Affluence and the Environment

The human desire for physical security and satisfaction of needs is self-evident. As the ability to meet these needs advances, the desire for physical security evolves into a quest for affluence. As there is an obvious relationship between affluence and the human ecological footprint, the question of how development should be pursued becomes paramount. White (2006) suggests that cultural development occurs through the harnessing of energy, either through the amount of energy that is harnessed, or through the efficiency with which it is transformed into work and products (p.143). With these points in mind, the question becomes how we can better utilize energy, while also caring for the environment, in a way which will lead to physical security and satisfaction of needs, and perhaps even affluence on a wider, more equitable scale. The ideas on development and environment offered by Beckerman (2006) and Fricker (2006) both have advantages and disadvantages, but the impression that they are diametrically opposed might lead to the assumption that one must be chosen over the other. Development will not cease, nor should it, as it is clear that it brings many advantages. What is needed is a new paradigm for pursuing development and affluence that offers a balanced approach between the self-satisfied mass consumption sanctioned by Ridley (2010), and the condemnation of all development as degradation as asserted by Shiva (2006). This paradigm should offer an efficient framework for harnessing and transforming energy on a broad scale, and lead to development that will benefit the earth and humanity in general.

Not only has it been argued that development can lead to population stability (Brown, Gardner,and Halweil, 2006), it has been suggested by Beckerman (2006) that rising incomes lead to increased concern for the environment. Rejecting the idea that development necessarily results in environmental degradation, Beckerman (2006) asserts that “society has a capacity to react to events” (p. 173), which leads to demands on the government to implement policies to ensure healthy environmental conditions. Offering an historical perspective, Beckerman (2006) points to improvements made in developed countries, citing 19th century London and the horrible environmental conditions in which people lived (p. 174). He claims the reason for this is found in the hierarchy of human needs – as incomes rise and basic sustenance and shelter requirements are met, other elements of well-being, specifically the environment, become more important (Beckerman, 2006, p. 175). With a more contemporary focus, Beckerman (2006) also points to the smaller amount of pollution caused by an advanced, service oriented economy (p. 175). He supports his argument with statistics on the relationships between income levels and access to safe drinking water, sanitation, and air pollution (Beckerman, 2006, pp. 176-178).

It not unanimous that development and associated rising incomes lead to increased environmental concern. Fricker (2006) argues that “our concern for the environment decreases as we become more affluent” (p. 192). He grounds this argument on an idea of sustainability that adopts a holistic approach. Rather than being limited to economic, societal, and environmental concerns, Fricker’s (2006) sustainability becomes an overarching vision, encompassing those external manifestations, but also including more internal, even spiritual considerations (p. 191). While this leads to a “crisis of perception” with its undercurrent of “ultimate meaning,” which is open to interpretation (Fricker, 2006, p. 193), sustainability becomes a vision for the future. Sustainability is thus comprised of a set of values and moral guidelines which should direct our decisions and choices in an all-encompassing worldview, which includes care for the environment (Fricker, 2006, p.194). Though not stated explicitly by Fricker (2006), his assertion that as affluence rises, environmental concern decreases seems to be based on the assumption that such a holistic sustainability in some way conflicts with the goals of achieving affluence (and the idea of development as a means to improve environmental conditions).

Beckerman (2006) would advise us to “get richer” (p. 177). Fricker suggests we become more holistic and shift attitudes in many areas – economic, societal, and environmental (p. 191), but also on the philosophical vision of “ultimate meaning,” using “all our ways of learning” (p. 193).  While these positions seem contradictory, they are both concerned with the health of the environment and both propose solutions for meeting the imperatives of correcting or eliminating environmental degradation. While Beckerman approaches the question through an examination of culture and society, focusing on a narrow set of environmental problems, Fricker does so on a more personal level, offering a means to address a broader range of issues.

There are obvious problems with both of these positions. The argument for development as environmental improvement is weak; though Beckerman (2006) supports his claims with statistics (pp. 176-179), there is no necessary conclusion that development and rising incomes are the only way to improve environmental conditions. There also is no deeper inquiry into just what it is about rising incomes which increase environmental concern. The development theory as argued by Beckerman (2006) and Ridley (2010) is also, apparently, not concerned with the finite nature of earth’s resources. It is narrow, short sighted, and potentially dangerous. The holistic sustainability as proposed by Fricker (2006), while more thoughtful and adequate, is challenged by the current prevalent worldview. Though the mechanistic, reductionist view described by Shiva (2006) is severely dated and is being replaced by an organismic view, it is still the guiding vision in the contemporary world. This presents a formidable challenge in transforming current attitudes and visions to those of holistic sustainability.

Should we single mindedly pursue development with the idea that environmental damage can be repaired at some future date when concern for the environment increases, as Beckerman (2006) suggests? Should we proceed with a more thoughtful and comprehensive attitude of sustainability, as proposed by Fricker (2006), who sees rising affluence as actually reducing concern for the environment (p. 192)? While it is an unfounded assumption that pursuing affluence represents a conflict of interests with holistic sustainability, Fricker (2006) offers a better and more thoughtful approach. Without shifting attitudes, any changes to environmental relationships will be superficial and temporary. Just as affluence does not ensure environmental friendliness, sustainability does not preclude development and affluence. Thus, if affluence does positively impact the environment, as statistics seem to indicate, it can still be realized through approaching development with an attitude of sustainability. In fact, if large scale development is the harnessing of more energy, sustainability is a more efficient use of resources and energy in a broader sense, and can lead to new cultural developments (White, 2006, p. 143) to inform further development in a balanced approach to meet the human desire for security and affluence. Only with a change of attitudes and visions, which Fricker (2006) asserts is an essential aspect of sustainability (p. 193), can the quest for affluence through development be achieved while still addressing key environmental issues.

Works Cited

Beckerman, W. (2006). Income Levels and the Environment. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 173-182). New York: New York University Press.

Brown, L., Gardner, G., & Halweil, B. (2006). Beyond Malthus: Sixteen Dimensions of the Population Problem. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 80-86). New York: New York University Press.

Fricker, A. (2006). Measuring up to Sustainability. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 191-202). New York: New York University Press.

Ridley, M. (2010) How To Shrink the Human Footprint: And How Going Back to Nature Would Be a Disaster for Nature. ChangeThis Issue 71-02 (

Shiva, V. (2006). Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Development. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 183-190). New York: New York University Press.

White, L. (2006). Energy and Tools. In N. Haenn, & R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology (pp. 139-144). New York: New York University Press.


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