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Who is More “Sustainable”, Rich or Poor?

Presidio Economics | Wednesday May 4th, 2011 | 0 Comments

This post is part of a blogging series by economics students at the Presidio Graduate School’s MBA program. You can follow along here.

By Emily Alt

There have been numerous debates over who is more sustainable: is it affluent people who can afford all the new fancy sustainable products, such as hybrid cars and solar panels, or is it the poor who consume significantly less per capita because they have no other choice? The much-hated answer is: it depends.

The sustainable practices of both the rich and poor vary from country to country; the biggest discrepancy appears to be between developed and developing countries. The lower classes in developed countries generally live very unsustainable lives, eating processed foods, buying products from dollar stores or gas stations, and living in inefficient houses.  These groups of people ignore sustainable practices because they do not care, are not informed, or cannot afford sustainable products and services. The situation is drastically different in a developing nation, with larger populations, lower poverty lines, and scarce resources.

Poor populations in developing countries live off the land, and share the workload and associated benefits with their neighbors. For example, many of the farms in Mexico are community-run and are the sole income providers for the families.  Many of these farms are organic because the farmers cannot afford the pesticides and herbicides that large-scale operations use, nor do they use tractors or irrigation systems. Most of the farms in Mexico are still tilled by riding horses through the fields and the crops are supplied water by hand-poured buckets gathered from local wells. The farmers do not partake in sustainable practices because they care about the environment, but because they want to run a business that will last indefinitely without depleting the land; they want to leave healthy productive land for their children and grandchildren.

In developed countries, the rich are using sustainability as another way to prove how much they are worth. By driving around hybrid cars and attaching solar panels to their houses, people are using sustainability as a new status symbol and destroying the true meaning behind the movement.  The green-washing epidemic that is spreading throughout the business world appears to be occurring on an individual basis in developed countries. The wealthy buy the new sustainable high-tech products claiming to be sustainable, but in reality, the purchase of these products does not rectify the individual’s high-level of consumption.  Driving around a hybrid car instead of a Hummer does not offset the greenhouse gas emissions released when you fly to the Cayman Islands for vacation. Simply put, the rich have more money to spend and whether they chose to buy sustainable products will not change the fact that they consume more than any poor person.  Wealthy people, who buy a new car every three to five years, generate more greenhouse gas emissions and waste more natural resources than the poor who cannot even afford a car and depend on their own two feet for means of transportation.

Regardless of the ability for wealthy people to buy sustainable products, the fact remains that this population contributes most to the greenhouse emissions and are the most unwilling to change from their consumerism ways. Most poor communities live sustainably out of necessity not because of their personal beliefs; they would not even recognize themselves as a sustainable community.  The real question here is not who is more sustainable, but how can we influence everyone, poor and rich alike, to be more sustainable?

 

To read more about this issue: Read the Economist’s article: Losing sleep over climate change: Poor countries may be more worried than rich ones.


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