There have been some great articles about the economy and the environment and consumerism. I could (and may) go on at length, but one idea in particular stuck with me and keeps coming up again.
It came from a very brief article called “How to be Free: The last untapped resource.” The author argued that we shouldn’t be trying to end poverty – but instead we should be putting an end to wealth. I’ve spent the last year or two studying international aid, economic development, microfinance development, and lots of theories about how to lift people out of poverty. One of the things I learned about was absolute poverty versus relative poverty. Absolute poverty is that extreme poverty where you don’t have the essentials of life: food, water, a place to live. Relative poverty is more about how poor you feel compared to others. If we all live in one bedroom houses and have enough food to eat, we probably feel fine. But if someone builds a mansion in our neighborhood we feel a lot poorer.
We should definitely put an end to absolute poverty. I hope eventually no one will go hungry or thirsty. I hope eventually everyone will have access to housing, health care, education, and jobs. But we don’t all (in fact none of us) need to own mansions, $20,000 cars, the latest electronic gadget, and things like that.
After all, argues the author of this article, what does it mean to end poverty? It means the poor of the world will be able to afford to buy stuff! But all 6.4 billion of us cannot live at the incredible high levels set by western countries, especially the US. That shouldn’t mean that we in the US continue at these levels while the poor become poorer and poorer. We in the western countries and the US need to reduce our levels of wealth.
The author, Tom Hodgkinson, says it better:
“The first thing you do with a little money is start to consume oil. You also buy more stuff, more plastics and more of the output of the industrial society…. The gradual elimination of poverty would mean that global demand for oil would rise… This means…that wealth is ecologically damaging. It is not eco-friendly. And it means poverty is eco-friendly.
“So when we talk glibly about our desire to end poverty, we need to reflect a little more carefully on what that means. In actual fact, one way to avoid environmental catastrophe would not be to end poverty but to end wealth. It is wealth, not poverty, that makes the problem. A self-sufficient subsistence life may look to us like poverty, but if people have all they need and enjoy life, what is wrong with being poor?”
I’ve been mulling this over for some time and then ran across another article in The Ecologist. This one seemed benign, just an interview with the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard. Patagonia is an outdoor wear company and they’ve been involved in recycling and organic cotton and other great earth-friendly programs for years. The green movement has no doubt been helpful to them. But then I read Chouinard’s last comment: “There is no doubt that we’re not going to save the world by buying organic food and clothes – it will be by buying less.”
I’m all for electric cars, solar and wind power, recycled and reused materials, organic everything, green this, earth-friendly that, and so on. But… is it possible we could cause just as much damage consuming vast quantities of green products? Maybe it would take longer, but overconsumption is overconsumption.
It’s nice that I can sit on my couch in my lovely apartment and blog about the virtues of poverty. But most people who are poor don’t see it as a good thing (and I’ve been there so I think I can talk). The point of making wealth history is that those of us who are wealthy need to take a look at ourselves. We need to forget about the Joneses and what everyone else thinks. If we aren’t happy with a house full of stuff and crushing debt, we need to do something about that. We need to remember the difference between need versus want. Perhaps we need to (as another Ecologist article suggests) downshift. We need a worldwide cultural shift – where downshifting, poverty, simplicity, and living with less are valued and the norm. Where working 60 hours a week and consuming as much as possible is looked down upon and is definitely not the norm.
Jeremy and I have been talking and thinking about this a lot lately – so stay tuned. We’ll be back with more thoughts on this…