A friend recently sent me the trailer for a new documentary, “Mine Your Own Business.” The gist of the documentary (or the trailer for it, anyway) is that environmentalists are only willing to sacrifice economic development for environmental preservation because the environmentalists are already (relatively) rich — that is, like most people in the developed West, they tend almost universally to have indoor plumbing, enough food to eat, medicine, etc. Accordingly, environmentalism is analogous to climbing out of a hole and then pulling up the ladder behind you.
As “Mine Your Own Business” (again, at least the trailer) presents this argument, it is overtly one about motives. Environmentalists are accused of not caring about the poor, and the implication is that they might not prefer having their water so clean if they themselves had to pay the price in terms of lost economic development. This explicit accusation about the environmentalists’ motives strikes me as improbable, not least because it implicitly assumes that one can usefully generalize about the mental states of hundreds of thousands of individuals as if they were all the same. More to the point, it strikes me as irrelevant whether the environmentalists (or the mining companies) have pure hearts; what is relevant is whether they are right about anything. Are they right or wrong when they assert that industrialization as practiced by the West for the last 250 years is not (or is no longer) environmentally sustainable? I’m not qualified to say, but I feel confident that introducing questions of motive doesn’t shed any light on the issue.
The question I find more interesting is whether the West is somehow morally obligated to allow the rest of the world to industrialize in environmentally unsustainable ways (assuming for the sake of discussion that they are unsustainable) just because we did. I think this is far more doubtful than the makers of this documentary seem to suggest. Suppose an older brother, having done prison time for car theft, tells his younger brother he’ll beat the living daylights out of him if he ever gets mixed up in criminal activity. That’s right, isn’t it? We wouldn’t say the older brother has to hold his tongue just because he made the mistake first, would we?
Should I be forbidden from taking the car keys of an inebriated friend unless I can demonstrate that I myself have never driven while legally intoxicated? Or should we expect those who have had some experience of the unfavorable consequences of driving while intoxicated to be the first to step up to the plate in that situation?
Or how about this: A museum is hosting a cocktail party for some of its large donors, most of whom are collectors of fine art and many of whom actually have paintings on loan to the museum. Because it is a private party, smoking is permitted, and one of the cigarette butts starts a fire. As the building is evacuated, the donors scramble to retrieve the paintings they themselves own, along with whatever other treasures they can save. The fire department arrives, and the collectors wait anxiously outside as the firemen move in and out making sure that no one else is inside (and, incidentally, bringing out some more art as they emerge). Just at that moment, an art collector who is late to the party happens along, and he is horrified to learn that a priceless painting he loaned to the museum is still inside. Heedless of the risk, he dashes toward the door to retrieve his painting, but the fire chief stops him and tells him it’s too dangerous. “But all these other people were able to save their paintings,” he protests. Do we think the fire chief should let him in just because others were able to? Would it matter at all if the one painting this collector had inside was his only belonging in the entire world? Would it matter if he told us it was uninsured and the loss would devastate him financially?
The analogies aren’t perfect — no analogy is — but I guess it seems to me that if industrialization as practiced until now is not environmentally sustainable, then all people of the world, rich and poor, have a moral obligation to move toward sustainability. It is one moral obligation among many, of course; compassion for the poor would be another, as would respect for the moral autonomy of people in less developed regions. But neither of the latter two rest exclusively on the shoulders of environmentalists, and I don’t see any reason why a spirited discussion of our obligations toward the third world should focus on Greenpeace any more than it should focus on the Canadian mining company that paid for this film.