Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Rich Cause Environmental Problems. The Poor Do Not.

George Monblot has an absolutely fantastic piece up at Comment is Free where he convincingly argues that all talk about population growth causing environmental problems is a chimera covering up the real problem: rich people.

While I'm not quite willing to say population growth isn't an environmental problem, Monblot correctly states that this is much more of a future problem than a current one.

But there has always been a strong current in environmental thought blaming poor people for environmental problems. In the early 1900s, poor people were supposedly responsible for declining wildlife populations. Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt and friends were dining on wild game at fancy New York restaurants. In the 1930s, dirt farmers in western Oklahoma were causing the Dust Bowl, not the logic of capitalist agriculture. Today, poor people cut down tropical forests, have too many children, and poach wild animals as opposed to first world demanding developing world natural resources, the wealthy flying around the world, and development placing wildlife populations in jeopardy in the first place.

Not surprisingly then, Monblot points out that the wealthy are spearheading the anti-population growth movement. Meanwhile, what are those very same rich people doing?

While there's a weak correlation between global warming and population growth, there's a strong correlation between global warming and wealth. I've been taking a look at a few super-yachts, as I'll need somewhere to entertain Labour ministers in the style to which they are accustomed. First I went through the plans for Royal Falcon Fleet's RFF135, but when I discovered that it burns only 750 litres of fuel per hour I realised that it wasn't going to impress Lord Mandelson. I might raise half an eyebrow in Brighton with the Overmarine Mangusta 105, which sucks up 850 litres per hour. But the raft that's really caught my eye is made by Wally Yachts in Monaco. The WallyPower 118 (which gives total wallies a sensation of power) consumes 3,400 litres per hour when travelling at 60 knots. That's nearly a litre per second. Another way of putting it is 31 litres per kilometre.

Of course, to make a real splash I'll have to shell out on teak and mahogany fittings, carry a few jetskis and a mini-submarine, ferry my guests to the marina by private plane and helicopter, offer them bluefin tuna sushi and beluga caviar, and drive the beast so fast that I mash up half the marine life of the Mediterranean. As the owner of one of these yachts I'll do more damage to the biosphere in 10 minutes than most Africans inflict in a lifetime. Now we're burning, baby.

Someone I know who hangs out with the very rich tells me that in the banker belt of the lower Thames valley there are people who heat their outdoor swimming pools to bath temperature, all round the year. They like to lie in the pool on winter nights, looking up at the stars. The fuel costs them £3,000 a month. One hundred thousand people living like these bankers would knacker our life support systems faster than 10 billion people living like the African peasantry. But at least the super wealthy have the good manners not to breed very much, so the rich old men who bang on about human reproduction leave them alone.

Damn, that's some good anti-rich writing there. However, I do think Monblot lets the western middle class off a bit too easy. I have no doubt that his analysis of what rich people do nature is spot-on, but the imitation of the wealthy by hundreds of millions of people in the western world and east Asia also causes massive damage. It's not just CEOs. It's you and me who drive SUVs, fly around, eat lots of beef, and contribute far more than our share to climate change and other environmental problems.

The environmental movement has largely failed in providing any sort of class analysis since it's beginning. It has done a great deal to preserve consumer prerogatives and invent supposedly "green" products that don't address consumption at all, but simply claim to make that consumption less harmful. Plus, the environmental movement has long relied on the wealthy for funding. So I'm skeptical that the mainstream organizations are ready to take this analysis on as their own.

But, I am tremendously confident in the next generation of environmental leaders to integrate much more of this analysis into their work. I teach these people and I find them incredibly refreshing, not just because they are young and full of energy and hope, but because they have a much more sophisticated understanding of the connections between class, race, and environment than than elders and a much better honed idea of environmental justice. They understand that you have to center people in any effective environmental movement. Blaming poor people of color for having lots of kids is no way to build a movement or create a sustainable world.

Via Globalisation and the Environment