Poverty Alleviation: An Obstacle to Environmentalism?

John Kite, with art by Charles Hill

Across large swathes of the so-called developed world, fundamental issues such as mental health, racism and climate change are finally emerging at the forefront of an impassioned societal discourse and yet, our global political landscape remains characterised by incompetence, indifference, and inaction. To coordinate an effective response to the world’s most pressing issues, we must first understand their interconnections. At surface level, climate change and extreme poverty, two of the largest scale global issues, seem mutually exclusive: surely, alleviating poverty requires vastly increased consumption and resource use, and would therefore hinder climate progress? By considering big picture notions of growth, degrowth, and green growth as well as the work of specific non-governmental organisations, this article will confront the reality that poverty alleviation and climate change must be addressed as a single issue. 

The initially perceived incompatibility of poverty alleviation and environmentalism arises from the idea, widely acknowledged since the 1970s, that continuous unchecked global economic growth will deplete our planet’s resources to culminate in societal collapse, and that ‘fixing’ the poverty problem will only accelerate this process. In More Economically Developed Countries (MEDCs), the answer is too often the continued restriction of the growth of Less Economically Developed Countries (LEDCs). This manifests in an indifference to change and active reinforcement of the oppressive, exploitative status quo. For example, the ‘resource curse’ is a phenomenon whereby primary resource abundance generates easy revenues for LEDCs, reducing incentives to tax other economic activity and deliver social services and facilitating networks of patronage and corruption. It may also manifest in calls for access limitations to the same resources, primarily fossil fuels, that fuelled our own industrial revolutions, but these ‘answers’ succeed only in further entrenching and exacerbating global inequalities. 

Instead, we must shift away from the maximisation of our own economic growth, towards a global growth cap distributed equitably. In MEDCs, this will require not only a reduction in the rate of economic growth, but ‘degrowth’ characterised by a reduction in the size of our economies and the contraction of resource use within ecological limits. For many, this notion appears too much an affront on our capitalist, consumerist culture and yet we can all acknowledge the fundamentally flawed nature of specific global inequalities, such as the 672 million obese adults versus the undernourished 821.6 million and recognise the value of national level income redistribution policies. What’s more, after individuals reach the point of income satiation, the marginal utility of consumption dramatically declines – in other words, the key factors contributing to our happiness and wellbeing are so much broader than how much we consume. If we acknowledged that capitalism has been installed and perpetuated and is not inherent to our sociality, degrowth would not seem so absurd a notion. We could finally strive to end our exploitation of LEDCs, including modern day slavery and labour exploitation, by providing the space they need to grow and alleviate poverty.

Historically, growth has been ‘dirty’, characterised by the exploitation of people and the natural environment; we need only look to the Industrial Revolution, European colonialism, and the history of the Americas. Whilst degrowth might offer some environmental leeway, the growth of LEDCs must be ‘green’, that is, guided by the right policies to ensure that economic growth and climate mitigation are compatible. Growing awareness and research into climate change coupled with vast technological innovation make this a realistic possibility. Yet, fossil fuel dependency will continue unless there is substantial investment into and collaboration towards sustainable tech and green practices, such as the rollout of innovative measures like the green bond. We must generate consumer incentives to commit to socially responsible investing (SRI), including foreign direct investment (FDI), and to buy green products. Such incentives should include taxes on unsustainable production and fossil fuels and subsidies for green start-ups like FuelGems, which has created an additive to reduce fuel pollutants by up to 50%. Thankfully, there will be a positive feedback effect: as LEDCs grow, disposable income and living conditions increase, enabling more environmentally conscious consumption and lifestyle choices. Poverty has a strong negative correlation with education level, and lack of education leads to the poorest communities using natural resources, such as forest wood and soil, in unsustainable ways, maintaining poor production techniques leading to air pollution, and poor water management that pollutes water and kills fish stocks. Moreover, birth education and birth control resources are lacking in the poorest communities, leading to overpopulation that exacerbates environmental harm. The relationship between poverty and the environment is thus direct and we can no longer view them in isolation. 

It is much easier to discuss the ‘big picture’ than to actively contribute to change. We do not all have the time or will to campaign to seemingly deaf ears, but we can all afford to donate to the poverty relief and environmental charities which do the most amount of good. There is a widespread and highly detrimental societal narrative surrounding the inefficacy of charity: our donations may fall into the wrong hands, be spent poorly, generate dependence, etc. Using a charity evaluator such as Givewell, which evaluates charities based only on how far each dollar goes towards improving or saving a life, we can eliminate these risks. For example, a top ranked charity is GiveDirectly, which sends direct cash transfers to those who need it most and other top charities include Against Malaria and New Incentives. Whilst none of these directly address the environment, only when the basic means of survival for the 650 million people still in extreme poverty have been met can they begin to consider their own environmental impact. There are also primarily environmental charities that are highly effective: Earthjustice, a group of dedicated and experienced lawyers, and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Given that the poorest countries are often in tropical areas, have inferior infrastructure, lesser-regulated markets, inflexible exchange rates and less accountable, less democratic institutions, the inevitable consequences of climate change including temperature increases will hit them hardest. Thus, supporting either set of charities can aid both causes. 

To cover every argument, criticism, and nuance pertaining to arguably the two biggest issues our planet faces would be impossible in the space of this article. Indeed, any attempt to do so would lead only to more noise amongst the existing cacophony of opinions. Instead, I hope to have highlighted the interrelation between poverty and the environment, as part of a broader concern regarding disparate and disunified climate action and urge you to do what you can to contribute to change. It is a grave irony that money generated within the capitalist system responsible for our wicked problems must now be used to tackle them, but we have little choice. The luxury of time has passed, and we must appreciate the interlinkages between global issues so that we can coordinate meaningful global action. 

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