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Voodoo environmentalism

When President Bush recently presented his new climate-change policy, he argued that economic growth is the key to environmental progress. Economic growth, he suggested, provides us the means to develop and invest in cleaner technologies. Mr. Bush's father once referred to Ronald Reagan's trickle-down economics as voodoo economics. I would assert that growth-induced conservation is a case of voodoo environmentalism.

The idea of wealth-induced environmental conservation is not a new one. In fact, this notion is consistent with conservative views of the sustainable development concept, an approach that came to prominence following the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. While the idea of growth-induced environmentalism holds a certain amount of intuitive appeal, it is questionable for a number of reasons.

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First, economic growth tends to create as much environmental degradation as it potentially resolves, especially in the absence of regulation. The problem is that increased wealth tends to foster increased consumption and its attendant pollution. A more advanced economy may allow us to pay for pollution abatement, but this does not necessarily put us ahead of the game if our energy consumption levels are increasing at the same rate - or faster.

Second, while wealth may give consumers the means to purchase low-polluting technologies, such as hybrid cars, the demand for manufacturers to develop these advanced technologies simply doesn't exist to any wide extent in the United States. Just look at the trends. In the late 1990s, many Americans saw their incomes rise. Greater wealth, combined with low fuel prices, led to a boom in the sale of gas-guzzling SUVs and a rise in CO2 emissions.

Third, the growth-induced environmental conservation argument often is supported by cross-national studies suggesting a correlation between wealth (or GNP) and environmental standards. In most instances, these studies have focused on industrial emissions as a proxy for all environmental variables.

But the pollution generated by the production of goods for wealthy nations has not changed significantly (as the studies imply); it has just been shifted around the globe. The world's wealthiest economies have seen their dirtiest industries move to the developing world over the past 25 years. The migration of dirty industries and waste is not simply an international phenomenon - the same has happened between states and localities within our own borders. While dirty industries and toxic wastes tend to move from wealthier to poorer regions, environmental regulations and political empowerment often have as much or more to do with who gets stuck with what.

Finally, the flip side of the wealth-induced environmental conservation argument is that poverty is one of the major causes of environmental destruction. My own research with rural farmers in West Africa suggests that poor farmers tend to engage in more environmentally friendly practices than their wealthier counterparts. Contrary to conventional wisdom, wealthier farmers tend to contribute more to environmental degradation because they are more likely to grow cash crops, and invest more heavily in crop- production technologies that are harmful to the environment.

While I am not suggesting that environmentalists oppose economic growth, everyone must understand that wealth is not a substitute for political will and sound environmental policy. Better interpretations of the sustainable-development concept imply that the goal is not simply economic growth, but growth that respects the limits of the environment to provide goods and process waste.

The president's new climate-change policy proposes "greenhouse gas intensity" as a measure of progress. The problem is that the economy, or GDP, is expanding over time within the confines of an environment that has limits. While measuring emissions relative to the size of the economy tells us something about efficiency, such measures have no grounding in environmental reality.

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• William G. Moseley is an assistant professor of environmental geography at Northern Illinois University.