The Green Post: What really benefits the poor?

2012-04-26 07:13

It’s an age-old debate: whether to conserve or develop.

Developers love to show how their development will benefit the economy while the environmentalists’ position, will do, well ... squat.

And suddenly the rich developer is the defender of the poor and environmentalists are relegated to villains. We have seen the scene in Pondoland with the N2 and mining at Xolobeni debate. It was replayed at Vele Mine in Mapungubwe.

The message was repeated in the Karoo fracking saga, after a report was released showing the economic benefits that shale gas will bring to South Africa: Billions, if not trillion of dollars, can be made and thousands of jobs will be created.

The environmentalists are just spokes in the wheel of development.

Most of the time, we as environmental journalists dismiss the social conscience a developer or big business develops as part of their arsenal of arguments to make their development more acceptable or even likeable.

Cynicism runs deep in the corporate world of greenwashing.

But two months ago authoritative NGO Oxfam released a discussion paper questioning whether concern for the environment conflicts with development.

Oxfam said it’s possible to improve the health and income of people living in poverty worldwide while making environmentally sustainable choices.

Authoritative environmentalist George Monbiot took note. He wrote in his blog on the Guardian website that Oxfam had created a social justice line for deciding whether economic activity will help or harm humanity and the biosphere.

The social justice line is based on eleven priorities listed by the governments preparing for this year’s Rio+20 summit.

These are:
» food security
» adequate income
» clean water and good sanitation
» effective healthcare
» access to education
» decent work
» modern energy services
» resilience to shocks
» gender equality
» social equity
» a voice in democratic politics.

At the same time a group of earth system scientists identified the levels beyond which we endanger the earth’s living systems – the destruction line:

» climate change
» biodiversity loss
» nitrogen and phosphate use
» ozone depletion
» ocean acidification
» freshwater use
» changes in land use
» particles in the atmosphere
» chemical pollution.

The Oxfam report took these social justice models and environmental benchmarks into consideration and found it was not the needs of the poor that threaten the biosphere but the demands of the rich.

The report pointed out that half the world’s carbon emissions are produced by just 11% of its people.

Africa’s contribution is miniscule. The European Union’s feedlots alone, which accounts for just 7% of the world’s people, uses up 33% of the planet’s sustainable nitrogen budget, Monbiot said.

Oxfam’s paper says social justice is impossible without “far greater global equity in the use of natural resources, with the greatest reductions coming from the world’s richest consumers”.

Monbiot makes the case that just as mistaken green policies can damage the poor, mistaken poverty relief policies can damage the environment. “Development which has no regard for whom or what it harms is not development,” he says.

“It is the opposite of progress, damaging the earth’s capacity to support us and the rest of its living systems.”

And at the same time, he added, extreme poverty, just like extreme wealth, can also damage the environment.

“People without access to clean energy sources, for example, are often forced to use wood for cooking,” he said.

“This shortens their lives as they inhale the smoke, destroys forests and exacerbates global warming by producing black carbon.”

Consider this: the increased sharing of the world’s resources with poor communities goes much further than empty promises of jobs while profits emigrate to shareholders and the communities never see much benefit. And watch while their environment is destroyed.

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