The eco-affluence myth

Lawrence Solomon
National Post
July 31, 2003


by Jack M. Hollander

University of California Press

235 pages, $40.95

– – –

“Affluence fosters environmentalism,” argues The Real Environmental Crisis, a book by professor emeritus Jack M. Hollander of the University of California at Berkeley. “As people become more affluent, most become increasingly sensitive to the health and beauty of their environment. And gaining affluence helps provide the economic means to protect and enhance the environment.”

Hollander’s argument is not new. The claim that poor countries cannot afford to protect the environment first gained prominence in 1972 at the United Nations Conference on Human Environment, when Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, to keep environmentalists at bay in her Soviet-style quest to industrialize, famously said, “Are not poverty and need the greatest polluters?”

But what is new is this argument’s embrace by many right-wing groups — the Fraser Institute in Canada, the Cato Institute in the United States among them — who have adopted it as an orthodoxy that can explain the rise of environmentalism in the West. When a nation reaches a certain level of affluence — US$8,000 per capita some groups say straight-faced — its citizens begin to demand measures to protect the environment. Governments can then roll out environmental programs, taxpayers can then fund them, and the environmental quality of life can rise.

In effect, these arguments treat the environment as a product, provided by government, that can be acquired at a certain point in a nation’s development. As affluence grows, they believe, so too does the demand for more environmental amenities. It’s a strange argument for right-wing organizations to make, for it implies collective decision-making, government intervention in the economy and limitless taxation, tempered only by a citizenry’s desire for a clean environment.

In this way, these conservatives have come to accept the environmental logic of socialists. In so doing, they inadvertently endorse planning and regulation, not the free market and the common law, as a desirable medium for environmental decision-making. Do you want less smog in your air or more oxygen in your water? Lobby your parliamentarian and fight it out in the political trenches. Never mind that the common laws — on the books for hundreds of years, until politicians overrode them specifically to permit such pollution — provided a superior, property-right remedy for environmental harm. Never mind that the world’s most environmentally harmful projects — large-scale mining, nuclear plants, massive hydro-electric dams, monoculture agriculture and forestry — have generally required state subsidies or state expropriation of property or both.

Although right-wingers and socialists agree that the environment is a product, they disagree on how much product the government should buy. The two sides then enlist economics and science in cost-benefit battles, with the government as arbiter. Little wonder that politicians decide how much greenhouse gas can be emitted, and by whom. Little wonder that a clean environment is viewed as a luxury product rather than a basic right that societies have traditionally enjoyed and only recently lost.

Hollander himself is no right-winger — he’s a big-government, more-foreign-aid advocate who hopes the West’s concern for the global environment will persuade Westerners to develop the Third World. To his credit, he ignores the half-baked correlations that right-wingers rely on, such as a World Bank analysis that claims fecal coliform bacteria declines at per capita incomes of US$1,375 and sulphur dioxide emissions at US$3,670. Hollander, who considers the eco-affluence science unprovable, ultimately comes to his conclusions on the basis of his educated guess.

Also to his credit, Hollander distances himself from his own thesis, as if, in researching his book, he came to realize that affluence, on its own, doesn’t explain much about the environment at all. In contrast to his book’s marketing spin, in Hollander’s text affluence shares top billing with, and depends upon, good governance. In the end, he needs to resort to gymnastics to retain affluence in his equation: “an environmentally sustainable future is within reach for the entire world provided that affluence and democracy replace poverty and tyranny as the dominant human condition.”

Hollander has become a darling of the right because he criticizes the green movement’s extremism. But if you view the environment as a product, the greens have been right more often than not: As Hollander reluctantly admits, the products from the worldwide nuclear power industry have been economic failures and those from dam-building dubious at best.

Meanwhile, the right overlooks Hollander’s advocacy of, for example, massive foreign aid guided by the likes of the World Bank and the IMF, and massive Western government intervention to spend “whatever it costs to attain and maintain a healthy environment.” Hollander’s own extremism doesn’t seem to bother the right, even though he is at odds with principles they hold dear as well as being wrong about the forces destroying the environment.

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