Environmental Colonialism: The Human Cost of Climate Activism

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Apocalypse Never" by Michael Shellenberger. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

Like this article? Sign up for a free trial here.

Are we harming people in our efforts to save the planet? What’s environmental colonialism? What’s its impact on both humans and the environment?

Award-winning science writer Michael Shellenberger says that climate alarmists create an atmosphere of existential dread that leads to all sorts of overreactions. Some of these measures—which basically amount to environmental colonialism—do more harm than good.

Keep reading for Shellenberger’s attempt to bring some level-headedness into the midst of panic.

Environmental Colonialism

Any solution to climate change is doomed to fail if it doesn’t account for the human variable. Shellenberger argues that first-world countries are shifting the burden of managing the climate onto nations in the developing world in a form of environmental colonialism. Damaging deforestation in places such as Brazil and the Congo is simply the result of people trying to survive, while environmental groups and international organizations counterproductively hold back modernization and make enemies of the farmers in those countries whom they should really be courting as allies.

(Shortform note: In False Alarm, Bjorn Lomborg argues that the economic impact of climate change should be of greater concern than it’s given. Using Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as a yardstick to measure general prosperity, Lomborg calculates that current rates of climate change could result in a global drop in GDP of 4% by the end of the century. This impact, he argues, would represent a worldwide decline in health, happiness, and overall well-being. Since this downward turn will be disproportionately felt by poorer countries, Lomborg recommends spurring economic growth to help people in the developing world adapt to the environmental changes of the future.)

Life in many countries is hard and hand to mouth. Logging and farming are how people survive and are the only ways for many families to lift their children out of poverty. Deforestation is caused by economic necessity, not “evil corporations” burning rainforests out of greed. Shellenberger says that what’s needed in these countries are modern agricultural techniques that will allow them to produce more food on less land. There is precedent for this in the United States—the Tennessee Valley Authority was created during the Great Depression to bring hydroelectric power and modernized agriculture to impoverished farmers, vastly improving their standard of living while enabling economic growth and education.

(Shortform note: The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) is one of a handful of federally owned electric utilities in the US. Despite its goal of bringing the Tennessee region out of poverty, it was strongly opposed by other utilities for its ability to undercut their profits. In addition to hydropower, the modern TVA has nuclear power, renewables, and fossil fuel plants, one of which was the site of a massive coal ash spill in 2008. Nevertheless, the TVA pioneered land-use practices and technologies that have since been used to improve agriculture and living conditions in impoverished areas throughout the world.)

However, that’s not what’s taking place today. Instead, environmental organizations are actively pushing against efficient, concentrated industrial farming in favor of small, local farms that produce less food while, in the aggregate, using far more land. Hand-in-hand with this drag on agricultural progress is pressure for these countries to forego efficient and cheap electric power in favor of land-intensive renewables. The American and European groups insisting on these measures are trying to enforce low levels of power consumption in poor countries that they’re unable or unwilling to attempt in the developed world. Meanwhile, by glamorizing the “simple agrarian life,” they ignore the harsh economic realities of the people who actually live it.

Even simple farming life loses its shine when farmers need access to land that Western environmentalists want to protect. Shellenberger writes that, in Africa, whole groups of people were displaced when their farms and villages were made part of national parks. The conservation programs responsible financially compensate the countries for their land and provide some income in the form of ecotourism, but that rarely trickles down to those who lose their homes. Instead, the result is animosity between the people who live in an area and the organizations trying to protect it. Though they could have been treated as allies, local residents become enemies of the conservation effort and sometimes actively fight against it.

Environmental Colonialism, Environmental Justice

Other authors in addition to Shellenberger have accused the US and Europe of imposing their environmental agendas on other countries instead of working in cooperation with native populations. Recognizing the negative ecological impact that colonialism has had in the past, some Western governments offer financial reparations while blocking access to vital energy technology. Such actions may only widen the socioeconomic gap between the richest nations and the poorest. Meanwhile, concerns about the environmental impact of rising population numbers in the Third World have led some to propose measures to restrict population growth in developing countries—measures that wouldn’t be applied to richer nations.

To counter environmental colonialism, there is a growing movement toward environmental justice, the idea that no national, ethnic, or cultural group should pay a disproportionate cost for the effects of climate change or conservation. In terms of environmental equity, it follows that countries and organizations that bear the most responsibility for environmental damage should shoulder the burden of correcting it. Ensuring environmental justice requires involving everyone in the decision-making process and ensuring that no one is denied the resources to improve their lives as well as their environment. 
Environmental Colonialism: The Human Cost of Climate Activism

———End of Preview———

Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Michael Shellenberger's "Apocalypse Never" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Apocalypse Never summary:

  • An assessment of the climate crisis from a rational perspective
  • How climate change alarmists are doing more harm than good
  • The problems with renewable energy and why we should switch to nuclear

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *