Poverty and Affluence and Environmental Impact
It is important to point out the differences in how poor societies and wealthy societies affect the environment. Poverty impacts the environment negatively. The definition of poverty is being unable to meet one’s basic needs. Such needs include food, water, shelter, healthcare and education. Roughly half the world’s people live in such conditions. Their focus is on obtaining the basic needs for short-term survival. Many of these people are forced to deplete or degrade forests, rivers, fields, and soil. These groups don’t have the privilege to be concerned about environmental impact. Many poor people throughout the world die very prematurely from health problems as a result of environmental degradation.
One such problem is a lack of access to properly sanitized facilities. More than a third of the world’s population does not have adequate bathrooms. The have no choice other than to use outdoor fields and streams for elimination. The result is that over a billion people obtain water from sources that are contaminated from human and animal waste. A second problem would be malnutrition. People living in poverty stricken environments do not receive sufficient amount of nutrients for proper health. Many of these people die at a young age from normally treatable illnesses. The third most common problem is respiratory illness. In poorer areas people rely on burning wood or coal within their own homes as a means of cooking or just staying warm. Such actions lead them to breathe in high concentrations of indoor air pollutants. The World Health Organization states that about seven million people die each year from these conditions. About two thirds of these people are children under the age of five.
Affluence on the other hand, affects the environment both positively and negatively. However, the negative effects of affluence on the environment are far greater than those caused by poverty. People who live in well-developed areas such Europe, Canada, and the US, or rapidly developing areas such as China and India exist in high consumer societies. Such a lifestyle leads to unnecessary depletion of resources. Such affluence has terrible consequences for the environment. G. Tyler Miller and Scott E. Spoolman give us a more specific example of this disparity. “While the United States has far fewer people than India, the average American consumes about 30 times as much as the average citizen of India and 100 times as much as the average person in the world’s poorest countries.”  The environmental impact caused by one person in the US is far greater the average environmental impact caused by someone in an undeveloped country.
The flip side is that affluence can also be a source of help for the environment. People living in well-developed societies have the luxury to be more concerned about environmental impact. Affluent societies have the financial means to invest in technological research that can reduce pollution and other forms of consumer waste. Wealthier nations tend to have cleaner air and water. The food supplies are also better sanitized which leads to longer life spans. Money has the power to improve environmental status since it can finance scientific research. Wealthier societies also generally have higher levels of education, which encourages people to demand that governments and corporations be more environmentally friendly. This duality is what leads to the graph known as the Environmental Kuznets Curve. This graph demonstrates that as the GDP per capita increases, the environmental impact increases until a certain point in which it starts to drop again but at a slower rate than when it was increasing. The following graph taken from the World Bank in 2005 demonstrates this phenomenon by showing the CO2 emissions (kt) of fifteen different countries with varying degrees of GDP per Capita (dollars).
The x-coordinate system is measured in dollars and represents GDP per Capita. The y-coordinate system is measured in kt and represents CO2 emissions.
The countries included are Belgium, Egypt, Ghana, Greece, India, Italy, Japan, Morocco, Namibia, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, South Africa, and Switzerland. Ghana is the poorest and Switzerland is the richest. As you can see accumulation of wealth results in an initial rapid increase of environmental impact but at a certain point this changes and we start to see a decrease in impact, although at a much slower rate. Here are some examples of countries when viewed on their own. These graphs, ranging from 1960 to 2008, also display the relationship between CO2 emissions (kt) and GDP per Capita (dollars).
For each of the five following graphs, the x-coordinate system is measured in dollars and represents GDP per Capita and the y-coordinate system is measured in kt and represents CO2 emissions.
As you can see countries like Switzerland, Sweden, and the United States follow a very similar pattern. Countries like Belgium and the United Kingdom, on the other hand, are much less similar. While it is true that wealth can bring environmental protection, this should not be seen as a reason to celebrate the rich and demonize the poor. The affluence of these countries relies very heavily on exploitation of poorer communities. Furthermore, affluent people tend to be blind to the ways in which consumerism leads to environmental degradation, even if they are generally against such problems. What all of this means, is that poverty and environmental justice are inseparable. It is not possible to tackle the issue of environmental protection without also dealing with the problems of poverty and class structure. To do so would be to drive due north with blinders on.
- Miller, G. Tyler. Spoolman, Scott E. Sustaining the Earth: An Integrated Approach. Cengage Learning Inc. Copyright 2009. Page 15.