Helping is Hurting

Protecting the poor and protecting the environment are two areas we haven't quite figured out yet. Put them together, and we're really up a creek. And we are, because these two silos are actually linked very closely. The relationship between poverty and environmental degradation is incredibly complex, but you wouldn't guess it by looking at some recent policies gathering support out there in the world. Solutions, it would seem, are incredibly simple. But most of these ideas, though well-intentioned, address only one side of the poverty-environment relationship -- and really hurt the other.

Long seen as an affluent concern, environmentalism is largely a movement of the rich, but the problems the rich are fighting against are caused by everyone, rich and poor (though, of course, in varying degrees). Poor people, it's often argued are too poor to worry about protecting the environment, leading to degradation like raw sewage in rivers and slum housing on clearcut rainforests. 

Environment and Poverty

The quandary that keeps popping up is where to place policy priorities. Do we serve the needs of an impoverished population, even if it means hurting the environment? Do we put the environment ahead of all, rich or poor? Do we target the affluent lifestyles that cause environmental degradation and let our sympathy enable us to ignore the environmental degradation caused by the poor? Do we focus on improving the environment only in the most polluted and neglected places?

Clearly, there's no one answer, and choosing one solution doesn't have to mean throwing the rest out. But recent policies are turning out to be so single-minded in approach that solving one part of the problem relies on exacerbating another.

In Britain, Prime Minister Gordon Brown has just announced a broad policy proposal that would lift many planning prohibitions in rural areas in order to help the country fill its desperate need for housing. He wants to encourage more development on the outskirts of rural towns, and is willing to pay farmers for allowing their land to be developed towards those means. The intention is noble; Britain (and especially its poor population) needs affordable housing. But this single-minded approach is likely to result in millions of exurban homes that are too far from jobs and services to make their likely low construction costs pan out in the long term for their eventual tenants. It's a poor-first policy that puts every other concern on the other end of the seesaw of problems.

In Brazil, officials have announced plans to construct a 650-meter wall around one of Rio de Janeiro's slum areas in an effort to prevent slum dwellers from moving out and illegally occupying the nearby rainforest. Development in an environmentally sensitive and globally important area like a rainforest is obviously a bad idea. Protecting that land should be a priority. But in this instance, this single goal has taken precedence over the wellbeing of an entire community of people. These people are not only being ignored here, they're being punished. There's no act as literally divisive as building a wall. Separating people from one another (especially along class lines) is not likely to help create a better sense of community or lift anyone out of poverty. It may keep a few people from venturing out into the sensitive rainforest to make a better way of life, so it could technically be a successful environmental protection. But what about the environment left within the walls of the slum, or within the city as a whole?

We're dealing with a very delicate and non-linear food chain. Enhancing or limiting one part is going to have an impact on the rest of the system – good or bad. Urban development, poverty, environmental degradation, economic development, land use and other similar issues are inextricably interrelated, and they all play important roles in this system. Policymakers need to stop compartmentalizing each issue as an individually solvable question. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean taking a completely holistic look at every possible problem and consequence. It just means that creating policies aimed at solving a single problem won't do any good if there's a web of problems needing solutions.

Nate Berg is a contributing editor for Planetizen and freelance journalist.



Tough issue

You're absolutely right, this is a tough and complicated issue to address. Places like the U.S. and Europe - virtually all wealthy/developed nations - developed successfully by capitalizing on natural resources. Now that we realize the services those natural areas provide, we are imposing strict expections and/or regulations on nations with abundant natural environments so that we as a planet can benefit from - and not irreversibly squander - those services, at the expense of their development. It seems that if we - and other developed nations - wish to benefit from this preservation, we must both incentivize it and reward it in return. How to do it???

Mike Lydon's picture


If you have not already, you may consider picking up Thomas Friedman's latest: Hot, Flat and Crowded. It sheds light on many of these issues.

Interesting Thoughts

This is a "big think" global issue especially compared to 80% of what is posted on planetizen of what I would call rather trivial stuff. There is no way I can even begin to try and really address this in a comment on this forum, but I will try and at least throw a few things out there for consideration.

Where to start: can we even do anything if a consensus of nations can't even agree on what type of lifestyle on earth is desirable? What is "progress"? If we can get to the point where we can agree that progress is similar to what we find in the First World, pseudo-capitalist, somewhat democratic, relatively free countries with basic human rights such as the US, Canada, Great Britain, Austrailia, NZ, most of Western Europe, etc., that's a start. We would still acknowledge that these countries have serious problems, but that their industrialization, urbanization, wealth creation, human rights, freedoms, etc. are good things subject to improvement in the environment and other areas. I'm using that as my base, but I'm sure there would be tremendous disagreement on just that.

If we could agree on that, then the next issue is how to transform and/or develop other nations to get to this point. I'm of the mind that if you can give people something to live for - an incentive, financial or other, to better their lives and the people around them, that would be a good thing. We know all the symptoms - political corruption, tyranny, poverty, huge inequalities, environmental destruction, horrid living conditions, etc.but what are the causes? The issue is very complex, but one part of it is economic development. When you grow economically as a nation, there are more resources to go around, thus less hoarding of them and tyranny to enforce that. More wealth usually means fewer offspring which ultimately, will lead to less poverty and a better environment. True, with industrialization and development come some environmental consequences, but you can't make one jump from Third World rural poverty to the knowledge economy and green sustainable development. It took us over 100 years and we still aren't fully there. So, in my mind, solutions must at least include a focus on economic development, even if it is somewhat painful in the short term.

With that in mind, how do you economically develop poor nations? Clearly, it will take more than a World Bank grant. I suppose it's chicken and egg thing of sorts. These nations are hard to develop economically because they lack preexisting conditions for markets to flourish - enforceable contracts, stable governments and militaries, but they probably won't have those things until they get stronger economically. Tough issue. I'm interested to hear what others think.


By Trevor Burrowes ©
Nate Berg, the assistant editor of the urban planning news website Planetizen, reported on the recent Urban Design After Oil symposium at the University of Pennsylvania: “There is an incredible disconnect between urban policy and climate policy,” he says, further suggesting that a way to see the extent of this failure is to imagine the world as one country.
Berg is reporting on symposium presenter Adil Najam of Boston University’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future.
“If our world were actually one country, he says, it would be a very poor and troubled place. Income distribution would be incredibly out of whack, the overall state of our natural resources would be incredibly degraded, and there would be an extreme food distribution problem. Climate change would make the world dramatically insecure. The world would be like a third-world country.”
Berg goes on to portray the world-as-third-world country in disparaging terms. “(A)s we know, climate change policy in third world countries is hardly revolutionary. If anything, it is incredibly lacking. And if we are to look at this one-country world in the same light, our global climate change policy is similarly lacking—mainly because it doesn’t exist.”
Furhtewrmore, Berg states, the urban development policy which clearly does not exist in this hypothetical one-country world, is even lacking (according to David Orr of Oberlin College) in the United States. “Orr and Najam argued today that climate change and urban development policy are two areas that need broad-scale consideration in the frame of policy. But they are not separate worlds.”
“Najam asks ‘Can you have sustainable development without effective climate stabilization?’ Simply stated, no. The relationship between urban planning and the effects of our urban areas on climate change are becoming incredibly clear to a wider range of professionals and laypeople. Building policies that address urban planning issues and climate change will need to happen soon, and ithese policies will have to be drafted together in a unified way. Maybe a good way to start that policymaking is by looking at the world as Najam’s single third-world country. “
I have been trying to say, but seeminfly to deaf ears. That a clear way to improve this bleek situation might well be at hand: It is known as planning (see ). It must be coordinated on a global scale. And it must combine climate and development policy.
The world-as-0ne contry comprises an encompassing range of planning territories. These planning areas, defined by geopolitical boundaries, include cities (as in city General Plans), counties, regions, forests, national parks, seas, oceans and more. At some level, every square inch of the planet falls within an actual or implicit planning area.
It should not be too hard to get rolling on this project. First, we could start by having a survery of plans worldwide. The variations, discrepancies and gaps in planning will be astounding, but knowing the status quo is a good way to begin. We can also use global imaging tools like Google Earth’s and NASA’s real-time images of Earth from above to see what is going on on the surface of our one-country world.
We might start to find, however, that the less third world societies are affected by rich countries the more they actually serve as beacons of environmental sanity. The world as a third world country might have more virtue than Berg seems to believe.

Michael Lewyn's picture

A little more precision, please

I don't think it makes sense to say that "planning" is a "way to improve this bleak situation" without specifying what you want to plan for. From an environmentalist perspective (or any other) there are good plans and bad plans.

To say "planning is good" makes about as much sense as saying "laws are good"- which is to say, not much.

A Little more precision...


Perfectly true. Advocating for planning per se makes little sense. We clearly need planning from an environmental perspective. But then, how do we agree on what that means?

I propose putting out a rough sketch of principles that we might wish to examine for starters.


1) Reduce and help mitigate the march of climate change,

2) Promote social equity,

3) Enhance quality of life universally.

Assuming there is sufficient buy-in on these principles and related ones, there might be a host of objectives to follow:


1) Harness the sun's energy to the maximum amount possible -- greening, heating, food production, etc.

2) Reverse the spread and scope of the human footprint and give nature a chance to heal itself,

3) Transform built communities to be minimally dependent, if at all, on automobile traffic,

4) Abandon the post-1940's segregation of land uses,

5) Allow for the maximum of creativity in the making of shelter,

6) Promote self-sufficiency,

7) Preserve historic built fabric and sense of place,


Create a baseline of planning globally -- where are the gaps, inefficiencies, inconsistencies, what works, what can be improved, etc.

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