There's a nasty myth out there that ecological responsibility is unattainable for or even deleterious to poor people. This belief manifests itself myriad ways: "Organic food is more expensive than conventional produce, so environmentally responsible food choices are off limits to the poor," or "Hybrid cars are too expensive for poor people," or "Poor people are too busy surviving to worry about recycling," or, most egregiously, "Environmental regulations stifle economic growth, which in turn harms the poor!"
This myth is perpetuated primarily by two groups. First, obviously, are corporations that make money by polluting or would make less money if forced to adopt more ecologically responsible practices. Complying with restrictions on emissions and waste disposal, they argue, drives down their profits, forcing them to hire fewer people or offer their product at a higher price; higher prices and fewer jobs, logic tells you, hurt the working poor. This is the same line of reasoning that rallies against labor unions and offering medical benefits and that lets corporations and governments turn a blind eye toward child labor and unhealthful working conditions. If production thrives, people of all classes will magically thrive along with it.
The second group of people correlating environmentalism and the plight of the poor are a more well-meaning band of (usually relatively wealthy) liberals and academics. To them, environmental justice means that environmental regulations not interfere with the working class’s economic mobility. They are prompted by their weekly outings to Whole Foods, where they notice that all the food is expensive and all the clientele are white people who drive Volvo station wagons. Obviously something is amiss, so it must be environmentalism itself.
These lines of reasoning imply a definition of quality of life that overvalues ownership of cheap consumer goods and undervalues personal health.
In the United States, having less money is fairly conducive to environmental sustainability, at least in theory. Working class folk are more likely to bike or take public transportation instead of driving; less money means fewer electronics, clothes, Swiffers, and other resource-intensive goods that need to be shipped overseas; and a plant-based diet is both cheaper and vastly less environmentally damaging than an omnivorous diet (and the financial difference would be even more magnified if it weren’t for corn and grain subsidies, which force taxpayers to fund cheap meat).
In China, or any country whose short-term economic growth is currently dependent upon selling cheap manufactured goods to rich consumers in countries whose long-term economic growth is dependent upon moving away from selling cheap manufactured goods, lax or nonexistent environmental standards on farms and factories give corporations another incentive to produce their goods overseas instead of in countries where those goods’ consumers live. These lax eco standards are supported by corporations who want to lower their production costs, consumers who want cheaper goods, and misguided humanitarians who stand by the adage that a crappy job is better than no job at all. But while pitifully low wages have only short-term consequences on the people who earn them, pollution and habitat destruction will negatively affect those people for generations to come. By the time every Chinese family has a car, river and air pollution will have already maimed an entire class upon whose backs this “prosperity” was built. True quality of life improvement is about education, medicine, democracy, and preservation of a community’s way of life, not how many TVs are in each household. I don’t think the local townspeople get to vote on whether a United States company gets to pay to illegally dump its trash in that community’s watershed.
If there were such a thing as the opposite of irony, this would be it: the piss poor environmental standards that allow more money to flow into developing nations in turn facilitates more environmental destruction in those areas as more people can buy cars, DVD players, and computers.
This isn’t an endorsement for poverty. I’m not that ridiculous. My point isn’t that being poor is good; my point is that being ecologically responsible doesn’t require that you have a lot of money, nor are poverty and sustainability incompatible. There’s nothing inherently elitist about environmentalism, even if most the movement’s members are relatively wealthy people in rich countries. Indeed, maybe we college-educated white liberals are unique in having the leisure time and education to fret about long-term global health. But if we privileged few don’t speak up for the disadvantaged many, by the time these billions of poor workers have the resources to advocate for their own environmental rights, it will probably be too late to repair the damage ecologically irresponsible production practices will have already inflicted.
It's also worth noting that the poor are the most negatively affected by environmental destruction. They have almost no legal recourse when eco standards have been violated to their detriment. They're the least equipped to financially absorb the medical costs associated with asthma, lead poisoning, and other pollution-related illnesses. They usually have the least access to information about environmental destruction and their ability to influence it. When a corporation or government is deciding to clear cut rainforest to make room for cattle pasture, I doubt the working poor have the liesure time and educational resources to fight back.
I'll address Paul's uninformed posit that organic foods are a luxurious option only available to rich people later. That's what prompted this post, yet somehow I didn't get to it here.