Poverty isn’t the problem, and it may be the solution

Too often environmentalism gets wound up in trying to achieve sustainable development in poor countries, when the real problem before us is wealth and the consumption of resources that it invariably entails.

The poor get blamed for most things. And the environment is no exception.

When environmentalists unite to discuss how to arrive at a sustainable world, one of the first issues on the table is development. Liberating people from grinding poverty and building the middle classes, they say, is the first step towards a more habitable planet.

There is no question as to which side of the divide is a better model to follow.

There is no question as to which side of the divide is a better model to follow.

The middle classes are, in fairness, better educated and therefore make better family planning decisions (i.e. have fewer children) when compared to those living in poverty. But there is, if we get right down to it, scant evidence that poverty is responsible for any of the environmental catastrophe we’re facing. In reality, what every single piece of data points to, and what everyone seems entirely unprepared to admit, is that it is wealth, and not poverty, that is the real problem.

Outside a very small group of enlightened and environmentally progressive nations which might include Scandinavia, Finland, The Netherlands and perhaps a handful of others, the growth of the middle class has hardly been a harbinger of green living.

On the contrary, with the wasteful and gratuitous consumption that marks the arrival of a strong middle class, comes surging demand for automobiles and fossil fuels to power them, spacious homes heated in winter and cooled in summer, filled with all order of superfluous creature comforts. Add to it the clothing that every self-respecting member of the middle class wants to wear, and copious amounts of meat-based protein.

Wealthy, middle class-rich countries (comprising the US, Canada, Australia, the UK, Europe and Japan) together account for over 50% of carbon emissions released, despite the fact that they house only a seventh of the world’s population.

The average American citizen produces nearly 20 tonnes of carbon annually, the UK slightly more than 10, and the EU averages out at 8. Oil-rich Qatar clocks in at 44 tonnes of carbon released by every citizen annually, a global record. Most African nations meanwhile feature a model per capita carbon footprint of less than 1 tonne annually.

No prizes for Africa though.

Research has also shown that recreation, a hallmark of the middle class which includes holidays, TV, videos and stereos, is the largest single source of carbon emissions in the developed world.

Not surprising then that China, now growing its middle class with feverish pace, has seen its carbon footprint soar from barely over 2 tonnes per capita in 1990 to more than 7 in 2011. India: ditto. We all know what cost this has had in terms of burning carbon and the health of the planet and what the prognosis now is for climate change to take a stranglehold on the Earth.

We naively predict that the Earth’s middle classes will one day all live like the progressively-minded Swedes, Dutch or Swiss, cycling home in their organic suits to their geothermally-cooled eco-apartments. But the fact of the matter is there is currently no evidence that this will happen any time soon.

And despite outward appearances, the Swedes and Dutch aren’t models of low-carbon living anyway.

So as far as halting runaway environmental degradation goes, the poor might be a surprisingly saner model to follow. The poor use public transport or walk. They don’t drive SUVs or take foreign holidays. They have fewer energy-consuming household goods. They eat a diet high in carbohydrates and low in meat and dairy. For many of the world’s poor, what they consume comes from near to where they live. And yet somehow, they are a problem.

I’m not going to tell you that we all need to give up our homes and live in abject poverty to solve the environmental crisis, because that would be as effective as telling people to stop having sex.

But green economics proponents have long implored us to give up our consumption-based model of well-being, based on numerous studies pointing out that human development and life satisfaction (also known as happiness) have little relation to how many Ikea lamps we can stuff into our homes.

What we desperately need is for the middle classes to stop acting so, well, middle class. If it is middle class consumption that’s bludgeoning the planet, then the middle class (and by extension, the upper classes) need to stop consuming.

And the economy be damned. It’s time we admitted the unfathomable: that if we were all a bit poorer, things would be a lot better.

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