There were the two big questions which David Suzuki led with when he spoke at the Sydney Opera House last night. Thanks to my dear friend Virginia for taking me along.
It was a talk called ‘Legacy’ based on the thesis of his present book. Actually, I have been profoundly shaped by Suzuki’s work. This whole journey (all of it, not just the 10 City Bridge Run) began after reading Suzuki’s book “Good News For A Change” while I was posted in Darwin during my time in the Army… It was good to come full circle and hear him talk in person.
He covered many themes skilfully woven together in a seamless talk. Population growth, our preoccupation with jobs, who we are as humans, economics, and why this matters to nature.
Suzuki challenged our idolisation of lifestyle through our worship of the market: Do we actually put the economy above human life? Have we missed the opportunity that was presented with the global financial crisis over the last three years?
Is the economy the source of everything we need?
In economic systems, unless money changes hands the transaction for something is thought to have no value. He uses the example of the environment and nature. In a similar way, this appeals to how I have been thinking about ‘developing countries’ and the 24,000 children who each day will die largely from preventable disease. All ‘externalities’.
We have enshrined economic growth as our highest priority. By itself, growth is nothing. It is not a definition of progress. It describes a cycle, not progress. Does all of this stuff make us happy?
We never ask the important questions, Suzuki lamented, returning to the questions that had framed his opening comments.
As a biologist, he observed that death resulted from things growing forever. As humans, we have defied our own limits to growth becoming the most populous mammalian species on earth (I haven’t checked this figure, can this be true?)
Death awaits us all. What are the meaningful things in life? What really makes a home? Suzuki told us a moving story about his father in the last month of his life which exemplified the importance of relationships. The things that matter most are not valued on the economic system.
His answer sounds a little abstract, but I think needs to be practiced rather than planned:
- Slow down!
- Get to know each other.
- Re-imagine the future.
- Dream of what is possible.
Small actions matter. I found inspiration in his distillation of why it is important to act, which I would summarise as “because we are human and part of creation”. Similarly it gives good rationale to why we should care to address extreme poverty: we are all human- caring for others and relationships are what make us human.
The same economic argument for the environment presented by Suzuki applies for extreme poverty. They are directly linked. High birth rates in ‘developing countries’ that come from high child mortality creates an unsustainable population.
Hans Rosling has made comments about this population explosion which Suzuki portrayed using the exponential growth of bacteria in a test-tube. The lifestyles we enjoy now will become untenable not because of our cities, but because of the effect and neglect this is having elsewhere.
We all have a choice. What will be our legacy. It actually does matter.
My friend Armen made an interesting reflection the other day during a conversation. Like much of what he says, I needed to give it a day or two to think it over.
Hear me out, but I think there might be something in this.
I was walking past Town Hall Station yesterday and within the space of 100 metres passed three different groups of charity groups looking for people to ‘sign up’ for their cause. Each one had something to do with children and poverty. Each one had a different coloured t-shirt. All of them had slick looking sales materials and a well-rehearsed delivery just waiting for their next customer. Walking down the street I was conscious of them sizing me up and wondering whether I should be their next conversation.
These were people selling a solution to a need you didn’t know you had yet. You could buy your very own monthly subscription to ‘doing good’.
Armen was suggesting that much of the material presented by these groups related to the immediate physical needs of those in poverty. Maybe that is fair enough, given the lack of everything in which they live. And it also makes the message easier to communicate. Poster children for poverty. We look at the photographs and immediately assume so much. Nothing is really said about a spiritual or psychological need. Do these needs matter when someone is dying from physical want?
Over dinner tonight I spoke about this with my friend Bernie. Had we become consumers of ‘doing good’? Were we more influenced by brand and messaging than by actual need?
Bernie has some good experience in this area with the arts so it was interesting to hear what she had to say. Ethical issues of what is important and how we as individuals and society decide this. She also raised the important point that money is necessary to run an organisation.
What do we lose by becoming more consumer orientated?
The Sydney Morning Herald reported a story titled The big divide: the super rich versus struggle street. I thought it was worth looking at this further from a perspective of extreme poverty. Is there any correlation? Is this part of the conversation?
A short answer would be ‘No’.
The conditions of those in extreme poverty is so atrocious, it beggars belief. Try and comprehend 4,000 children dying daily from diarrhoea caused by unclean water and poor sanitation.
Just as this is not the ‘fault’ of someone else having a lot of money (or little money), it is not ultimately solved by more money or more aid being directed at the problem. Neither is ‘more awareness’ on its own going to solve the problem. Same for ‘more education’.
These are all pieces of how the problem should be addressed. Aid given through foreign policy could be targeted as much as the ‘super-rich’. It also becomes a big ethical question of what is super-rich and how should ‘they’ respond? Should being able to have a manicure (the opening example in the article) necessarily entail obligation and responsibility and more for someone who is less able.
My friend Virginia challenged me on how is the 10 City Bridge Run going to make a difference. I believe it will do this through leverage. And it is at its core an intellectual challenge. This does not mean that we all sit around and think our way out of extreme poverty. That would be nonsense and action is required.
How might this change things, really? That is a good question. Imagine many people (many in the thousands) who each change how they think about this issue a little bit, not just one but on a regular or occasional basis over the course of a year, and with their thinking their actions also change.
This is what I believe needs to occur. Maybe meeting the Millennium Development Goals is impossible. Noises from New York would already indicate that the global financial crisis is the convenient reason to explain why these targets have not been met.
If the conversation about extreme poverty is only measured in money and aid, rather than actions and outcomes my fear is that the end of poverty will be a long, long way from us yet. To create a change, we first need to change our thinking, and very quickly after that have our actions reflect this change in mindset.
If anything, the conversation about the ‘super-rich’ and ‘struggle street’ is an unwelcome distraction from what constitutes extreme poverty. Good for selling newspapers.
A demographer at KPMG, Bernard Salt, said rising inequality was beside the point as most Australians were better off than they were 20 years ago.
”If there is a divergence emerging it is because the super wealthy are doing so much better. I don’t think it’s because the battlers are going backwards. Everyone did well, it’s just that the upper end did well better,” he said. (quoted from the SMH article)
A lot has been written about the dispersement and efficacy of aid given towards addressing situations of extreme poverty. Some argue for it from a pragmatic analysis, like Jeffrey Sachs in his book The End of Poverty. Some argue for more of it from an ethical perspective, like Peter Singer does in his book The Life You Can Save. Some argue for a radical review of the current situation from a critical process of inquiry, like Dambisa Moyo in her book Dead Aid: Why aid is not working and how there is a better way for Africa.
Either way you look at it, and you ought to look at it and have an opinion about this issue, a lot of money has been spent, and a lot of money will be spent in the future yet to come. Jeffrey Sachs provides a good overview of how little people live on ‘per day’ if such a calculation was to be defined, with this percentage of the Earth’s population defined as “The Bottom Billion”, because they exist on a bottom rung of income of slightly more than US$1 per day. This line of the economic pyramid, is also defined as people who live at The Bottom of The Pyramid, otherwise referred to as “living below the line”.
“Is more aid or money the answer to extreme poverty?” is reasonably and often among the first questions argued, explored or defended. That is an important question, but this post is not about that.
This post is about the distractions we have in our relatively safe and comfortable lives that take us away from addressing the ugliness of suffering that some people experience. It is reasonable to ask “should we care and is this our problem?” All the same, the power of the media is well documented for its ability to take and hold our attention. Often these issues where our attention is distracted to is very important: the global financial crisis, the failed negotiations in the United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Copenhagen last year, and more recently in Australia a hung parliament where the election held two weeks ago remains stalemated.
Last week I read more about a sexual harassment case that opened in Australia where a $37 million claim for damages was being contested. That is a lot of money, and before the case went to court an offer to settle was made of slightly less than $1 million which was rejected.
As a White Ribbon Foundation Ambassador this year campaigning for the end of violence against women, I take the issue of sexual harassment seriously. In this instance, I question the relative merits of the claim, and the precedence this might set for other claims of a similar nature.
Can we pursue the eradication of extreme poverty in our generation, and at the same time accommodate the values of greed that are so prevalent in our community?