Continuing industrialization and technological advances benefit many (though not all) of the people in the developed countries, but the gap between the rich and poor countries is significant and increasing.

In general, poverty deprives people of adequate education, health care, and of life’s most basic necessities—safe living conditions (including clean air and clean drinking water) and an adequate food supply.

The developed (industrialized) countries today account for roughly 20 percent of the world’s population but control about 80 percent of the world’s wealth. Poverty and pollution seem to operate in a vicious cycle that, so far, has been hard to break. Even in the developed nations, the gap between the rich and the poor is evident in their respective social and environmental conditions.

Poverty, the Environment, and Pollution

Regardless of the reason or the area of the world in which a poor population lives, certain reciprocal elements will act on the population and its environment. Lack of education, oppression, lack of appropriate infrastructure — from watertreatment facilities to better roads and communication — all exacerbate the twin problems of poverty and environmental degradation.

One cannot ask people to heal the environment, or even just mind it, if they can barely sustain themselves. For example, tropical fish are considered to be either delicacies or exotic pets by people who can pay for them and people in tropical regions can earn good money for catching these fish.

But to catch the fish more easily they use cyanide or dynamite to stun the fish. The former pollutes (and moves up the food chain) and the latter destroys the reef environment. Agricultural practices that tax the soil lead to soil erosion, which lowers crop yields and pollutes rivers and streams with silt.

Poor fisherman
Poor fisherman

The accumulation of the silt—from the loose eroded soil—kills the fish in the river and streams. Another cause of soil erosion is the cutting down of trees, in massive numbers, either for use as firewood (because the winters are harsh and there is no other way to stay warm) or to sell for much needed cash.

Eventually, not only will the soil erode to a point where it can no longer sustain agriculture, but the trees would be gone too. The above examples show that practices that fail to consider environmental health perpetuate the poverty cycle, thereby further destroying the environment.

The environment as a whole tends to be jeopardized more in the poorer areas. In the United States, Louisiana is a poor state in which there is an area known as “Cancer Alley.” It is a stretch on the lower Mississippi River that is home to 125 companies, many of which manufacture products that result in highly hazardous waste.

Cancer rates in the area are higher than the national average, and respiratory illnesses, as well as incidents of liver and kidney toxicity, are rampant. In one typical area, Ascension Parish, environmental justice activist Robert Bullard points out, “eighteen petrochemical plants are crammed into a nine and a half square mile area” (Bullard, p. 106).

Poor people tend to be less well educated (because they do not have the time and resources to obtain an education), and less politically powerful. Many people in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley were never aware of the dangers of hazardous waste as industries started moving in.

Many of them, after years of discrimination, are distrustful of politicians and public officials. Their land is cheap, and Louisiana provides the big industries with tax breaks, which appeal to companies looking at the bottom line.

Globally, the large industries find the same advantage in poor nations. Pollution controls and hazardous-waste-disposal regulations are stricter, and more expensive, in the developed nations. Many companies find it cheaper to export their waste to the developing countries, which are starving for cash.

Waste and poverty
Waste and poverty

The hazardous waste disposal in those countries is unsafe and dangerously polluting. The people handling the waste are poorly educated, and therefore may suffer severe health consequences as a result of their work. However, if they are paid a salary they are better off than many others.

In addition, the developing countries themselves, eager to grow economically, may develop heavy industry but not the controls or infrastructure necessary to contain the pollution. It is easy to see, therefore, that there is a huge divide, economically and ideologically, between the developed and developing countries.

The North–South Divide

Economists talk about the North–South divide when referring to the economic growth and development of nations. The developed, or industrialized, countries, most of which are in the northern hemisphere, are referred to as the North. The developing countries, which are economically underdeveloped to varying degrees, are referred to as the South. When it comes to pollution and environmental preservation, the North and South have different priorities that seem to put them at odds with each other.

The concept of sustainable development is crucial to understanding the conflict between the North and South. The United Nations, in a 1987 report of its World Commission on Environment and Development, defines sustainable development as the ability to grow economically and improve quality of life in such a way that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (Nebel, p. 16)

Poverty area
Poverty area

As mentioned above, the most pressing priority for the southern hemisphere nations is economic growth: the poverty rate in the developing countries can reach 90 percent (by comparison, the North has a poverty rate, on average, of 15 percent). Environmental conservation and pollution control are far less a priority in the South.

The priority in the North is sustainable development—the ability to continue on the course of consumption and energy use while ensuring a healthy environment. The developing countries feel this attitude is elitist, even racist (most poor nations or groups are not white). They contend that the developed countries’ demands for environmental regulations place an undue burden on the developing nations.

Worse yet, the largest polluters are the developed countries, which also consume the most global resources. Many of the problems of environmental destruction in the poor countries are a direct result of consumption levels in the developed countries (poaching for ivory in Africa is but one example, albeit extreme).

Historically, European colonization disrupted those societies that normally lived in balance with their environment. Mostly hunting, agricultural, or fishing in nature, the people grew or consumed enough to sustain themselves, never taking more than they needed.

The European settlers diverted the native agriculture to grow certain target crops (sugarcane and tobacco, for example) that were valuable in Europe. Not rotating the crops depleted the soil and reduced crop yields. It also made the colonized countries’ economies wholly dependent on the fluctuations in cash-crop prices. The settlers also mined and deforested the environment, causing heavy damage.

To this day, developing nations are in the ironic position of exporting a big percentage of their agricultural yield, while having to import food. Even after gaining their independence, many of these countries were unable to build an economy independent of European and U.S. consumption patterns.

The developing nations are heavily in debt to the developed countries, and their cash crops and other commodities (such as diamonds in Africa) are controlled by international corporations. The entire set of circumstances creates severe tension between the North and the South and is getting renewed attention with the emphasis now being given to environmental justice.

Environmental Equity

In 1997 a study by the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies found that life expectancy for people living in poor communities in the United States was markedly lower than life expectancy for people living in wealthier communities, sometimes by as much as fifteen years. While many factors contribute to this alarming discrepancy, it has become clearer since the 1980s that poor communities, which are also predominantly non-white, bear the brunt of adverse pollution affects.

In 1983, for example, a U.S. General Accounting Office report found that in eight southeastern states that were studied, “Blacks make up the majority of the population in three out of four communities where landfills are located.” (U.S. GAO, p. 1) Worldwide, the trend is similar. Big corporations find it easier and cheaper to export trash and to build polluting factories in poor developing nations.

Environmental justice is, to use the U.S. Department of Energy’s definition, “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies” (http://www.epa.gov/compliance/environmentaljustice/index.html). In the United States, the 1980s saw the beginning of an environmental justice movement that started focusing attention on the undue burdens placed on poor communities when it comes to living in a polluted environment.

Fighting what some refer to as environmental racism, the grassroots environmental justice movements at times clashed with older environmental groups, who formed around the idea of conservation, and whose concern for the natural environment seemed elitist.

There was a perception that organizations such as the Sierra Club concerned themselves with the conservation of the natural environment but did not care about pollution in inner cities and poor rural communities. Much more research is being done on the connection between hazardous living conditions and poverty not only on the effects, but also on the causes.

Among the environmental justice group’s many victories was Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton on February 11, 1994, directing federal agencies to correct the “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects” that their operations have on the minorities and low-income populations.