Ending Poverty is Key to Sustainability


(Writing from Lesotho in Southern Africa)

Not long ago, I wrote a piece or two arguing the world economy could not be sustainable until we dramatically increase consumption in the developing world while radically reducing the same in the developed world.

Feedback was voracious, voluminous, and unequivocal: any increase in consumption is bad.

While at a personal level might I agree, at a social level, not really.

Until you’ve been poor it’s quite hard to “get” poverty: or, as Jonathan Swift wrote, “there is nothing so hard for those who abound in riches as to conceive how others can be in want.”

It’s difficult to even express this sentiment without seeming somewhat offensive. Poverty is hard. Poverty grinds hope relentlessly against the stone of despair. It is one moment, one crisis, one misstep, one indulgence away from calamitous ruin.

In a really great Sustainable Century podcast featuring Jesse Fripp, a long time international development agent of change, I ask the question “if you are poor, can you live life fully?”

His answer…. “mostly no.” Jesse lived in poverty and he bets if you have too, you would know caring about the environment or your community is not typically a priority. All you think about is staying healthy, getting enough to eat and drink, staying dry and keeping warm.

Maslow is right, if we can’t satisfy our basic needs it’s damn hard to think about other things in life.

Statistics from the People’s Voice Challenge bear witness. The Challenge is an online United Nations’ survey which polls people from around the world on what they feel they need for a better world.

The data is incredible and can cross tabulate “sustainability” issues against a host of characteristics of those taking the survey, including country Human Development Index score.

The HDI is a summary measure of achievement in key dimensions of human development supporting a long and healthy life, being knowledgeable and have a decent standard of living. (See the list alongside the table in the figure below).

In the column fourth from the right, or Low HDI which are typically poor countries, clearly shows folks from these places favor things that concern others in the High HDI countries (far right column). It also shows they favor much more so, education, health, jobs, good governance.

Environmental issues, yes they are important, but less so low HDI survey participants, than for high HDI. Climate change – a threat that will affect the poor orders of magnitude more than any other group — is also something low HDI folks are less concerned about.

What does this tell us?

Many things. But most of all it suggests  a counter intuitive, or, that economic equity and justice in low income countries would most certainly, most wonderfully, ignite the passion and genius of millions more Roberta Menchu Tums, Nelson Mandelas, Mahatma Gandhis, Octavio Pazes and Muhamad Yunnises.

Now wouldn’t that be something?


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