The Environment: White Man's Burden

TAKE up the White Man's burden - Send forth the best ye breed - Go bind your sons to exile

To serve your captives' need; To wait in heavy harness,

On fluttered folk and wild - Your new-caught sullen peoples,

Half-devil and half-child....

So wrote Rudyard Kipling almost a century ago in a popular paean to colonialism. The lines sound quaint today, but make no mistake, British and French colonialists of the time did believe that they were fighting ``savage wars of peace'' to save the benighted races of the world from themselves by forcing the benefits of civilization, Christianity, and commerce on them.

The crowning achievement of colonialism was its self-justifying ideology, that European superiority obligated them to conquer and exploit others for the others' benefit, an ideology that denied the benefits colonialists themselves received from colonial exploitation.

Oddly enough, we are embarked on a contemporary ``civilizing mission'' of our own in the name of saving the environment that we ourselves are largely responsible for destroying. We are again calling others to account, holding them responsible for our own exploitation. And again these are the poor and weak of the world, those who have been the victims of our violence.

Take the issue of population. It is an established doctrine in the West, enshrined in the policies of the World Bank and in such popular books as Paul Ehrlich's ``The Population Bomb,'' that ``rampant population growth'' is a time bomb that threatens to destroy the world; that poor third world peoples are primarily responsible for that growth; and that these same people will not become any richer until they can control their irrational passion to increase their numbers. The only indisputable fact here is that population growth is most rapid today in the poorer nations of the third world, but the rest of the equation is, quite simply, wrong.

First, it is not population that threatens the environment but how much that population consumes. Who consumes the most? Certainly not the poor of the world. Americans are less than 5 percent of the world's population, but we consume over half of all its resources. An American annually consumes hundreds of times the resources of an African. It is we who pose far more danger to the environment than the poor and their children.

Second, we must ask why poor people have so many children. It is a well established fact of historical demography that people only begin to limit their families when they become wealthier. Why is this so? Because children are the main resource of the poor, helping them to work their farms and providing security in their old age, while money is the main resource of the wealthy and children cost money.

People are not poor because they have too many children, as we would have it, but they have many children because they are poor. It is the rational thing for them to do, and only improving their standard of living will encourage them to limit the number of children they have.

Thus if we wish to improve the world's environment, we must be prepared both to reduce our own consumption and to share our remaining wealth so that others do not have to depend so heavily on their own children to survive. That, however, is an unpalatable doctrine, so we smugly blame the victims whom we have exploited for their own poverty.

Other examples abound. We blame Africans for not conserving their wildlife, when the establishment of game parks has threatened both domestic herds and wildlife by artificially constricting their grazing routines, to the benefit only of wealthy Western tourists. As poor African farmers and herders require more and more land for their own survival, conservation strikes them as yet another colonialist plot to exploit their resources, ostensibly for their own good.

We blame Brazilians for callously destroying the tropical rain forest, heedless of the needs of poor Indians, rubber tappers, and landless peasants for its resources or of the fact that it is our pollution and destruction of our own forests that makes preservation of their rain forest so critical.

No one can deny that environmental degradation is the most serious crisis the whole world faces today, but until the environmental movement accurately assesses our own dominant role in environmental destruction, places poor people among those endangered by it, and considers their needs on a par with our own, third world people will find its self-serving morality no more acceptable than that of the colonialists a century ago. Otherwise, environmentalism bodes well to become the imperialism of the 21st century.

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