Must the Poor Always be With Us?

Yesterday, fellow blogger Sha’Tara, aka Burning Woman, posted up a collection of “Anarchist memes, facts and headlines”. I challenged one of them in the comments. Another demands a longer response.

The world spent  $1735 Billion dollars on war in 2012.  It would take approximately  $135 Billion dollars to totally eradicate (systemic) poverty.

For the sake of complete transparency I must admit a few things so that my readers can understand any bias I might bring to my analysis. First, I used to be a pacifist. I gave that up after giving serious consideration to the need to overcome tyranny – specifically that of dictators like Adolf Hitler – and concluded that the war that killed my father, along with several million others, many of them non-combatants, was unavoidable. There were enough pacifists who tried prior to 1939, but the point about tyranny is that it does not listen to reason.

Second, whilst I have the same distaste as most intelligent people for what President Eisenhower called ‘the military-industrial complex’, when I needed a secure job to see out the last decade before I retired, I had no qualms about joining one of the world’s largest defence companies.

With that out of the way, let me get down to analysng the above statement. I have no idea where the estimate of $135 billion dollars required to ‘totally eradicate poverty’ comes from. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it is accurate. The problem with the juxtaposition of these two ‘facts’ is that it seems to be based on the false notion that money is a ‘thing’, something like water in a pipe that can be diverted at the turn of a tap from one direction to another.

Money is not like that. Money is just an IOU. When you talk about changing priorities for spending, as the rest of the paragraph does, especially on such a grand scale, you are talking about moving resources around.

When I was young and learning about these things we used to call them ‘the three Ms’ – the factors of production, men, materials and machines. That was when women in the work force were invisible. Viewed like that, it is easy to see that switching resources from war to ‘ending poverty’ is not so simple as it sounds.

Let’s just consider some of the ways in which it might be possible to end poverty. The most obvious symbol of poverty is lack of food. If we are to increase the amount of food produced in the world, there are several ways it could be done.

Image from BBC

We could destroy a few million more acres of rain forest and place them under cultivation. Disastrous for the environment, but who cares, we’re ending poverty here, the number one priority over all others.

Cutting out meat

And, of course, we don’t have to do it that way. We could cut down, or cut out altogether, our reliance on meat in our diet, and restore the pastureland presently used to graze cattle and sheep to growing crops for human consumption. I’m not sure how the reduction in methane production (good) that would result is balanced out by the additional energy and other inputs required (bad). I’m guessing it would work out as a positive for the environment, especially if we stuck to organic methods (although that requires that we continue to keep some animals for manure).

We could drastically reduce our consumption of alcohol, freeing up vast tracts of land already under cultivation for the production of food.

We could dramatically reduce the amount of food we waste, so long as we can move it from where it arises to where it is needed whilst it is still fit for consumption.

A better way

Image from Dr. Anneline Padayachee’s website

But there is a better way. One that is highly efficient and does not require an increase in the amount of land under cultivation. Hydroponics can be done on shelves, stacked in layers. It does have one draw back, however: the amount of energy used. I’ve heard that police forces can detect an illegal grow-house by reading the electricity meter. But so long as the energy used is not generated using fossil fuels, it’s all good. Although not according to the opponents of wind and solar power, who point out that they, too, involve the use of scarce resources, including land.

None of this, of course, addresses the problem of distribution, getting the food from the point of production to the point of need. But that’s solvable too, after all, war involves a huge expenditure on logistics and that is one factor that can easily be diverted.

And there are other targets that might be considered for reprioritisation. Take sport for example, an industry valued at $620 billion per annum, a figure reportedly growing faster than overall GDP, a lot of it directed at encouraging us to increase our consumption of stuff that is not only bad for us, but does little in a constructive way to end poverty.

Changed lifestyle

So it is certainly possible. It requires significant changes in lifestyle for millions of us, but it is in a good cause. Or is it? Time to look at some of the likely consequences of ending poverty.

When people cease to be poor, their health improves; they live longer, their children are more likely to survive into adulthood. So the population increases, even without any increase in procreation. And increased population means the need for yet more food production.

And poverty is not just about food. It’s about the quality of housing. It’s about health care and disease prevention. All factors that I’m guessing are included in that $135 billion price tag. And all requiring land, labour, materials and machines. All resulting in greater longevity and a further increase in population.

Is it possible to reach a state of equilibrium, in which universal well being and a stable population exist side by side? Humanity has been trying for centuries, yet, it seems, is no nearer to achieving it.

No simple answers

Thinking about money, rather than what it represents, is how idealists fall into the trap of thinking there are simple answers to these intractable problems. People need to start thinking in terms of work. Nothing that sustains life, or makes it bearable, exists without work. If you live in a shelter you didn’t build yourself, wear clothes you didn’t make and eat food you didn’t grow, then you owe a debt of service to those who did construct your shelter, carry out all the different processes required to convert natural skins and/or fibres into wearable garments, and to the growers of the food you eat.

With that in mind, it seems to me that one of the most effective ways of ensuring a fair distribution of those things that make life worth living is to ensure the fair distribution of work. And I’m afraid that means accepting immigration and the export of jobs. Neither of them things attractive to supporters of Donald Trump’s presidency, or the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union.

One of the most frightening aspects of a Trump presidency is not what it could do to America but the fact that, if he is able to return jobs to the USA, he will impoverish those Pacific Rim countries that depend on exports to the USA. Likewise, if it is no longer possible for people from Eastern Europe to take up low paid jobs in Britain, the poorest of those countries will have lost an important route out of poverty. The irony of this is that farmers who rely on that labour will not recruit native Britons to do they work – they are already planning to use robots for much of that work.

It would be nice to think that, in 2017, we might see fewer over-simplifications of the problems that beset the planet and, instead, some serious thinking about practical solutions.

2 thoughts on “Must the Poor Always be With Us?

  1. The only practical route I can see is to cut down the population, not with machine guns but to halt childbirth for a while – at minumum allow one per family worldwide. It’s the only way I can see to preserve our planet and our species.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree absolutely, Lucinda. With people living longer the population will continue to grow even without more children being born. Either that or we start culling people once they reach the Biblical allotment of 70 years! Of, course, neither will happen, which is why I fear for our grand children.
    In the past humankind were able to expand into the uncultivated wilderness. More recently people have imagined the possibility of expansion into the solar system and beyond, but the technology for that, if it exists, seems unlikely to be discovered in time.


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