Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?

This week The Wall Street Journal poses an important question: “Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?”  It provides two different answers by two different authors with distinctly contrary opinions.  Peter Singer, professor of Bioethics at Princeton, answers: “No, if the West Makes Sacrifices.”  Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist”  responds in contrast: “Yes, if We Listen to Green Extremists.”  So, does helping the planet really hurt the poor?  Or, does helping the poor really hurt the planet?  Is environmentalism at odds with relieving poverty?  Let’s talk about this important topic more right now …

But first, let’s tackle a critical term in this debate.  What does “helping the planet” mean?  For that matter, what does the term “environmentalism” mean (at least in this debate between Singer and Lomborg)?  From the discussion, it appears that “helping the plant” means avoiding, limiting, or cutting back on the use of our natural resources – the earth’s tropical rainforests or the use of fossil fuels, for example.  But, this has a side effect, namely, the throttling back of economic growth because we need resources to fuel economic productivity and prosperity.

Singer, also the author of Animal Liberation, asks the question (in reference to the poor): “Is there any point in saving the lives of people who will continue to have more children than they can feed?  He seems to think more people will tend to hurt the environment by causing more economic development.  He goes on to lament the impact of so-called global warming on the water resources needed for the poor.  His recipe for dealing with the problems of so-called global warming and poverty is for people in  the industrialized nations, especially the west, to use more non-fossil fuels, cut back on heating and air-conditioning, fly and drive less, and cut back on eating meat.

Lomborg takes a different tack.  Lomborg believes environmental actions can often make the planet worse off .  For example, he cites how diverting food crops into fuels has caused food prices to soar causing more starvation around the world, wasted resources, and the cutting down of more forests.  Lomborg also indicates that following the Kyoto protocols at a cost of $180 Billion a year would save only about 1400 malaria deaths – illustrating how such drastic cuts in carbon emissions often pushed by environmentalists are extracting a high cost economically and yet, providing little help to the poor.  In contrast, he suggests as an example how just a $3 Billion expenditure in medicine and nets alone can save 850,000 malaria deaths a year - a better use of our scarce resources.

How do I view this debate?  First, I think there is widespread scientific evidence that global warming is not occurring and that variations in climate are long-range and cyclical in nature.  So, I don’t believe there needs to be a debate between “helping the planet” vs. “helping the poor.”  Second, from a moral perspective, I think we have the moral responsibility to do everything we can to alleviate the suffering and plight of the poor, even if it requires the use of some of our natural resources.  Those with Malthusian views that believe that the earth can not sustain a certain number of people at certain levels of resource usage are incorrect in my opinion.  As our knowledge, technology, and innovation continue to grow in a climate of freedom (religious, political, economic, and intellectual), productivity and prosperity go hand-in-hand.  Finally, I believe this is true only in nations that have freedom and free enterprise – not in nations that subscribe to socialism, welfare state socialism, or progressive socialism.  In my view, socialism always leads to less effective and less efficient utilization of economic resources and to increased poverty.

Choosing the Good Life Blog by Gerard Francis Lameiro, Ph.D.

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