The Urbane Ecologist

The problems with blaming the poor for environmental degradation.


In previous posts, I discussed whether ameliorating poverty and biodiversity in tandem was possible.1 In response, Dr. M.J. Chappell kindly suggested I read several papers on the topic of environment-wealth interactions that attempt to disentangle the effects of wealth and environmental health on each other. I began with “A geographical perspective on poverty-environment interactions” by Gray and Moseley, from 2004. (Thank you, Dr. Gray, for generously sending me a pdf of this paper!)

The idea that there is a relationship between poverty and environmental degradation has been around for quite a while. Malthus suggested that the poor are more likely to engage in environmentally harmful behaviors, reasoning that they were incapable of thinking beyond the next meal.2 Colonial powers in Africa and Asia readily embraced this idea, blaming poor local peasants for soil degradation, wasteful burning practices, and deforestation.2 This concept was adopted by the Brundtland Report of 1987, which popularized an idea key to the sustainable development field: “poor people are forced to overuse environmental resources to survive from day to day, and the impoverishment of their environment further impoverishes them, making their survival ever more uncertain and difficult.”2 While several positive outcomes arose out of the publication of the Brundtland report, it caused the domination of “‘poverty-stricken masses’ caught up in a vicious cycle of poverty and environmental degradation” within mainstream literature and has even become an unquestioned rule for agencies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.2,3 This assumption affects policy, and results in development theorists and planners not only scapegoating the poor but continuing to promote policies that undermine both poverty alleviation and environmental integrity.2 Gray and Moseley advocate the reexamination of this commonly accepted rule.

This may initially seem sensible and intuitive, but it is very simplistic.

The definitions of poverty influence poverty-environment analyses.2 Northern ways of defining poverty in terms of monetary wealth and income are not always helpful in developing countries where a high proportion of activity takes place outside formal economic systems and where there are significant regional differences. 2 For example, wealth in many rural contexts is not reflected as cash savings and earnings, but rather as cattle holdings, quantity of agricultural tools, access to land, and/or the ability of a household to produce food, and many other ways.2 Defining poverty by formal sector measures can be misleading because the researcher may be identifying a group of households in rural areas that is not necessarily poor, but simply less involved in the formal economy and modern agriculture.2 These “poor”, defined as those less influenced by the external economy who manage resources based on local (rather than external) demands, make for a paradoxically more stable and sustainable system!2

Poor people are not a homogenous group.2 The location and level of poverty is an important determinant of a household’s ability to respond to environmental stresses and shocks.4 Further, a large number and variety of social institutions mediate poverty-environment interactions.5,6 Understanding the relationships between poverty and environment outcomes necessitates investigation into issues such as resource access (e.g. assets, land, or labor), institutions (e.g. governance), and vulnerability (e.g. seasonal vs. long-term, networks).

A model called the environmental Kuznets’ curve suggests that pollution is low during initial stages of development, but rises with rapid industrialization, and then falls as economies mature.2 Some studies show that the rise and fall in emissions follows closely the steady growth in per capita income.2 Many theories from a variety of fields, from economics (time preference theory) to sociology and psychology (hierarchy of needs theory), agree with the idea that wealth leads to an increase in environmental stewardship.2 These theories all suggest that once an individual’s basic needs are addressed, they are able to consider “higher” needs and wants, such as environmental amenities.2 Thus, wealthier societies are more likely to and more capable of investing in things like pollution reduction.2

However, Gray and Moseley point out that there are several flaws in this idea:

  • The environmental Kuznets curve does not consider the export of emissions.2 Specifically, dirty industries often migrate to less developed countries.2 Thus, increasing wealth may mean that pollution is just moved somewhere else, rather than it being reduced.2
  • The majority of studies regarding wealth-environment interactions have been conducted at a national rather than household scale.2 However, the scale at which an analysis is undertaken and the shape of each analytical unit matter greatly.2 Data that is analyzed at a national vs. household level can often suggest very different relationships.2 In addition, political boundaries often have little to do with the phenomena being studied (environmental or social) and thus also influence the results.2 Our attachment to the idea that greater poverty leads to greater environmental degradation would likely be severed if more studies were conducted using multiple scales and various “shapes” as the analytical unit.2
  • Relationships are difficult to generalize.2 The environmental Kuznets’ curve works well when characterizing some environmental changes, such as air pollution, but does not perform well with others, such as wildlife and biodiversity.2 Wildlife and biodiversity inevitably decline as economies expand and wealth increases, and these resources are difficult to reconstruct even for wealthy societies.2
  • Environmental degradation is not a generalized phenomenon that occurs across all resource categories; rather, physical environments vary in terms of sensitivity and resilience, which in turn have some bearing on the way in which resource-poor or resource-rich households interact with the environment.2

Another problem is that time preference theory and literature based on the hierarchy of needs fail to explain widely observed future-oriented behavior in some poor households in drought-prone areas.2 Specifically, many researchers have observed that rural African households in a variety of countries and environments, united only by their residence in drought-prone areas, are often extremely reluctant to sell productive assets during a food crisis.2 (Countries include Sudan8,9, Nigeria10, Mali11, Ethiopia12,13, and Ghana14,15)In addition, long before the family oxen or plow are sold, poor families often cut back on food consumption for extended periods of time in order to avoid decapitalization.7 They also cut back on consumption or switch to less desirable wild food sources, in order to preserve a significant portion of grain reserves as seed stock for next year’s planting.2 This behavior strongly suggests that extremely poor and hungry households do not value the present over the future.2 Gray and Moseley even suggest that wealth may arguably lead to greater living in the present if there is (in contrast to the poor) less concern about hardships in the future.2

Gray and Moseley also point out that there is often a spatial mismatch between pollution and degradation on one hand and wealthy abodes on the other.2 In other words, already socially marginalized people are further marginalized by being pushed into ecologically marginal areas.2 The fact that poor communities are often situated near sites of dirty industries and toxic wastes is a commonly addressed issue in environmental justice studies.

Thus, the mainstream poverty-environment discourse may be imagining an environmental feedback loop that does not necessarily exist in many instances.2 In other words, the wealthy may not be particularly concerned about pollution if dirty industries are situated in poor communities or if the poor are being pushed into degraded ares.2 Environmental justice literature argues that, often, the poor are the ones who are more concerned about pollution and degradation because they are the ones that must live with this reality on a daily basis.2 Unfortunately, they do not have enough political power to act on this problem.2

  1. borderAgrawal, A. and Redford, K. H. (2006). Poverty, development, and biodiversity conservation: Shooting in the Dark? Wildlife Conservation Society Working Paper, 26, 1-48.
  2. Gray, LC, and Moseley, WG. 2004. A geographical perspective on poverty-environment interactions. The Geographical Journal. 171(1): 29-43. 
  3. Bryant, RL. 1997. Beyond the impasse: the power of political ecology in Third-World studies. Political Geography. 11: 12-36.
  4. UNDP. 1999. Attacking poverty while improving the environment: towards win-win policy options. UN Agency-CAP21.
  5. Leach, M, and Mearns, R. 1996. the lie of the land. The International Africa Institute, London.
  6. Lambin EF, Turner BL, Geist HJ et al. 2001. The causes of land-use and land-cover change: moving beyond the myths. Global Environment Change11: 261-9.
  7. Maxwell, S, and Frankenberger, T. 1992. Household food security: cocepts, indicators, measurements: a technical review. UNICEF and IFAD, New York and Rome.
  8. De Waal A. 1989. Famine that kills. Clendon Press, Oxford.
  9. Cutler, P. 1986. The response to drought of Beja famine refugees in Sudan. Disasters10: 181-8.
  10. Watts, M. 1983. Silent violence: food, famine, and peasantry in norther Nigeria. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  11. Davies, S. 1996. Adaptable livelihoods: coping with food insecurity int he Malian Sahel. St. Martin’s Press, New York 1-59.
  12. Rahmato, D. 1987. Famine and survival strategies: a case study from northeast Ethiopia. Food and Famine Monograph Series no 1 Institute of Development Research, Addis Ababa University.
  13. Turton 1977
  14. Devereux, S. 1993. Household responses to food insecuity in Northeastern Ghana. Unpublished PhD thesis. University of Oxford, Oxford.
  15. Devereux, S. 1993. goats before ploughs: dilemmas of household response sequencing during food shortages. IDS Bulletin. 24: 52-9. Institute of Development Studies, Sussex.

2 thoughts on “The problems with blaming the poor for environmental degradation.

  1. Sometimes it seems to be only about monetary appropriation. A case in point: : “Nigeria: Environmental Degradation – FG to Ban Plastic Bags By January 1”.

    A mst laudable move, seemingly, until you come to the sentence “Regarding the move to stop sachet water production, Maillafia said the ministry was currently conducting research along with experts on finding better alternatives that would replace sachet water.”

    Would it not be more logical to find the alternative first, and only then implement it? Otherwise you impose a ban, but in the absence of an alternative it is reduced to wishful thinking.

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