Why Ending Poverty is Greener than Green

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by Paul Polak

I believe that ending extreme poverty can have a greater positive impact on the environment than just about anything else we can do.

If 1 billion or more of the very poor people on the planet could move out of poverty, world population would probably stabilize at 7 billion instead of the 9 billion experts predict. Just about all of the 3 billion new people expected on earth will be born in families that go hungry two or three months a year and feel the need for big families to survive economically. When they earn enough to move into the middle class, the perceived survival value of big families usually falls away.

What impact do large poor families have on the environment? Although they directly consume much less than rich people, their carbon footprint is surprisingly high.

In 2006, the World Food Program distributed 4 million metric tons of food to 87.8 million poor people in 78 countries. Consider the carbon footprint of growing 4 million tons of food, transporting it to 78 countries, and transporting, housing and feeding the army of experts who supervise its distribution. Now add the carbon footprint required to regularly distribute food and water to regions in chronic deficit, like China’s Yellow River Basin and India’s Deccan Plateau. In Mumbai alone, 79 water tankers made 222 trips daily this year to deliver water to poor people during the dry season. Add to this the carbon footprint of the $100 billion we spend each year in futile massive development projects, and a picture begins to emerge on the impact of poverty on carbon emissions and climate change.

But the  impact of poverty on the environment goes far beyond climate change.

Poverty and Loss of Biodiversity are Joined at the Hip

What happens to many endangered species of animals? Poor people who live next to the nature preserves in the world’s 21 key critical biodiversity regions hunt them and eat them.  Providing attractive income-generating alternatives to hunting and slash and burn agriculture for poor people living next to nature preserves is one of the most successful strategies for maintaining the biodiversity of the planet.

A Root Cause of War and Conflict

Poverty is an obvious root cause of conflicts ranging from the Chinese revolution to the genocide in Rwanda to the civil war in Sudan. War in turn produces profound environmental degradation and renewed cycles of poverty and conflict. Helping a billion extremely poor people move out of poverty would decrease the incidence of conflict and war and help preserve the environmental balance of the planet.

Because of its central role in population growth, climate change, loss of biodiversity and conflict, implementing practical solutions to extreme poverty is probably the first place to start if you want to make a significant contribution to preserving the environmental balance of the planet.

Practical solutions to extreme poverty already exist. If organizations like IDE and the Grameen Bank have  helped some 40 million extremely poor people move out of poverty, what’s stopping us from scaling up the market driven approaches that can do the same for a billion people?

By Paul Polak

The following is from a dialogue from Snakalp 2010 on the social enterprise this was the second segment of a two part video.

To watch full video visit Beyond Profit’s Vimeo profile.

This Post Has 17 Comments

  1. Isaac

    We are very excited to be able to share with you the thoughts and ideas of Paul Polak. Please feel free to share your thoughts. We will be working hard to respond to you and your thoughtful ideas. We hope to start productive dialogue with those who share our passion for ending extreme poverty.

  2. Caroline Smalley

    ‘How to reduce world population by 2 billion’ – no weapons or trickery required!

    Of all the ideas I’ve seen tossed around for creating a sustainable world for creating a sustainable world, NONE makes more sense to me than this. What’s more, through collaborated reform, it needn’t be so hard to do. 43% of the population living on less than $2 a day. If we can each do just something in taking action in ways that Paul Polak has already demonstrated can work, much needed change will come.

    Relative to the challenges of figuring out the complexities behind so many ideas we try to implement in the developed world, this really ain’t rocket science. How can you help? What skills do you have to help those in the developing world to help themselves (and no – I’m not talking about cash).

    If anyone can think of something we could focus on for faster more affective change, would love to hear it. If not, well how about putting a little more attention to the ideas presented right here?

    In appreciation of the inspiration – please keep it coming. Excellent blog!


    1. Isaac

      Thanks Caroline!!

  3. Paul Polak

    Right on Caroline! I’ve spent 25 years working on practical solutions to extreme poverty, and it ain’t rocket science. Most $2 a day people just need to improve their livelihoods from 1 acre farms. I’ve described how to do that in my book “Out of Poverty”
    I would love to hear other peoples ideas and experiences.

  4. miah

    This really shifts the idea of where to focus our energy on environmental issues. It’s easy to notice things in your own back yard, or focus on the big disasters around us. Taking a higher level world view of the environment and the impact poverty has is brilliant. There are a thousands of good reasons to end poverty, but helping the environment is not typically high on that list and definitely should be. Good stuff.

    1. Isaac

      Miah thanks for the comment! You should definitely read the book (Out of Poverty) before your trip.
      I think the most exciting part about this is that helping people escape poverty is not a pipe dream. Paul through IDE and Mohamed Unis through Grameen Bank have proven that respecting people as customers works. The impact that we see effects the environment, education, health care, housing, and much more.

      “Practical solutions to extreme poverty already exist. If organizations like IDE and the Grameen Bank have helped some 40 million extremely poor people move out of poverty, what’s stopping us from scaling up the market driven approaches that can do the same for a billion people?”

      Now we are seeking to bring those proven strategies into broader use.

  5. Mary

    It’s good to see another way to discuss such important issues in a world gone crazy with the most complicated of lives and answers. Bless your new endeavors and continued blessing on your years of working to make the world a better place for the many.

    1. Paul Polak

      thanks Mary- I think we make poverty too complicated-if you talk to poor people themselves and start to learn from them, both the problem and the solutions become much simpler

      paul polak

  6. nomonde

    I am glad to hear other people concerned about ending poverty. I have been watching our government trying to reduce poverty, as you go down to the people i can say poverty is real happenning and affecting our socio economy, i am also part trying to create practical policy that will eliminate poverty in our planet.

  7. zoe

    Hello: really enjoying website. Is an RSS feed subscription possible yet?

    1. Isaac

      RSS buttons are coming soon! Thank you! Look forward to hearing your ideas and thoughts on these topics.

  8. diesel

    Non posso parlare molto su questo argomento.

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