Environmental Activists Perpetuate Third-World Poverty

Published November 1, 2005

Developing countries today find themselves at a critical juncture. The environmental ministries in many developing countries have become outposts of local Green converts.

In light of that choice, the economic ministries in these countries must play a central role in resisting eco-imperialism. They must have the last say on any transnational treaty or convention their country signs.

Why do the Greens persist with their crusade? The reason is that, like any religion, their beliefs are not based on reason, but on faith.

That is why, in my view, the time has surely come for those who do not profess the same faith to resist these new ecological imperialists.

Green Faith Rising

The first point of resistance is to recognize what they are seeking to do.

Bluntly, they would like to perpetuate the poverty of the great Eurasian civilizations–India and China. As they see it, these nations’ burgeoning, unwashed masses are increasingly emitting noxious pollutants as they seek to become prosperous and achieve parity with the West.

As economic historians have emphasized, the Industrial Revolution–which led to the rise of the West–was based on converting from the traditional organic, rural economy.

Previously, people had used energy derived from land, the supply of which was ultimately limited. The Industrial Revolution created an economy based on the use of mineral energy–one that still uses fossil fuels, whose supply, for all practical purposes, is virtually unlimited.

It is by burning fossil fuels that the West has gotten rich and redressed the mass structural poverty which had been the fate of its masses for millennia.

The same opportunity is now available to the developing countries. But the Greens in the West, in serving their dubious cause of halting global warming, want to deny the same means for the developing world’s poor to climb out of poverty.

Institutional, Physical Capitalism Needed

The Industrial Revolution in England and the globalization which followed were based on two forms of capitalism. One form was institutional, namely the free trade approach defended by Adam Smith. The other was physical, namely the capital stock of stored energy made possible by fossil fuels.

Greens are against both forms of capitalism–the free trade advocated by Smith, as well as the continued burning of fossil fuels. That leaves little hope for the world’s poor.

Despite their protestations to the contrary, the Greens are the enemy of the world’s poor.

The UN and many of its specialized agencies have provided antiglobalization and environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as a host of others espousing Western politically correct causes, an institutional framework in which to push their agenda.

It is time to shut them down. They do little to advance the cause of peace and prosperity.

NGOs Corrupted

Even the more technocratic agencies, such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, have served the environmentalists’ purposes by failing to foster economic growth in the developing countries.

Others, such as the World Health Organization, seem to have stepped well beyond their purely technical arena to take up various politically correct but dubious crusades, such as those against smoking and obesity.

Still others, such as the International Labor Organization (ILO), United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO), United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), and United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO), have already served whatever initial purpose they might have had.

These organizations are now all incubators of various antiglobalization agendas, staffed by rent-seeking international bureaucracies. They do not serve the interests of the U.S. and even less those of the world’s poor in whose name they claim to speak.

They should all be closed, or at least the United States should withdraw its financial support from them and let them fend for themselves.

U.S. Leadership Needed

But this is unlikely to happen, because many of the causes espoused by the NGOs and these international agencies are part of the West’s current cultural values. It is the attempt to legislate these Western habits of the heart worldwide that poses the gravest danger to world order.

The situation bears a resemblance to the ethical component of 19th century imperialism, which was in part responsible for the breakdown of that century’s liberal international economic order. That imperialism was in part motivated by the civilizing mission embodied in the phrase, “white man’s burden.”

Something similar is afoot today. The calls for “ethical” trading, “ethical” foreign policies, and the insistence that everyone embrace the West’s political system of majoritarian democracy are symptomatic of the imperialist mindset.

There is pressure in the West to use multilateral institutions to legislate these Western values worldwide.

Western Pressures Increasing

The various proposals to introduce labor and environmental standards in the World Trade Organization and to tie issues of human rights to trade and investment under the rubric of ethical trading are of this ilk. They have neither logic nor ethics on their side.

Even if these protectionist attacks are beaten back, they cause international friction that could slowly unravel the new liberal international economic order.

Moreover, these efforts tend to aggravate the suspicion of many developing countries that the newly emerging globalized economy will lead to a form of cultural imperialism that will undermine their ancient and cherished ways of life.

Deepak Lal ([email protected]) is the James S. Coleman Professor of International Development Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles.

For more information …

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