Can poor countries afford to show concern for the environment?

{question is adapted from a similar phrased question but which has different requirements according to the nuances in word choices. And forgive the outrageous length of the essay because it was obviously not written within the prescribed 1.5 hours but instead over a few days with revisions in upcoming months. Examples used have been labelled and I’ve tried to find their exact sources as far as possible.}

Can poor countries afford to show concern for the environment?

Economic development, or environmental sustainability? Presented with this question, many poor or developing countries instinctively choose “economic development”. Granted that the main priority of most poor countries is to lift the nation out of poverty and debt and achieve growth, such a stand is expected as many see the two as two distinct and conflicting positions. However, who is to say that one cannot choose in between, which is sustainable development? This stance has been championed by some to be the new and better development route for poor countries as it not only ensures economic growth in the short run but also the long term. Also, adopting environmentally friendly practices can help increase efficiency and thus save costs, allowing the accumulation of funds to be directed towards sustainable and “green growth”. Therefore, I think that most poor countries can afford to care for the environment, with the exceptions of those with less than ideal internal situations.


“Grow first, clean up later” [1] – such was the mantra of industrialised countries like US, UK and Japan in the past while they relentlessly pursued economic growth. Misled into thinking that this conventional economic development would make their own nations as prosperous as leading economies today, many poor countries fall into the trap of forgoing the need to develop their economies in a sustainable manner. However, this is a common misconception that environmental sustainability necessarily impedes economic growth, or that there is a trade-off between choosing either one (i.e zero-sum game). This pattern of industrialisation is obviously a faux pas: consider the fact that in 1969, only when the Cuyahoga River, choked with pollutants and bereft of aquatic life, caught fire, did the US realise their grave mistake of pursuing economic growth at the expense of the environment – a turning point for the industrialised nation. The US’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was established a year later [2]. In fact, these mistakes can incur great costs, making it so that if a country had shown concern for the environment, such costs would not have arisen and impede the economy’s growth in the near future. The recent 2013 smog in China, where the concentration of particles with a diameter of 2.5 microns or less, hit 900 parts per million – 40 times the level the World Health Organisation (WHO) deems safe – required an estimated US$275 billion over the next five years to clean up the air [3].  Although China has enjoyed double-digit growth in the last decade and pretty much hoisted the country as a whole out of abject poverty, the environmental damage incurred was totally disregarded; as such, today the economy and the people’s health have to pay the price to clean up their past pollutive acts, greatly hampering their growth today. Would it thus not seem that taking environmental considerations into account early was a more affordable and sustainable thing to do than relentlessly yearning for economic growth and facing greater economic repercussions in the future?


On this note, it can also be said that poor countries cannot afford not to care for the environment due to adverse health risks posed to its people due to air and water pollution for example. In an interview in 2005, China’s government minister, Pan Yu, notes that in Beijing alone, 70-80% of all deadly cancer cases are environment-related, with lung cancer as the leading cause of death [4]. This not only incurs huge medical and health costs, posing a great burden on the country’s already limited finances and further diverting away resources, workers are less efficient and effective and the people are deprived of making a living to feed their families. When the people and thus the workforce are healthy and in good physical condition, they are able to contribute to the economy more effectively.


In fact, going for green growth is actually much less expensive than paying for the costs of environmental damage in the future. In a study commissioned by the Indian government, the World Bank found the annual cost of environmental degradation (primarily on the impact on people’s health of pollution from burning fossil fuels – for example, an increase in cardiopulmonary disease among adults living in polluted urban areas) amounts to $80 billion or roughly 5.7% of India’s Gross Domestic Product [5]. On the contrary, adopting increasingly necessary low-emission “green-growth’’ is relatively inexpensive when looking at the larger picture: reducing air pollution and particle emissions by a third would lower India’s GDP by only 0.7%. There is a need for governments in poor countries to realise that there no trade-off between economic growth and protecting the country’s natural resources and the health of its people.


Admittedly, fears that MNCs might shift their undeniably pollutive production facilities to another low-cost country with less stringent environmental standards elsewhere, and thus deprive citizens of jobs and cause the country to lose a major source of income are not unfounded. However, there is increasing international consensus that MNCs should change their environmentally destructive practices – such as the PT Gistex Group’s dumping of chemical dyes down the Citarum River in Indonesia [6] – and the increasing chances for large corporations to face boycotts by environmentalists and advocacy groups, which have a growing support base globally. Due to both public opinion and long-term economic implications of inaction, more than 30 large US corporations (such as General Electric and Dupont) have joined an alliance called the US Climate Action Partnership, which presses for swift legislations on curbing emissions [7]. The Asia-Pacific Human Development Report 2012 also argues that “moving to greener, more resilient, lower-emission options that not only sustain the environment but also offer opportunities to the poor for employment and income” [8]. With less cause for worry over the possible loss of jobs and income, poor countries are more able to focus on caring for the environment knowing that it would not jeopardise the economy.


Some may contend that poor countries lack the necessary infrastructure, have a low level of technology and thus do not possess the adequate means or capacity to adopt environmentally friendly or green technologies. While it is true that adopting alternative cleaner technologies requires quite a bit of parting with already limited finances and hence may pose an issue of affordability, poor countries are not alone in the push towards greater environmental sustainability. Many international organisations and environmental agreements recognise that developing nations are inevitably inclined to prioritise economic development and lack the adequate infrastructure and technology to tend towards environmentally-friendlier ways. As such, they do provide them aid in the form of funds and machineries to make it more “affordable” for them transition to cleaner technologies while developing. This is recognised under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC): “The extent to which developing country Parties will effectively implement their commitments under the Convention will depend on the effective implementation by developed country Parties of their commitments under the Convention related to financial resources and transfer of technology and will take fully into account that economic and social development and poverty eradication are the first and overriding priorities of the developing country Parties” [9]. Rio Declaration on Environment and Development also recognises in Principle 7 that “states have common but differentiated responsibilities…in view of the different contributions to global environmental degradation” [10]. For example, recognising the need for a low-carbon pathway to growth, Brazil has chosen to benefit from the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) [11a], an innovative financial mechanism defined in Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, earning saleable certified emission reduction credits. A complementary Adaptation Fund [11b] was also established to finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes in involved developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. This means that poor countries need not shoulder the full burden of caring for the environment, and can thus pursue economic growth that is sustainable with greater assurance.


Image and reputation may also be a concern. Especially in this increasingly environmentally-minded world, countries that are deemed to be more ecologically-conscious are seen in good favour, compared to those who do not. The Nigerian government lost some of its pride and face when the landmark 2011 UN report slammed the government and multi-national oil companies for pollution which dealt devastating damage to the Niger Delta for decades [12]. Indonesia’s lagging action in dealing with transboundary haze caused by deforestation in the country has been viewed disapprovingly by neighbouring countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. If countries are not viewed in a good light based on how it handles environmental issues, confidence and willingness to offer other forms of aid to them may be undermined. This can be seen in the public’s waning rapport with the Obama administration in general for failing to take the lead in the environmental movement.


There are some encouraging positive indications of poor countries showing more concern towards the environment despite their individual economic situations and financial abilities: both India and Indonesia are committed to reducing emissions intensity of GDP by 20-25% by 2020 compared to the 2005 level and cutting emissions by 26% by 2020 respectively [13 a&b]. The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia has decided to achieve its aim of becoming a middle-income country by 2025 through developing a climate-resilient green economy [14] – rather than through the conventional development path which would result in dramatically increased carbon emissions and unsustainable use of natural resources. These are but a few examples of countries with different levels of “poorness” committing to meet their individual economic development goals in a sustainable way.


However, there is imprudent to henceforth conclude that all poor countries are able to afford to care for the environment: especially for poor countries in Africa, civil wars, social unrests and violent demonstrations are a daily affair. Take the spate of violent armed conflicts between Gaza and Israel, or the vicious Ebola pandemic in Sierra Leone and Nigeria. Do these countries have the luxury to think about the environment? Also, can extremely poor countries who cannot even feed its people – such as Nicaragua – be reasonably asked to care for the environment? Countries embroiled in internal conflicts, epidemics or other problems are inundated with other more pressing, complicated issues that require full attention and devotion to seeking resolution. With already so much on their plates, they do not have the luxury of time nor attention to slowly ruminate/ponder over what harm to the environment they may inflict.


A little trivia to note is that showing concern for the environment does not necessarily entail great initial costs, amenities or efforts. What about small eco-friendly actions and behaviours which though may seem insignificant at the individual level, may actually collectively add up to something more impactful and significant via the ripple effect? In conclusion / putting all views into context, I think that the main issue of whether poor countries can afford to be concerned for the environment mainly lies in the battle between economic development and environmental sustainability. Many poor countries are clouded by their desire for growth above all else and are mistaken about the idea that economic development inevitably necessitates environmental damage (that the two are conflicting objectives), and that the concept of green growth is all but a “Western ploy” to hinder their economic progress. There is a need to correct/remediate/repudiate this fallacious view and help them recognise that incorporating sustainability into the development process is instead a vital key to alleviate poverty and increase economic growth. As an Indian proverb goes: Only after the last tree has been cut down, only after the last river has been poisoned, only after the last fish has been caught, only then will you find that money cannot be eaten.

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[3] *note that China cannot be referred to as a ‘poor country’ since it can be said to be rather developed, unless you’re referring specifically to relative poverty in rural areas.



Comments are welcome!



Ecological Intelligence (cover) [a]
Ecological Intelligence (cover) [a]
What this book reminds me of when I just look at its cover again is: transparency. David Goleman continually emphasises the need for ecological or radical transparency in terms of information such as the ecological footprint, and ecological and social (worker’s health, fair trade) impact of a product. The more accessible and transparent such information is, the more prudent and informed decision a consumer would choose when purchasing goods and services.

Before one gets turned away at the sight of yet another book (or person or whatever) advocating for more environmentally-conscious choices for whatever so-called reasons you have, let me begin with this quote:

“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of a man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself. As a man is, so he sees.”

– Poet William Blake

Oh glorious, magnificent tree! [b]
I personally acknowledge and accept the fact that everyone has their own perspectives and hence on this subject of the environment, not all may willingly embrace changes in their lifestyles and mindsets towards being more environmentally or ecologically conscious. So why should we care? Well, basically because the impacts our actions and activities have on the natural environment goes round back to hit us in the face (karma, you know) [1]. If not, think about your future kids! The future generation! and all that. For me, I just really abhor how we humans can be so irresponsible and immature and think we rule all over Nature and the world. Anyway if one looks deeper, one can see that Nature is BEAUTY itself. Of course this reason’s credibility may be undermined, coming from a hypocrite here and all, but you know… ANYWAYS, on to it:


Knowing your impacts (mindful consciousness), favouring improvements with resolve, and sharing what you learn are three actions Goleman proposes that could help us advance our collective ecological goals. We can understand an item’s adverse consequences in these various interlocking realms, namely: the geosphere (soil, air, water, climate); biosphere (species and plant life); and sociosphere (human concerns e.g. conditions for workers).


As you can see, the impacts of a product we’re talking about does not merely comprise its carbon footprint, but also extend to different kinds of aspects. Hence choosing the more environmentally-friendly option usually entails additional benefit like less health risks – due to chemicals both harmful to the environment and our bodies – better working conditions for miners (lesser exposure to heavy metal contamination, toxic fumes), farmers and the lot, and even greater economic returns in the long run! So many win-wins here, yet regretfully not many people notice these benefits.

Even if we don’t actually think that far as Goleman researched on, some of us may find it difficult to switch to more environmentally responsible practices and purchasing decisions. Why? Fundamentally because of the lack of information {Let me remind you that the author is really persistent on transparency, haha, but in a good way though}. Excluding the most resilient of us who put in extra effort into knowing the impacts of what they do and consume, the rest of us unwittingly settle for what’s adequate rather than search for what’s optimal. Goleman introduces this idea of “satisfice” (satisfy + suffice), a mental shortcut we go through when we face a complicated decision in the supermarket aisle, choosing the easiest way out when we find that the amount of mental effort and benefit of purchasing a better product is “not quite worth it”. However, by settling for what’s just good enough, Goleman astutely observes that “we fail to see that what we are offered is only an arbitrary, narrow number of choices in the first place”. “This handy cognitive shortcut for quick and easy decision making feeds a self-deception, diminishing the range of what we seek and so consider”.

Additionally, when we shop, we actually mindlessly or subconsciously do. This partial inattention prevents us from being fully aware of what we buy and the impacts of what we buy. Our awareness is also constantly challenged by the “sensory clutter and cognitive fog” contributed by blaring radio music and marketing cues such as ‘On sale!’, ‘New and Improved!’, ‘low fat!’, all jostling for our limited attention. We also tend to think about life’s preoccupations, further distracting us.

Here, Goleman advocates for mindful shopping, of which “marks a shift in the functioning [of the shopper] from running on automatic, reflexively going through long-practiced routines, to an active awareness that allows new learning – and so new choice”. He cites a research by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, which shows that “[a]ctive attention… enhances your experience of whatever you’re attending to.” For an analogy think about how one usually feels fuller when one is consciously aware of eating the same amount of food compared to when one is distracted by the TV. Due to the “intrinsic pleasure of mindfulness… it should be self-perpetuating”, hopefully creating a subconscious reflux to buy better products (in terms of its impact) as we shop inattentively. One way would be to “prime the mind” with reminders that prepares us to consult an eco-transparency system while we shop. This bit is a little further into the book than when Goleman mentions such systems such as GoodGuide, Climate Counts, and Skin Deep [2], into making information about a product more available to consumers.

Surprisingly – or perhaps not – multiple studies found that increasing the price of a product labelled more environmentally friendly or deemed to have been made under fair trade or labour conditions saw greater increases in sales compared to when it shared similar prices with other less ideal substitutes or when it remained at its original price.

As researchers reasonably deduce, the higher price made the claim more credible. Our idea about price makes us equate price with quality. A higher price shapes our expectations, leading to a cognitive bias that tells us to expect the product to be better, which then shapes our experiences such that it is indeed better (Caltech neuroeconomist Hilke Plassmann). The eco-virtue label thus adds perceived value to the product, which can be used for both good and bad. Studies of preference show that a single note of positivity and negativity can skew our entire decision to buy, an aspect through which companies try to market their products to consumers.

Besides price, there are also other factors such as appearance of a product that induces consumers to associate it of being higher valued. I once saw an experiment on the TV where participants were to rate the red wine they drank from two sources. The subjects all rated red wine poured from a packet as of lower quality than that poured from a proper wine bottle with vintage label. Hmm, interesting… but both wine they drank were actually red fruit juice from the same packet.

But I digress.

The point is that we must not be fooled by claims that a product is ‘organic’, ‘natural’, ‘made under fair labour conditions’ and so on[3]. We should make an effort to delve a little deeper into a product’s claims to determine whether it is true or not. Of course, as mentioned before, not many of us are willing to exert the extra effort.

So what can we do about this?


I would like to pre-empt that this is not a fickle claim made here, but one that the author substantiates amply with wide-ranging examples and research from trans-fat to BPA to SUVs. When information is made available to consumers as in these examples, each illustrates the “potent market force that comes from full disclosure in labelling the things we buy”. This idea also resonates with the principle behind the LEED green buildings movement [2].

While one may argue that our individual decision to shift to more environmentally friendly products (certifiably, not just claimed) does not contribute much, it is not true; “that brand’s total impacts are the sum of millions of decisions like yours”, says industrial ecologist Gregory Norris. Every vote counts. The decision of you, as consumers, plays a part in how businesses manufacture their products. Companies would not care until their buyers – which are us – do.

ECOLOGICAL INTELLIGENCE also deals with other issues such as the responsibilities of companies and gave examples of THRIVING environmentally-conscious businesses (economic gains and environmental conservation goes hand in hand, yepyep), but I left those out since… okay no excuses. Anyway the book is very easy to read, with clear chapters discussing interconnected parts of the whole story, even for a dimwit like me. So I highly recommend it okay! Perhaps one can derive greater insight from it than my sorry grey matter can.


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[a] ©

[b]  ©

[1]So many sources detailing the impacts of the impacts we impose on Nature like increasing frequency and unpredictability of natural disasters and conflicts and all. But here are some interesting pieces:

[c] ©

[d] ©

[e] ©

[2] ; ; ;

[3] Beware ‘Greenwashing’


Hmm… I would like to further add a disclaimer here that not all I wrote are in my own words. I copied loads of sentences/concepts/ideas from the book with injections of my own words here and there. So I don’t really know the author’s exact words and merely strung them together here. Please don’t sue (-sweatdrop-).