There is a relationship between poverty and climate change. No question. However it might not be the one that Jordan Peterson is claiming.

The usual position is that poorer people are generally forced to live in areas nobody who can afford to get out of would live. Not always true, because poor areas can also be quite communal, supportive and looking out for each other – co-operation helps survival. The land they occupy tends to be less fertile or vulnerable to seizure if it suddenly proves useful as the laws are not written to protect or benefit them. They tend to be in areas subject to flood, subject to heat, subject to drought, subject to disease, subject to heavier pollution, poisoning and rubbish dumping. In the cliché, the rich live at the top of the hill and the poor get the sewerage run down – they literally get pissed on. Corporations come in, use up, or destroy, the land and move on, out of reach of recompense; their promises of local prosperity for the poor never being fulfilled.

The poor are vulnerable to climate change, generally because of the areas they live in. However, as I have said previously the ‘ecological footprint’ of poorer people tends to be small. The ecological footprint (or pollution and destruction total) of wealthier people tends to be huge. For example, the Center for Global Development states that the average Briton produces 200 times the climate emissions of the average Congolese person, the average people in the US producing 585 times as much. I’ve mentioned the idea of the ‘polluter elite‘ [1], as an essential part of capitalism, before.

So what is Jordan Peterson’s attitude towards this?

He argues that:

The fastest way to make the planet sustainably green and ecologically viable is to make poor people as rich as possible as fast as we possibly can… poor people [are] not resource-efficient. They use a lot of resources to produce very little outcome, so that’s a problem… when you’re insecure on a day-to-day basis, you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you’re not paying attention to the broader environment around you

Taft. Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan Talking About Climate Change Will Make Your Brain Dissolve. Gizmodo

This more or less contradicts the data which suggests that rich people use huge amounts of resources. Naturally if they use huge amounts of resources they may well (by some measures) produce a big outcome, but it may not be all that efficient, but wasteful – and its easily possible to assume that when resources are easy to obtain, and produce no immediate suffering to the person obtaining them, that this person will not care how much they expend and waste, and pay little attention to the environmental consequences of that use. It is wealthy societies which are destructive. The logic works both ways, but let use assume that Peterson is right and people should be wealthier and this will produce green behaviour.

Peterson apparently says something to the effect that “Everything pollutes something – net-zero is nonsense“. This may be true (indeed I’ve argued that the mode of pollution is as socially important as the mode of production), but only a very wealthy person could assume that any amount of pollution somewhere else is ok.

My source is not clear on how Peterson wants to make people rich – indeed one source suggests Peterson criticises Corporate capitalism implying that companies “thrive at the disadvantage of the worker“. So he gives little hint of what we should do, as I presume he will not discuss the benefits of socialism or the mixed economy. My guess is that he is inconsistent and follows neoliberalism and handing everything over to the corporate market – this suspicion is boosted as he apparently argues that deregulation doesn’t create ecological disaster and that fracking is great. The problem here is that while we want to help people become as prosperous as possible, we don’t want everyone to have a huge ecological footprint. If the average Chinese or Congolese person gets to have the same ecological footprint as the average Australian does now, we are stuffed. We need prosperity with a smaller footprint. That means we need to learn to reduce Australia’s ecological footprint (or whatever your country’s footprint is, etc.). And we need to stop profiting from encouraging other countries to increase their footprints by buying our fossil fuels. We need to be able to generate wealth without pollution and destruction – partly because the costs of pollution and climate change are already high [2], [3], [4], [5], [6], [7], [8]. This again points to the difference between ‘wealth’ and ‘illth‘.

As poor people usually survive with a very low ecological footprint, they are often amazingly resource efficient, whatever Peterson says. This is one reason we send our garbage overseas. People reuse it. They extract minerals and valuable materials from it. They are generally not that wasteful. I’ve talked to people from some developing countries and they have been amazed at what Australians habitually throw out. You can’t afford to be wasteful if you are poor. Everything counts. That is certainly how my parents were brought up. They were not endlessly disposing of stuff – they reused, they repaired and so on. I would guess this could be true of Jordan Peterson’s parents as well. Thrift is usually considered a virtue, but modern machinery is often quite difficult and expensive to repair by design – hence the idea of a right to repair [9], [10], [11], and the request for biodegradable plastics and other materials.

Peterson continues:

You can’t even really worry about your children’s future in some real sense because ‘No, no, you don’t understand. Lunch is the future. We don’t have lunch, we’re hungry and that goes on for like a month we’re dead.’ That’s the future.

Taft. Jordan Peterson and Joe Rogan Talking About Climate Change Will Make Your Brain Dissolve. Gizmodo

Yes extreme poverty may not be good for future thinking, but then you need to ask what causes this kind of poverty, and it is often brought about by other people getting extremely rich; taking the land or forest the poor people have occupied and looked after for centuries, displacing them into cities (or other places where they have no land they know) where they cannot grow anything or look after themselves easily. Or perhaps poorer people suffered from taking perfectly legal loans which turned out to have unpayable interest rates, and they fled or a parental member of the family suicided for shame. Or they were forced into buying GM seeds which were infertile, or the water dried up because it was used for local industry or industrial farming, or climate change…. Riches and illth creation can involve destruction for some.

The problem here, apart from the likelihood that all this will get worse with continuing climate change, is differential of power. And again there is going to be little difference if getting people prosperous does not weaken the power differential and the force of unequal law.

What Peterson says is true:

The attempt to make the environment habitable and sustainable — that comes up of its own accord at a grassroots level and spreads everywhere.

but this is usually prevented by the hierarchies that exist and seek for profit rather than sustainability. Corporations may have no tie to the land, and no care for it, at all. They are only a temporary resident exploiting resources, not planning to maintain things ecologically for all.

Now Peterson tries to get political saying:

“left-wing types” seem “willing to sacrifice the poor to their Utopian [visions]” by pushing green energy resources to make the world more sustainable.

Well that may be true, if you have seen the damage that massive coal mines, or fracking can do to the land to provide old unsustainable energy. The IEA has said since 2020 that

Solar PV and onshore wind are already the cheapest ways of adding new electricity-generating plants in most countries today….

Solar projects now offer some of the lowest-cost electricity in history.

IEA. Renewables 2020: Analysis and forecast to 2025. p12-13

Renewables are consistently cheaper than new coal or gas based electricity. Renewables not only have the potential to be cheaper, but they are modular – they can easily be expanded when locals have more money. Villagers can become self-reliant on renewables and control it. It may be awkward but is often better than what they have now. They don’t have to wait for power cables to be built to their village from some distant source, or serviced, and they don’t have to pay for the capital expense of that wiring. Once renewables are paid for, they are paid for, ongoing costs are minor.

Peterson develops his incorrect argument that renewable energy is more expensive, by saying:

What happens is that in any system that’s hierarchical—and left wingers know this because it drives their whole philosophy — when you stress the system, the disproportionate amount of that stress falls on the people who are in the lower rungs because they’re barely hanging on anyways.

This is true of hierarchies in general. The weird thing is that previously we have seen Peterson defending right wing established hierarchies and refusing to admit there was any problem at all. So he here may be changing his whole political opinion. Perhaps he objects to hierarchies he does not like and which may not exist, or perhaps he is opportunistic. This is why you need a whole transcript. Anyway, in this case, we might all be able to agree we should scrap the hierarchies, including the capitalist hierarchies, and hand choice back to the poor.

He continues:

There is the old saying, ‘When the aristocracy gets a cold, the working class dies of pneumonia.’ So fine, increase energy costs. Well, what happens? A bunch of poor people fall off the map and the more you increase the energy cost, the more that happens.

True again, so you want cheap locally controlled and owned energy, which will have to be renewable. You don’t get cheap locally supplied fossil fuel energy, which does not harm the land. To support the poor, you want to scrap fossil fuel mines that displace people, you want people not to be forced away from the land that supports them, and that they know how to look after. Let’s get rid of extreme poverty without increasing ecological footprints – and lets try and reduce our own footprint as much as possible. That way we will be providing an example, and investing in ways of doing things that are less destructive, so the innovation will occur and spread.

Neoliberalism is not the only way forward, indeed it is a method to make things worse.