Posted by: mazibuko | April 23, 2010

Misunderstanding the link between wealth and environmental impacts

I just came across this post on the American Enterprise Institute’s blog.

I have seen this idea–that the best thing for the environment is to make everyone rich, because in rich countries the environment is so much cleaner and better protected–pop up frequently from critics of environmentalism (usually conservative), who think that efforts at sustainability, conservation, greenery, etc. will harm economies and keep everyone in rags–thereby leading to worse environmental conditions.

Beyond the obvious fact that this critique’s base assumption is questionable–after all, the US economy has grown quite nicely since the Clean Air and Water Acts and other environmental legislation largely responsible for our clean, healthy environment were enacted–the assertion made by this author is partially right, but mostly wrong. An excerpt from an exchange I recently had on a climate blog explains why:

[To the] point about more wealth=better environment. Sure, if you are only looking at the wealthy society’s immediate environment. It is true that America and Europe have more forest and cleaner air than 50-100 years ago. But our cleaner and greener backyards come at the expense of large environmental impacts shifted elsewhere (the greater amount of resources we consume must come from somewhere). Let’s forget carbon [emissions] for the moment, and think of the direct impacts of our appetites, which lead to the clearing of forest and cerrado in Brazil for soybean production, extensive salmon farming in Chilean fjords, clearing of mangroves for prawn aquaculture in many tropical coastal countries, just to name a few. The 20+ kg of catalogs that each American receives annually comes from pulp supplied in part by boreal forest clearcuts, as does much of our toilet paper. And of course there is China’s dirty air and water, which is directly related to all the manufacturing of low cost goods that go to satisfy wealthy markets.

Wealth does indeed lead to local greenery, but arguably results in greater, albeit more diffuse, environmental impacts.

So, I am not sure why this argument is made so often, but it seems to me that those who make it only look at their immediate surroundings when drawing their conclusions, and fail to appreciate that wealthier countries’ environmental impacts are more global than local (after all, we all want to live in a clean, green neighborhood, and the wealthier we are, the more we can afford to live in such neighborhoods). Perhaps it’s a simple case of out of sight, out of mind.


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