Kennedy School Visiting Scholar Discusses Poverty and the Environment

Kennedy School visiting scholar Christopher B. Barrett argued that “poverty traps”—systems by which it is difficult to escape poverty—often contribute to environmental degradation at an event Wednesday.

At the event, Barrett said poverty often places individuals in situations where physical mobility is difficult and can lead to environmental exhaustion. He pointed to poor pastoral families in East Africa that cannot afford to migrate to more resource-plentiful farms, and often damage and overgraze their soil.

“Once I’m poor, I behave in a poor way that keeps me poor and the environment around me induces behaviors that lead me to stay in this undesirable situation,” Barrett said. “In many cases, I will also degrade natural resource-base, whether by failing to invest in soil and water conservation, or by poaching wildlife in the area because my family is hungry.”

Barrett also noted that climate change plays a large role in worsening both environmental damage and the poverty trap, adding that climate change will create more frequent issues for poor populations.

“If droughts are increasing in frequency, people are going to suffer much more frequently. Their herds are going to be hit more often, they don’t have time to recover their herds,” he said.


Barrett said that one solution to breaking links between poverty and environmental damage involves providing insurance to the poor.

“Herders can get a pay out in the event drought hits their area and they expect to lose a lot of animals,” he said. “We’re actually seeing more insurers coming into this market.”

Elizabeth M. Wolkovich, an assistant professor in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology who organized the event, said she was excited to invite Barrett because she found it important to discuss various ways humans will suffer as climate change becomes more extreme.

“We can’t say or think about biodiversity or conservation without talking about the people and the wellbeing of humans,” Wolkovich said.

In an interview after the event, Barrett said his research exploring linkages between poverty and the environment is motivated by his interest in global social justice.

“I was interested in why so many people were so poor and stayed that way, and what can any one of us do to help them make their way out of poverty.”

The event, called “Poverty Traps, Resilience and Coupled Human-Natural Systems,” is a part of a seminar series launched last spring by the Harvard Center for the Environment, which focuses on ecological change and human-caused climate change.