TCS Daily

No Region Left Behind

By Jack M. Hollander - May 19, 2003 12:00 AM

In his play Lady Windemere's Fan, Oscar Wilde wrote of life's two tragedies - "not getting what you want, and getting what you want". This quip, although written in a very different context, perfectly describes the unsatisfactory outcome of the 2002 "Earth summit" conference held in Johannesburg.

Thousands of environmentalists from the rich countries flocked to that meeting to promote the use of renewable resources and environmental controls as the way to move the earth toward a sustainable future. But the representatives of the world's poor nations were on a different page. They insisted that poverty is the major impediment to a globally sustainable environment. Help us to eradicate poverty, they said to the environmentalists, and you will get your sustainable environment. But most environmentalists don't believe this. Instead, they fear that the richer we all become, the more we will consume the earth's scarce resources, overcrowd the planet, and pollute the earth's precious land, air, and water. At the conference the environmental groups insisted that tough environmental controls need to be adopted now by the developing countries, as a first step toward development. The developing countries responded that economic development must come first; environmental controls will follow. After long and heated discussions, the conference ended in "agreement" on everything, in principle, but no concrete actions resulted. The delegates got everything they wanted, and nothing they wanted.

Over three decades, most confrontations between environmentalists of the affluent north and developing south have ended on a similarly sour note. The enormous gulf between these groups will not be bridged until we better understand the real-world connections among poverty, affluence, and the environment. Long concerned about this question, I've sought answers in my book "The Real Environmental Crisis." The book challenges the popular notion that affluence inevitably fosters environmental degradation, and, instead, makes the case that affluence fosters environmentalism.

History provides abundant evidence to support this conclusion. In the industrial countries, environmentalism arose as a reaction to the negative effects of early industrialization and economic growth - especially the onerous levels of air and water pollution. People had experienced environmental degradation firsthand, and they demanded improvement. As people became more affluent, two things happened: they became more insistent on environmental quality, and they had the means to pay for it. One of the great success stories of the recent half-century, in fact, is the remarkable progress the industrial societies have made in reversing the negative environmental impacts of industrialization. The view that economic growth is necessarily deleterious to environmental quality is contrary to historical fact: for decades the continuing environmental improvement of the industrial societies has coincided with their robust economic growth. In the United States, the air is cleaner and the drinking water purer than at any time in five decades; the food supply is more abundant and safer than ever before; the forested area is the highest in three hundred years; most rivers and lakes are clean again; and, largely because of technological innovation and the information revolution, industry, buildings, and transportation systems are more energy- and resource-efficient than at any time in the past. There is plenty of credit to go around for these environmental improvements: governments, environmental organizations, and individuals all continue to play significant roles. But the most important acknowledgment is due the citizens of every democratic affluent society, a majority of whom not only demand a clean and livable environment, but also have been willing to pay for achieving it.

The picture is very different in the developing countries. Poverty itself is the environmental villain, and poor people are its victims. One example is the population problem. An absolute requirement for a future sustainable environment is a stable global population, yet traditionally the poorest countries produced explosive population-growth rates. The large families in these countries were the result of high expected death rates from hunger, infectious diseases, contaminated water, lack of health care, resources, and education. Now, as income slowly rises in the developing countries, one can see the beginnings of a trend toward population stability. In every country with per-capita annual income over $5000 (1994 dollars), the fertility rate (average number of children per woman) has dropped to the point where it is not higher than, and in some cases lower than, the minimum replacement level (2.1 children per woman). Even in Sri Lanka, where per-capita income is under $1000, the fertility rate is only at replacement level. The United Nations now projects that global population, presently 6 billion, will stabilize at under 10 billion toward the end of this century. And, in some affluent countries, especially in Europe, population is expected actually to decline by the middle of this century.

To guarantee a sustainable environmental future, the global transition from poverty to affluence must take place in the context of a larger transition to freedom and democracy, allowing people everywhere to participate in making important decisions, including decisions about their environment. In these transitions, it is important that no region be left behind. Continuing pockets of extreme poverty would prevent global solutions to the most serious environmental problems, including air and water pollution, food insecurity, hunger, and disease.

The author is Professor Emeritus of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley. He is author and editor of more than one hundred research publications and twenty books, including The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment's Number One Enemy.

TCS Daily Archives