing for a sleep-deprived mother of a newborn to go on mental tangents during those silent hours of the night. But even in the waking hours it still felt relevant (daytime: always a good way to check the level of crazy in a thought). I just can’t shake the thought that if I'm to set my daughters up to be safe in this seemingly chaotic world, it may just mean teaching them the skills of survival that will allow them to thrive. Learning how to tread lightly and be equipped to sustain in a beautifully chaotic world. I will admit I can have quite the imagination which at times can be taken over at the wheel by mild anxiety (or perhaps paranoia), so maybe this is just another one of those ‘car crash’ mental moments. Or alternatively, it may not be such a crazy idea!? Based on the last decade of work experiences with the addition of the latest report that came out in October from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, you would perhaps understand where this panic is rooted.

“This report by the world’s leading climate scientists is an ear-splitting wake-up call to the world. It confirms that climate change is running faster than we are – and we are running out of time…”

The world that this report paints is one that already exists for many in our world. They etched in my soul. I have seen the pain an environment in chaos provokes, though I have yet not felt it. After reading the science of awaits us in our future, I stared at my little innocent peach of a newborn drifting into sleep and thinking about the world ahead of her. In that moment of course I want to slam a panic button, stop the world and hop right off. My maternal anxiety is peaking!

So right now Re: Me and Survivalism- the reality is I don’t really have time to go full steam ahead, with canned goods buried beneath my home. I mean, between feeding, nappies, crazy toddler negotiations it might just be a bit much - BUT I'm still pretty adamant about teaching my girls how to grow their own, consume little and finding ways to walk more lightly upon the earth. I will confess I’ve been a bit lazy on the ‘know better, do better’ front lately. So, this report is a timely reminder to teach them by living it. I’m hanging the washing out more, consuming a little less and only using the Aircon when I’m losing kilos in sweat. We have also started our own kitchen garden project with my three-year-old. Wish me luck!

*** If like me this is all freaking you out at 2am in the morning there are so many practical and helpful ways to set the gears into reverse.

Head on over to

Or another great resource is a Drawdown

A book and project featuring the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming. It ranks the top 100 things that we can do as humans (by effectiveness) to reverse what’s happening. For example, ‘Educating Women and Girls’ is the 6th most effective thing we can do for the planet. Education lays a foundation for vibrant lives for girls and women, their families, and their communities. It also is one of the most powerful levers available for avoiding emissions by curbing population growth. Women with more years of education have fewer and healthier children, and actively manage their reproductive health.

If you’re interested in reading more from the recent UN Report, visit here:

By Mel Harwin @themindofmel

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