Derek Newberry

Being Green at the Base of the Pyramid – It Just Makes Sense

adobeAre people at the base of the economic pyramid more “green” than those at the top of the pyramid? There is an ongoing debate about this – and one of the key assertions made by those who answer “yes” to that question is that the BoP are better conservationists. Karen pointed out in her post last week that the people who depend most directly on “ecosystem services” are the ones most likely to utilize them properly and productively in a sustainable manner.

Reading this, memories flashed through my mind of traveling around highways in Mexico where brick sellers would line certain parts of the road – stacks of adobe bricks made from baked mud and straw arranged behind them.Another BoP innovation around ecosystem services is the proliferation of decentralized biofuel generators, which have been gaining special attention recently thanks to the students who won U Texas’ Social Innovation Competition with a rice husk-powered generator. A similar system that uses jatropha instead of rice husks has been circulating throughout rural India for some time.

Biofuel generators are now a hot ticket in the Western sustainable development space, and adobe has long been praised by progressives as a green building material. But what strikes me as the key commonality between these two examples, and what I liked about Karen’s post, is that she makes clear this isn’t about a green image for much of the BoP – it’s about money.

I never once saw a roadside brick seller in Mexico touting her products as “eco-friendly,” they were just utilizing a low cost process that makes good building material from an abundant resource – dirt. And I suspect that what is (forgive the pun) fueling the proliferation of rice husk and jatrohpa generators in rural India is not that these villages can now label themselves as green-powered, just that they happen to live in places that are “rice rich and power poor” to quote one of the Husk Power founders. It makes economic sense.

Same ToP vs. BoP story with reducing resource usage – our own Vice President has called conservation what I think many Americans quietly see it as: a quaint “personal virtue” and nothing more. Witness the fact that it’s taken near $4 a gallon gas to put a dent in our driving habits – and that may just be a temporary dip in demand due to the recession. I thought about this when reading a post by Paul Smith recently about a campaign in Nicaragua to market fluorescent lights to the BoP based on the cost savings benefit they have over incandescents.

This line in particular really captures the contrast in how the BoP and the ToP think about environmental issues:

“$7 savings a year may not sound like much to those of us in the North, where there needs to be a greater emphasis on the macro, ecological benefits to convince people here. But there, that $7 is a much greater proportional financial impact. Multiply that times the number of lights they use, and it stands be a substantial amount.”

This is what makes the BoP in many ways better environmentalists than those of us in the global “North” who call ourselves environmentalists. For the adobe brick maker, the consumer buying CFLs and the person harvesting jatropha for their village generator, it’s not about the chicness of being “green” – at the risk of oversimplifying, it’s pure economics. Pretty straightforward.