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How Can We Eradicate Poverty Whilst Avoiding Environmental Destruction?

The following answers to this timely and vital question each win a random book.

Global poverty is a manifestation of the imbalance between the ‘carrying capacity’ of a region and its population. The environmental catastrophe which looms and for which the current plans for carbon emission reduction are manifestly either inadequate or impossible is the result of exactly the same cause. Spaceship Earth obviously has a maximum capacity to support life at a tolerable standard. If that is exceeded, the environment and the life it supports both suffer. Plotting the increase in population against time on a graph shows an exponential curve, very similar to the growth of the population of a virus. The virus usually kills the host and dies in the process. When I was born in 1930, the world population was some 2 billion. Today it is over 7 billion. Neither the land’s ability to grow the food we need, nor the water supply to irrigate that land and quench the thirst of its inhabitants, is large enough to support this population. If we add in the demands for energy, particularly from fossil fuels, we see that current society is literally unsustainable. It has been said that ‘what can’t go on will stop’; but we are living in a world where most countries behave as if things will go on as they are. And the tragedy is that with a population of about 4 billion our world could sustain its environment and defeat poverty. So, unpleasant as the conclusion is, there is only one solution to our problem: population control.

There is an entirely mistaken belief that Malthus was wrong in predicting that the world would run out of food, but his error was no more that one of timing. Malthus may have got the time-scale of the food disaster wrong by 100 years, but now the world stands on the edge of a precipice. If we don’t get a grip on population growth, we will have a disaster, against which a world war will look like a minor incident. If we don’t fix it ourselves, Earth will fix it for us, and in a much more unpleasant way.

Dr Harry Fuchs, Flecknoe, Warwickshire

This question refers to the idea that poverty is largely due to over-population. It is often argued that the birth-rate amongst the poor, especially in developing countries, is increasing too rapidly, outstripping natural resources and food-supplies. Attempts to alleviate poverty via social welfare etc threaten an unsustainable increase in population, exacerbating the problem: only by reducing the global population via contraception and family planning – or by allowing famine, disease and warfare to take its toll – will poverty be eradicated and environmental destruction averted, it is claimed.

However, this view exaggerates the technological difficulties of providing for the poor globally: there is sufficient cultivatable land and logistic capability to grow food for, and feed, the world’s entire population. It also ignores the fact that in most developed countries, considerable surpluses of food are destroyed, as they cannot be sold.

There are ways to reduce poverty without worsening environmental destruction. Firstly, the debts developing countries owe to far wealthier ones could be largely written off, allowing developing countries greater use of their cultivated land and natural resources for the benefit of their population, rather than their being used to produce foreign export to pay off the debts. This will also limit deforestation and other environmental damage resulting from over-extending farming and industry. Furthermore, food aid from industrialised to developing nations often comes with stipulations obliging their governments to buy missiles and other arms. These could be replaced with other requirements, compelling them to purchase equipment for farming and to educate people in their use, for example. By this, developing nations would become more self-sufficient, meeting the needs of their populations, and, ultimately, less reliant on foreign aid. It is also worth mentioning that greater use of contraception and family-planning may help alleviate poverty in developing countries, first by regulating family-size. But it also does this in a more indirect manner: it helps to prevent STDs like HIV/AIDS, which orphan large numbers of children, and strain medical resources, exacerbating the effects of poverty.

Jonathan Tipton, Preston, Lancashire

International free trade, including a reduction of protectionist policies in the developed world, is the appropriate economic measure for reducing world poverty. Foreign aid is often ineffective and establishes a dependency which impedes development. Ultimately, however, the concern is not eradicating poverty, but doing so in a sustainable way.

It should first be noted that sustainability in a pure sense is distinct from avoiding environmental change, as ‘the environment’ is itself a dynamic state of affairs which is constantly undergoing change. Climate change is as ineluctable as it is ethically neutral; what we are worried about is climate change that impedes our ability to sustain and/or improve our current conditions of life. The conventional environmentalist model – which has been described by Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek as a “secular version of the Fall of Man” in which humanity disrupts the perfection of Nature – fails to account for the fact that the value of Earth is determined by its benefit to humans.

The popular fear surrounding the alleviation of poverty is that richer people will consume more, and pollute more, thus further harming the environment. However, while scientific predictions of future pollution and climate change are notoriously inaccurate, predictions concerning our eventual response to the ecological problems we face are near impossible, as innovations are inherently unpredictable. Concerns about overpopulation are largely unwarranted, as the carrying capacity of the Earth, which is also almost impossible to calculate, will increase with technological advances. So although the objectives of sustainability and eliminating poverty are often seen as in tension, the opposite turns out to be true, as we can expect the necessary scientific and technological competence required to maximize sustainability most from societies in which poverty has been reduced. Moreover as incomes rise so too will the demand for pollution reduction, and all the reasons that cause the developed world to shudder at the thought of future environmental disaster will become more relevant to people who are currently engaged with supplying their families with basic necessities.

Eric Tweel, Toronto

We are addicted to growth. We are junkies, obsessed with the next fix, the next gadget, the new lifestyle must-have, and always wanting more; in pursuit of a mirage of increasing wealth; choosing politicians who promise to feed our habit, and subscribing to media who flatter our illusions. Meanwhile, outside the bubble of our fantasies, CO2 levels continue to rise, as do sea levels; more extreme events devastate lives; species disappear; the gap between rich and poor grows wider; and in the scramble for finite resources, ever-bigger wars loom. But we party on. If we are to avoid going to hell in a 4X4 we need a new mindset and a new definition of the good life. We need to move away from a culture of manufactured desires, from corporate greed and tabloid misinformation. We need to nail the big lie that allowing the rich to become richer is a benefit to society as a whole. More than anything, we need to replace fatalism with hope, and give concrete expression to that hope.

Practically speaking, a large proportion of our foreign aid should be shifted to the education of girls. In the long-term, this is the only way aspirations and attitudes in the developing world can be transformed. In addition, our spiralling population growth needs to be controlled. We also need to make a more serious effort to create an energy system based on renewable sources. We must take all possible measures to encourage cooperatives, both on the part of governments and in our own purchasing decisions: stake-holding needs to become more than a devalued political slogan. We must provide a counterbalance to globalisation by promoting small-scale local networks, in farming and trade, for example, and in the political structures which support them. We should work towards an arms trade ban, at the same time as giving additional support to United Nations peace-keeping. Finally, and underpinning all the above, we must vote for a more equal society, moving from our current individualism to a culture of encouraging all to flourish. We can achieve both a more sustainable life for ourselves and enhance the life-chances of others. It is a matter of will.

David Howard, Church Stretton, Shropshire

On the one hand, the question might seem to be, can we avoid environmental destruction without eradicating poverty? This idea stems from claims that greater inequality tends towards higher consumption, and poverty is associated with greater environmental damage. Therefore, if you want to avoid environmental destruction, you must reduce poverty by reducing inequality. There are problems with this argument, as inequality and poverty are not synonymous. However, Wilkinson and Pickett note in The Spirit Level that there is a strong correlation between greater equality and more environmentally-friendly attitudes; and in Prosperity Without Growth, Tim Jackson sketches a link between a more equal society and a more ecologically sustainable one. He argues that governments find it difficult to implement sustainability policies without also reducing inequality because of the tendency of inequality to drive consumption through what he calls ‘status competition’.

On the other hand, as George Monbiot pointed out in the Guardian, 3rd November 2012, greater inequality may have the opposite effect on the environment, because, as the income of the rich rises they tend to invest more and spend less; but as the income of the poor rises their spending, and therefore their consumption, also rises. That is relevant to our question because it suggests that environmental damage may be reduced by keeping the poor poor and the rich rich.

So we have one argument which says environmental destruction is increased by poverty, and another which says environmental destruction is reduced by poverty – a classic constructive dilemma.There is, however, a third possibility which might pop up between the horns of this dilemma – that poverty can be reduced without any further impact on the environment. Which conclusion proves to be true will be determined by empirical research, and by future history.

Dick Bellringer, Salisbury, Wilts

This is a modern question. In the 1990s the received wisdom was that to develop successfully, African nations (in particular) should adopt the model of the ‘Asian Tigers’. That is not an option today: Beijing smog rules it out. The question also assumes that the project is ethically uncontroversial: that there are categorical imperatives or divinely-ordained moral ‘oughts’ both to eradicate poverty and to protect the environment. Utilitarianism has been criticised for having no mechanism to protect the rights and interests of the minority; however, it does provide the most persuasive moral argument for protecting the planet: its welfare is the welfare of us all. If we allow people to threaten the environment out of their desire to escape poverty, we are ethically at fault. We must help them find another way.

Three further, interwoven ethical approaches may help us discover the path. One of Aquinas’s Primary Precepts is ‘Protect the Innocent’. This implies valuing who (and what) it is tempting to overlook. For example, instead of using yet more fertilisers or increasing crop yields by GM, we should focus on the wisdom of local agriculturalists and work towards each nation’s food sovereignty. Virtue ethics, meanwhile, demands a certain restraint in behaviour – the golden mean – and doing good involves a degree of sacrifice. When applied to governments, this suggests a generous aid budget, even if it means less affluence at home. It also means corporations should pay due taxes in all countries where they operate, even if their shareholders forgo some profit. It also requires greater willingness to forgive historic debt. These ‘sacrifices’ can enable poorer countries to have increased means to eliminate hunger. Furthermore, Kant’s insistence that the principle of our actions must be capable of becoming a universal law encourages us all to take seriously our own behaviour. Do we protest about industrial pollution but drive a gas-guzzler? Do we complain about dumping but fail to re-cycle? Do we insist that the aid budget be raised to 0.7% of national wealth, but give a pittance from our own pockets? Unless we see ourselves as part of the problem, we are never going to be part of the solution.

Rev Richard Martin, Gravesend, Kent

The answer is to empower women. This was a strand of Christopher Hitchens’ edifying rebuttal to Tony Blair in the Munk debate in Toronto on November 26, 2010. Hitchens pointed out that empowering women has unmistakably been a force for good in the world. Any increase in women’s literacy, enables them to take greater leadership roles in both local and larger spheres. This not only reduces poverty, but helps address environmental and health issues, since the leadership roles are seldom financially motivated: potable water and basic nutritional needs tend to be the first priority of women who come to lead community groups. Women also have a higher success rate with microcredit loans than do men. They tend to accept smaller loans and use them for more practical enterprises than men. Tragically, there are more than financial and practical barriers in the way of girls accessing even primary education in regions where poverty is rife. Consider the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai, the 14-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl shot for protesting Taliban rules preventing females from attending school in her region.

As for avoiding environmental destruction? Regions of the global South where women have traditionally or culturally been barred from primary education tend to be areas with lax (if any) environmental laws and restrictions. Increasing girls’ primary literacy and numeracy skills translates to healthier, more caring, nurturing communities, with rippling effects addressing environmental degradation.

Scott Davidson, Manning, Alberta

I would take inspiration from John Donne, who wrote ‘No man is an island’, and answer that community is our best hope.

Everyone is advantaged by their interconnectedness with others, for instance by being members of communities where specialisation and diversity can be achieved. For example, I alone cannot master carpentry, farming, and medicine to meet my needs for shelter, food, and health, but I can trade my work with others so that together we can meet each others’ needs. Similarly, when I see a stranger fall ill, I do not have to walk callously by for fear of taking on her burden, but can take comfort that our membership in a community has allowed us to fund and train doctors who will earn their livelihood by helping her. The idea of partnership is easily understood on a family scale, and larger examples can be drawn from groups such as the Amish, who work together to meet the needs of their community.

Poverty is not a problem of resources, but a problem of allocation. A more communitarian approach to managing our current assets would relieve much of the world’s poverty while keeping a comfortable standard for the rich. With this in mind, untapped resources ought not to be the first recourse in the fight against poverty, as they would provide only a temporary solution at great loss to all future generations.

While the question of redistribution has many complexities, I think a thorough exploration of and education in the benefits of communities is essential to establishing both a theoretical framework and a practical solution to the problem of poverty.

Muriel Rowe, Gatineau, Quebec

In 1942 Sir William Beveridge listed five giant evils of poverty: Want, Squalor, Disease, Ignorance and Idleness. It has been suggested that these now be replaced, at least in developed countries, by Elitism, Exclusion, Prejudice, Greed and Despair. The crucial question is whether people are locked into poverty by political and economic institutions. These can manifest as feudal systems imposed by conquest, a corrupt political class sometimes backed by foreign money, or in the more subtle commercial exploitation of legal ownership and rights upheld by a neutral state. This does not mean that a wealth distribution where some are richer than others is necessarily a bad thing: communism turned out as ‘extractive’ of peoples’ resources as industrial capitalism. The important thing is that rich and powerful people do not dominate the means by which the less wealthy can achieve social and economic autonomy and mobility. A benign dictatorship can achieve this, but only temporarily. Better a plurality of institutions that will interact so that none can subvert the others. So a separation of the legislature (government), judiciary (courts) and executive (police) powers, overseen by a free and responsible press, is necessary but not sufficient for poverty elimination. Education is obviously necessary, but is also insufficient. What the poor lack most is security. Subsistence undermines security, so urbanisation, technological advances and economic ‘growth’ can buy time; but whether these processes are ecologically and socially sustainable remains to be seen. Unfortunately, ‘developed’ countries extracting resources from the rest of the world and sending a fraction of them back as aid or as luxury goods, while driving their own consumption to ever higher levels so that the poorest can be pulled up with the rest, is not sustainable. Nor is turning all the forests into beef farms, or GMing all the crops.

Nicholas Taylor, Little Sandhurst

Sir David Attenborough writes: “We are a plague on the Earth … It’s not just climate change; it’s sheer space, places to grow food for this enormous horde. Either we limit our population growth or the natural world will do it for us, and the natural world is doing it for us right now.” (Radio Times, 26th Jan, 2013.) Nevertheless, we are developing knowledge, technology and strategies to eradicate poverty whilst avoiding environmental destruction. The UN-sponsored Millennium Ecosystem Assessment ( involved the work of 1,360 scientists and other experts worldwide. Its report, published in 2005, identifies “options that might be adopted at local, national, or global scales to improve ecosystem management and so contribute to human well-being and poverty alleviation.” Unfortunately, many values and beliefs will need to be changed for these options to be adopted. Obstacles include:

• Ignorance– wilful or otherwise – of empirical evidence, and of the accompanying ethical imperatives. Science must make the evidence and reasons clear, while philosophy can render explicit the moral responsibilities. Globally, these necessarily have to emphasise universal principles, although there is evidence that local and national options can rely more on conventional morality, as associated with family, tribe or social groups.

• Religious, tribal, ethnic or other attitudes that disregard the evidence, and/or appeal to and rely on deities for ‘deliverance’, also inveighing against considerations of responsible population management, such as appropriate contraception, abortion, voluntary suicide, euthanasia, and assisted dying.

• Promoting greedy, corrupt and unjust regimes; or rampant market economies which result in clashes between public good and selfish client interests; or corporate tax avoidance (multinationals especially); or cynical tax incentives to attract businesses. A balance of competitive and cooperative motives is required.

Colin Brookes, Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire

Imagine a small band of early humans doing their best to eke out an existence 200,000 years ago. Within this group are a few individuals endowed with the raw intelligence and creativity that might have lead to insights that could make life less tenuous. None of this matters, however, as these individuals don’t have the time or the language capabilities needed for progress. In response to a threat, the group’s leader calls everyone together, and through a combination of grunts and gestures, barks out instructions. The band, which cannot fully comprehend what is called for, roars its approval. With a little luck, some of its members will survive and pass their genes on to future generations.

Much has changed. Today, creative individuals can develop their insights, and even authoritative leaders must pay attention to the concerns of the group. Our basic nature, however, remains unchanged. We look to our leaders to solve our problems, and they look to us to do what they tell us is in our best interest.

Poverty and environmental destruction are serious issues, and so it seems glib to suggest that we might best begin by not having our leaders mandate policies that actually increase poverty and lead to environmental destruction, or policies that do little to alleviate these problems. That they do so is too often the case, however, and once a particular path has been blessed it is hard to reverse. The United States’ policy of producing ethanol, for example, has no environmental benefits, and has made life even more miserable for those on the margin by driving up the price of corn, but now our ethanol policy is established, no prominent U.S. leader dares to try to overturn it. Electric cars are the new rage. What can be better than zero emissions? An electric car, however, uses much more carbon dioxide to manufacture energy than a gas-powered car. Yet since the electric car is entrenched through government subsidies, we might expect that it will be hard to dislodge, even if there are better solutions. We know that our evolved nature does not always serve our interests. Our best shot at alleviating poverty and avoiding environmental destruction is to resist our propensity for top-down solutions and create an environment that allows the best ideas to flourish.

Howard Landis, New Canaan, Connecticut

An easy question! Eliminating Homo sapiens could achieve both! Human planned self-extermination would mean maximum ecological integrity, as all our human debris will be cleared by progressively decreasing human numbers until we expire. And ethically, we should start by eliminating the populations that make the most destructive impact on their environments.

Such a foolproof answer is necessary because humans are the only species producing non-biological waste and living by progressive planetary destruction. However, implementing this strategy of self-destruction would be complicated. Since genes impose their own imperatives, this logical solution confronts inherent opposition. Yet any answer involving human continuity can only avoid environmental destruction if the human population is limited to a number whose demands do not permanently degrade any other species, and can be fulfilled from naturally-occurring self-renewing resources.

What population can this planet’s dwindling resources support without poverty or destruction? Assuming a number could be agreed, then the critical resource becomes time. If sustainable methods require total policy, including a woman’s right to bear a child, the process could be protracted beyond destruction point, which would serve neither environment nor humanity.

Our primary question cannot be contemplated without accepting that it may already be too late. Even if the human race stops now, the planet will always carry our signature – much oceanic life will die, and species become extinct through our actions. Climate change? Over-population? Nuclear weapons and waste? We behave like a terminal species after all.

Colin Johnson, Pwllheli, Gwynedd, Wales

Next Question of the Month

The next question of the month is: What is the present nature of, and the future of, philosophy? The prize is a random book from our philosophy book mountain. Thoughts and predictions in less than 400 words, please. Subject lines or envelopes should be marked ‘Question Of The Month’, and must be received by 12th August. If you want a chance of getting a book, please include your full address. Submission implies permission to reproduce your answer physically and electronically.

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