The new conventional wisdom has it that environmentalist movements emerge in post-materialist cultures, along with a sense of economic satiety. They are creatures of economic growth, conceived in urban environments in the wake of consumer affluence; in peasant economies, or in the newly industrialising countries, we don't find anything resembling Western concern with the integrity of the environment. On this view, environmental concern is akin to a 'positional good', dependent for its existence on the prosperity generated by long periods of economic growth, and so cannot be expected to flourish in times of economic uncertainty or hardship. It is the ultimate luxury of rich societies. Western governments which attempt to impose it on developing countries only reveal its positional character. The effect of policies which inhibit economic growth in poor countries in the name of environmental concern will in no sense be to improve the protection of the environment, since that depends on a level of wealth which such policies will prevent ever being reached. If they achieve anything, it will only be to shelter the environments of the rich countries that are the beneiciaries of generations of industrialism and economic growth.
LRB 20 April 1995 | PDF Download