Environmentalism of the rich

In: Daniel In The News

11 Dec 2016

My latest book review for the Financial Times was published on 2 December.

For anyone who sees environmentalism as a radical outlook, its adoption by business must be bewildering. The examples are legion. From the World Wildlife Fund credit card from Bank of America to Conservation International’s partnership with McDonald’s to promote Happy Meals; and from Greenpeace endorsing companies, including Mars and Procter & Gamble, that support its sustainable palm oil campaign to Nature Conservancy’s partnership with 3M and Dow Chemical.

For some activists this is simply a matter of greenwash — companies pretending to be environmentally friendly. But it is hard to believe that corporate executives do not, to some degree, support the causes they endorse.

Paul Dauvergne, a professor of international relations at the University of British Columbia, sees it instead as an example of what he calls the “environmentalism of the rich”. He is careful to emphasise this does not refer to support for environmental causes by people who happen to be born wealthy. Instead he argues environmentalism has lost its spirit of outrage. It is only if this is recovered then, he claims, it can take on extreme inequality, destructive growth and excessive consumption.

So Dauvergne is careful to stress he is not opposed in principle to corporate social responsibility, eco-consumerism or partnerships between companies and campaign groups. The thrust of his argument is that such initiatives are positive but insufficient to tackle what he sees as a global ecological crisis.

Essentially this amounts to a narrow tactical critique of mainstream environmentalism which he thinks should be infused with a more passionate form of grassroots activism.

Dauvergne’s main failure is his lack of appreciation that the defining premise of green thinking — that human activity is subject to natural limits — has become pervasive in both business and political circles. Contrary to Dauvergne’s contention, there is little opposition to this outlook. Governments worldwide endorse sustainability as do a large number of business leaders. They might not go as far as the activists would like but they are nevertheless thoroughly imbued in green thinking.

This shift, which has taken place over several decades, reflects the emergence of a profound lack of confidence within the business and political elites. Businesses all too often feel uncomfortable with their traditional role of helping to make society more prosperous. So they play down the importance of their core activities while emphasising their eagerness to change the world. Politicians too tend to question their ability to help create a framework to generate more prosperity. The spread of green thinking in such circles is an outward expression of this crisis of faith.

Dauvergne also fails to explain the paradox he points to so often. Global consumption levels keep rising despite all the talk of sustainability. For him it seems to be simply a matter of too many people behaving irrationally or being duped by advertising. He cannot accept the reality that huge numbers of people quite reasonably want more.

The bulk of the world’s population demands higher material living standards. This is most evident among the world’s poorest. According to the World Bank, there were 767m living on less than $1.90 in 2013. But this is an incredibly low threshold. There are billions more people in the developing world living on low incomes and even in the advanced economies many have suffered stagnant incomes for years.

The fashionable heart-rending by world leaders about extreme inequality is not about achieving affluence for all. On the contrary, the implication is that the bulk of humanity should be prepared to make sacrifices for the sake of mitigating the most extreme forms of poverty.

It would be far better if businesses focused more on their traditional role of raising prosperity while politicians supported them. More resources and better technology help create the conditions to raise living standards but also to overcome environmental challenges. Achieving a richer world means transcending apparent environmental limits rather than embracing them.


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