Beyond Apologies: Myth #11: Money is all that matters?

by Debra Efroymson

In a famous memo back in 1991, then Chief Economist of the World Bank Lawrence Summers wrote that “A given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages.” Decades later, debates about the memo still rage. The idea that any senior official in the World Bank has a sense of humour is a bit hard to swallow; in any case, the argument points to a broader problem. The value of people’s lives is seen to depend on how much money they earn, so harming low-income Africans with pollution is seen as less problematic than harming residents of high-income countries.

The reason the memo is so important is that the thought behind it continues to play out in economic decisions around the world. Even in the United States, corporations are allowed to get away with dumping of extremely hazardous chemicals because corporate profits are perceived to be more important than environmental protection. We still haven’t gotten over the idea that somehow, someday, our economic activity will prove so fruitful that we will magically clean up all the earlier messes and get to enjoy long, healthy, and prosperous lives in a clean environment. Development agencies in wealthier countries continue to export their polluting industries to low-income countries, claiming that they are creating jobs, while really they are just outsourcing their pollution.

What, then, is the solution? Rather than try to get rich and then aim to undo all the damage done in getting there, how about prioritizing health and the environment first? How about focusing on basic needs, rather than extremely indirect ways of getting to what we value? Nobody, even as a joke, should think that people have less value because they earn less, or that the environment or health are less important than money.

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