Friday, March 18, 2005

Resolving Environmentalism's Contradictions
After a week on the west coast, Nicholas Kristof's interesting New York Times op-ed on the demise of traditional environmentalism really resonated with me. He cites the argument of a widely discussed recent article on "The Death of Environmentalism" that suggests its traditional approach must give way to something entirely new, if it is to survive and be effective. Although Shellenberger's and Nordhaus's concerns revolve around overcoming the challenges posed by climate change, I have a different take on the problem. How can environmentalism succeed without reconciling itself with the aspirations of billions in the developed and developing world for a better material existence?

Perhaps this is an obvious concern for someone with my background. I spent more than 20 years working for a major, international oil company, Texaco, and yet I always considered myself an environmentalist--as did many of my colleagues. But while much of the formal "Environmental Movement" has set itself in opposition to development, or has at least been perceived as doing so, many practical environmentalists have focused their efforts on reducing the environmental impact of inevitable--and generally beneficial--economic development.

So while Messrs. Shellenberger and Nordhaus worry about how the world can prevent climate change, I worry just as much about how we can help China and India achieve something close to a Western level of development without wrecking the planet in numerous ways. Just as their growing economic mass is altering the orbits of other economies, their appetites and emissions are starting to influence the global environment.

Dealing with this problem in a positive way has the potential to create new markets, along with new perspectives, that can benefit the developed world, too. The ugly alternative is to consign these countries to some kind of Rousseau-esque happy primitivism, along with Africa and the rest of the developing world. That would be unconscionable and about as effective as King Canute's desire to hold back the tide.

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