When giving money is no longer enough


The limits of traditional philanthropy when faced with the climate crisis

Since September of last year, bushfires have been relentlessly ravaging Australia. Their track record alone is enough to make you sick to your stomach, with the latest sources claiming that over a billion animals have perished in the fires, over 25 human lives have been lost, 2 500 buildings have been destroyed and over 80 000 km2 of land has been scorched.

In the face of the magnitude of this ecological and human tragedy, many demonstrations of solidarity have been made. Torn between the pain caused by the images and our powerlessness towards the situation, countless people want to help. This explains the explosion of petitions and fundraisers launched by charities and individuals on different platforms around the world. This surge of generosity reminds us of the great post-catastrophe events of South-East Asia (Tsunami of 2004) or in Haiti (Earthquake of 2010). This philanthropy of the masses is also transmitted by celebrities of the arts and sports worlds. Without a doubt, the story that went most viral was that of Celeste Barber, the Australian actress who managed to collect 44 million dollars from the international community in four days, for the NSW Rural Fire Service.

All these donations, motivated by a sense of urgency and by emotions, seek to put a stop to the unbearable. We need those images to cease. We need to stop the hemorrhage. In other words, when we give in this context, we want to provide the technical and human means to stop the crisis immediately.  Afterwards, more in the long-term, a portion of the philanthropic support will go towards rebuilding. This is an expression of the ‘traditional’ form of philanthropy, understood to be a donation made to respond to an immediate need. This form of philanthropy relieves the symptoms of a problem.

Without putting into question the good intentions behind these acts of solidarity, the question we ask ourselves is: in a context where natural disasters will be more and more connected to the climate crisis, is traditional philanthropy as relevant as it once was?

In order to open the space for debate, we identified three inherent limitations to traditional philanthropy, where a cash donation allows us to participate in the solving of a problem. Beyond a call for humility, through our statements, we wish to open the gates to a post-philanthropic mentality regarding the ways in which we, as a collective, react when faced with the tragic events that happen around us, be they near or far. Without wanting to discourage the burst of solidarity that gives us some hope in these moments of crisis, the particularities of this catastrophe require a genuine reflection regarding these spontaneous philanthropic initiatives.

First limitation: Can money rebuild everything?
Can a destroyed ecosystem be bought? While we can help individuals to rebuild the homes that were consumed by the flames, it is difficult to fund the restoration of natural ecosystems now turned to ash. When the damages affect biodiversity, some things are irreplaceable. Thus, in the face of the destruction brought on by these types of catastrophes, we must accept the powerlessness of traditional philanthropy. Money does not ‘rebuild’ a living species as it restores a cathedral, no matter its symbolic power, to make the difference with the recent fires of Notre-Dame de Paris, around which another intense demonstration of philanthropic mobilization took place.

Second limitation: Philanthropy as a means of clearing the conscience
With the intensification of ‘natural’ disasters that are actually caused by human activity, philanthropic action, while perhaps sincere, often present themselves as a way of bypassing our responsibilities. In other words, it is the same polluter pays principle that we find in carbon taxes. If I pay a tax, I am buying myself a right: the right not to change attitudes. This concept is similar to the commerce of Indulgences of the 16th century. Are we acting on this same instinct, to the point that we impose some form of compensation, even in the absence of any regulatory framework? Does traditional philanthropy offer, albeit unwillingly, a solution to behaviours that are incompatible with the biophysical limits of the Earth? Donations attempt, unsuccessfully, to extinguish the flames burning through the lands, but also fail to put out an invisible but very real fire: that of human responsibility towards the climate crisis and great social inequalities.

Third limitation: Traditional philanthropy supports an unsustainable Economy
These days, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, calls upon Canadians to donate to help Australia. Is it right for the political world to call upon the public’s funds to fill the gaps of a system that needs to be restructured to include the sustainable development goals, demanded by the population? Where are the responsible political actions? Where are the coherent norms and regulations that accompany this surge in international solidarity? To rise up to the challenge that marks this new century, it is imperative that political decision-makers do not hide behind citizen solidarity but show courage by proposing and supporting the changes required to draw up a sustainable form of philanthropy, combining financial donations and citizen action. This shift in perspective must happen now.

Australia and Canada can both do better in terms of protecting their natural resources. Australia has the most sites classified as endangered, be they natural or mixed. The old colonial habits of reselling resources, upon which the country was built, such as mining or extraction activities, can be strongly felt today. While Australia might not do everything it takes to preserve their natural resources, these resources are part of the equation for the survival of our planet. Each and every one of us has the responsibility of preserving these resources and philanthropy can help, on the condition that it statutes itself as a tool available to citizens to make the much needed sustainable changes, and not as a symbolic gesture carrying only whispers of a magic solution.

Diane Alalouf-Hall, Ph.D. student and Quebec Hub Coordinator
David Grant-Poitras, Ph.D. student and Student Representative
Caroline Bergeron, Quebec Hub Director

This article appeared on the PhiLab blog on 18 January 2020. The original article can be viewed here.

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