Economic Disadvantage: How the Green Economy Benefits the Privileged and Condemns the Poor

Economic Disadvantage: How the Green Economy Benefits the Privileged and Condemns the Poor

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the biggest economies in the world are the United States and China. Along with these two countries are other industrialised countries like Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom. With trillions of dollars in GDP, these countries sit at the top of the world’s economic pyramids and along with this industrial might has also come enormous political power. These countries more or less, call the shots as to what happens economically and geopolitically.

These nations are generally considered by many as having attained the heights of man’s ingenuity. Many believe they have managed to channel man’s brainpower and innovation to utilize the earth’s resources to the advantage of man and his wellbeing; I don’t think this description is accurate. In my opinion, what they have done is to pillage the earth more efficiently in a manner hitherto unknown to man. 

From colonialism and slavery, down to coal and oil exploration, these countries have all at one time or another exploited the earth (and other humans and countries) in ways that are unconscionable and, at times, downright despicable. In recent times, the result of these actions increasingly comes to light. Climate change and its constituent issues and impacts are making us swallow the bitter truth; that the actions of these ‘successful’ nations have caused a lot of environmental and social harm.

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The USA made its wealth from fossil fuels and encouraging consumerism. Credit: Unsplash

This is where the “Green Economy” comes in. The Green Economy is loosely defined as “an economy that aims at reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities, and that aims for sustainable development without degrading the environment.” In other words, the green economy is human trade that finds a more sustainable way of utilizing the earth’s resources. 

Personally, I think that the concept of a Green Economy would be a very noble effort to salvage the current climatic situation (as a matter of fact, it is a noble effort), except that once again, these green ‘advancements’ are being championed by the countries that have brought us to where we are. Economies which have so ravaged the earth’s resources that the whole world is now fighting for survival at the hands of climate change. The argument of these developed nations is simple and very persuasive; make the switch to a green economy, fossil fuels are bad for the earth. You don’t want to be the country that causes climate change. 

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Ordinarily, this is a transition that should be embraced by any country but transitioning to a “green economy” requires skills, infrastructure and resources that most developing nations do not possess. In addition, the remainder of these developing countries have spent decades in developing the infrastructure to harness their natural resources (modelling their actions, quite naturally, after the countries that sit atop the global food chain) and increasingly have economies entirely dependent on resources such as oil.

As these countries inch closer to economic emancipation, the goal posts are moved yet again, by the global economic elites. This is how the green economy unconsciously (or consciously) keeps developing countries in a state of perpetual disadvantage.

Cotton pickers in India are amongst some of the world’s poorest people. Credit: Solidaridad Network

These economic powers-to-be swoon in with promises of financial aid and development support, and struggling nations have little choice; the economic giants make it clear where they want their investments to go. If a developing country does not play ball, their economy becomes crippled and unsustainable in the long-run. A real-world example is a World Bank policy which forbids financial lending to build coal-fired power stations. Under pressure from lobby groups, the bank halted the one billion dollars (£750m) a year it has been lending for oil and gas projects in developing countries and has announced plans to also stop lending for upstream oil exploration projects. It says it will consider making exceptions for the poorest of countries (isn’t that just awesome?). 

Another observation here is that while preaching for a greener economy, many first world countries are reluctant to commit to it themselves. They continue to enjoy the benefits of the fossil economy while brazenly contributing to carbon emissions. In 2018, China and the United States were the two biggest carbon emitters in the world

This weighted scale is not limited to the macroeconomics of nations but is also very evident in microeconomics, namely conscious choices and manufactured products. For years, the ‘upper-class’ or highly ‘privileged’ citizens have contributed the most to greenhouse gas emissions. From owning multiple cars and multiple homes, down to their fuel-guzzling boats and private jets; the privileged and wealthy have continually encouraged through their lifestyle, ceaseless assaults on the environment. 

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With the gradual transition to producing and consuming ‘eco-friendly’ products, members of the high-come classes are once again at the beneficial end of this transition. Eco-conscious products often come with higher price tags, from electric vehicles to overpriced ‘boxed water’, those belonging to the privileged and upper classes can easily buy their way to climate responsibility. The ‘lower-class citizens’ are seldom that fortunate. They are stuck between the struggle for what they can afford and the guilt of destroying the planet; not an easy spot to be in. Going by the definition of ‘sustainability’ espoused by the privileged, it would mean that those with the least would have to give up the little they have, all in the name of “zero waste living”.

The United Nations Environment Programme 2011 Green Economy Report argues that “to be green, an economy must not only be efficient, but also fair. Fairness here implies recognizing global and country level equity dimensions, particularly in assuring a just transition to an economy that is low-carbon, resource efficient, and socially inclusive.”

If that is the case, then it is imperative that we re-examine the concept of the green economy. It is fundamentally unfair to impose a new set of standards on developing countries while the developed countries who have derived their fortune profiting off of the same resources, are now forbidden to go where others went unscathed.

Competitive Disadvantage- How the Green Economy Benefits the Privileged &Condemns the Poor
Boxed Water is marketed as the cool new ‘eco’ alternative to bottled water. Credit: Unsplash

Now this might appear to be the “green pickle”; a call for a greener economy is unfair and to keep quiet is to condemn the earth. That is not quite the case; the goal here is not silence. I do not write this because I have the solutions to this complex issue, I write it because I don’t. The goal here is to bring to communal attention, the bias that is fraught in the climate change and eco movement.

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This is a call for us to change our approach to climate activism and better understand the unfair and exclusionary interpretations of the green economy; a definition that only perpetuates economic and social privilege. 

It is only with this knowledge that we can best shape the narrative, the conversations, solutions and impacts of climate change activism and the eco movement. 

Because when we know better, we can ultimately do better.

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Title image credit: Unsplash.

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