Monday, August 06, 2007

On finite resources and poverty

Over the last couple of weeks, as I was plowing through journal articles, CRS reports, and endless data from the EIA and others, I started asking readers to share their thoughts on ethics, the environment, and the war in Iraq. Readers posted many thoughtful comments, and the lurkers (who are always welcome to comment) were out in force to follow these discussions. There was such a positive reaction, that I thought I'd bring up a few more points for discussion, and may begin to include such questions as a regular feature on The Influence Machine. I'll be more timely and thorough in my responses.

Can an economy (the global economy, regional economies, local economies) grow forever? Can infinite value be derived from finite resources? Does one country's (or individual’s, or group’s) increasing wealth necessarily mean that another becomes poorer? Can existing markets or regulatory environments (global, national, regional, &c) solve the problem of poverty? If so, should they? What would an end to poverty look like?


Pat Jenkins said...

quickly there are two ways to answer your question, one in the political realm, and then one of man as a living breathing human being. the first, if allowed to freely pursue his or her own path all would be afforded the chance for prosperity. motivation will then be apart of the equation. second, if man is at the hand of a created being then sufficiancy must only be derieved from it, assuming the assurance of survival.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Some follow-up questions, based upon your commentary:
When have all people enjoyed the opportunity for prosperity? If people have "the assurance of survival" from their Creator, how or why are their famines, widespread shortages of potable water, and poverty? If you believe that a finite set of resources can yield infinite growth for all, what is the source of the increasing value, if not natural resources?

E. R. Dunhill said...

One more, this one on motivation:
Do you believe that a lack of motivation is the source of all (or most) poverty?

Sue said...

ERD, my answers to your questions (in order) are: No. No. Yes. No. Yes. Do you have a bigger comment box! Actually, these are the questions that I have built and entire career around, as well as several courses. So no blog comment can possibly suffice to respond to them. However, I wish to note that implied in your questions is widely held, but mistake assumption -- that lack of abundance is the root source of poverty. One does not have to study much anthropology and archelogy to learn that many human societies have existed, and still do exist, without inequality and without poverty. These are foraging (hunting and gathering) societies and simple horticultural (hand farming) societies, which are typified by a lack of surplus in material resources. These are not, most of the time, societies that suffer from scarcity. All members of foraging and horticultural societies have shelter and clothing sufficient to their environment (whether that environment is the Kalahari Desert or the Artic Circle), and all members of the society has adequate nutrition most of the time. They are societies in which the survival of one depends upon the survival of all, where work is cooperative, and material resources are all shared. Yes there are inequalities of status, honor, deference and decision-making in these societies, but no inequalities of food, clothing and shelter, or other basic survival resources. There is at times starvation among foragers and horticulturalists, but when there is everyone suffers equally.

Poverty -- the situation were some people go hungry or homeless, while others live in luxury, is a product of the creation of food surpluses. In otherwords, only when humans became technologically capable of making sure that no one had to starve, did we create the social and political conditions that allowed some to grow fat while others died of hunger. Advanced horticultural societies (in expecially favorable climates) and all agricultural societies not nly invented new tools and techniques (plows, irrigation, fertilizers, etc.) but they also invented social stratification and poverty.

Jared Diamond has suggested that the development of agriculture was the biggest mistake human kind has ever made. Mistake or not, of course, humans had little choice, because the development of agriculture was not a luxury, it was all that stood between growing populations and extinction. Every where that humans had the choice (because game and resources remained plentiful, and populations small enough) they chose to remain foragers -- a means of subsistence that requires significantly less work and less energy for survival, leaving more time for story telling, games, music, dancing and sex. Farming was only developed or adopted where falling resources and rising populations threatened widespread hunger. Only then were humans willing to put in the substantially longer hours required to farm the land.

The point of all the above -- since humans today have the technology and knowledge to limit populations (things lacking when foragers became farmers), the finite nature of resources is less important than social/economic/political structures in determining the degree of inequality in society.

Pat Jenkins said...

sorry erd for my absence i have had a busy week. now on to the questions which are provocative. i think it is difficult to assume man has complete control over his existence and the catastrophes you give as examples are proof of his inability to assure his preservation. but on the flip side, if there is a loving sustain er of life how can such tragedies be allowed. not only physical calamities, but those that limit human beings potential. slavery, unjustified imprisonment, abuse from parents or spouses. these are questions that i as a caring human am searching for.

now to the motivation question. i think about this with parents who struggle with children who are under performing in the classroom. does motivation play a role in some not reaching their potential. sure. are some only called to average or below grades in school. of course all are not cut out for rocket sci entry. does this same criteria find it's way into our economical system. undoubtedly. there is no stock answer to understand the reasons for someones presumed lack of wealth. each individual may have his own set of circumstances. with that said it is imperative of our legal system for those who want, be given the ability to gain. and at this point, though there may be some, i see no restricting forces.

E. R. Dunhill said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful commentary. Alas, my effort to solve the problem of poverty in a single post seems to have fallen a little short.
I appreciate you taking the lead on the subject of various sustainable economies. I agree that an economy whose sole goal is financial growth will not solve the problem of poverty. Moreover, as you point out, poverty is a side effect of such a system.
For the sake of brevity, I see formally closed systems as a very important mechanism to reconcile economy and ecology and to approach sustainability. Growth-only economic policies and systems will eventually run into immovable roadblocks: naturally closed systems. There’s only so much gold, and oil, and bauxite to go around, and there are constantly more and more people who want them. Even renewable resources are limited; the amount of corn, rice, and soybeans humans can grow is limited by the length of a growing season and the total area of arable land. Unfortunately, growth-only economic thinking can and does exhaust some of these resources, and even reduces the availability of many renewable resources. The use of growth as the sole tool to solve economic problems has the potential to cause serious (even irreversible) harm to natural systems that are critical to humans.
That’s where I see the formally closed systems as valuable. Caps on atmospheric carbon and sulfur, caps on various pollutants in any given watershed, &c. create a mechanism in which the natural limits of the various ecosystems are recognized within the economy. Furthermore, the economic value of these ecosystems should be realized by their owners, not simply those who want to exploit the system for new purposes and personal gain. The model of the Alaska Permanent Fund is a good example tangible common-ownership. The goal (again, for brevity’s sake) is to ensure a dignified quality of life for everyone, including future generations.

Mongoose said...