FOR centuries, poverty has clearly been visible as a costly and ugly social sore: shortening lives, impairing health, engendering crime, incubating violence and nurturing “black economies”.
Evolutionary biologists who have studied survival strategies in harsh, unpredictable, unhealthy and marginal environments that are likely to shorten your life — the sort of conditions engendered by poverty and oppression — tell us that they predictably include reproducing as soon as possible (teen pregnancies) and engaging in high-risk activities that can bring quick returns (like crime, gambling and dominance-related violence).
The “scientific” way to address the problems linked to poverty is not to foist education programmes on the poor but to reduce inequality: to narrow the gap between rich and poor. That gap is the cause; the other disparities are symptoms and consequences.
But “The Economy” has been resistant to conclusions like these, preferring to see poverty as an inescapable warning of how bad things get if you don’t play the game the way you should: in more ways than one, your credit gets cut off.
A billion children live in poverty. That’s half the children in the world. According to UNICEF, 30,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they “die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.” That is about 210,000 children each week, or just under 11 million children under the age of five, each year. They should get off their lazy butts? It's their parents' fault?
One popular myth is, of course, that poor people impoverish themselves by having too many children: the crux of their problem is “overpopulation”. This is a naïve notion that assumes a Congolese child will gobble up as much of the world’s resources as a child born in Manhattan. The fact, of course, is that it takes scores of children in the “developing world” to rival the consumption of just one only-child born to a middle class couple in the wealthy West. It is that one child whose impact is problematic… on scales of both consumption and pollution. No one woman in the “developing world” could possibly bear enough children to rival its impact. In any case, families in the “developing” world are, at this, point smaller than anyone remembers. The “population problem” is topping out.
You have to think in terms like “middle class” and “wealthy elites” in contexts like these because poverty is not confined to poor countries. Canada’ poorest citizens — predominantly aboriginal peoples — are also the most frequently imprisoned, the shortest-lived, the least healthy and the most deprived of opportunity. Most tellingly, they have been and continue to the most ruthlessly denied the dignity of their cultural and personal identity. Their history is invisible, their languages and community life have been suppressed and marginalised, their wisdom denied… their resources have been appropriated or wantonly destroyed… and they are then blamed and insulted for the position into which they have too often been cast.
And blaming the poor for their condition is not unlike blaming holocaust victims for their fate. That one or two manage to escape from time to time changes nothing when it comes to the morality of it all.
Poverty is oppression.
A study of poverty and income disparity by the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD) published in October 2008 found that the gap between rich and poor had widened since the mid-1980s in more than three-quarters of the world’s “rich countries”. The previous five years had seen growing poverty and inequality in two-thirds of the OECD countries. Canada, Germany, Norway and the United States led the spread. The latest “recession” saw the position of black Americans worsen both in absolute terms and relative to white Americans: by 2010, their median household income had fallen to 61.6 per cent of the white median household income from the high in 2000 when it had reached 65 per cent. In Canada in 2006, the median income of aboriginal people trailed that of non-aboriginals by about 30 per cent ($18,962 compared with $27,097). Even educational parity didn’t close the gap.
Globally, the social devastation wrought in the name of economic “freedom” is horrendous. When we take a look at the numbers, we get a picture that’s the antithesis of what “economic development” is purported to mean, with environmental degradation adding weight to the chains of poverty and demoralisation that “development” has inflicted.
In its ‘Least Developed Countries Report’ of 2008, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development found that poverty was deepening in the world’s 50 least developed countries despite their economies having grown by a record average of seven per cent in 2005-2006: 277 million people in these countries were still living on less than a dollar a day, up from 265 million in 2000 and 245 million in 1995.
Since 2006, the situation of the poorest of the poor had been worsening thanks to climate change and a new biofuels industry. Together, they pushed food prices up. Some countries saw basic staples like maize, wheat and rice double in cost in 18 months.
“Biofuels demand is soaking up grain production, as is rising consumption in emerging countries for animal feed,” said Josette Sheeran, executive director of the United Nations World Food Programme. “We face the tightest agriculture markets in decades and, in same cases, on record. Global wheat stocks have fallen to the lowest level in 25 years. We are no longer in a surplus world.”
This is a statement that’s at serious odds with a premise that most academic economists have long subscribed to: that supplies are inexhaustible. As part of the basis for their modelling studies, economists also have subscribed to the curious belief that everyone acts rationally and single-mindedly to pile up as many possessions as possible, and that growth is essential. It is as though life itself has no value, and “quality of life” is a by-product of having lots and lots of money.
So, where is the money going? In 2006, military spending was $1,158 billion worldwide: an average of $173 per person (or 2.41 per cent of global GDP). That same year, by way of comparison, the United Nations World Food Programme distributed about $2.9 billion in food aid. It’s a whole lot more cost effective, one might idly imagine, to feed people than it is to kill them.
Throughout human history, the interdependent benefits of group bonding and personal satisfaction have been more or less recognised. Value has been accorded skills that enhance the experience of living in community, and the customs and the easy interactions that help a community to maintain a balance. It’s not just about pouring in entertainment from a globally centralised source like Hollywood; it is about town planning and the integration of families, about tranquillity as well as excitement, about local economic bases and celebration, it’s about sharing food and fun and relaxation. It is about flows of ideas. And it involves an aesthetic of life in which everyone has a value.
And, where there’s a healthy aesthetic of life, poverty presents an aesthetic as well as a moral and social affront. The existence of poverty is a sign that the community isn’t working… something is broken, with consequences for everyone. For the wealthiest to simply move out to suburbs or enclosed “communities” with razor wire and security guards is not a solution. It turns a community problem into a societal one.
IN a recent speech, Gerard Mitchell, former chief justice of the Prince Edward Island Supreme Court, identified poverty as ” the most important and pressing human rights issue in Canada.” And he isn’t alone in identifying poverty as a moral issue: as a condition that’s imposed on those who experience it. Poverty is not simply about want of income; it is about the social deprivations that are imposed on people who lack financial power; it is a pernicious, institutionally inflicted form of bullying that becomes exploitation when low paid, tedious, dangerous and dirty work is dangled in front of the poor as a false promise of hope.
One of the truisms I was brought up with was that hard work always brings its rewards. So, believing that and keen to make our fortunes, you and I might set out together in search of some seriously tough jobs in a nice climate as a sure-fire way to get rich… mining gold in Africa, perhaps, or offering ourselves as farm labourers in Central America or, if we prefer to indoor work, as line workers in an American chicken processing plant or a South Asian sweatshop making plastic trinkets for something rich white people call “Christmas trees”.
But we’re not that silly… we know that the big money really piles up in a kind of vast, international casino where the work lies in rigging the odds, loading the dice and stacking the decks.
The casino’s name is “The Global Economy” and it is manoeuvred by collectives of the wealthiest and most powerful of the world’s elites in ways that are calculated to over-accumulate their surpluses.
And, despite the considerable intellect of Milton Freidman and anything that economists might tell us, money is nothing more than a faith-based means of communication. It isn’t “stuff”; its existence is notional. It’s our source of sacrificial tokens for the modern Caesar. And, should some sufficient mass of people suddenly stop believing in it, whole societies would collapse.
More and more of the world has been enveloped within this fantastical, viral way of thinking and, although it has become extremely powerful, it has not been for the best.
There was a time when to gain control of someone else’s resource, you had to fight them for it, face to face; now you just buy it. Oddly, it has not made the world a markedly more peaceable place. But it has made appropriation very much easier. And that has often been damaging. When trees become “money”, deforestation does not only denude landscapes of their forests. Human cultures may be annihilated or rendered unsustainable; plant and animal habitats are wiped out; erosion can make soil fertility irrecoverable and rivers carry toxins, silt and shock-levels of nutrients into the sea.
When fish are turned into money, overcapitalized fisheries stretch themselves to breaking point and marine food chains come apart. When initial gluts turn to inevitable shortages, fishermen take loans to buy bigger, better boats and install new, more costly fish-chasing technologies and it all becomes a client sector of the banking industry. When over-fishing can no longer service the interest payments, fishing communities collapse and the banks repossess the boats and gear, presumably to sell as scrap to the steel industry.
When it’s minerals, everything that’s not the target ore is turned into over-burden, a nuisance to be removed, even if it happens to include ecosystems that have been millennia in the making, or human cultural values that have sustained communities for centuries, or watercourses that affect lives many hundreds of miles away.
Exploitation is usually hailed for the jobs it “creates” but financial and competitive forces make it best to extract the target mineral as quickly as possible, so the jobs are usually short-lived. And the collateral damage to the “overburden” is likely to take centuries to repair, or prove altogether irreparable.
We’ve seen airwaves, water and the right to exploit various resources turned into money, even genetic material, which turns it all over to exclusive ownership and rights of access. In the case of patented crops, corporate development efforts went into hybridised maize rather than wheat because the characteristics of maize make it the easier crop to exert patent controls over. Community resources — too often thought of in cash terms as “free” — get less respect than they should and can come to be viewed as useless and, therefore, a good place to dump garbage.
The life-sustaining atmosphere and the ocean depths are two towering examples, and these fundamental sustainers of life have both been compromised by carelessness, over-exploitation and unchecked pollution. Biodiversity? Who owns it? Who needs it? Actually, we all do.
Yet we have insisted on finding ways to make consumption endless, and not just through online shopping and 24/7 malls. On one hand, money lets us postpone consumption but to continue hoarding the potential to consume; on the other, debt enables us to have now what we can’t pay for until later. And economists keep telling us that a lack of growth — stability — is unsustainable failure. The treadmill has to keep accelerating.
BUT “The Economy” offers few assurances or certainties, it’s a gamble… and, if you stand back and look at it with a clear and open mind, you are very likely to start wondering whether it’s not hopelessly unsustainable anyway.
I don’t want to scare you, but poisons are accumulating in food chains; clean water’s getting scarcer; rare metals needed for hi-tech applications face potentially extreme shortages; no-one’s yet found a safe, long-term way to get rid of nuclear waste; biodiversity is being lost at a calamitous rate and cultural diversity has already crashed; social and economic gaps are widening; war deaths, global temperatures, sea levels and species extinctions are all rising; diminishing resources are likely to ignite wars; international debt levels will become unsupportable… and, on its way down, “The Global Economy” as we know it is going to spit out a lot of its loyal devotees and, given its interest in weaponry and indifference to justice, things could turn seriously nasty.
Most of us have far more than we know in common with the world’s poorest of the poor... much more than we do with the profit-takers and the “wealth creators”: wealth is not “created”… it is taken. And we are duped if we think it is taken to provide for our general benefit. It is, in fact, to our grandchildren’s imperilment.
The moray eel can be dangerous to divers because it strikes blindly. It knots its body into a crevice in a reef; its backwards-curved teeth make it almost impossible for the eel to let go of anything it sinks them into. Clenched too tightly into their crevice and with their teeth locked into something too big to swallow, they can die. The lesson here is about the dire alternatives to letting go, and swimming free… things we modern humans are not at all good at. We adhere to “stuff” as if were grafted to it.
It’s time to loosen the grip.
Shaping your own heart-full of hope and sharing it with friends… valuing small things and taking pleasure in beauty… learning to enjoy growing, preparing, sharing and eating food… loving-kindness and curiosity… these are the sorts of life skills that will surpass an MBA for satisfaction any day.
It’s still a wonderful world. You just have to make a point of experiencing it.
- See also: Breaking Free: The stupid Economy -