“Developing Nations Can’t Afford Environmentalism”

At least that’s what you hear a lot from some environmental skeptics.  Because poor countries are so desperate for economic growth and to lift their people out of poverty, they cannot be expected to protect their environment.  (You hear that from a lot for developing nations, too).

They might want to take a look at Katherine Boo’s new book Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity.  Boo’s work has been effusively and justly praised (see, e.g. here and here) for chronicling the desperate and painful lives of the residents of Annawadi, one of Bombay’s poorest slums.

The poverty is indeed shocking.  So is the environmental degradation.  Annawadi sits on the edge of a sewage lake, construction dust from the nearby airport covers the bodies (and lungs) of its inhabitants, and the business of many of its residents is sifting garbage — much of it toxic — for resale to recyclers.

But here is the kicker — the poverty and the environmental degradation are linked.  What causes rapid descent into poverty, or the inability to escape from it, is environmentally-related disease.  The father of the book’s main family is completed debilitated because of the way that dust affects his lungs.  Chemicals from the garbage impair the cognitive ability of the trash-sorters.  Children’s growth is stunted from other environmental hazards.  To use the cliche, the question in Annawadi is not whether India can afford cleaning its environment — it’s whether it can afford not to.  Similarly, before dismissing taking action on broader environmental issues such as climate, we need to consider how failure to act can reduce long-term economic prosperity.

There are indeed tradeoffs between economic growth and environmental protection.  But not always.  We need to avoid the assumptions that some nations are too poor to afford environmental quality: they might remain poorer than they should be because they decide that environmental quality is a luxury.

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Reader Comments

2 Replies to ““Developing Nations Can’t Afford Environmentalism””

  1. Sounds like a good book. Based on my own very limited observations, I think the environmental Kuznets curve is for real.

    When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in a frontier community in northwest Guatemala, way up in the mountains at over 10,000 feet of elevation. In the U.S., the area likely would have been a national park or national forest land. It was too cold to grow the Guatemalan staples of corn, beans, and squash, but it was nevertheless (relatively) densely populated with low-income families. Using only chainsaws, axes, and mules, these frontiersmen were able destroy great swaths of old growth forest for firewood and rough-hewn lumber, both of which were sold cheap for local consumption. (The area was untaxed and unregulated, with no roads, no police, and no schooling past the 3rd grade — a libertarian paradise.) When the trees were gone, people grazed sheep, causing severe erosion problems. Few were getting rich, but the lifestyle was productive enough that several generations were able to establish home sites over an ever-wider area of land.

    We tend to associate environmental degradation with runaway urbanization (Chinese air pollution) and corporate supply chains (McDonald clearing the Amazon so it can grow beef). But I think this may reflect anxieties about our own society more than what actually happens in the poorest areas of the world. I suspect that there are few things as environmentally destructive as extensive, low-productivity organic agriculture and cottage industry in rural areas.

    Part of my job was to promote the construction of environment-saving technologies like firewood-efficient cookstoves and the extension of environmental education. But this was a drop in the bucket, overwhelmed by the economic and social forces that cut in the opposite direction. The only thing capable of saving the environment in area I lived, I think, is an industrial revolution that would draw people out of remote, marginal areas and into intensive economic activities in cities.

    Sadly (for me), the same thing that would preserve the environment would lead to the death of the communities I knew. They say the Appalacian Trail was originally envisioned as an artery between a number of farming communities; post-urbanization, it’s a wilderness hike. (Similarly, I wonder what is happening, from an environmental standpoint, in the rural areas of China that people are abandoning in favor of the factory cities. We don’t hear much about that.)

  2. Sounds like a good book. Based on my own very limited observations, I think the environmental Kuznets curve is for real.

    When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, I lived in a frontier community in northwest Guatemala, way up in the mountains at over 10,000 feet of elevation. In the U.S., the area likely would have been a national park or national forest land. It was too cold to grow the Guatemalan staples of corn, beans, and squash, but it was nevertheless (relatively) densely populated with low-income families. Using only chainsaws, axes, and mules, these frontiersmen were able destroy great swaths of old growth forest for firewood and rough-hewn lumber, both of which were sold cheap for local consumption. (The area was untaxed and unregulated, with no roads, no police, and no schooling past the 3rd grade — a libertarian paradise.) When the trees were gone, people grazed sheep, causing severe erosion problems. Few were getting rich, but the lifestyle was productive enough that several generations were able to establish home sites over an ever-wider area of land.

    We tend to associate environmental degradation with runaway urbanization (Chinese air pollution) and corporate supply chains (McDonald clearing the Amazon so it can grow beef). But I think this may reflect anxieties about our own society more than what actually happens in the poorest areas of the world. I suspect that there are few things as environmentally destructive as extensive, low-productivity organic agriculture and cottage industry in rural areas.

    Part of my job was to promote the construction of environment-saving technologies like firewood-efficient cookstoves and the extension of environmental education. But this was a drop in the bucket, overwhelmed by the economic and social forces that cut in the opposite direction. The only thing capable of saving the environment in area I lived, I think, is an industrial revolution that would draw people out of remote, marginal areas and into intensive economic activities in cities.

    Sadly (for me), the same thing that would preserve the environment would lead to the death of the communities I knew. They say the Appalacian Trail was originally envisioned as an artery between a number of farming communities; post-urbanization, it’s a wilderness hike. (Similarly, I wonder what is happening, from an environmental standpoint, in the rural areas of China that people are abandoning in favor of the factory cities. We don’t hear much about that.)

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About Jonathan

Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic – Land Use, the Environment and Loc…

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