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A False Dilemma: Clean Up the Environment or Reduce Poverty

3p Contributor | Tuesday February 8th, 2011 | 1 Comment

By Glen Low

A couple weeks ago I was at home on a Saturday morning reading the Wall Street Journal when I began reading the articles Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?, co-authored as counterpoint arguments by Peter Singer and Bjorn Lomborg. 

I was excited to see a mainstream business journal tackling the weighty issue of poverty reduction and environmental preservation.  However, my enthusiasm quickly waned as I began reading.  Although full of compelling arguments, the articles often felt polarizing and intended to diminish each other’s opinions.  I also found it frustrating that they often argued past each other, since at times they were not in the same debate (Singer was arguing “Does Helping the Planet Hurt the Poor?” while Lomborg was often arguing a different question of “Can we afford to both reduce poverty and clean up the environment?”)

In short, the two authors seemed most intent on winning their respective arguments rather than using their enviable platform to inspire the world’s business leaders to action.

After reading these articles, I was struck by a particular concern: is it possible that these articles will direct the readers to always think the environment and poverty alleviation is a tradeoff?  Must we decide to save the world’s poor OR the planet? 

This point really hit home for me a few days later when a c-level executive of a Fortune 50 company asked what I thought of the two op-eds.  His question was simple: “Who is right?”

In thinking through what is the best reframe, I decided the best answer is “They both are.”  I also proposed that we ask a different question: “How do we both reduce poverty and clean up the environment?”

Perhaps surprisingly, when you look back at the WSJ articles reframed around this question, I would speculate that both Mr. Singer and Mr. Lomborg would reach a common answer which is “Yes, we can as long as we are smart consumers (Mr. Singer’s primary premise) and smart spenders (Mr. Lomborg’s primary premise).”  The article contains many instances of them actually agreeing:

  • Both poverty reduction and environmental initiatives are reinforcing (Singer: child survival results in smaller families and thus fewer population issues.  Lomberg: addressing base needs means people can then care more about the environment.)
  • Empirically, results show we can afford both (Singer: alternative environmentally sustainable economic opportunities are possible.  Lomborg: developed world is sufficiently rich.)
  • We can behave wisely, thus saving for the future (Singer: help today’s poor and tomorrow’s global poor.  Lomborg: we should take care of future, but at same time take care of ourselves.)
  • We must act now (Singer:  We can’t wait for a technological miracle.  Lomborg: We are perfectly capable of tackling the problem today.)

 

There is a long and well documented track record of innovative individuals and companies finding a way to do both. Personally, my team has spent the last several years being honored to work with one of the world’s largest companies driving sustainable products and sustainable agriculture. They include innovation and commitments that have the potential to reduce poverty for millions while helping save the environment. 

It is unfortunate that these kinds of inspiring innovations don’t get highlighted in these two articles.  Instead, we are left with the divisive, polarizing arguments that too often serve as a reason to NOT take action. 

Going forward, I would argue that solving poverty and saving the environment are inextricably linked.  Neither problem will be effectively solved without addressing the other. Society MUST do both.

Glen Low is a Principal with Blu Skye, a strategy consulting firm focused on advising Fortune 500 companies on sustainability.  He has over 15 years of business and consulting experience spanning from start-ups to the world’s largest and most successful companies.


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  • Michael

    Give it to the WSJ to pick the two most out-of-touch thinkers in the environmental field.