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Lifestyles of the Poor and Obscure

An environmentalist laments the tragedy of electricity.

12:00 AM, Aug 28, 2002 • By KATHERINE MANGU-WARD
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THE INTRODUCTION of electricity has caused the "destruction" of cultures in the third world, according to the editor of an environmental website. He says "there's a lot of quality to be had in poverty."

"I don't think a lot of electricity is a good thing. It is the fuel that powers a lot of multi-national imagery," said Gar Smith, editor of the Earth Island Institute's online journal the Edge, in an interview with's Marc Morano.

"I have to been villages in Africa that had a vibrant culture and great communities that were disrupted and destroyed by the introduction of electricity," Smith said. "People who used to spend their days and evenings in the streets playing music on their own instruments and sewing clothing for their neighbors on foot-pedal powered sewing machines" are now inside their huts watching television.

The article is studded with similar gems from Smith, but his proposed solutions to the simultaneous degradation of culture and the environment were even more interesting.

"The real question," Smith asks rhetorically, "is what personal conveniences and self-indulgences are you willing to give up in order to stop destroying the planet?"

Smith explains that "a lot" of his friends "have given up automobiles and commute by bicycles and mass transit," and that they have given up meat, since "the amount of water used to produce a pound of hamburger meat is probably enough to sustain a third world village for half a year."

Though this calculation casts some doubt on Smith's quantitative skills, like most U.S. environmentalists, he firmly believes that "the level at which Americans consume is unsustainable." He quotes a recently released World Wildlife Fund statistic: "If the rest of the world consumed at the same rate as the United States we would need three extra planets to exploit."

Smith goes on to declare that poverty is "relative." He explains that "you can't really have poverty unless you have wealthy people on the scene." One wonders why he hasn't moved to a locale more in tune with the lifestyle he and his friends embrace. There, with no health care, living on a subsistence diet, with a leaky roof over his head, at least he'd have the comfort of knowing he isn't poor.

But Smith offers comfort for avowed permanent residents of the developed world as well: "There is a solution to climate change and pollution. We saw it happen to Russia when their economy collapsed. Their industrial plants closed down, the skies got clear. Their air is a lot clearer now."

Thankfully, Smith is far from being a major player at this week's United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg, but some of his conclusions are the logical extensions of the mainstream environmentalism those delegates will be pushing.

Patrick Moore, a founding member of Greenpeace, left the group in the 1980s after becoming disillusioned with its radicalism and "eco-imperialist politics." He says of the delegates at the Earth Summit: "They are mainly political activists with not very much actual science background who are using the rhetoric of environmentalism to push agendas that are more political than ecological."

Of Smith, he exclaims, "What does he think--that some illiterate with her teeth falling out in the mountains is a good thing?"

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.