With Environmentalism of the Rich, Peter Dauvergne has given us another book that will be widely read and cited, and that will become a classic. There are parts of this book that will haunt the reader far into the future. Among them (with no spoilers): Pablo, to whom this book is dedicated, and Dauvergne’s flying dump trucks. So too with his main analytical point: more economic growth, more consumerism, and more corporations selling more so-called environmentally friendly goods, will not save our planet. Moreover, the book is an ideal length and structure, with each chapter readable and focused on a specific topic. It is the model for a book that crosses the academic and trade divide.
In this book, Dauvergne examines the successes and failures of environmentalism driven by the middle classes, the wealthy, and corporations of the richer nations. He highlights a number of victories of this “environmentalism of the rich,” but points out how their wins are far outweighed by the damages of overconsumption and runaway growth.
In the second part of the book, Dauvergne focuses on so-called eco-heroes of Northern environmentalism, including Jane Goodall, Bruno Manser, and Paul Watson. He also examines key Northern-headquartered environmental groups including The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the World Wildlife Fund: big environmental groups that raise much of their funds from the wealthy and from global corporations. This is a crucial and unseemly underside to environmentalism of the rich. But we should not be surprised that groups that take money from big corporations and governments do not speak truth to power. The best companion reading to Dauvergne on this is the classic (and still timely) article written by Max Chapin (2004) on Conservation International, the World Wildlife Fund, and The Nature Conservancy.
Dauvergne’s title is important, and readers need to keep it in mind as they read his book. Even though Dauvergne himself is clear on his focus and his topic, some readers may leave his book thinking that the book is about global environmentalism (especially because of the unfortunate choice to title the second part of the book “Global Environmentalism”). It is not. It is explicitly about environmentalism of the rich. Dauvergne focuses on what is wrong with efforts to save the environment that concentrate on growth and consumption, and does not put center-stage environmental movements where poorer people act to protect the natural resource base on which their lives depend—what might be termed “environmentalism of the poor.” Case in point: fishers who protect their fishing grounds against big trawlers, or farmers in northern El Salvador, self-identified “water protectors,” whose multi-year struggle to safeguard their watershed led the government of El Salvador to pass the world’s first law banning all metals mining (Broad and Cavanagh, 2017).
The distinction between environmentalism of the rich and environmentalism of the poor is not geographic Environmentalism of the rich can be found among elites in Southern countries as well as among elites in Northern (developed) countries—what might be termed environmentalism of the global 1 percent. And environmentalism of the poor can be found in Northern countries (such as the Standing Rock Sioux, who also term themselves water protectors) as well as in Southern countries—an environmentalism of the global 99 percent.
In other words, as Dauvergne’s book suggests between the lines, there is not one environmental movement or paradigm. The full picture requires his gloomier prognosis on environmentalism of the rich. But it also needs the hope that many find on the ground with ordinary poorer people doing extraordinary things to protect the environment, often at great risk. Dauvergne frames environmentalism of the rich as increasing in power and dominance, arguing that “environmentalism has increasingly come to reflect the interests and comforts of those with the most money and the most power” (p. 141). What at least some current Southern-based research suggests is that environmentalism of the 99 percent is also on the rise in many parts of the world. Could we possibly be at an unusual moment in history when both are on the rise?
The bottom line of Dauvergne’s research on the big US environmental groups is essential to digest: Those with power and wealth who consume far more of the earth’s resources will never be central to effective solutions. Nor will the world be saved by an “our common future” paradigm of environmentalism that pretends that we live in a world of equity rather than a world where the majority are dispossessed and marginalized in terms of economic, political, and environmental power and resources.
This book should be read and used in classrooms. Dauvergne has given us another beautifully written and essential book—starting with its disturbing sweep of history. His portrayal of the environmental havoc wreaked by economic growth is devastating. This book will help shatter the “environmental Kuznets curve” myth that growth can solve the environmental problem. This book will make some readers uncomfortable in their assumptions about how consumption habits and the so-called corporate responsibility movement will help save the environment and our future. Probing such faulty assumptions and facile solutions is essential, and Dauvergne is to be applauded for this book.