Give a child a hammer, they say, and everything is seen as a nail — or at least in need of a good pounding. Likewise, give an environmentalist a brush loaded with green paint, and she or he may set to turning everything one verdant hue. Pretty, perhaps, but problems can arise when well-off painters try to “green” the people the communists once tried to “red”: the world’s huddled masses, the have-nots, the dispossessed, the poor.

Backed up in Bangkok.

Photo: Kelly Flock.

While Grist‘s new series explores poverty and the environment in the U.S., we are wondering about a broader question: What chance is there that the environmental revolution will reach the bottom of the wealth pyramid wherever it may be found, from Chicago to Calcutta, from London to Lahore? Will the future be driven by “trickle down,” “trickle up,” or something more akin to what would have happened if the fabled Dutch boy had taken his fabled finger out of the fabled dike?

With our deadline fast approaching, we sent an email to the SustainAbility team asking what they thought — then had to duck sharply as answers began to ricochet off the walls.

Do as I Say, Not as I Do

The first reply came from Kavita Prakash-Mani, who runs our Emerging Economies program. She had just returned from a conference on the greening of emerging economies held at, of all places, Windsor Castle. (Prince Charles may be Britain’s leading example of a gentleman organic farmer, but he still drives cars that have the efficiency of a Sherman tank.) The real problem today, Prakash-Mani stressed, is that industrialized countries are trying to export an unsustainable economic model to developing countries like Brazil, China, and India — or, at least, such emerging economies are embracing our economic and business models, regardless of how unsustainable they may be. She relayed the comments of one Windsor attendee, who noted that China is racing to replace its “bamboo” past with a “plastic” future, bulldozing land and building its 21st century infrastructure around the private car, rather than public transit. Sound familiar?

Next online was Kavita’s partner in crime, Jodie Thorpe, who has led much of SustainAbility’s work in countries like Brazil. She said the problem is that the rich North expects the poor South to leapfrog to a sustainable lifestyle — if not an impossible goal, a notion that’s stymied by the fact that very often the South aspires to the northern model. (The story may be apocryphal, but it is said that during the height of Lebanon’s civil war the gunfire periodically faded as gunmen retreated indoors to watch the latest episode of Dallas.) Developed countries must not underestimate the appeal of unsustainability built on economic prosperity. On the other side of the coin, they have to be acutely aware of how their own attempts at sustainability look in poorer parts of the world. The North’s well-intended “food-miles” campaigns, for example, which emphasize buying local, can look uncomfortably like trade barriers in the making from a southern perspective.

The third broadside came from our Washington, D.C., office, courtesy of Meghan Chapple-Brown. Before coming to us, Chapple-Brown spent years working with low-income communities of color in Chicago on issues including economic development and environmental justice. She pointed out that some environmentalists think the poor are simply waiting for a green angel to descend with organic fare and free bus tickets, an idea she disparages. While sustainability proponents may genuinely want to ensure that the benefits of greener lifestyles cascade to have-nots, she said, the more effective route — one embraced by many community activists in the U.S. — focuses on “increasing the power of the poor. When the environmental movement relates to power, then it becomes salient and relevant to minority communities.”

As these and other issues unfold in the years to come, there are at least three political — and ultimately, market and business — trends we all should monitor closely as we go forward. The first is long-established, the second still surfacing, and the third a solution that scarcely dares speak its name in some parts of the world.

Up, Down, or Sam-Ways

The first is the phenomenon of trickle-down development. Ronald Reagan was wildly over-optimistic on this front, clearly, but the fact is that new technologies can start out hideously expensive and stay that way until competition and technological innovation erode the price to the point where luxury may end up a necessity. Take the humble ballpoint pen, now given away at conferences alongside the mints. When Laszlo Biro reinvented the ballpoint in 1938, he sold his product to the British government at prices that remind us of the budget-warping lavatory seats the Pentagon was buying a few years back. Green technologies can follow this “ballpoint trajectory,” and that should be encouraged. Indeed, the Japanese started putting solar cells into things like calculators and watches many years ago as part of a strategy of spurring use and driving down costs.

Second, there’s a related aspect of the emerging economy space that should give the optimists among us cheer. In spite of the tendency for emerging economies to adopt northern models and aspire to that lifestyle, the horrendous environmental challenges that countries like India and China now increasingly face are also likely to inspire considerable innovation in terms of green technology development. These new ideas can then be exported (“trickle up”) to the rest of the world — a point stressed recently by New York Times writer Tom Friedman. That doesn’t mean wealthy nations can simply sit back and wait for this to happen. Northern investors should make strategic (and patient) investments in these areas, and northern companies need to participate in the development of these technologies, unless they want to be taken by surprise the way Detroit’s automakers were by Japan in the 1970s.

Now for the third trend. It’s increasingly clear that for all this to happen in a sufficiently rapid and tidy fashion, governments must get involved. Pause. Not a popular idea. When we were in New Delhi a month or two back, for example, CEOs at a Confederation of Indian Industry conference insisted that progress depends on keeping government and politicians completely out of the kitchen. But while some governments are certainly venal, corrupt, and largely counterproductive, good governments have the power to put in place the fiscal and market incentives that will be needed to drive the necessary processes of innovation, replication, and scaling. Think of Toyota’s Prius, now allowed free — along with other alternative-fuel vehicles — into London’s congestion charge area. It’s in the nature of markets that the standard processes of cost reduction, coupled with tax incentives like London’s, will eventually bring hybrid and other sustainable mobility technologies in reach of much larger numbers of people, among them many of the millions who will occupy the bulldozed landscapes of the emerging world.

In the business world, there are several levels of response to all of this. At the grassroots level, a growing number of social entrepreneurs are working to create new markets for, among other things, renewable energy and waste-management services. In the middle are the corporations that are being teased by the notion of the fortunes to be made at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. And then, perhaps the potential solution that really dares not speak its name, there is Wal-Mart and its globe-straddling supply chain.

The much-hammered $300 billion-a-year behemoth has begun pledging itself to sell everything from organic cotton baby clothes to sustainable fish. While its supply chain initiatives still lag way behind the likes of Nike and Gap, the potential for allying Wal-Mart’s cost-reduction power with the green agenda should tempt us to at least think the unthinkable. What if Hurricane Katrina really did turn out to be CEO Lee Scott’s Road to Damascus, and Wal-Mart really were to embrace sustainability? If Scott stuck with this long and effectively enough, would we put his name up in lights alongside the likes of BP’s Lord John Browne and GE’s Jeff Immelt? We shouldn’t count on it, but stranger things have happened.