The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World - Paul Gilding (2011)

Chapter 17. No, the Poor Will Not Always Be with Us

I was brought up in the Methodist Church, which has always had a particularly strong focus on social issues and poverty. My grandfather Jasper Gilding was a minister in the church, and he and my grandma Kathleen lived and breathed those values. As a result, they also manifested strongly in our upbringing, through the attitudes and level of community engagement I witnessed in my parents, Wesley and Ruth.

While we weren’t a devoutly religious family, we went to church every Sunday, and my parents spent their working lives in jobs engaged with disadvantaged people, from children’s homes to homeless shelters to elder care. One of the interesting side benefits, unusual for a family in suburban Adelaide, was that we often had people staying at our house from far-flung lands, generally visiting students or religious people engaged in social issues. One of these visitors was a Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. Little did I know back in 1965 that he would go on to become one of the world’s great Zen masters and peace activists, giving birth to the concept of engaged Buddhism. Nhat Hanh formed a friendship with Martin Luther King Jr., convincing him to publicly oppose the Vietnam War. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.

In a rare interview in 2010, Nhat Hanh, now 84, commented on the issues we are discussing here, saying, “The situation the Earth is in today has been created by unmindful production and unmindful consumption. We consume to forget our worries and our anxieties. Tranquilizing ourselves with over-consumption is not the way.”

Very insightful comments but back when I was six years old he was just a kind and gentle man wearing funny clothes! We lived in a simple house in the suburbs, and all this was a natural part of our lives. Perhaps as a result of this upbringing and cultural context, I grew up thinking it was ridiculous that society tolerated so many of our people suffering grinding multigenerational poverty. The older I get, the more ridiculous it seems.

There are deep and complex issues involved here that go to the core of who we are and, more important, who we want to be. They are central to the questions we’re covering in this book because as we respond to the coming crisis, our focus is on building a civilized and sustainable society. We can certainly not consider ourselves to be civilized while we accept extreme poverty.

Our solution to poverty has for a long time focused around economic growth. We thought we could lift people out of poverty simply by increasing the amount of stuff and wealth in the whole system, without having to engage in the difficult question of redistribution of wealth—everyone could have more, so everyone could be happy!

Of course, there has long been a significant social movement calling for us to take stronger action to eliminate poverty and realize our full potential as humanity. Joining millions of people around the world who campaign on such issues have been rock star activists like Bob Geldof and Bono, who have engaged the broad public with excellent campaigns like “Make Poverty History.” But fundamentally, the response has still been premised on economic growth, the idea that everyone could have more.

The logic and morality of this call to end poverty have grown stronger as we have grown richer. Global economic growth has meant that there is now more than enough to go around. We produce more calories, for example, than are needed to sustain the world population. What is true of food is also true of water, energy, and other resources—economic growth has ensured that today we live in a world of plenty where no one need suffer extreme poverty with respect to global capacity—the problems lie elsewhere.

And yet, as we know and to our great shame, 1.4 billion people continue to live in extreme poverty, generally defined as living on less than $1.25 a day. Free marketeers have long argued that economic growth and global markets would sort this out, and that argument was not without merit. Especially in China and India, economic growth has lifted millions out of poverty and created a new global middle class. The income differential between China and the West has decreased substantially, with GDP per capita increasing in China a huge sevenfold between 1978 and 2004.1 Throughout this period, China has sustained growth rates that are the envy of the developed world.

But along with these success stories, there are significant failures. The UNDP calculated in 2002 that assuming global progress continued at the same pace, it would take 130 years to rid the world of hunger. Progress is also inconsistent among countries. While the West experienced two decades of sustained economic growth in the 1980s and 1990s, only twenty developing countries managed to experience sustained growth over that period. No fewer than forty other developing countries went through at least five years of stagnation or a fall in per capita income.

While some of this economic growth trickled down, a disproportionate amount stayed at the top. In 2000 the top 1 percent of the world’s population owned around 40 percent of the world’s wealth, with the top 10 percent owning 85 percent. At the other end, the bottom half of the world’s people share just 1 percent of the world’s wealth among them.2 The story on income is no better, with the top 20 percent of people earning 74 percent of it. Despite improvement in some countries, the trends are not all good. Whereas the average African was almost eleven times poorer than the average North American or Australian/New Zealander in 1950, they were over nineteen times poorer by 2000.3 It seems the economic growth over the last 50 years has defied gravity and floated up rather than trickled down as the theory argued it would. This is not just about inequality and fairness, this is often grinding, brutal poverty. According to UNICEF, in 2001, 51 percent of Ethiopian children under five were stunted because of chronic malnutrition. Such stories and statistics can be found around the world.

Unfortunately, even though economic growth has been fostering some admirable improvements, it clearly hasn’t been going far enough. When faced with such absolute and despairing poverty in the context of such massive global wealth, waiting another 130 years to eliminate hunger is not a projection to be proud of. Not to mention the questionable morality of the basic idea—that if we let the rich get richer and richer, little amounts of their leftover wealth would trickle down to the poor, bringing them out of extreme poverty. Explain that to an Ethiopian mother with a child stunted from malnutrition.

Of course, I’m just summarizing here the arguments that have been put forward for many decades. The immorality of poverty, the power of markets and growth to drive change, the need for a fairer distribution of growth, the importance of poor countries having strong economies and open markets, and so on have all attracted significant discussion.

It’s time to move on. None of these arguments matter much anymore.

That game is up. As we covered earlier, our current model of economic growth, the one that is bringing some of the poor out of poverty, works to make the rich richer as well. Of course, this isn’t a practical problem for the poor if it brings them out of extreme poverty. The problem is that the size of the economy needed to achieve this outcome is not possible. So, for example, if we were to aspire to global incomes at, say, EU levels and have them grow modestly at 2 percent per year, with the poor being brought up to that level over the next forty years, the global economy would have to increase to fifteen times today’s size by 2050. Remembering we’re currently running at 140 percent of the planet’s capacity this is of course an absurd proposition.

Even assuming dramatically less progress on poverty than that, we would still be so far past the physical limits that it would remain impossible. Remember, not difficult or inconvenient or challenging. Impossible.

Understanding this profoundly changes the game in many areas, but perhaps nowhere more so than with respect to poverty and inequality. As well as removing the solution we’ve been investing our hope in, the end of growth has far-reaching impacts on global geopolitics and national social stability. Perhaps most critical—and affecting every country, not just the poor ones—it smashes the general consensus among the public upon which our economic model relies: that the system will ultimately work for everyone if we give it time.

Economic growth has for a long time been the relief valve on the pressure cooker of global society.4 For the poor, whether defined as those in extreme poverty or those at the bottom end of wealthy countries, the hope of one day being lifted from poverty is what often makes the huge differentials in wealth tolerable. Never having experienced growing prosperity themselves, some of the poorest do not cling to this hope. But their leaders and the developing countries’ elite certainly do, and their complete geopolitical focus is on lifting their countries and their people out of poverty through economic growth. They see successes in other countries, and they want their turn. With the end of growth, this source of hope and focus disappears. Do we expect the poor to now accept their poverty as permanent, since no more economic wealth can be created?

In a similar way, the mentality that embraces the principle of economic growth allows us to morally justify the poor in the West as well. The Great American Dream, built upon the foundation of economic growth, suggests that anyone who works hard can improve himself and increase his wealth. In this context, many believe the poor are at least to some degree lazy or incompetent. They are poor by their own actions or lack thereof. Accepting the end of economic growth means that this idea, at best highly debatable, can no longer be argued. If the amount of wealth overall can’t increase, you can improve your wealth only by taking away from someone else. The American Dream is dead. The only way to lift the bottom is to drop the top.

Ouch. Not only do we have to face the end of economic growth, but now we have to discuss the most heretical idea of all: redistribution. We’ll come back to this shortly.

So the stability of our system has depended upon a gigantic relief valve, which is now broken. To make matters worse, we can reliably assume the unfolding crisis that is forcing the end of economic growth will not only undermine reductions in poverty, it will reverse them and drive the poor back down the scale, because of the severe challenges to water and food supply and an increase in climatic extremes.

With disparity rapidly worsening and the escape route closing, pressure in the system will build up until it explodes, unless we take alternative action.

How can we respond? I see two alternatives. One that is put to me when I present on this topic is that we “let nature takes its course,” that this process is the system getting back into balance. While people rarely put it to me in these terms, what they mean is we let the poor starve and their countries collapse. Leaving aside the morality of this position, it is inconceivable this could happen without massive disruption globally, including profound and destabilizing global security impacts.

What people don’t think through is what that actually looks like. We would not, if we took that choice, have two, three, or four billion poor people quietly going away to die in a far-flung corner of the world. While we can’t know just how it will develop, it doesn’t take much to imagine how it might unfold.

A global economic crash combined with widespread food shortages, would probably see the desperate slide of nations and regions into chaos. We would see failed states with nuclear arms and countless other weapons being taken over by dictators and terrorists. We would see refugees by the hundreds of millions, if not billions. Yes, some would be too weak or ill equipped to travel far, but many would move first as their countries collapsed around them.

This would not be, as we have seen in past crises, a few million people on isolated roads moving into refugee camps. This would be whole countries of people walking into neighboring states, and they would be desperate, starving people with nothing to lose.

So when we think about “nature taking its course,” we should consider what that means and how we would respond at the time. What would we do if whole nations started to collapse, and what would the implications be for the global economy? We could not then deliver widespread aid because the conditions would be overwhelming and highly unstable in terms of security. At its most simple and brutal, would we let whole regions collapse into chaos and draw lines on the map we would “defend”—declaring no-go zones of regions of the world? Would our militaries be able to defend these lines if hundreds of millions of starving, desperate people approached them? How would the politics of the countries that hadn’t collapsed respond to such human calamity?

In a globalized world there is nowhere to hide, no barricade high enough, and the whole thing would be live on the TV in your lounge room. It is a short journey from this kind of situation to the global collapse we need to avoid at all costs.

This is why, as we discussed earlier, our militaries are looking at these issues very seriously. They see these trends emerging, and they don’t intend to wait until then to think them through.

The respected British defense think tank the Royal United Services Institute concluded in a comprehensive review of the subject in 2008: “In the next decades, climate change will drive as significant a change in the strategic security environment as the end of the Cold War. If uncontrolled, climate change will have security implications of similar magnitude to the World Wars, but which will last for centuries.” 5 Take particular note of the last two words—“for centuries.”

Another study looking at the relationship between temperatures and civil war in sub-Saharan Africa in recent decades concluded that civil wars there are likely to increase 50 percent by 2030. That level of conflict likely means millions of deaths—and an international impact.6 A more complete—and more disturbing—picture is provided in Gwynne Dyer’s book Climate Wars.7 Dyer, a military and international affairs journalist with a good understanding of the science, portrays the collapse of the European Union in the 2030s as northern African refugees overrun southern Europe and southern Europeans flee to the northern states to escape an expanding Sahara. In his scenario, the 2030s also see nuclear war between India and Pakistan over water resources and a completely militarized U.S.-Mexican border as America seeks to keep out massive waves of immigrants.

Of course, this might unfold in many different ways, some far less dramatic than that, but it is certainly not possible to imagine letting “nature take its course” not having profound impacts on the global economy, including developed countries. The idea that we could pursue a strategy of what Indian ecologist Madhav Gadjil called islands of prosperity within oceans of poverty, is a fantasy that would simply not work in practice.

So we need to consider this option carefully before we assume it is a realistic one.

Personally, I would vote against option one. What is option two, you say? I hope it’s better than the first choice!

We have to go back to kindergarten. We have to learn to share with our friends. Unlike in kindergarten, however, now we know that having more toys doesn’t make us happy, so we can rest easy that sharing won’t decrease our happiness.

The math of this situation is clear. Remember where we started this journey. The earth is full. It is not possible for the future to have nine billion people in a growing quantitative economy. We can argue we should have fewer people, but most of the people we are going to have in this situation are either already born or soon will be. Given that we have limited resources and wealth and can’t grow either significantly, we have to share. We have to accept that the only way forward that is acceptable to any of us is to spread the resources we have more equally around the world.

Let’s be blunt and clear that this is going to involve those of us in rich countries having less—not just less growth, but less than we have now. Less stuff, less money, less capacity to build wealth and consume. How tragic is this? Not very tragic, really, not even sad. In fact, the lesson learned by those who’ve tried having less, like Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin of No Impact fame, and John Perry from the Compact, is that having less actually made them happier. Scary thought given how hard we’ve been working to have more, isn’t it.

If you don’t like the idea, then you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and accept that the world’s militaries will be taking control of the process that sees option one unfold. These will be our militaries, our planes, our guns, “defending” us from billions of innocent, starving, desperate people. It will have been our choice, conscious, clear, and premeditated. Sharing doesn’t seem so hard, does it?

If we are to choose option two, then we must recognize that our current approach of relying on liberalizing markets and unleashing economic growth is not going to work. We can’t afford the risk that the situation will spiral out of control as I have described, because it will then be too late to do anything other than survive.

What we can do right now is launch a significant shift in how we treat poverty alleviation and development. We need to unleash a flood of people, funds, technology, and intellect to rapidly address these issues. The sooner we act, the better our chances of preventing the chaos that we will certainly otherwise face when the Great Disruption is in full swing.

Let’s take this away from the practical level for a moment and consider it in the largest possible context. What kind of world do we want? It is incomprehensible that if we put our minds to it, we couldn’t fix poverty. I’m not saying it’s simple, but putting all the information in the world into a phone in my shirt pocket wasn’t simple either, but we did it. Unpacking the human genome wasn’t simple, but we did it. So fixing poverty permanently won’t be simple and it won’t be quick, but we can certainly do it. We have the resources now to do it, we just have to make the decision.

And how cool would it be if we did? Imagine a world where no one was starving, where everyone had basic health care and education, where we could look around the world and say: “You know what? We’re doing okay.”

What we’re going to experience is a profound transformation in values, one that will see us address what has for so long been a blight on our civilization. We’ll adopt this course not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because when confronted with the Great Disruption, it will be the only socially and ecologically viable option available. This doesn’t make the values shift any less important or profound—it just makes the fact that it will happen a lot more certain.

This is not an argument for utopian equality, just for the elimination of grinding, soul-destroying poverty. I can’t see any justification that explains a society where some have private jets while some die for the want of a bowl of rice or a glass of clean water. It’s just not right.

We should stop it now, while we still have the chance.