Do Our Green Projects Hurt the World’s Poor?

This is an interesting question we’ve paraphrased from a great article by Peter Singer in a recent Wall Street Journal.  Peter considers that we will not hurt the world’s poor as long as industrialized nations are willing to make sacrifices.  Bjørn Lomborg answers that we will harm the poor if we listen to the “green extremists”.  Who has the best argument?

This, to us, is a potential conflict with one of The Natural Step’s sustainability principles.  Principal Four states “eliminate our contribution to conditions that undermine people’s capacity to meet their basic needs.”  While “eliminating our contributions to progressive buildup of substances extracted, and chemicals produced, and physical degradation” are we depressing people’s ability to make a living?  That is the dilemma.  Can we stimulate those economies while trying to green the world?

The answer may truly lie with our ability to do both, and that we must.  It will be a vicious cycle if we don’t do both.  According to the article, industrialized nations must make sacrifices to lift the world’s poor.  If they don’t, then all of the issues that make things worse for the environment will continue.  The premise is that the poorer nations are the ones that have the most significant population growth, which put more pressure on the environment.  We pointed that out in our book as one of the “problem drivers and indicators” of the green wave, along with rapidly developing nations and resource degradation and loss of biodiversity.  These are all related.  Rapidly developing countries are where the poorer people are, and the pressure to harvest rain forests, for instance, to provide firewood, income, and farmland, is felt the most.  SO according to Peter, the easy answer is to reduce poverty.  The difficult question is how.

If we stimulate growth and we stimulate employment, we create projects that may be in conflict with environmental concerns.  If we build schools and housing, we take away land; maybe wetlands, old growth forests, and critical habitat.  If we stimulate farming to help people feed themselves, again, we potentially can destroy entire ecosystems.  Peter points out that “…there is no single currency by which we can measure the benefit of saving human lives against the cost of destroying forests that provide the last remaining refuges for free-living chimpanzees, orangutans, and Sumatran tigers.”

We can see that here is a bitter pill, here, to be swallowed universally, wherever you are on what we like to call the “Hugger-Hummer” spectrum.  Less is what we need to strive for, “less energy from fossil fuels, use less air conditioning and less heat, fly and drive less, and eat less meat.”  When we say universally, we mean the developing countries may need to compromise on what they are striving to do, too.  It is a global issue and needs to be dealt with, globally.  Green projects, or greening of projects if you will, go a long way to helping.  By leading the efforts to increase a project’s greenality, green project managers will increase efficiencies and reduce the use of those scarce resources we talk about in our book.  Remember, it is not just projects that are green by definition, developing alternate energy sources, as an example, all projects can benefit by viewing it through the green project manager’s environmental lens.

More about Bjørn Lomborg response in a future post.