Environmentalists and the third world

There are many kinds of environmentalists, but among them is a strong and dangerous movement whose real object is to hinder, and if possible, to prevent the development of the Third World. It is to be hoped that these people will not dominate the conference on Sustainable Development, but they will certainly be there. What they will do is to say that all the tried and proved ways of development, those which brought the First World from a level of poverty far below where most of the Third World is now to its present level of affluence, must no longer be used because they are not “sustainable”. And if the Third World listened to them, development would cease.

These environmentalists are not for the most part evil in their intentions. They are simply selfish people pursuing their own self-interest. Unfortunately, this self-interest requires them to stand squarely in the light of those less fortunate than themselves.

Although they will try to confuse us with all sorts of prophecies of doom, from global warming to the return of the ice-age, what they are really concerned about is a pleasant environment for themselves. They want clean air, access to unspoilt open country, not too much noise, and all the other things that are nice to have around one where one lives and works.

Nobody denies that these things are nice to have. Yet the fact remains that since the first beginnings of the industrial revolution in Britain in the eighteenth century right up to the present time, millions of people have been leaving pleasant environments for less pleasant ones as they moved from the countryside to the cities. People have moved from beautiful Devonshire or North Wales to the East End of London and from the Transkei Coast to Khayalitsha or Old Moroka. Not only has this move been made voluntarily, it has been persisted in with great determination, and when governments have tried to stop it (as they often have – South Africa’s “influx control” was by no means an extreme example) they have carried on with great determination.

They made the move to improve their cash incomes, and still more, their prospects – their hope of still greater cash incomes in the future. To these people, millions on millions, of every race, colour and creed, and in every part of the world where people live, these things were more important than the environment, and they willingly traded the one for the other. Nor were they disappointed with the trade, for of all the millions who have made the move, very few ever went back of their own accord.

To people with few material goods, the environment is a low priority. Not merely will people exchange the countryside for a shanty town; it is not uncommon to find people who would rather live in a shanty with a refrigerator or even a motor car than in a proper house without one. But as people become better off, and their more urgent needs are met, the time tends to come when a pleasant environment itself becomes a priority.

If it can be bought with money, they will be prepared to pay for it. If it requires government policies that have the effect of reducing economic growth and with it their prospects of increased incomes, this may be quite acceptable. It is simply a way of paying for what they want.
So it is not at all surprising that rich countries pursue a pleasant environment for their inhabitants as a priority, one for which the people of their countries, or most of them, are quite happy to pay a price. This is to be expected. What requires explanation is why some of the people of these countries are prepared to go great lengths to export their own priorities to countries for which they are quite inappropriate. Why do they not rather seek to export their own high material standard of living if they are anxious that other people should share what they have? Of course it is not possible to export their standard of living, but the First World could make it a great deal easier for the Third World to attain that standard for themselves, if they adopted a more liberal trade policy. One wonders why there are so few international conferences on that topic?

The trouble is that one element of the pleasant environment that many people in the First World want is a quiet life, a life free of change, or of change that they have not chosen and planned for themselves. This attitude has always been taken by many rich people, but where in the past there were very few of these, now, in the First World, there are a great many, and they can direct the policies of democratic governments.

The quiet life is threatened by the development of the Third World. It is not true that economic growth in the Third World threatens the standard of living of the First. On the contrary it both stimulates and forces economic growth in the First World which has always grown fastest when the growth of the Third World was strongest as in the time when Japan was still Third World, and was growing at 10% per annum.

It is in that word ‘force’ that the problem lies. The economic growth of the Third World imposes change on the First. To those who like economic growth for themselves this is highly desirable, but for those whose chief desire is a quiet life and the maintenance of the status quo, it is very bad news.

The desire of the First World (or of many people in it) for a pleasant environment for themselves is perfectly rational and they are fully entitled to pay whatever price for it that they find acceptable. However, the attempt to export the same priorities to the Third World is essentially a device to hinder economic growth there, because such growth will force the First World by competition to make changes within itself which it, or some part of it, does not want to make. Specifically it will be forced to abandon its own least productive industries, and redeploy both people and material resources into more productive activities.

The pretence that they are trying to improve the environment in the Third World, rather than to hinder its development, is simply a device to seize moral high ground. It resembles the strictly comparable attempts of the old left (who were often the same people) to hinder the growth of the Third World by exporting to it an economic system which was known not to work, namely socialism.

Author: Michael O’Dowd is the Chairman of the Free Market Foundation. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement. The patrons, council and members of the Foundation do not necessarily agree with the views expressed in the article.

A new bookSustainable Development: Promoting progress or perpetuating poverty? was launched in South Africa today by the Sustainable Development Network. The book is available from the Free Market Foundation at R170 including postage and packaging. Review copies can be obtained by calling Judith on (011) 884 0270.

FMF Article of the Week\20 August 2002
Help FMF promote the rule of law, personal liberty, and economic freedom become an individual member / donor HERE ... become a corporate member / donor HERE