In a previous blog (Poverty and Population, Part 1) I began to outline a general approach that I believe helps to confront, or at least frame, the issue of population in the context of environmental degradation and endemic global poverty. Part of this discussion included a brief (in absolutely no ways comprehensive or complete) overview of human history and the various distinct phases of the human species, specifically in regards to the increase of human populations across the globe. I ended that piece with a purposeful lack of resolution and an intentionally controversial claim that the key to achieving even a modicum of environmental stability and harmony lies not in the reigning-in of uncontrollable population growth (a proximate factor), but instead in treating the ailments of poverty and disenfranchisement (in my opinion, a few of the various ultimate factors responsible for environmental decline).
I will once again make a necessary, if not also slightly conciliatory, caveat about these ‘ultimate factors’: poverty and disenfranchisement, in all their manifestations, do not exist in a vacuum. Instead they are imbedded properties of political and economic systems that, in many cases, require the general deprivation of human rights at a certain level in order to substantiate the very hierarchical structures that perpetuate the same cycle. The ability for an elite economic minority (bourgeoisie) to control, dislocate and oppress a large majority of working class people’s (proletariat) is a feat of intricate and momentous proportions that typifies capitalist systems (with the variably effective buffer of the middle class) and socialist systems alike (as they almost invariably schism into a ruling bureaucracy and a non-governmental citizenry).
Therefore, the truly ultimate genesis of poverty and disenfranchisement, and by extension environmental degradation, lies within economic and political systems themselves. It is not my intention to ignore these systems (these ultimate-ultimate causes, if you will) it is simply that their full analysis and evaluation is outside of the scope of this blog. I will likely delve further into these issues in future writings. For now, however, I hope that by understanding the nature in which poverty fits into the scheme of environmentalism, I might posit a treatment for a symptom that will transitively serve as an entry point to further challenge the prevailing ideologies of faulty economics. Of course, I am also assuming far to much of myself. Still, I am sipping a cup of African coffee while sitting in the middle of rural Paraguay and listening to the birds, that’s gotta give me some sort of clout at least, right?
What we can say about Poverty and its effects on the Environment:
Not much. Or at least not much definitively. Theory and speculation is the name of the game as far as this is concerned because, like every facet of our species and our world, the truth is far from the simplistic fantasy that Occam’s razor might hope. Especially in development theory, the nexus of poverty and environmentalism ranges from the seemingly idealistic “green stewardship” to an anarchic, suvival-at-all-costs type scramble. The reality is somewhere in between.
Instead of dissecting any of the peculiarities of these competing theories, I will present only one and then tangentially ramble away from it in hopes of utilizing its principles without endorsing the entire spectrum of its objective or practical implications. I am taking such intellectual liberties for the simple fact that this is my blog and I can do what I want. I hope that doesn’t disqualify entirely what I have to say.
To understand how poverty effects environmentalism, a good place to start would be the basic idea of Kuznet’s curve. Kuznet’s curve is a relatively straightforward illustration of a general trend that can be observed when measuring levels of economic prosperity (demarcated as “stage of economic development” or “income per capita”) against environmental degradation (pollution). See below:
What Kuznet’s curve illustrates (and not without an immense amount of controversy) is that, generally it can be said that at either side of the wealth spectrum (that is, the very poorest or the very richest among us) are typically the worst stewards of the environment. The implications for this on class and economic structure, both domestically and internationally, are prolific, but one basic idea that can be gleaned from this over-simplification is such: poverty has negative environmental consequences.
Such a conclusion could likely be logically deduced by most people. When one struggles to survive, to feed their family, to subsists on a daily basis, priorities are not necessarily focused on the long-term environmental impacts of their immediate actions. A hungry man will (likely) not think twice about using dynamite-fishing techniques on an endangered coral reef if it means a huge caloric return for minimal effort. Note: this is not at all an indication or indictment of laziness on the part of impoverished people. It is simply a reality of basic human/animal subsistence, that is, the optimization of thermodynamic (and/or economic) investment. It is present in every human culture at every level of economic development, most obviously manifest in our American culture through our un-healthy addiction to cheap, low-quality fast food.
Unfortunately, there is a large body of academic development work that creates a seemingly proactive, but ultimately burdensome, approach towards rectifying such a discrepancy between poverty and environmentalism. As impoverished populations and communities with a very immediate interest in ecological preservation (those whose subsistence is most directly tied to the land, namely those at the lowest rung of Marx’s spectrum of ‘primitive accumulation’), the task of environmentalism and environmental recuperation can therefore be coupled with their daily livelihoods.
While this framework is altogether not impossible, and certainly not inherently evil or dubious, it does place an incongruous amount of responsibility on the shoulders of already strapped and struggling people. Environmentalism can and should be integrated with development initiatives, but the alleviation of suffering, the enfranchisement and the empowerment of the most impoverished people should always take unequivocal, unquestionable ethical precedent, even in cases where it might be environmentally degrading. After all, the greatest culpability and the greatest burden of environmental degradation lies at the other end of Kuznet’s economic spectrum.
As citizens of the wealthiest (monetarily) country in the history of the world, we should also be aware that we are the largest producer of greenhouse gasses on earth. As if it were not enough that we lead the charge to codify and perpetuate a global economic system that entrenches poverty both within and outside of our own borders, but we also contribute disproportionately to the dismal trajectory of environmental degradation on a planetary scale.
While it is in our immediate interests to prevent further loss of ecological resources, functions and services, it is also our moral imperative to alleviate poverty and disenfranchisement. Luckily, these two issues can be coupled and confronted together. Surely, solving either one would be a great accomplishment, but ultimately impossible without also addressing the other--they are intimately linked through the structures of our economic, social and political systems. By rearranging such systems, we can undoubtedly bring both ends of the economic spectrum, Kuznet’s “worst environmental stewards”, towards the center of the bell curve. We will never be an environmentally-neutral species (in reality, no species could be), but we can at least strive to exist more responsibly within the natural limits imposed by our ecological thresholds and more equitably within our ethically-defined economic parameters.
What we can say about Poverty and its effects on the Population:
It is almost taken for granted anymore the fact that reproductive rates decrease as economic levels increase. In other words, the number of babies per family decreases as their ability to provide for themselves economically increases. This can be measured in a variety of ways, either nationally as reproductive rates versus GDP, GNP or Income per capita, or through inter-group comparisons between different populations at various economic levels. Especially when one controls for other confounding variables such as cultural, religious, and social factors, the basic trend is undeniable. The question is why.
The full answer, of course, is complex and extremely contingent upon contextual conditions, however, in general, reproductive rates among impoverished people represent an investment in the future, a sort of retirement fund for those who lack financial access or stability. Lack of family planning and education, improper or non-existent contraceptive use and rampant illness are all important factors that also play a heavy roll in large family size (among others), but these further issues are symptoms as much as they are causes in the cycle that is the endemic poverty.
As people are able to more fully actualize their freedoms and rights, through development, enfranchisement and the alleviation of poverty, they can begin to consider not just the long-term effects of their actions in the light of environmentalism, but they can also begin to shape life-styles that are not founded in economic necessity. Absolutely, many people may still choose to have a large family and that is well within their rights to do so, but that choice should come from a conscious decision not a calculated reality that without sufficient numbers of children, one will be helpless and starving in old age, unable to provide for his/her family or his/herself. Even allowing for the the choice to have a large family, the trend still holds.
In many developed European nations, the birth rates for the native Eurpoean populations has either plateaued or begun to decrease (Italy and Germany as prime examples). The overall populations for many of these countries, however, has still begun to rise. The reason for this is the birthrates for immigrant populations, those that tend to be overwhelmingly of a lower-class and impoverished, have continued to rise and remain growing positively. Such case studies illustrate perfectly the benefits of what is already our ethical responsibility: to provide for people, to actualize their fullest selves and agency, and to create a context of equal opportunity and justice on both a local and global scale.
It is not only an act of human justice that should motivate us in such directions, but an act of environmental stewardship. By providing for the least among us, we are undoubtedly, unquestionably, undeniably providing for us all. Ultimately, as I hope that I have illustrated to some extent in this piece, the interests of all peoples at all points on the socio-economic spectrum are intimately linked. In a world that is increasingly understood as being ecologically interconnected, how could we possibly afford to be so socially, economically disconnected? Regardless of politics or party or entrenched belief, the only logical, objective conclusions are obvious. It is only our greed, our selfishness and our short-sightedness that stands in the way.