Poverty and Affluence and Environmental Impact

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.” [1] 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.


  1. Miller, G. Tyler. Spoolman, Scott E. Sustaining the Earth: An Integrated Approach. Cengage Learning Inc. Copyright 2009. Page 15.
  1. http://www.e-ir.info/2012/10/19/assessing-the-viability-of-a-complete-environmental-kuznets-curve/#_ftn7
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5 Responses to Poverty and Affluence and Environmental Impact

  1. cbohl45 says:

    Great post – I’ve actually been working on a post that’s along these lines as well. It’s interesting how you point out that basically everyone at every level of the wealth spectrum is responsible for negative environmental impact. While wealthy corporations and nations continually deplete resources to increase revenues, they also force others to do the same: oftentimes, through predatory lending practices on a global scale, citizens of “third-world” countries become indebted to multi-national banks. Governments basically accept loans that stipulate that the money be spent on specific ventures that, rather than benefit all of the citizens, tend to benefit only the upper class (as well as the corporations that “help” with these ventures). When the loans cannot be repaid, the citizens are left to foot the bill (sounds familiar, right?). As the interest accrues and more and more of their GDP has to go towards paying off their debts, the people naturally become desperate. When the only viable jobs involve deforestation and other resource depletion, they, of course, take them and are soon dependent on those businesses for their livelihood. They don’t want to, but they have to fight environmental agencies to keep these businesses running.

    In that way, I’m not sure it’s fair to say that impoverished people or nations affect the environment negatively (you chose your words carefully: “poverty impacts the environment negatively”). Income/wealth inequality indeed seems to be an important factor in environmental impact. However, if we take it for granted (by constructal law) that money naturally becomes distributed in this unequal way, then it seems that we are doomed to environmental destruction, barring some massive global cooperation to incentivize sustainability and curtail pollution. Negative environmental impact is driven by debt and greed, which are basically the foundations of capitalism and the global economy. It almost seems that, if we are to truly create a sustainable planet, we need to alter the foundations of our economy. John Rainer mentioned a few classes ago that absolving international debt would be helpful to this end, and I think I agree (however unfeasible it seems). It really seems to me that the entire system of loans and debt – and the end result of burying huge portions of the world in crippling debt due to insurmountable interest payments – needs to be scrapped altogether… any ideas? 🙂

  2. Pingback: How to Alleviate Economic Inequality | Issues in Physics and Society

  3. rfperlman says:

    I do not think debt and greed are the foundations of capitalism and global economy. Nor are all corporations terrible. It sounds like you are demonizing all of it. Lets put things into perspective. There was a businessman who sells shirts. Through the help of a loan he was able to purchase a large factory and equipment that would allow him to produce shirts at a faster rate and in larger quantities. These shirts are now worn by at least one billion people who rather than relying on Mom to knit a shirt now purchase shirts from the businessman. This saves them time so that they can go and specialize in something else, like law, like environmental issues, like studying to be a doctor. And the businessman is a nice boss. He employs many people making use of their skills and helping them feed their families. Capitalism makes that possible.

    Looking at a global economy I have to say I like curry and boy do the Belgiums make some great chocolate! Now I can have both of those because of a global economy, That is pretty awesome.

    The problem occurs when that boss becomes greedy. When that boss stops caring about how he treats his workers, the working conditions, etc…In itself though, capitalism is not bad. It does appear that many of these corporations have become greedy, and that is unfortunate.

    We need to negatively impact the environment to survive. Period. We take from earth. The problem is we take more than we need and without rest. If we were to give the earth a day of rest or rather a year of rest that would help with agricultural aspects. If we were to take all the clothes we make, and we all know we have more than enough to clothe all our homeless and probably all of India, and simply distribute it, a lot of issues would be solved.

    It is not fair to say that the poor only negatively effect the environment. Part of the reason, rather, a major reason why they are poor is because of the rich.

    What people need to realize is that we set up money as a system of mutual contract where we place value on a piece of paper. It works only because we place value on it. It seems this system, much like an equation, fails sometimes. Those people who are victims of the failure in the system need to be taken care of in order for the system to truly function. A missing screw in a car engine deems the engine non-functional.

    Just to throw it in there, a nice quote: there are no jobs on a dead planet.

  4. cbohl45 says:

    The ability to have tee-shirts and chocolate is not a product of capitalism, nor is capitalism the only way to have a global economy. Surely, socialist/communist/mercantilist/etc-alist nation-states were able to provide clothing for their citizenry without necessitating that everyone’s Mother knit them clothing. Occupational specialization has been around long before capitalism. But I’m not saying that capitalism and free markets have never provided anything good for the world (indeed they have, though we’ve never exactly had entirely “free markets”). I’m just saying that the results of deregulated markets kinda speak for themselves and that the idea that glorifying the acquisition of wealth as an end unto itself clearly has wrought havoc on our world. I’m not saying I have any clue how to fix anything, just that there clearly needs to be more governance, on local, national and especially global scales to ensure that we can not only have equality of opportunity, but also that we do not deplete our limited resources and cause our own demise as a species.

  5. rfperlman says:

    Ahh okay. I agree. I felt like the first post demonized capitalism. My parents left communist Russia because it didn’t work. While the idea is nice the reality was that people took the money for themselves and built golden palaces while jailing anyone that tried to make money. Communism is a nice idea but it does not work with human nature. I think regulated markets would be beneficial and that gets into government policy, not my expertise. Thank you for clarifying, I seemed to have misinterpreted what you were getting at.

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