Can we finally end the scourge of world poverty? Yes, we can

This crisis, however, is making us think for ourselves, and think in new ways. There is real anger, not only at the criminal greed of senior bankers, but at the whole system which promised to deliver eternal growth, and then abruptly fell apart and plunged us towards depression

DO we really want to make world poverty history? All decent people, of course, would say that they do.

So we contribute to Goal or St Vincent de Paul, or even do some voluntary work at home or abroad. At the very least, we nod in agreement over our Christmas pints when Bob Geldof urges us to “feed the world”, and somehow feel slightly better about our planet, and ourselves, as a result.

It is all the more painful, therefore, to confront the hard fact that eradicating world poverty, through our current form of growth-led consumer capitalism, is simply impossible.

What’s worse, any serious attempt to do so would be catastrophic, both for those of us who enjoy varying degrees of plenty, and for those who somehow survive in chronic want.

Let me explain: if all the people on the planet today were to enjoy the same average standard of living, right now, as the people of the industrialised world, we would need the resources of several more planets to meet all our needs. Obviously, we only have one at our disposal, and its finite resources are already running out.

The problem is not just that we do have enough planets to keep everyone in the style to which we in the West have become accustomed. As resources are consumed more and more rapidly worldwide, there is a corresponding increase in the scale of the ominous environmental problems already generated by the industrialised world.

The recent growth surge in rapidly industrialising countries like Brazil, China, South Korea and India is ratcheting up the rate of climate change, already accelerated in the last century by North American, European, and Japanese carbon emissions.

And, as populations multiply, the very poor are, unwittingly, pumping out vast quantities of green house gases without ever driving a car or building a factory.

The draining and burning of Indonesian peat swamps and forests by people desperate for land is a case in point. This activity alone is estimated to release more carbon annually than the emissions which would have been cut if the entire world had implemented the Kyoto agreement.

As available resources shrink and climate becomes more and more unstable, it is the poorest of the poor who are suffering the initial consequences.

The exhaustion of fertile earth hits subsistence farmers first. Rising sea levels will devastate entire populations in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, already subject to chronic flooding casualties. Does all this mean that we should abandon efforts to relieve international poverty? Should the Government be praised for slashing aid agency funding through this week’s emergency budget, and be encouraged to transfer the remaining — and paltry — e696 million to more realistic ends at home? Not at all. What it does mean — as many of the aid agencies have already argued — is that the elimination of poverty requires a rethink of global economic fundamentals — and that in turn means a rethink of our entire system of values. And that is a very hard thing to do.

Nor does it mean that we should somehow keep the growth model for ourselves, and deny it to others. To put it in its simplest terms, some of the world consumes too much, and the rest consumes too little. Finding a balance will be devilishly difficult. But not impossible.

Growth is good, of course, for those who do not have enough to eat, or adequate shelter, education, or health services. But this simple statement begs a multitude of complex and vexed questions: how much food is enough food? When is a house or a health service adequate? The current crisis in our own economy could still be an opportunity — and there may not be many more — to draw a deep breath and reconsider the path on which we have all been travelling headlong for so long.

Most of us know from our own experience that, after a certain point, our happiness does not increase in line with increased consumption.

A child with a hundred toys is unlikely to be happier than a child with five. Imelda Marcos could never wear all the shoes she owns, and they probably have brought her little joy. . Nevertheless, the growth economy which overproduces consumer goods has been very successful in persuading us, against our daily experience, that we are indeed happier, sexier or more powerful with more toys, more shoes, more cars.

In short, advertising works, and all our other values — cultural, political, and religious — collapse before the juggernaut of consumer capitalism’s propaganda machine.

The lure of blue jeans did more to undermine Soviet-style socialism than the political broadcasts by Washington’s Radio Liberty. To be labelled “anti-growth” is a death sentence for anyone running for public office almost anywhere today.

In religion, a handful of brave souls do stick their heads above the parapet and remind us that the great spiritual leaders all held simplicity to be a great virtue. But simplicity and holy poverty have never been too evident in Rome or Mecca.

On this day, Good Friday, Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Perhaps we also need to remember that he taught that anyone who had two coats had one too many, a most unpopular message in our still-affluent society.

This crisis, however, is making us think for ourselves, and think in new ways.

THERE is real anger, not only at the criminal greed of senior bankers, but at the whole system which promised to deliver eternal growth, and then abruptly fell apart and plunged us towards depression. And, above all, anger at ourselves for buying the lies the bankers sold us. Nobody made us do it and out of this awareness comes the knowledge that we can indeed do things differently. And so new projects are emerging. Productive and attractive gardens are springing up on “waste” ground among the red-brick terraces of Stoneybatter in Dublin.

Church property has been ceded for public vegetable patches in Carlow by an innovative priest in Carlow, Father James Gahan. This week, demand for allotments in Shannon exceeded supply. The most intriguing thing is that people involved in these projects often speak of the new pleasures they are finding in co-operative work. They are finding that producing their own food might be more fun than eating in fancy restaurants. It is much too early to call these developments a “movement” here, but it does hold the germ of a real shift in our values. Such shifts take great imagination and great courage, but they have happened before. It once seemed impossible to imagine a world in which feudalism was history. Not so very long ago, it seemed impossible to imagine a world which made slavery history, much less a world with a black US president, whose message is “Yes, we can”. It is time to start imagining a world where the highest value is not dictated by the market for consumer goods. That is the only world in which poverty, too, might really become history.

*Paddy Woodworth is writing a book about projects which reverse ecosystem damage, Restoring the Future, due from Chicago University Press in 2010.


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