On Poverty

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Poverty. It always has been and always will be, in a world of competition for finite resources. There are no money trees or big dippers. In such a world, the pursuit of material wealth is easily our most salient activity, and taken as the primary measure of a person’s quality.

“The poor will always be with us,” Jesus is reported to have said. If he really did say that, then he was fooled just like the rest of us. Poverty has never been something we are obliged to live with; but it is something we are obliged to heal, rather than live with.  The people afflicted with poverty are among the bricks of society’s foundation.  The foundation bears the weight of that which lay above. When we are talking houses, say, it is easy for us to accept the need for proper maintenance in order to prevent the foundation’s bricks from disintegrating and having the entire upper structure collapse.

Humans quickly discovered that you can’t build ever higher, exerting more weight upon the foundation, without eventually collapsing it. But as intelligent as humans are, we fail to apply this basic tenet of construction and maintenance to building and maintaining our societies. In this, we display an egregious lack of intelligence as a species, compared to the other species we share the Earth with.

As Maslow has explained to us, humanity’s basic needs are hierarchical in nature; that before the individual may reach the top and ‘self-actualize, ’ as he puts it, or as the great erstwhile world champion toastmaster Mark Hunter importunes, “As you could be, so you must be.” there are certain obligatory, intervening steps along the way: first, food and shelter, then safety and security, then community and belonging, self-esteem, and then self-actualization.  Maslow and common sense would indicate that if you are not getting enough to eat, you wouldn’t have to worry about safety, security – or having friends and neighbours – because you will be dead of starvation anyways. No need to worry if you are dead J.

If you cannot navigate the lowest levels of Maslow’s pyramid, you will not be your best. Society, like any other structure, needs all of its constituent bricks to be in their best form, for it to be in its best form.

The problem begins with the wealth that we are able to obtain and generate from the Earth at any given moment; success in our endeavours is facilitated and governed by processes not unlike the predator-prey cycle in Nature.  We and the societies we build are –surprise! surprise! – also subject to Nature and its processes.

In Nature, a predator species population will increase so long as there is an adequate, ongoing supply of food to support the expansion. However, it begins to get harder for the predators to obtain food as an increasing number of them rely on a decreasing number of prey. The predator population will peak at around the same time the prey population falls to its nadir. Now the predators starve. Their diminishing numbers allow the prey’s population to rebound. When the prey hits its peak, there will be lots of food for the predator and it’s the predator’s turn to rebound.

That’s how it is in Nature. Human societies are not subject to the regulatory processes of Nature since we, not Nature, designed and built them – or are they?

We behave as if we were masters over Nature, but realistically, nothing can be master over that of which it forms a part. We aren’t qualified to be ‘masters’ over the world which has engendered and sustained us.

Societies are associations -collaborations, if you will – but our societies continue to exhibit the patently antisocial phenomenon of the strong exploiting the weak. A salient historical example is the metastasizing of European civilization begun in the 16th century;  wherein we behaved as if it were alright to take the wealth  and land of the indigenous from them; just move right in and move them right out -at least in a manner and to the point our disjunctive canon of ethics at the time allowed. Between the British, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, there was sufficient killing power and moral-certitude to be capable of annihilating entire civilizations, willy-nilly, in the Europeans’ quest for wealth – an advantage they were all too ready to exercise – even as some of their hosts cheerfully and innocently gave gold and anything else they asked for.

In the above scenario, we were the predators; however,  in contrast to most other animals, we preyed on members of our own species – different from us in colour, language, beliefs, culture, and aspirations, perhaps;  but among humans there exists enough commonality to completely swallow-up the differences. The fact that Columbus et al., together with their wealthy sponsors, were given to consideration only for what the indigenous possessed (even when the indigenous were willing to share) rather than the opportunity to build non-exploitative trade relationships and to exchange knowledge, is the reason these cultures are  no longer with us, or enervated to the point where putting them back on the rails of their own, god-given progress  would necessitate an indomitable force of will, guided by a sense of right action on behalf of citizens and their governments.

Within societies, division exists in many forms; but most especially along the demarcation of wealth. ‘Us and them’ is not good if you are on the wrong side of the wealth equation; it is also not good, even if you are on the ‘right’ side.

As societies continue along their current trajectory, and as control over the Earth’s wealth concentrates into progressively fewer hands, more pressure will be brought to bear upon the lower economic tier. Eventually the pressure upon the lower tier will become too much and it will collapse, together with everything above it.

We have seen this over and over throughout human history. We differentiate ourselves from Nature’s non-human species since we refuse to acknowledge and behave as if we are as subject to Nature and natural processes as they are. Humans will self-regulate –but generally not beyond the point of convenience.

But survival is not a matter of convenience, is it? Unlike the other species, we have learned just enough to create and sustain the illusion for ourselves that we can regulate Nature; that we are not subject to such ‘annoyances’ as the predator-prey cycle; that we can continue to prey willy-nilly upon the Earth, taking what we want faster than the Earth can provide it. We seem to have cultivated the child-like notion of the existence of money trees or rainbows anchored by pots of gold, or that some otherworldly being is going to drop in and make everything new.

There might be some truth in that, let’s wait and see; but let’s also be real here: even if such a being did come, what good would it do to make everything ‘new’ if humankind’s  attitude, collectively and individually, is not also made new? Our attitude has evidently not changed, so long as we persist in the fantastical notion that cohesive societies and abject inequality are not mutually exclusive conditions.

Could a tree be considered healthy if only half of its leaves are green and vibrant; the other half brown and withered? Would you consider yourself healthy with only one good arm? Would you be stable on only one good leg?

A child will answer ‘no’ to these questions; and not because it’s the first word most kids learn to use. Somehow, by the time we become adults, we have cultivated belief in our own illusion, insane as it is.

We are living in the world of our own choosing. The insanity of today’s world only makes sense to our ego. The predominance of the business morality, the subjugation of society to business, only makes sense to ego because ego is motivated by acquisition, by profit, by self-aggrandizement; but ultimately, the ego-crafted world is unsustainable and society’s foundations will crumble.