Environmentalism: Luxury Of The Rich

Going through the trouble of getting my smog check this weekend reminded me of one of my pet peeves in politics: wealthy environmentalists feeling moral about themselves while others (primarily the poor) pay the burden.

Here in California, in order to register your car you have to get a smog check every two years. They typically start around $50/car and go up from there, depending on the size of the car. However, if your car has the ‘service engine soon’ light on, for any reason, it will not pass smog. No ifs ands or buts. On top of that, if you are lucky enough to get your car serviced, thereby removing the ‘service engine soon’ light, you still can’t smog your car…you have to drive it around for a few days, under different conditions, for atleast 20 miles before you even have a chance to pass smog.

Luckily for me, I can pay my mechanic (a family friend) to drive to San Diego and replace the part needed to remove the ‘service engine soon’ light. But I am reminded of how difficult and terrifying this situation was when I didn’t have that luxury. When I was growing up, I had (like most of my friends and neighbors) a cheap, used, beat up, automobile, and the thought of having to pay the cost of bringing it up to smog was terrifying. Most of the time we would simply buy off the smog check operator. Giving him $50 on top of the smog fee to get him to do what was needed to ‘pass’ the car. California has gotten smarter about that and I hear now, it’s near impossible to fake a ‘pass’ on smog (though I haven’t needed to try). So if you have an old, beat up, car that you use to get to work and pick up your groceries with, one that is vital to your parenting, income and free time, and and it doesn’t pass smog – too bad for you (don’t get me started on the ‘assistance’ offered either), it’s time to take the bus (and even here, environmentalists will cheer, as greater use of buses is encouraged). Yet, how many rich environmentalists do you think would even have to deal with a smog check problem?

The smog check is just a minor reminder of environmentalism in general: it is a luxury of the rich. The richer you are, the more you can afford to be an environmentalist. Whether we are talking about environmental land regulations, emission regulations, a gas tax, or any other contentious environmental issue, the costs are usually disproportionately paid for by the poor.

Nothing demonstrates this better than looking at the trends in global poverty and environmentalism. David Friedman writes:

For someone in favor of helping poor people, the economic development of China and India is arguably the best news of the past fifty years. Development was, after all, the explicit goal of foreign economic aid, development planning, a variety of programs in the post-war period that were supposed to lift the third world out of poverty–and didn’t. The fact that more than two billion people are now in the process of moving from extreme poverty towards the sort of life westerners have long lived represents an enormous improvement in the condition of the world’s poor.

It also represents a sharp increase in the consumption of depletable resources and production of carbon dioxide.

Take China as an example, a country where millions of people are moving out of poverty yearly. Great news for those interested in poverty. But bad news for environmentalism, as China moving from rural agricultural society to urban industrialized society means they will burn alot more coal (coal being one of the cheapest sources of energy), thereby increasing the production of carbon dioxide. Some environmentalists, seeing the contradiction try to get around it by making an argument that the environmental impact affects China (and poor areas in general) the most, but this pales in comparison to the economic impact that environmental regulations would impose. Economic development, in many inherent ways, is really at odds with environmental development.

Of course this means nothing to the wealthy environmentalists living in the comfort of the wealthiest countries in the world. Being outside the realm of absolute poverty gives them the luxury to be environmentalists and pontificate on the ‘evils’ of global warming. People in China on the other hand, are more concerned with feeding their children and reaching the standard of living that we in the west have long enjoyed.

The same general pattern applies here in the United States. The higher up on the income ladder you are, the more you can afford to be an environmentalist, and the rest of us have to hear your moral tripe and – worst of all – pay for it.

For more on this go here, here, here, here, and here.

12 Responses to “Environmentalism: Luxury Of The Rich”


  • I think this is an over-generalized criticism against environmentalism.

    First off, owning a car is a luxury in any part of the world.

    Second, real evironmental policy (not the stuff printed on t-shirts) calls for a nuanced approach to reducing growth’s environmental impact. Studies are made to assess where problems exist and how easy it can be to make progress in those areas. In a certain industry, for example, it may be relatively easy to reduce environmental impact than another industry. Ultimately, every political decision (including environmental policy) is scrutinized by a cost-benefit analysis (although, of course, political and moral objectives weigh bias) and changes are made accordingly. In other words, a country like China has to look at the two vector forces of economic development and a healthy environment and find the proper compromise for its people and their future.

    As for your line “the higher up on the income ladder you are, the more you can afford to be an environmentalist”, I think that too is over-generalized and even hostile. My family, for example, was at the lowest end of the economic spectrum for several generations. People as far back as my grandfather’s generation, however, have always recycled. My grandfather wouldn’t call himself an environmentalist, and I doubt he knows much about the debate, but he does it for both moral and economic reasons. Wasting, we feel, is immoral and expensive. The environmental movement resonates with me because it aligns with those same principles, that it is immoral and ultimately more expensive to waste resources than to use (and reuse) them efficiently. Education and money has only helped me understand these things clearer and allowed me to execute them in a more elegant matter. I still recycle, I still try not to waste, I use the bus or my feet for 95% of my travels; the same can be said for most people I know personally who you would probaby lump into the generalization you painted in your post.

  • In other words, a country like China has to look at the two vector forces of economic development and a healthy environment and find the proper compromise for its people and their future.

    This is really all I am saying. The trade-offs always seem to pit environmentalism against economic development. This is inherently so. So the more you err on the side of environmentalism, the more you would have to be willing to harm economic development, and vice versa. At the margin of course, but the trade-off exists nonetheless.

    You mention recycling as an environmental example. But remember, I said “contentious environmental issue”. Recycling is certainly not one of those. Everybody who wishes to recycle can do so and those that don’t want to can simply abstain. Simple. When I refer to a ‘contentious environmental issue’, I am referring to one forced on the public by the government or some outside entity. I provided examples of a smog check, “environmental land regulations, emission regulations, a gas tax and other contentious environmental issues”. All of these are regressive in nature – they harm those at the bottom of the economic ladder much more than those at the top.

    Take the production of carbon dioxide as just one example. You will often hear politicians and environmentalists like, say Al Gore, John Kerry and other limousine liberals pontificate on the need to reduce carbon dioxide and then push through all sorts of regulations to do so – for example, the smog check, just one of the many examples I could provide. Yet these same politicians and environmentalists, soon after giving the speech, will jump into their personal jet and/or escort of SUV’s, thereby producing more carbon dioxide than the poor could ever do.

    Their standard of living depends on the efficiency of a personal jet you say? Well I know many poor people who would argue the same thing about their automobile (that produces, more than 100x less carbon dioxide than the jet btw) yet the poor are forced to make such sacrifices and the rich can simply get away with buying some ‘carbon neutral shares’ (A good topic for another post). In other words, as I said above, environmentalism is a luxury of the rich.

    My suggestion? Everybody who claims to be an environmentalists should have to check a box on their tax return indicating so and give, at minimum, the same percentage of their income as people at the bottom of the economic ladder do. If they are arguing that Chinese people should retard their growth in order to reduce the production of carbon dioxide, those same environmentalists should be forced to live in the same conditions they want to force upon the Chinese (or any other developing nation). Oh, and of course, they should be prohibited from owning a personal jet.

    How many environmentalists do you think their would be after this? A significantly less number of them, I know that.

  • People don’t always have the choice to recycle. Industry is often required to abide by regulations on the use and disposal of resources. Some societies have also implemented rules regarding recycling as well. In my town, for example, it is law that people must separate their recyclables. It is an often unenforced law but it tends to be followed (based on how full the recycle bins get the night before pickup.) Regardless, I didn’t mean to equate environmental action as just recycling. Obviously there many variables, recycling is just one (but one that is close to individual citizens.)

    Also, virtually every economic and environmental factor affects those at the bottom more than those at the top. It’s almost pointless to say because it is the nature of the system. Unemployment and inflation will affect the poorest. Global climate change, for example, is often projected to affect the poorest. Pollution affects the poorest people. War affects the poorest. Being poor also means being vulnerable.

    It’s also easy to pick on somebody like Al Gore for using a jet, taking an SUV around town, or living in a gigantic house that has a disgusting carbon footprint. I tend to agree with that but I think if you point the finger at him you have to consider his overall impact. He has undoubtedly encouraged more people around the world to curb their use of carbon-based energy. The aggregate change brought about by his campaign surely outweighs his carbon footprint by a high factor.

    I find it strange that you seem to attack the idea of carbon credits. As somebody who is a strong free-market advocate, I’m surprised you are not all over this. It turns the idea of carbon reduction into a market-based commodity. As I stated in my previous reply, it’s easier for some sectors to reduce their environmental impact than it others. If a corporation, for example, can reduce output by a large percentage and finance the endeavor via carbon credits (and make a profit from it), isn’t that a nice free-market solution to the problem? It’s not perfect, nothing is, but it’s a nice alternative from a purely governmental approach.

    And to your last point: democracy doesn’t work that way. People don’t work that way. Obviously people would not choose to have less money. There could also be a requirement that said “if you voted for the war, you have to serve in it.” That is not how the system works, for better or worse. If you own a car, you are required to pay fees and meet a minimum standard of environmental laws. It’s not the idealistic free-market thing where people do what they please. We have these laws because we have decided they are important to us. It’s not just the environment, but it’s other issues such as safety, welfare, security, etc. Nobody debates whether we should be required to have and use seatbelts in cars, or whether it should be legal to sell children on the free-market. Just the same, we have laws that dictate what limits we can have on environmental impact. They are not perfect, but the point of a democracy is to work towards perfecting them and find a solution in which everybody participates.

  • You write, “Also, virtually every economic and environmental factor affects those at the bottom more than those at the top”. , sure, but the magnitude of the difference here is significant.

    Again, take the production of carbon dioxide as just one example. Global warming, pollution, and most other environmental concerns affect everybody relatively the same. If the world is going to end, and/or if we are looking at catastrophic problems in the future, the difference between how that affects the poor vs. the rich is minor, at best. Yet the regulations, as I have explained above, are almost completely one sided. The poor pay almost the entire burden yet the benefits (a reduction in the p(global warming) ) is shared by all. In other words, luxury of the rich.

    A slight clarification: I did not “attack the idea of carbon credits”. I am not against them per se, I am merely pointing out how they are used. Frankly, it reminds me of the indulgences in the Catholic Church before the reformation(and, shows how environmentalism has become alot like a religion to environmentalists) – it gives the wealthier the ability to get around their carbon dioxide production whereas the poor are forced to live with a smaller “carbon footprint”. Again, luxury of the rich.

  • The poor pay almost the entire burden yet the benefits (a reduction in the p(global warming) ) is shared by all. In other words, luxury of the rich.

    That is just reality. It’s the nature of any element that affects society. That is why we must be sensitive to the impact such decisions have on people, especially the poor. If industry elites were the only people making these decisions they would likely choose policy that would only support investment growth and not consider the human impact. Examples of this can be seen throughout the industrial revolution. If environmental extremists were the only people making these decisions, our economic growth would ultimately suffer beyond a level we would be comfortable with.

    I actually saw a great film the other day called “Manufactured Landscapes.” It was made by a photographer who has spent his life photographing the impact humans have had on the environment and he focuses heavily on China. He states at the beginning of the film that he is not trying to push either agenda. He agrees that growth, sometimes painful growth, is necessary for economic expansion. But he also shows the magnitude of change going on in the developing world. The photography is fantastic.

    The rich have many luxuries. That is precisely why most of us aspire to be rich.

  • That is just reality. It’s the nature of any element that affects society. That is why we must be sensitive to the impact such decisions have on people, especially the poor.

    Exactly. Then we agree.

  • Excellent post, HP.

    If one could argue, as done so in a previous post of yours, that buying American is akin to racism, then it can also be argued that the environmentalism movement is a form of class warfare. I had heard of the smog chck fees out in California, but was not aware of the details until I read this post. This is a very slippery slope. Today, every Californian has to pay this extra smog check fee. What’s next? Are the environmentalistas going to lobby the state legislature to outlaw any automobile that isn’t a Prius or some other hybrid vehicle? I’m sure your SUV-loving Governor and all those vatos who love their lowriders would have something to say about that…

    I have no problem with recycling or other forms to improve the environment, but they should be done without government coercion. I’m curious, do Californians who drive cars that didn’t pass the smog check get a big fat fine, or do they get jail time in your state’s infamous prison system?

  • I almost hear you blame those who can afford the inconveniences of being more eco-friendly, over the benefit that the environment enjoys.

    I was just having this discussion over the dinner table w/ my fiance. I stated how financially impractical it is to stay abreast w/ eco-friendly movements – even vegetarianism! So, I can agree w/ you, but not be as cynical.

    But really, HP if companies cry over the expense of cutting down on waste and everyone does the same, where does that get us? Nowhere.

  • My main point here is not to pick sides (though you can probably guess which side I typically take)…I fully grant that there are times where the environmental argument, on a cost/benefit analysis, is stronger than the poverty argument.

    My main point here was twofold: to point out the very real and important trade-off that often exists in environmental debates (environment vs. the poor) and to (hopefully) show pompous environmentalists that many times it is their privilege that blinds them to the importance of the other side (poverty reduction).

  • The fact that smog checks hurt poor people more than rich people is a side effect of the lack of political power poor people wield. A fairer law would be a general emissions fee that’s used to fund “free” smog repair services, so that every car will be smogged and fixed up for “free.”

    When you add costs to emissions, you discourage them. The people who benefit most are those poor people who have to live near the emissions.

    Additionally, the smog created in China isn’t caused by poverty. Poverty only assures that people who might otherwise desire clean air, won’t fight for it. Pollution’s caused by the fact that there’s heavy investment in China, and the money is used to purchase factories that produce the pollution. Their products are sold around the world, and to the global rich. If you want to reduce pollution in China, you raise trade barriers.

    I know I’m stating the obvious, but, the obvious is often forgotten when people are bashing rich environmentalists.

  • The pollution created in China is – atleast indirectly – caused by poverty. The reason is simple: coal, a large carbon dioxide and pollution producer, is very cheap…much cheaper than any other environmentally friendly alternative. So China being a poor country, cannot afford to pay for alternative energy sources.

    In other words, it is precisely because China is poor that the Chinese use so much coal. The same regressive pattern is inherent in all contentious environmental goals. Including the smog check.

  • LacayoEnLacalle

    HP,

    Great post. I’m going thru this nightmare of registering a car in CA. The system does not work, but is expensive, so leave it to the poor to pay for expensive repairs. California even offers to “retire” your car, paying for a car that may cost $5,000 a couple of hundreds. Okay, I just paid $3,000 for a car, and the emissions are fine, but because a little light doesn’t turn on I either have to pay $2000 to fix it or get rid of the car for a few bucks. WHERE IS THE OUTRAGE PEOPLE? This system is hurting inmigrants/poor people who usually buy used cars and cannot afford to fix these stupids repairs.

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