Wilfred Beckerman: Radical Environmentalism Hurts the Third World

by David Bier on December 6, 2011

in Blog

In yesterday’s excerpt, Julian Simon pointed out that “the worst pollutions of the past were diseases caused by microorganisms, and spread by contaminated drinking water and by airborne germs and insects.” Today’s excerpt from Wilfred Becherman’s Through Green-Colored Glasses: Environmentalism Reconsidered shows how this is still true today in the Third World, and why it should be ignored by so many environmentalists.

In the richer countries of the world, it is at least understandable that important sections of the community should question whether priority should be given to further increases in the output of goods and services. But for the vast majority of the world’s population it does not require much imagination of knowledge of their terrible poverty to rule out the question of whether further economic growth is desirable for them. Nevertheless, it is often argued that the developing countries should not make the same “mistakes” as were made by the now advanced countries. They are advised not to pursue economic growth in spite of its adverse social or environmental effects, and not to fall into the trap of “rising expectations.” Furthermore, we often hear that if the developing countries seek to achieve standards of living comparable with those now enjoyed by the advanced countries there simply will not be enough resources to go around.

One conclusion that might appear to follow from these pessimistic doctrines is that, because the rich countries of the world can hardly be expected to reduce their levels of material prosperity, the poor countries must not be encouraged to believe that they too can aspire to such levels of prosperity. They must therefore accustom themselves to the idea of giving priority to environmental preservation rather than economic growth. Of course, it is bad luck for them that the point at which economic growth has to stop should just have arrived near the end of the 20th century, when other countries have already achieved a certain affluence but before they have had the opportunity to do likewise themselves.

This view, not surprisingly, has always been rejected by the developing countries. As far back as 1972, the so-called “Founex report,” drawn up by a group of experts convened by the United Nations to prepare a report on Development and the Environment for the 1972 UN World Conference on the Human Environment, pointed out that, although “the developing countries would clearly wish to avoid, as far as is feasible, the mistakes and distortions that have characterized the patterns of developmental problems in the industrialized nations… the major environmental problem of developing countries are essentially of a different kind: they are predominantly problems that reflect the poverty and very lack of development of their societies. They are problems, in other words, of both rural and urban poverty. In both the towns and in the countryside, not merely the ‘quality of life’ but life itself is endangered by poor water, housing, sanitation, and nutrition, by sickness and disease.”

Though the truth of these statements was clear to anybody who had direct contact with environmental conditions in developing countries, they were not well documented in 1972 as they are today. In the intervening years the state of the environment has moved up sharply on the hierarchy  of concerns in national and international bodies. One of the side effects has been the vast increase in our knowledge of the state of the environment in the Third World. Hence it is now possible to document this in a manner that was not previously possible. And the evidence overwhelmingly confirms the general picture painted by the experts who wrote the Founex report quoted above….

Wilfred Beckerman is also the author of A Poverty of Reason: Sustainable Development and Economic Growth

Poverty is usually the worst enemy of the environment, and the ingredients of the environment that are of vital interest to the billions of people living in developing countries are not the ones that are most in the public eye, such as global warming or the depletion of the ozone layer or the demise of the bald eagle. They are lack of clean drinking water and sanitation, and poor air quality in big cities…

In developing countries, there is no conflict between growth and the “quality of life.” Economic growth is essential in order to preserve life and to remedy some of the worst features of the environment from which these countries suffer… But, even if there were a conflict between growth and the environment, there is no reason why poor countries should choose between them in the same way as rich countries . The “tradeoff” between the two is likely to be very different in countries where economic output is much smaller than in more affluent countries. Rational choice depends not only one one’s basic preferences between goods and services of the conventional kind, on the one hand, and environmental quality, on the other; it depends also on how much of each one has.

Poorer people will naturally have a greater incentive to give priority to more goods and services than to the environment in general. In the same way poor countries, in which a large proportion of the population may be constantly preoccupied with the problem of obtaining enough to eat, would be foolish to make heavy sacrifices of economic progress in the longer-term interests even of their own environment, let alone of the world in general. A man who is not sure how to provide the next meal for his family is hardly likely to worry much about the problems of posterity. In fact, the notion that the developing nations would be well advised to benefit from the lessons of the advanced countries, and be chary of putting economic growth before the preservation of the environment, displays an appalling degree of insensitivity to the real problems of these countries.

(Excerpted from pages 25-26, 38)


Laura December 8, 2011 at 9:07 pm

This article is so ignorant of how important the healthy condition of land and water is to the survival of people that do not care to live in the modern self destructive world but in a productive community that can support itself by growing their own food and providing their own water. This article is a personal opinion of the author not based knowledgeable research and interviews of the actual indigenous people being discussed. Certainly not the ones I know.

Laura December 8, 2011 at 10:42 pm

This article does not mention how corporations are responsible for destroying the land and water that indigenous communities depend on for their own survival. The real problem is the insensitivity and lack of respect of “advanced countries” for indigenous cultures. This is an article that makes poverty a fault of the people that are usually the victims of corporate and government greed.

Comments on this entry are closed.

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: