Are environmentalists hypocrites?

Concern for the environment often rises alongside material wealth. Yet that wealth in turn drives environmental destruction. Is there a way out?

Bryan Smith/
Thousands line up for Whole Foods Market launch of 'I'm Not A Plastic Bag' shopping totes designed by Anya Hindmarch at select Whole Foods Markets in New York City on Jul 18, 2007. Designer Anya Hindmarch is on location at the Whole Foods Market Bowery for the New York City launch of the totes.

A common charge against environmentalists is that they’re hypocrites. They tell us to reduce our carbon emissions, the typical argument goes, yet they fly planes all over the world. They condemn Big Macs, yet they buy raspberries imported from a different hemisphere. They sneer at our plastic shopping bags, yet every year they buy a new iPhone.

The same charge is frequently leveled against rich nations. For instance, a 2014 Financial Times op-ed by science policy analysts Roger Pielke and Daniel Sarewitz criticized the Obama administration for focusing foreign aid on low-carbon projects instead of those that would deliver electricity to the most people, choices that they say reflects “a widely shared assumption that poor nations need not aspire to the sort of energy consumption seen in North America, western Europe and other wealthy regions.”

Is it true? Researchers have found that concern for the environment rises with wealth, but so does one’s ecological footprint. This leads to a truth that some environmentalists might find inconvenient on this Earth Day weekend: The greater your concern for the environment, the more likely you are to be destroying it.

This contradiction arises from the simple fact that those experiencing poverty, be they individuals or nations, devote more time to their own survival than to global issues, even when the two are linked. Given the choice between electricity and clean air, most choose electricity.

In effect, it’s when faced with the option of having both electricity and clean air that environmentalism gains traction as a political force. There’s evidence that poor and lower-income people care about the environment, but feel less financially able to act on that concern.

“Just because there's a kind of general prevailing idea of what sustainability and preserving the environment are, does not mean that people of color, poor people are not really concerned about the environment or involved in it,” says Melissa Checker, professor of urban studies at Queens College and professor of anthropology and environmental psychology at the City University of New York. “There are just different ways to think about nature and caring about it. All equally valid.”

The intersection of economics and ecology is a complex one, but it can be partially explained with a Kuznets curve, an upside down “U” shaped graph developed by Nobel laureate economist Simon Kuznets in the 1950s to illustrate economic inequality. As a country’s per capita income rises, Kuznets argued, inequality increases at first, before reaching a turning point when it starts to decline.

Some evidence points to an environmental Kuznets curve: As an economy grows, the environment suffers due to increased consumption. This continues until the average income of that economy is high enough for individuals to make the environment a priority. A 2008 study suggests that this happens when a country’s annual per capita income reaches about $30,000.

The environmental Kuznets curve illustrates how, as a nation industrializes, environmental degradation rises at first and then declines.
Jacob Turcotte/Staff

Something like that appears to have happened in the United States around 1970, the year of the first Earth Day, when public demand led to the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. In the years since, The United States has seen a 73 percent drop in the pollutants listed in the Clean Air Act and are saving nearly 100 billion gallons of water a day compared to the 1980’s peak, even as the economy grew. Iconic species such as the American bald eagle and the humpback whale have returned from the brink of extinction.

When it comes to greenhouse gases, America’s turning point came much later. US emissions peaked in 2007.

Again, all this doesn't mean less-affluent people don't care about clean water and air, or Earth's climate. While polls in the US show concern for the environment rising by education level, lower income voters or residents sometimes show stronger concern on issues like water or global warming than those with higher incomes. And globally, polling by the Pew Research Center finds people in India and Latin America more worried about global warming than those in developed nations.

Still, the conundrum remains: Can environmentalism coexist with rising prosperity? Some experts argue it’s impossible for economic growth to continue indefinitely, as long as that growth is linked to the physical world. 

“Infinite economic growth is horrible for the planet,” says David Pellow a professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “So the very framing of the idea of pro-environmental behavior is missing this really important point that it is almost always rooted in an anti-ecological framework of infinite economic growth.”

So to save our environment, must we sacrifice our economy? Professor Pellow offers no easy solutions. “To achieve ecological sustainability, we’re going to have to go beyond basic reforms and tweaks,” he said. “We absolutely need to rethink and overhaul our entire idea of our way of life and what civilization is.”

Other experts, while agreeing major economic changes will be needed, are more optimistic, especially if human population peaks and then begins to decline, thanks to lifestyle changes that come with rising prosperity. Some have outlined paths toward “deep decarbonization” of the economy, seeking to stop global warming. Their vision includes continued economic growth, but with vastly greater energy efficiency and reliance on renewable power, including in developing nations.

Joela Jacobs, an assistant professor of German studies at the University of Arizona studying the culture of environmentalism among refugees in Europe, sees a few cues we can take from those refugees and the poor around the world.

“Assuming that those who are poor do not know about the importance of environmentalism is a huge misconception,” she says. “If you live in poverty, you know what scarcity of resources means and what an uncertain future means, and I think that's precisely [the lesson] to learn.”

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