Environmentalism – a middle-class phenomenon?

An argument I hear quite regularly is that you have to be rich to care about the environment. Put another way, a less developed country (LDC) has to develop economically before it can clean up the environment, notwithstanding the fact it’s the economic development that has screwed up the environment!

The logic employed seems to be that people who are really poor are too poor to worry about the environment because they’re more concerned about a roof over their heads and food in their stomachs. According to The Economist this week, a book just published on the state of the environment in Thailand makes this very point. An article entitled How green is my tiger? (password protected) comments on a book by James David Fahn called A Land on Fire: The Environmental Consequences of the South-East Asian Boom. To be fair to Fahn, though, this is more than likely The Economist’s spin on his work — I’ll reserve judgement until I’ve read the book! But whether he emphasises this point or not, it strikes me that this argument makes a pretty big assumption; viz. economic development has to be ‘dirty’. Capitalist development has largely proceeded along these lines thus far, of course, but with carefully-directed overseas aid, appropriate technology transfer, and a well-thought out legislative framework in the LDC in question, the environmental mess to be cleaned up might not be created in the first place. LDCs do not need to make the same mistakes as the developed countries.