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Environmentalism and the Poor

When one broadly skims the literature on environmentalism and the poor, one of the common themes is the idea that the world’s poor simply cannot care for the environment as their poverty prevents it. It is thought that the world’s poor must degrade their environment in an unsustainable way because they are fighting to live day to day, and cannot think about the future and thus cannot practically be sustainable. So we have come to think of the environment and the poor as living in a direct relationship; that environmental degradation comes with poverty. Moreover there is the implicit assumption that the causality lies in the poor needing to destroy the environment because they are poor.  From this assumption emerges a second assumption. To help the worlds poor live sustainably, it is necessary and ethical to allow a certain amount of development, so that they can do so. The argument goes, if we are to save the environment from the poor, we have to bring these people out of poverty first so that they can start living sustainably and invest in sustainable technologies.

But what if we fundamentally challenge this first assumption, that it is poverty that causes the environmental degradation. The correlation between environmental degradation and the areas of the world’s poor is strong enough, but what if it is indeed environmental degradation that caused the poverty in the first place?  What if actually the worlds poor live in degraded environments due to international pressures like logging of the Brazilian amazon, cacao plantations in the African tropics, or the ironic production of palm oil as a global bio-fuel at the expense of logging climax forest to plant the palm plantations to begin with (the carbon emissions from logging pretty well null out the effects of using bio-fuel). In other words did poverty cause environmental degredation, or did the environmental degradation from international pressures cause the poverty to begin with? If we take this latter paradigm, the finger for responsibility of degredation may very well point back to our over consumption addiction. It is our greed for global goods that often causes the degradation of environments that the worlds poor happen to live (degraded environments are areas of least resistance, aka they’re cheap). Moreover when white landowners in south Africa lets say own a majority of the productive agricultural land, it necessarily pushes pressure onto the poor to live off of their land unsustainably. It is not that the worlds poor wants to be environmental degraders, in fact they often aren’t (compared to say someone in the US), but rather that they come to live in environmentally poor locations due to large scale international environmental extraction and in some cases have necesarily had to exploit those already poor functioning environments to now survive when in the past they were able to do it sustainably. Indeed indegenous communites often have the biggest incentives for sustainable environmental use, it is them, and their future generations that must bear the consequences of unsustainble say fishing, mining, or rubber tapping. This is inversely true for the international corperation that can largely use and abuse people and their ecosystems and move on when they are degraded with little to no personal consequence.

So now we have this interesting juxtaposition that largely points to neocolonialism of raw material markets. We have perhaps more brilliantly than I could ever have fathomed came up with a way to blame the worlds poor for their own environmental degradation. Moreover, the solution is to allow development, for both realistic (we say so they can live sustainably) and ethical (we say it isn’t fair not to let them develop) agendas. Quite an awesome solution coming from industrialized nations that desperately want and need development and extraction of raw materials. There’s a fallacy through that communities want and need to industrialize as desperately as international players seem to think they do. Much of the rhetoric of industrialization comes from the governments of these countries. Governments that often have much to gain from international trade and exploitation of materials and goods. This arguement for industrializatoin (the ethical need to industrialized) does not necessarily represent the want and the will of local residents and communities though. Indeed it is often these communities that get screwed over the most when large scale development is implemented (take the belo monte dam for example in south America Link here: If we’ve learned anything from Chico Mendez (not familiar, not the best source but accurate enough and succint, link here: its that communities are often at odds with governmental development, and are actually actively fighting to continue using their land and resources sustainably.  It is the government pressured by international markets that often fosters a need for industrialization, not necessarily the people’s will. And why does that pressure for industrialization exist to begin with? International market and consumption wants. It’s not that the worlds poor are degrading the environment. Its that in our over consumption we are leaving them with a degraded environment, to support our want for raw materials. It may ultimately be that we are not saving the environment from the world's poor, but rather that the world's poor are trying desperately to save their environment from us.


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