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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

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.


Community vs Individualism

The post from Felicity Sidnel about cohousing that I re-blogged recently reminded me of something I read whilst researching the Irish famine of 1845-51. Prior to this traumatic event there existed in parts of the North West of the island a system of communal land occupation and cultivation known as rundale. It had remained unchanged for many centuries¹. It continued even though legal ownership of the land might be vested in a landlord with ties to the British mainland.

The people resided in a cluster of homes called a clachan. The adjacent land radiated out from the cluster and was farmed communally. The right to grow crops on individual plots rotated among the members so that each had the opportunity to use the best land. In some such communities plots were re-assigned every 3 or 4 years by the casting of lots.

Not that any of the land could be described as ‘good’ by comparison with the fertile soils of the Midlands and South East of the island. It was, however, capable of producing crops of oats and barley or rye, as well as grazing cattle. These uses would be rotated around the plots, the period when a plot was used for grazing providing a chance for the soil to regenerate, assisted by the manure deposited by the animals.

Cattle grazing uplands. © Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Cattle grazing uplands. © Copyright Andrew Hill and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

In many clachan‘s, it was common practice to take the animals to high ground, beyond the cultivated fields, to graze uplands that were incapable of being tilled. In some cases families would have a second, albeit rudimentary, home in the hills for summer occupation by younger members in charge of the herd. In my readings about rundale, I have yet to discover what their diet consisted of in this period. I can imagine they might have taken a supply of oats with them. I think it probable, also, that they would have cooked and eaten edible wild plants such as dandelion and nettle. They may even have caught and cooked small wild animals like rabbits, squirrels and hares.

Open field

Rundale has some similarities to the system of open field cultivation practiced right across Britain and Europe from medieval times. A key difference is that at the centre of each open field community was the manor house. The rest of the community were subservient to the Lord of the Manor. Otherwise, the rotation of holdings and of crops between plots was the same. The plots, however, took the form of long, narrow, strips. This system continued in some parts of Europe until late in the nineteenth century. In mainland Britain it ended with the enclosure movement which gained popularity with landlords (though not necessarily with the peasantry) throughout the eighteenth century.

In the West of Ireland, the arrival of the potato changed this pattern. The potato is a highly nutritious food that is easy to grow on poor soil so long as manure and/or seaweed is available to feed the plants. Such reliance on a single crop was, however, dangerous. There were failures of the crop in some years before 1845. The famines that accompanied such failures were short-lived because potatoes were grown in sufficient quantities the next year.

Repeated crop failure

It was repeated failures of the potato crop over a five year period that created the circumstances in which the Great Famine happened. By then, the same pressures that led to the enclosure movement in England were in operation in Ireland also. Rundale was being replaced by the re-allocation of land to single family holdings.

It is debatable whether such communal systems of agriculture are more or less efficient than single farm holdings. One factor that is very clear is that community based systems like rundale and the open field system are highly regulated. There may not have been a Lord of the Manor to manage the rotation of crops and the allocation of plots in rundale. There was, however, a hierarchy with a leader known as An Ri, or King. It was this man who supervised the casting of lots and organised such communal tasks as the mending of fences.

There is evidence that rundale continued in use in at least one Mayo parish until the end of the twentieth century. The open field system is still practiced in the Nottinghamshire parish of Laxton in England.


A typical cohousing development. copyright UK Cohousing Network

A typical cohousing development. copyright UK Cohousing Network

How do either compare to cohousing as described in Feicity Sidnel’s post? According to the website of the UK Cohousing network “Most cohousing communities have a common house, with shared facilities such as cooking and dining spaces, meeting and playing areas, laundries and guest rooms. Shared outside space for childrens’ play, parties and food growing (my emphasis) can feature in a cohousing project.” This is in addition to individual homes.

However, “The community is governed in a non hierarchical way.” But the item goes on to point out that: “Some communities also require residents to undertake a set number of hours work for the community.” Suggesting that a degree of regulation is needed, just as in rundale and the open field system.

¹Not everyone agrees about the origin of rundale. See Yager, Tom. “What Was Rundale and Where Did It Come From?Béaloideas 70 (2002): 153-86. Web.

Final Solutions: the road from Scapegoat to Genocide

A recent article in the Irish on-line newspaper, reporting on calls for the annual commemoration of the 19th century potato famine to have a fixed date, drew an inevitable spate of comments pointing out that this event was really an example of genocide. Are such claims fair?

The starting point for my response is to look at motives. If you believe that the responsibility for the economic and/or social problems being faced in a particular place or time can be laid at the door of a specific group of people you are embarking on a journey that certainly can end in genocide. It has happened many times in history, not just in 1930s Germany.

Blaming immigrants, people of colour, the rich, the poor, the members of a religious group or of a profession – politicians, bankers, the police force – is always too easy as well as dangerous. But the question is where do you draw the line when it comes to proposing solutions. Do you stop at calls to ‘control our borders’? At demands to ‘send them home’? (These latter relating to immigrants). Do you insist on restricting the movements of those you regard as the source of the problem, or their forced removal to some other place – ‘transportation’? Or do you embark on a declared policy of rounding them up and imprisoning them, to be followed by a covert but systematic process of industrial scale murder?

There can be no doubt that the last of these qualifies as genocide1.

But what if nature presents an opportunity to bring about a cull of those you regard as blameworthy and you refuse to provide the kind of assistance that could prevent the natural tragedy? You are, arguably, not directly responsible for the many deaths that take place. You can claim that providence is to blame, that God’s punishment is being wreaked upon the victims – both claims made by British officials and politicians at the time.

You are surely guilty by virtue of your inaction. Is that genocide?

If not, is there a word in the English language that describes such a crime? And it is worth pointing out that it is a crime that continues to this day, when we turn refugees away from our borders, just as it did a century and a half ago when death by disease and starvation was permitted to run largely unchecked in what was then a part of the United Kingdom.

Moral Restraint

Thomas Malthus: propounded the theory that increasing population was bound to lead to starvation.

The man most frequently blamed for government policy towards the Irish at the time is Charles Trevelyan. Surprisingly few historians have made what to me is an obvious connection between those policies and the fact that Trevelyan was a student of Thomas Malthus. It was Malthus who first pointed out that population growth is geometric whilst that of food production is arithmetic. Sooner or later increasing population leads to increasing poverty and, eventually, famine.

The methods he proposed to overcome this problem included ‘moral restraint’ and delayed marriage, both with the aim of reducing the birth rate. The opening up of new colonies in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa also presented an opportunity to reduce the local population by immigration. Troublesome subjects from both islands were sentenced to ‘transportation’, their removal to one or other of these far off lands, manacled in the bowels of ships.

In the fifty years preceding the famine the population of Ireland had doubled. An important cause of this was the arrival of the potato, a highly nutritious food that could be grown above

Women working on ‘lazy beds’ the traditional method of growing potatoes in Ireland

the soil, on land unsuitable for other crops, the tubers simply covered in a mixture of peat, straw and seaweed or manure, providing a healthy diet and increased prosperity. With greater health came increased survival of infants and a naturally increasing population. This brought about a dramatic reduction in the area of usable land available to each person.

Widespread crop failure

Potato blight first struck in Ireland in the autumn of 1845. Over night the whole field turned totally rotten. The stink of the tubers caused the air to be fouled. The same happened to varying degrees in each of the next 5 years. It was not only in Ireland that this phenomenon took place. Parts of mainland Europe and the Western seaboard of North America were also afflicted.

The spread of potato blight in North America, 1843 – 1845

The spread of potato blight across Britain and Europe, autumn 1845

Yet it was only in Ireland that the effects were so devastating. This was in part due to an over-dependence in Ireland on the potato as the principal food. The average consumption by 1845 was 14 lbs per person per day. An acre of land would yield up to 12 tons per anum and a family of man, wife and four children consumed 5 tons leaving an adequate surplus to feed a pig and a few chickens.

In the Midlands and East there was less dependence on the potato. Here the fertile soil was used to produce wheat and barley, most of which was exported to the mainland. These exports did not cease when the potato crop failed. They were, after all, an important source of food for that land’s occupants, as well as profits for the aristocratic owners of Irish lands. With such a dramatic reduction in the potato harvest people became undernourished or starved. Undernourished people are susceptible to disease. Sanitation in these times was inadequate to prevent the spread of typhus, cholera and dysentery, diseases which killed many.


There were attempts at relief. Against government opposition, Robert Peel imported maize from the USA. Trevelyan insisted that the Irish landlords should bear the brunt of any relief, but many were incapable of doing so. How can you provide assistance from rents received when the very people who require the assistance are the same people who pay the rent?

The construction of roads leading nowhere, an early form of ‘workfare’ in which poor relief was provided in return for labour.

An early form of what today is called ‘workfare’ was introduced, with a range of public works instituted to provide employment in return for meagre wages. This often entailed the construction of roads to nowhere, the heavy work often carried out by women and children too weak from lack of food to produce enough to earn the price of a day’s nourishment.

Workhouses imposed rules which meant that one had to have literally nothing in order to qualify for admittance. Men, women and children were segregated once admitted, splitting families (but enforcing the ‘moral restraint’ Malthus advocated as a way of preventing population increases).

Some evangelising protestants made the aid they provided conditional upon the conversion of Catholics away from their preferred religion.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that not all land owners were impervious to the needs of their tenants. Nor did all of those with religious motives impose conditions on the recipients of assistance.

The Quakers were the first to introduced soup kitchens

In particular, the Quakers established the first soup kitchens, financed fisheries and agricultural improvements, including the distribution of seeds, and funded industrial development.

But it is clear from the records of the time that the authorities, with their poor opinion of the Irish as a rebellious and ungrateful body of people, welcomed the opportunity that nature had presented. Does that add up to genocide – or simply guilt by omission?

Is it fair to liken it to the Nazi’s persecution of Jews and others with a programme of deliberate extermination, or with more recent events in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia? Probably not. But it most certainly ought to serve as a lesson in where the scapegoating of those who differ from us in some way can lead.

1Footnote: According to the United Nations: [G]enocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

The word did not exist before 1944 and the above definition was established in 1948.