Shifting the Conversation: On the Double Standard

Since developed countries did not face environmental regulation during their development, the question has been posed if these countries are imposing a double standard on developing countries such as China, or from the north to the south (Gupta, 2004). The conversation on this double standard presented to the south by the north (Gupta, 2006:302) is an essential one due to what is at stake. If it is true that the north is responsible for 90% of the carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere (Gupta, 2006:305), it does not take huge leaps of mathematical reasoning to imagine what allowing the south to develop unchecked by pollution control will do to the environment. What truly is at stake in this conversation are the planet and her future generations, not only economic development and comfortable lifestyles. In order to move forward, the focus of the conversation must shift to account for both sides of this equation.

Expecting developing countries to meet the same environmental standards as developed countries seems unfair, and could limit their economic growth, as seen in the reduction of steel production after implementation of more stringent policies in China (Schmidt, 2004). To protect economic growth, it has been proposed that it is acceptable to allow these countries to develop now and clean-up the environment later. This idea is based on the concept of the Kuznet curve, but it seems optimistic to expect the desired results to be found in all times, situations, and historical periods.  With population in China, for example, at levels not comparable to those in richer countries at the time of their development, the idea of a double standard is not appropriate. Due to rapid economic growth (and demands for continued growth) and large population, the potential damage to the environment is much greater. The gravity of the current problem, both globally and locally, must make the question of whether or not these countries should be held to the same standards as rich countries moot.  Not only should they be held to the same standards, they must be held to the same, if not more stringent, standards.

It is true that the ‘double standard’ argument posited by the south is valid, and the situation is anything but fair. Colonialism, in any form, must be staunchly opposed. But the environmental situation we face has left the realm of what is fair or unfair. Reality must be accepted. The guiding vision of the double standard conversation is, at least at first glance, appallingly short-sighted. There are many elements that must be considered in this conversation, but the first of these is that this guiding vision must be corrected before any thoughtful approach can be decided upon in attempts to address the challenges. The conversation on the double standard is putting the wrong thing at stake – development. This seems to be a nod toward the argument that development and rising incomes are actually good for the environment. 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. 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, apparently, not concerned with the finite nature of earth’s resources. It is narrow, short sighted, and potentially dangerous. This danger is obvious in the discussion of the double standard problem. Considering the finite and delicate state of the environment, the question that must be answered is not whether, but how developing countries should be held to the same standards as developed countries.

Bearing ever in mind what truly is at stake is the planet and future generations, the first issue that must be addressed is whether or not the developed countries should pay subsidies to developing countries, as they are calling for, to assist them in their development (Gupta, 2006:302)? Again, this is not a question of what is fair. In an ideal world we might allow the invisible hand of market forces to direct the nature of development and cooperation between north and south. This argument might hold water if we were not in the situation we were in. It is clear that development will continue, and since, due to environmental concerns, we cannot allow the south to develop unchecked, the nations of the north should assist in ensuring that appropriate controls are in place. This should not be seen as compensation or restitution – that perspective is clouded due to the falseness of the current guiding vision. The north must provide assistance because it is essential to the well-being of the planet and future generations. Additionally, if only economic considerations can motivate the north, and if the argument that development stabilizes population and is better for the environment is accepted (despite its weakness), the assistance provided by the north will bring economic benefits in the form of more viable trading partners, while taking measures to care for the environment. It is a win-win situation. Again though, the guiding vision must change from being focused on short-term benefits and childish insistence on fairness. The situation is beyond that and requires a more thoughtful, mature, and insightful approach.

This change of guiding vision is likely not as large of a hurdle as it may seem. Accepting that there is a basic human instinct for survival, it stands to reason that everyone is interested in the well-being of the planet and improved economic circumstances. The second issue that must be addressed is therefore on how the conception and administration of programs and initiatives aimed at realizing the goals inspired by the new guiding vision are to be implemented. Considering the ‘wicked’ nature of environmental problems, north-south relations on an ecological and economic basis, and the number of people, organizations, and nations involved, the task of implementing frameworks to meet the challenges can cause one to throw up their arms in disgusted exasperation and walk away. There needs to be a mechanism to define, implement, and maintain any solution within a global context with its myriad of challenges and stakeholders. The question therefore arises – should there be some form of an international organization overseeing things, or can such an organization only sink into a form of governmentality pursuing geo-power (Luke, 2006), thereby hindering rather than aiding in the seeking of viable solutions? Considering the ineffectiveness of efforts to date, it does not seem to be an adequate solution. With divergence of priorities and discussions on what are global or local problems, narrow ethnocentric perspectives, and regional political agendas (Cutter, Spero, & Tyson, 2006), efforts get bogged down and become paralyzed, as evidenced in the Earth Summit (Gupta, 2006:303). Such organizations seem to typically fail in the setting of global priorities while still allowing local solutions, and get sidetracked on providing some form of measurement, and though seemingly good intentioned, really only serve to establish and solidify geo-power  (Luke, 2006), in a form of colonialism.

Leaving aside the arguments for or against development, addressing the problem of the double standard is essential for moving forward in addressing the ecological, economic, and cultural problems we face. Developed countries are enjoying the fruits of their often reckless development, which has brought us into the situation we are in, but are actively preventing, through the governmentality mindset of environmentalism, developing countries from pursuing the same level of development (Luke, 2006: Gupta, 2006). This cannot continue, but at the same time, present and future environmental damage must be checked. Remaining under the guiding vision of the idea of economic dominance, lifestyle perpetuation, or the childish and selfish notion that what is fair is the only alternative will only perpetuate the ineffectiveness of any global initiative. Only when the vision changes and priorities are agreed upon and followed through on will any administrative effectiveness be found which will allow for equitable participation in defining and implementing solutions. It must always be remembered that it is not only development or rising incomes which are at stake, nor is it only the environment – the two go hand in hand, as developing countries realize, at least to some degree (Gupta, 2006:303).

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.

Cutter, W. B., Spero, J., & Tyson, L. D. (2006). New World, New Deal. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 325-335). New York: New York University Press.

Gupta, A. (2006). Peasants and Global Environmentalism. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), Theenvironment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 302-324). New York: New York University Press.

Luke, A. (2006). On Environmentality. In N. Haenn, & R. R. Wilk (Ed.), The environment in anthropology: A reader in ecology, culture, and sustainable living (pp. 257-269). 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 (

Schmidt, C. (Director). (2004). World in the Balance: China Revs Up [Motion picture].


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