EarthRx: Poor People Are Not Driving the Environmental Crisis, They Are On the Front Line

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EarthRx: Poor People Are Not Driving the Environmental Crisis, They Are On the Front Line

The idea that capitalism will save the world and that poverty, not greed, is actually to blame for deforestation and other ecological disasters is nothing new, but I always dismissed it as more free market nutjob nonsense. When I recently saw the well-respected environmental outlet towing that blood encrusted old line however, I knew this issue could no longer be ignored.

This column is supposed to be about solutions, but if we are confused about the problem we can’t even begin to get into solutions. And Grist is very confused.

In a widely promoted eight-part series benevolently titled “Solving Poverty: Putting People First,” writer Nathanael Johnson pretends to “tackle” the “big issues” behind poverty and environmental destruction with one of the most shameless capitalism green-washing campaigns I have ever seen. Not only does he fail to mention the real cause of both, which is corporate greed, he actually tries to make the whack argument that poor people themselves are the real cause of the environmental crisis and only more industry can solve the problem.

“Environmentalists should swallow hard and cheer as poor countries build factories, power plants, and highways.” He writes in the fourth article of the series, which is entitled: “How Food, Forests, and People are Connected, in 10 Charts.”

Taking a look at the charts he provides immediately reveals how flimsy and downright fictional his supporting facts are. For example, in a simple looking little graphic with green squares that represent land use, he posits a stick figure hunter-gather against different stick figure farmers in various parts of the world to show that in the U.S., by far the most efficient of the bunch, farmers need less than a tenth of the land needed by hunter-gatherers to feed one person. It’s cute but also completely make-believe—for several reasons.

The most obvious crack in the pot is right in the text under the image where Johnson reveals that “The chart above shows the amount of land needed to provide a basic vegetarian diet.”

A hunter-gatherer that doesn’t hunt is not a hunter-gatherer (even a toddler could point that out), and that drastically changes the count of green boxes. But Johnson just continues to confuse the issue by arming his hunter who doesn’t hunt with a Neolithic looking club right out of Captain Caveman cartoons. What exactly does a vegetarian use a club for? Gonna beat up some cauliflower?

The entire graphic is a straw man argument, literally and figuratively.

But even if we were to take this chart seriously, we would still have to ask ourselves how the land is being used by each stick figure. Is the hunter-gatherer who doesn’t hunt destroying the land he doesn’t hunt but only gathers on? Probably not—hunter-gatherers have been doing their thing for millennia without much negative impact on the earth.

But how about that super green American farmer?

According to Federal data, over 50 percent of American farms are devoted to monocropping just two agricultural products: corn and soy. This means that huge tracts of land across the country (over more than million farmed acres) are devoid of any other plant life. Monocrops are highly unsustainable—according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUSA), they contribute to reduced biodiversity and, as a consequence, increase pesticide use and fertilizer pollution.

To make matters worse, around 90 percent of both corn and soy crops grown in the U.S are genetically modified, a process linked to far ranging environmental and public health concerns—everything from Monarch butterfly extinction to a variety of human safety issues.

How green is that American farmer now?


Anyone who has been following Grist will not be surprised by their support of corporate agriculture and GMO food. Johnson wrote a series a few years back for the site that basically gave genetically modified organisms a pass. Almost immediately, Anna Lappé over at Civil Eats did an excellent job of taking him down hard and fast.

Lappé’s main criticism of Johnson’s lengthy series on GMOs is the same as what bothers me: his complete refusal to address the corporate greed that is the real causative factor behind GMOs, poverty and the environmental crisis.

Those goofy little graphics could be forgiven for fictionalizing the facts and blurring reality if they were not being used to support a much larger and more insidious case—that poor people are wrecking the environment and that American style rampant industrialization will show up to save the day.

“Environmentalists should be cheering as poor countries build up cities and industry.” He says, adding “That’s an intentionally provocative way of putting it. But it’s correct, nonetheless.”

First of all, even according to the United Nations it is the biggest companies in the world that are destroying the environment, causing trillions of dollars of damage every year through industry and energy extraction. To claim that “power plants,” ” factories” and “highways” are the solution to the environmental crisis is to switch problem for solution, something highly irresponsible.

Second, while there is a link between extreme poverty in developing countries and some forms of environmental degradation like deforestation, study after study has found that profit is the real driving force behind both the ecological crisis and poverty.

In southern Africa for example, “Poverty and environmental degradation are linked in a vicious cycle in which the poor people cannot afford to take proper care of the environment since they have no alternative but to use environmental resources unsustainably for their basic survival,” reports the Southern Africa Regional Poverty Network (SARPN).

And what drives that vicious cycle?

“Policies that entrench unequal distribution of resources, lack of tenure and low commodity prices drive the poor into marginal environments, causing more poverty,” the paper states.

In other words, inequality is the cause of both poverty and environmental degradation—really just two sides of the same coin, two symptoms of the same disease. And the disease is greed.

The richest one percent of the world now have more wealth than everyone else combined, much of it made off the backs of the poor and the decimation of the earth through the very “factories,” “power plants” and phony “green” corporate agriculture schemes that Johnson advocates as the solution.

To pretend that the U.S. has solved either poverty or pollution and that its model should be copied is as disingenuous as it gets. America is both the richest and most unequal country in the world with 45 million people living below the poverty line. Home to just four percent of the world’s total population, the U.S. uses a whopping 25 percent of the world’s fossil fuel resources.

Now that’s a real problem.


Inequality is the complete opposite of “Solving Poverty” and “Putting People First,” but Johnson continues with his Orwellian doublespeak by devoting an entire article to Costa Rica as a model for modernizing without “wrecking the environment,” curbing poverty in the process. The fact is Costa Rica actually has the fastest-growing inequality rate in all of Latin America because of its modernization. It is a textbook example of how the capitalist growth policies that Johnson advocates completely failed to reduce poverty at all.

On the environmental tip, Costa Rica does have a fantastic system of national parks, but much of the reason why they are so “pristine” is because the country has one of the smallest indigenous populations in Latin America (around 2.5 percent). And why is that? Because the government almost completely killed them off, as Johnson admits. Hardly a model preservation technique.

In fact, much of Costa Rica’s “green” reputation is really a red herring—it actually ranks poorly in several important environmental categories. As the Guardian recently reported, the country’s demand for both gasoline and cars is quickly rising alongside its “modernization” (which has done nothing to reduce poverty remember) and the capital city of San Jose now claims the fame of being the most congested city in Latin America.

Futhermore, Costa Rica’s widely acclaimed “clean” electric energy projects are mostly dependent on dams, including the proposed El Diquis hydroelectric project, which would be the largest dam in Central America. The only problem, and why it has been stalled for years, is that it would destroy an important watershed and completely flood out and displace the indigenous Terraba and Chinakicha Nations—besides adversely affecting nearly half of the country’s entire remaining native population as well.

Which brings me to my final point.

Far from being the problem, poor people are often the only thing standing between Mother Nature and the greed machine. As I pointed out last month, Standing Rock is an constant battle in the Amazon rainforest, where real life hunter-gatherers and small farmers stand down giant oil and energy companies on daily basis. All around the world it’s the same song.

The poor often have to live in the oil spills and clearcut forests that the one percent need in order to keep their profit margin up.

Even in the U.S. it is the poor that have to live next to the paper mills, oil refineries and highways that Johnson blindly cheerleads, breathing their toxic fumes and suffering higher rates of asthma, cancer and other illnesses linked to heavy industry. Through billion-dollar subsidies that create an artificial market designed to make rich people richer, poor people are also forced to consume crappy GMO corn and soy products that are bad for human health and the environment.

The poor are not the problem, the poor are on the front line.

The problem is greed.

Photo by Ocupacao Munduruku, CC-BY. Image has been modified.

Ocean Malandra is Paste Magazine’s EarthRx columnist and is currently based in the mighty Amazon rainforest. He is the author of Paradise Now, forthcoming from Param Media.