Environmentalism through the Eyes of the World's Poor


A number of years ago, I spent some time in Africa with members of the Kenyan Wildlife Service whose mission was to protect endangered and protected wildlife from poachers. The job was hazardous; poachers were generally armed and willing to shoot. And the penalties, if the poachers were caught, were severe. But, the KWS rangers said, it wasn't a clear case of good guys versus the bad guys. Yes, the poaching was terrible. And the big money it offered didn't even go, in most cases, to the hunters themselves. They might make $200 for elephant tusks that their "employers" would turn around and sell on the global market for many, many times that amount. "But it's hard to make the case that we need to preserve the elephants," one of the rangers explained to me, "to a Masai tribesman who is so poor that $200 could make the difference between his 6-year-old son living or dying. He's not going to sacrifice his son to save some wild animal."

No, of course not. No parent would. Part of the challenge, then, was to try to convince the tribesmen that the tourism the elephants would bring to the area would provide as much or more income, at far less risk, than poaching.

It's a point that was highlighted earlier this week during Secretary of State HIllary Rodham Clinton's visit to India, when her upbeat comments about being partners with India in fighting global warming were countered, almost immediately, by Jairam Ramesh, India's environment and forests minister. The Indian minister said that India was not in a position to take on legally binding emission standards, and already had one of the lowest carbon emissions rates per capita, in the world.

Roughly translated, Ramesh was saying, pointedly, that the U.S. could well talk about reducing emissions, because it already had a developed and basically well-fed society ... a position it had attained because it didn't have to worry about carbon emissions as it developed. India, with a population of over 1 billion, a poverty rate (living on less than $1.25 a day) of somewhere around 40%, doesn't have that luxury. The rich folk can worry about saving the elephants; the poor have more urgent problems at hand. When most Indians can afford clean transportation, are well fed and safely above poverty levels, come talk to them about reducing emissions.

It's a point echoed in "Mr. Gore, Your Solution to Global Warming is Wrong," a feature in the current issue of Esquire magazine. Written by Bjorn Lomborg, the director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a professor at the Copenhagen Business School, the article offers an interesting perspective on the global warming debate. Or, rather, the global warming solution debate. Professor Lomborg does not believe that reducing carbon emissions will solve the problem, and argues that our focus on emission reduction is misplaced. In part because of the minor difference that approach is projected to have, over time, but also because of the punitive consequences of that approach for a large percentage of the world's population.

Global warming may harm your grandchildren's chances of survival in sub-Saharan Africa 50 years from now, but if you don't use that poorly maintained, diesel-guzzling truck you somehow got lucky enough to have access to, your children may die next week. And rather than investing billions in reducing carbon emissions, you'd much prefer the powers that be invested in mosquito nets.

When and how does that change? One way, according to Lomborg, is for the poor to become, well ... less poor. "Once a country achieves a certain standard of living, with their kids healthy and educated, citizens invariably begin to shift their focus toward the environment, and pollution starts to fall," he notes -- a dynamic known as the "Kuznets curve."

Consequently, Lomborg advocates a number of nutrition and economic initiatives that may not seem directly related to global warming, but could aid the effort by increasing the number of people with enough margin, or luxury, to care. Lomborg also argues that significant change needs to come from developing alternate fuel sources and eliminating the need for fossil fuel; an approach he believes would have a greater impact over time, and would also eliminate the punitive carbon-reduction-without-other-substitutes problem for the poor, or developing countries.

While eliminating poverty in the world is a noble goal, it might rate even higher on the challenge Richter scale than stopping global warming itself. Not that we shouldn't invest in mosquito nets, micro-finance and micro-nutrient initiatives. And not that we shouldn't, as a country that has more margin to play with, do all we can to reduce our carbon emissions. Just because the rest of the world isn't perfect doesn't excuse us from our own responsibility to be responsible.

But although Lomborg didn't explicitly make this point, it occurred to me that if the key to success is, in essence, to convince the Masai that they will economically benefit more by saving the elephant than killing it, there might be another benefit in his alternative fuels and technology approach. Investing in alternative fuels, versus focusing on carbon emission reduction, might reduce the punitive pressure on developing countries. But if there were somehow money to be made by alternative technology that could be developed, built, or somehow used to the profit and benefit of those people and countries, they might be more willing to work on keeping the elephant alive.

It's a complex issue, with more problems than answers. But looking at what would make the rest of the world want to get on board is certainly an angle worth considering in the debate. 

(Photo: Flickr User Artbandito)