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Published February 27, 2008 10:34 AM

Exploring the Green-BoP Nexus Pt. 1: A Nano-Sized Car Reveals

The launch of the Tata Nano, the ridiculously low-priced car that could open a floodgate of new drivers in India and elsewhere, is undoubtedly one of the milestone innovations marking the early years of the 21st century. This is not just because of the unprecedented feat of technological and design innovation it represents but because of the huge rift it exposes in the public debate over the linkages between two crucial concepts, poverty and environment.

Will the Nano be a leap forward in quality of life standards for the BoP? Will it be an environmental train wreck of snarling traffic, suffocating levels of air pollution and unsustainable resource use? These questions have made the Nano so much more than a car - it has become a symbol for the collective tension over two trends that will define global growth for the foreseeable future: the impact of unmitigated environmental risks and the steady ascent of millions of people into the global middle class.

And so the story of the Nano begins with a simple car design and ends with a mess of contradictory statistics and competing ideas over what poverty is and how it relates to the well-being of the natural environment. I hardly need to go too in-depth on these narratives* as a simple Google search reveals the sheer number of them colliding and intermingling in the NGO/development space.

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Some say the poor are inherently good environmental stewards - people who are heavily connected to the land and who have cultivated sustainable practices over generations of direct reliance on their natural surroundings. This implies a community-based approach to conservation.

Another argument states that the poor can be worse environmental stewards because, for example, they lack the means to utilize natural resources with more sustainable but higher cost technologies (think solar vs. coal for energy consumption). This is usually the rationale behind the belief that any poverty alleviation scheme has an inherent environmental benefit.

Still a third line of reasoning states that in fact development, no matter how it's done, eventually means a growing middle class strata with middle-class consumption habits that threaten to overwhelm the ability of the Earth's ecosystems to continue supporting its inhabitants. This view can be kind of insidious because it is sometimes used to justify the morally questionable belief that rising incomes for poor people are undesirable because they lead to negative environmental impacts for the top of the economic pyramid.

The list goes on - more nuanced research focuses on the factors shaping and defining the link between the BoP and natural resources, such as the role of policy, and the nature of institutions governing community and environment.

The only thing that all this makes clear is that there is no easy answer to the question: What is the relationship between poverty and the environment? Each of these narratives seems to be true because in different contexts, each one is! The web of relationships connecting the terms "poverty" and "environment" are mediated by many social, economic, cultural and political factors that often differ from one situation to the next and cannot be neatly summed up in the executive summary format that we development/environmental professionals swear by.

These are the anxieties that boil just below (and frequently above) the surface in much of the coverage and opinions surrounding the launch of the Tata Nano - a simple story of a small vehicle that has exposed San Andreas size fault lines between the development crowd, environmentalists and everyone in between.

Next week, I'll tell another story - one that shows where social and environmental goals connect rather than clash.

*A good source for further reading is this bibliography provided by the World Bank.

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