Listening to the Poor

What Western environmentalists could learn from real poor people


Johannesburg, South Africa—During a thirty-minute taxi ride to the National Exposition Center in Johannesburg—where the "civil society" Global Forum groups are holding sessions—I had a chance to talk with our driver Issac, a 60 year old black resident of Johannesburg.

Issac is a twin and one of nine children. His father raised cattle in the Northern Province. I told him that I, too, grew up on a farm and thought it was very hard work. That's why I have a cushy job as a journalist today. He agrees that farm work is hard but likes the fact that farmers are independent operators. "When you are farmer, you see the product of your own labor—the cows, the millet, the chickens," he said. Issac confided that he thought frozen meat, which could languish in a refrigerator for a couple of months, was unhealthy. It's much better just to go out and kill a chicken or cow and eat the fresh meat when one is hungry. He did admit that sometimes during a drought, he and his family went hungry.

Issac then turned the tables and asked me if I had any children. He himself was now the proud father of 6 children and 8 grandchildren. I told him no, I have no children. To put it mildly, he was horrified. "How old are you?," he asked. I told him my age and he was even more distressed. "Who will take care of you when you're old?" (I forbore to suggest my investments would one day support me; after all, they're somewhat depressed nowadays.)

Issac was very anxious to explain to me the value of children. "You know you should have many children because one or two of them will be selfish and not support you when you're old," he explained. Besides, with children, when you go home, "you are the King. For example, I want a glass of water, I tell a child to get it and he gets it," he assured me. At this juncture, I didn't try to explain to him that children in the United States are little princesses and princes squired around by their vassal moms and dads to soccer games and piano lessons. The idea of children as luxury items was not easily explained.

So what is the wisdom of Issac? One of the most fascinating aspects of modern political environmentalism is the fact that the "population issue" has essentially disappeared from its agenda. In the 1970s, the enviromental movement could talk of little else than the "population bomb." It is not being discussed at all at the World Summit on Sustainable Development. Why? Because demographers and even most committed Greens recognize that Issac is a relic of a less prosperous and frankly more unsophisticated past. It is very unlikely that any of his six children will themselves bear six children. First, they've left the farm where labor is at a premium. Second, thanks to advancements in sanitation and primary health care, they can count on the fact that most of their children will live to adulthood, so they don't need to have any "backup" children. Third, the expense of city living means that children are a net cost, not an asset.

Consequently, total fertility rates are falling in most countries. In 1960, the average women had nearly 6 children over the course of her lifetime. Globally, that is steeply down by more than half, to about 2.7 children, well on its way to replacement fertility of 2.1 children. That is why the low variant UN population trend is likely—the world may never see more than 8.5 billion people before world population begins contracting around 2040 or so.

With the specter of "overpopulation" vanquished, what can political environmentalists claim is the global crisis allegedly confronting humanity? Again, Issac has some wisdom to offer. He loved his childhood life raising cattle but moved to Johannesburg because there is more money, more opportunity, in the city. That's the core of the problem that rich Western environmentalists have with the developing world—they are afraid that Issac and his fellow poor people will aspire to live the way they do. Issac's children and grandchildren will want bigger houses, private automobiles, university educations, computers, refrigerators, air-conditioning, restaurant meals, imported foods, and trips abroad. In the lexicon of ideological environmentalists this is called "overconsumption."

To prevent the spread of "overconsumption" the Greens at the Summit in Johannesburg want to mandate measures that would "protect the livelihoods" of people like Issac's cattle-raising father. Essentially, the goal is to stop poor people like Issac from moving to the city and driving taxis or doing other work. These rich country environmentalists think Issac is better off raising cattle and chickens in the countryside. Of course, Issac himself might agree with that, but it is very doubtful that his children and grandchildren who've seen the bright lights and the opportunities afforded them by Johannesburg would concur.

The environmentalist goal of "protecting livelihoods" is a recipe for keeping hundreds of millions of poor people down on hardscrabble and environmentally dubious farms. Individual opportunities and wealth creation arise through the destruction of obsolete livelihoods. Candlemakers were put out of business by electric light bulb manufacturers. Stables closed because of automobiles, foot messengers lost their jobs because telephones were invented. Most of those people moved on to better opportunities. In fact, something like eighty percent of the "livelihoods" that support people in the rich developed world simply didn't exist a century ago.

By all means, those of us in rich developed countries should remove policies, e.g. subsidies and trade restrictions, that retard the development of farmers in developing countries. But we must keep in mind that what we are ultimately doing is opening up opportunities for the children of once poor farmers to choose lives not tied to the land.

What would shock Issac and certainly should shock people already enjoying the good life in developed economies is that ideological environmentalists are aiming at "wealth alleviation." During a press conference at the International Union for the Conversation of Nature (IUCN), Daniel Bitler from the World Wildlife Fund made it clear what sustainable development really means to committed political environmentalists. "Sustainable development is setting the necessary social and ecological limits to economic growth," he declared. In other words, poor people like Issac and his children should not aspire to the opportunities and wealth enjoyed by the citizens of developed countries. This vision is based on the false Malthusian notion that the world's resources are limited, condemning a large portion of the world's people to misery and poverty in perpetuity.

This is nonsense. I suspect that part of the reason Issac works in Johannesburg is that his father no longer needed to be a subsistence farmer—technological progress and economic development made it much cheaper and easier to buy frozen meat rather than raise it himself. Ideological environmentalism is still in thrall to a two centuries-old idea of limited resources that human ingenuity long ago outstripped. If these discredited economic theories are adopted by international bureaucracies and imposed on developing countries, Issac's grandchildren will live in poverty for many decades to come.