International Environmentalism: Flaunting White Privilege

Karl Muth critiques the international environmentalist agenda and points to the ways it reinforces racism and inter-regional inequality.

The Chinese and Brazilians should cut their greenhouse gas emissions. The Japanese shouldn’t hunt the whales. The farmers in Africa and India shouldn’t be so quick to adopt GMO crops. Haiti should focus on feeding itself rather than on industralisation or innovation.

Let’s run through these four examples of statements I’ve heard from environmentalists or green-leaning people over the past year and examine why they are not only counterproductive, but embrace racist and neocolonialist values that should be opposed, offensive, and unacceptable in a civilised world.

The concept that China and Brazil have less of a right to pollute than Britain and America did during their industrial revolutions is based on nothing more than an accident of history; Britain and America happened to industrialise nearly a century earlier. They did this with no regard whatsoever for pollution; in fact, the reason parts of the Thames were not allowed to have wooden bridges was that every other Thursday parts at the break footer of the Thames (near the Isle of Dogs) would be set on fire to clear the flammable, nasty sludge that was floating on top of it. People criticising the level of pollution in Beijing often have no concept of the historical context for the levels of pollution in places like London and Pittsburgh at the heights of their industrialisations.

The hypocrisy inherent in having done a great deal of pollution during one’s own industrial revolution and then not allowing other, often non-majority-white, countries to go through their own evolutions toward industrialisation and post-industrialisation should not be ignored or discounted. In my lectures on the topic, I call this “the great temporal hypocrisy” – in that Brazil and China are making precisely the decisions Britain and America would have made in their place, only at a different time. And are criticized for this. If America really cared, it would sell its highest-tech nuclear reactors to China, thereby replacing its huge number of combustion power plants. Instead, this “environmental concern” is simply a way to inconvenience, hobble, and retard the industrial progress of one and a half billion people (China and Brazil) who have the ingenuity and dedication to do precisely what England and America did.

This hypocrisy continues into the whale hunt. While it’s generally accepted that the Japanese “research” vessels participating in the whale hunt are merely a way to use the research exception in the various treaties involved to partake in hunting, and the international community should and does condemn this misuse of what was intended to be a minor IWC exception, it is rarely discussed that the reason whales are endangered in the first place is due to whaling on a massive scale (unimaginable today), undertaken by Europeans to meet the demand for whale oil before fossil fuel lamp oils, purified vegetable oils, and synthetic industrial oils were available. Blaming the Japanese for their dubious “research whaling” today, which is merely commercial whaling in disguise, is valid. But doing so without recognising that whales are only endangered because of European and American activity is flawed, hypocritical, and damages the credibility of whomever is making the accusations.

The concept that brown people in the developing world should embrace the values of white, upper-class, Prius-driving Whole Foods customers is not only offensive on its face, but offensive in its implications. First of all, farmers in the developing world already operate at a substantial disadvantage to the mechanised agriculture of the developed world – asking them to further handicap themselves, earn lower wages, and risk the ability to feed their families because of philosophical babbling in some of the world’s wealthiest places is not only bizarre, it’s fundamentally unfair. Second, these farmers are arguably the ones least able to endure the huge yield variances of natural (which I call “unimproved” or “version zero”) crops and should adopt GMO (which I call “high-performance” or “designer”) crops.

Asking the poorest people on earth – barely supersubsistence farmers – to make comprehensive and suicidal sacrifices to please the fashion sense of wealthy whites in Paris, San Francisco, and London is, and should be labeled, outrageous. In fact, American and British environmentalists should be ashamed for asking these people to undertake any strategy aside from profit maximisation. I’m careful in my research to talk about the heads-of-household on farms I study in Uganda – small family farms of less than two hectares where people are earning less than $3.50/day – as businesspeople and entrepreneurs in my writing. Because that’s what they are: people running small businesses and trying to maximise profits. The environmentalist approach to these people reduces them to colonial peasants, helpless far-flung populations who need magical “white people advice” on how to run their businesses.

Perhaps the most bizarre and predatory “environmental” advice was from an economist from a Midwestern state university (I won’t name names) who claimed, on a panel we were both on, that Haiti should not re-industrialise following its massive earthquake for environmental reasons (this argument alone is dubious, as t-shirt factories are hardly “the problem” from an environmental standpoint) but should instead concentrate on farming (he thereby ignored that inefficient farming is also an environmental problem). As someone with some degree of expertise in agricultural economics who has studied Haiti in some detail, I had to wonder whether this recommendation was better than, or worse than, slavery. There is not a single crop a person can grow competitively (in economic terms) on the western side of Ispayola. To recommend a conversion back to the agrarian economy of the 1950’s is no better than saying that Haitians should be relegated to being the permanent beggars of the Caribbean.

There is one thing Haiti makes competitively, and that’s t-shirts. There is no reason Haiti should not be a t-shirt factory; in fact, it shouldn’t even grow food – it should fully-optimise around t-shirts and trade t-shirts for food. To contend otherwise is bad enough, but this particular person’s comments that the Haitians were not equipped to build or run these factories was extraordinarily bizarre (and echoed comments erroneously made in many reports in American-occupied post-WWII Japan – neither of these places suddenly “forgot” how to do what was being done before). The earthquake didn’t rattle away the memories of how to work in a t-shirt factory, and certainly didn’t make people forget how much more industrially-productive (with national and personal pecuniary rewards to match) the t-shirt industry was than the previous generations of farming – something any Haitian can explain.

Environmentalism as a philosophy is a luxurious one. But its imposition on the developing world is a type of philosophical neocolonialism that should not be allowed to continue. The concept that the industrial revolution in America and Britain was innovative and faultless while the industrial revolution in Brazil and China is dangerous and polluting is nothing more than lenses of racism, paternalism, and colonialism placed over the same history. The use of environmental “standards” to prevent entrepreneurs and businesspeople (whether they are single-plot farmers or large corporations does not matter) in the developing world from competing with the very peoples that polluted the planet for the past century is hypocritical, offensive, and morally untenable. In short, I’m not sure what aspect of Western environmentalism is more offensive: That mostly-white, mostly-wealthy countries feel they were not responsible for the mess they caused, or that they assume the mostly-poor, mostly-brown "help" around the world will happily refrain from pursuing their own dreams and instead get on their knees to wipe up the century-old mess left behind by richer, whiter people.

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