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The World Bank has one definition of poverty as those living on less than $1.25 per day: "1.4 billion people in the developing world (one in four) were living on less than $1.25 a day in 2005, down from 1.9 billion (one in two) in 1981".[1] It seems like a miniscule change over 24 years, but, says the Rawlsian, it goes in the right direction.

However, a Rawlsian might be concerned with the inefficiency of a world which had to increase incomes overall by xx% in order to reduce extreme poverty by 500 million people. The hope that growth would relieve poverty is referred to as trickle-down economics, and the broad statistics of poverty discredit it. An ecological Rawlsian would wonder whether that reduction in poverty was achieved under conditions of sustainability.

While many ecologists, such as Mike Hulme, want a more inclusive definition of poverty---one that would count the excessive consumerism of the over-developed West as being in some sense "poor" ---many progressives would want the legitimate material aspirations of the poor not to be overlooked. Thomas Aquinas, the medieval theologian, distinguished between poverty and misery. The first can be chosen, and can be a virtue, while the second necessarily stunts human potential. A revival of this Thomist distinction might be useful in an age of ecological priorities.

Poverty in a world of limited resources

A finite world has to make equitable distributions a priority over growth. The Rawlsian temptation has been to grow our way out of misery: emphasise making the cake bigger to grow everyone's slice rather than sharing it more equally. For ecologists, humankind is already living beyond the earth's means. This is the logic of the World Wildlife Fund's well-branded One Planet Living program. Growth cannot therefore be a solution to misery.

Progressives---liberals, Rawlsians as well as Marxists---have not been used to thinking of the kingdom of ends as being materially constrained. The ecological perspective therefore introduces a new challenge: how can the ideals of human self-realisation be made compatible with constrained distributions. Here is the moment when politics asks for a change of consciousness: to maintain the humanist ideals of enlightenment as well as a genuine concern for earth and others.

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Author: Tony Curzon Price