Tag Archives: capitalism

COP 27, loss and damage, and the reality of Carbon emissions

The soundbites from the widely acclaimed success of COP 27, especially around the creation of a loss and damage fund (see UNCC Introduction to loss and damage), made me look once more at the realities of global CO2 emissions to see which countries are actually generating the most CO2, which are improving their performance, and which are suffering most. Sadly, this only made me appreciate yet again that the over-simplifications that occur during so many UN gatherings such as COP appear to be more about political correctness and claiming success than they do about developing real solutions to some of the most difficult challenges facing the world.

COP 27 closing ceremony https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/11/1130832

The UN Climate Press Release on 20 November summarised the outcomes relating to the fund as follows: “Governments took the ground-breaking decision to establish new funding arrangements, as well as a dedicated fund, to assist developing countries in responding to loss and damage… Parties also agreed on the institutional arrangements to operationalize the Santiago Network for Loss and Damage, to catalyze technical assistance to developing countries that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change”.

Unfortunately, it is not quite as easy as it might seem to validate the claim underlying this that it is the rich countries who do most of the pollution and should therefore compensate the poor countries where the most harmful damages from CO2 occur (see, for example, ThePrint, India; UN News, noting that “Developing countries made strong and repeated appeals for the establishment of a loss and damage fund, to compensate the countries that are the most vulnerable to climate disasters, yet who have contributed little to the climate crisis”; and BBC News, A historic deal has been struck at the UN’s COP27 summit that will see rich nations pay poorer countries for the damage and economic losses caused by climate change”). How should it be decided, for example, which countries should be donors to this fund, and which should be beneficiaries from it? Pakistan, which led much of the discussion around the need for richer countries to fund the poorer ones, was actually the 27th largest global emitter of CO2 in 2019; China was the largest contributor, and India the 3rd largest.

The Table below, drawing on World Bank data (2022), gives the various rankings of the top 30 countries in terms of CO2 emissions per capita in 2019, and CO2 total emissions in 1990 and 2019, as well as the change in ranking of the latter two columns.

RankCountryCO2 metric tons per capita 2019CountryCO2 total emissions kt 1990CountryCO2 total emissions kt 2019Change in rank 1990-2019
1Qatar32.474United States4844520China10707219.7+1
2Kuwait22.022China2173360United States4817720.21-1
3Bahrain20.266Russian Federation2163530India2456300.05+4
4United Arab Emirates19.330Japan1090530Russian Federation1703589.97-1
5Brunei Darussalam16.132Germany955310Japan1081569.95-1
7Luxembourg15.306India563580Iran, Islamic Rep.630010.01+12
8Saudi Arabia15.285United Kingdom561770Indonesia619840.027+16
9Oman15.282Canada538661Korea, Rep.610789.978+6
11United States14.673France356240Saudi Arabia523780.029+11
13Trinidad and Tobago12.323Mexico269580South Africa439640.015+3
15Korea, Rep.11.799Korea, Rep.247680Turkiye396839.996+11
16Russian Federation11.797South Africa247660Australia386529.999-2
17Kazakhstan11.457Kazakhstan237250United Kingdom348920.013-9
19Japan8.541Iran, Islamic Rep.198470Italy317239.99-8
22Singapore8.307Saudi Arabia171410Thailand267089.996+11
24Malaysia7.927Indonesia148530Egypt, Arab Rep.249369.995+10
27Estonia7.672Korea, DPR123330Pakistan190570.007+15
28China7.606Uzbekistan117770United Arab Emirates188860.001+16
29Iran, Islamic Rep.7.598Belgium109310Ukraine174729.996-22
30South Africa7.508Venezuela, RB101630Iraq174559.998+9

Many important observations can be made from these figures, and I highlight just a few below:

Per capita emissions

  • The highest per capita emitters are generally those in countries with recently developed hydrocarbon-based economies, such as Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Brunei Darussalam, and generally not in the old rich industrial economies of Europe.
  • Surprisingly, quite a few European countries such as the UK, Denmark and Spain (ranked 52nd-54th) actually lie well outside the top 30 highest emitters
  • The twelve lowest per capita emitters for which data are available (not shown here) are all African countries.
  • There are many fewer countries above the world average, at 4.47 metric tons per capita (which would rank 61st) and many more ranked beneath it, implying that the highest emitters are much higher than the lowest are low: Qatar at 32.47, has 28 metric tons per person more than the average; yet, 55 countries have emissions per capita of <1 metric ton.

Total emissions

  • 60% of total CO2 emission are generated by people living in five countries (China, 31.18%, the United States 14.03%, India 7.15%, the Russian Federation 7.15%, and Japan 3.15%). Eleven further countries, all producing more than 350,000 kt CO2 annually account for a further 16.68% of emissions. More than three-quarters of emissions in 2019 were therefore from people in just 16 countries.
  • Those countries with the lowest total emissions are nearly all small island states (SIDS; not shown in the Table), but note that these were not necessarily the lowest per capita emitters.
  • The changes in total emissions since 1990 are also very interesting. The highest increases within the top 30 were Indonesia (+16) and Iran (+12), although much higher risers came into the top 30 from below, including Vietnam (+59), Malaysia (+23), UAE (+16) and Pakistan (+15).

These data do not make easy reading for policy makers, campaigners and the UN system as a whole, all of whom like to have simple answers and short soundbites. The world is unfortunately too complex and messy for these. As the world’s popultion passes 8 billion (2.8 times what it was when I was born), population growth is the dominant factor in determining total country-based emissions, but economic growth (following the US-led carbon-based capitalist mode of production) has also played a significant part. The big risers in total emissions are countries with large populations and/or with high economic growth rates over the last 30 years. Neither of these should be surprising. Poor countries, with low economic growth and relatively small populations are never likely to be amongst the largest consumers of energy. Overall, the biggest factor determining total CO2 emissions over the last century, and especially in the last 50 years, has been human population growth (see my recent post on “climate change”). Moreover, there has for long been an intricate and complex relationships between humans and carbon: the carbon cycle and the production of oxygen are essential for human life, and our economic systems have also been driven by carbon as a fuelfor centuries. These complexities make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to argue that we need to create two groups of countries: one being the recipients of funding (from a loss and damage financial facility), and the other being contributors to it. Instead, we need to work collaboratively together to transform the underying factors causing environmental change, of which CO2 emissions are actually only but a small part.

That is not, though, to say that there should not be much greater global effort to work together to resolve the environmental problems caused by our centuries old carbon-based economy (as well as those caused by so-called renewable energy). It is also completely separate from moral arguments suggesting that there should be a shift in wealth distribution from the rich to the poor. However, these should not be conflated into over-simplistic statements and assertions about responsibililty for climate change, such as those being promoted by UN agencies and mainstream media at the end of COP 27. It is also to reassert that we need to work together with renewed vigour collaboratively across sectors and disciplines to understand better the complex interactions that humans have with the environments in which we live, and then to make wise decisions how to implement them in the interests of all the world’s peoples and not just those of the rich and privileged parts of the world.

The above draft was written on 21 November 2022 (and has been revised slightly subsequently)

In response to the above, Olof Hesselmark kindly asked why I had not added further details also about the spatial distribution of CO2 emissions – something that as a geographer I care greatly about! I responded that I hadn’t wanted to complicate matters further, but also that I guess it was because I am aware in my own mind of these spatial distributions, and the country names (and sizes) are in-built into my consciousness! However, they do add an important additional element of complexity to the discussion, and I am delighted that he has agreed for me to add his slightly cropped map of CO2 emissions per sq km below:

I’m not entirely sure which projection this is, but my preference for such maps is Eckert IV, or other equal area projections such as Gall-Peters or Mollweide that place less visual emphasis on the apparent size of countries in high latitudes. This map nevertheless highlights the varying densities of emissions, with China, Europe and the USA being high, and Africa and Latin America being low. It should also be emphasised that there are enormous differences within countries, as well as between them, with urban-industrial environments generally being much higher in their CO2 emissions than sparsely settled rural ones.

A different perspective once again is thus from the Smithsonian Magazine‘s 2009s map below (carbon emissions from 1997-2010), which does indeed show how a very few areas contribute the largest amount of CO2 emissions.

Update 22 November 2022


Filed under Climate change, Environment, Geography, United Nations

“Climate Change” and Digital Technologies: redressing the balance of power (Part 1)

The Andes from the air between Santiago and Mendoza

“Climate change” causes nothing! Yes, read that again, “climate change” causes nothing. It is a result, not a cause. Yet, as delegates at COP27 continue to bemoan the impacts of climate change, promote ways of limiting carbon emissions, and redress the global balance of power and responsibility – as well as enjoying themselves, feeling important, serving their own interests, and basking in the glory of greenwashing (at last there is something on which I can agree with Greta Thunberg about!) – the adverse environmental impacts of digital technologies go almost un-noticed.

This series of three posts seeks to redress this balance, and argues for a fundamentally new approach to understanding and trying to improve the impacts of digital technologies on the environment. It situates the climate change rhetoric within the wider context of human impact on the environment (of which climate is but one element). The first of these posts provides a critique of much of the rhetoric concerning climate change, the second articulates the case for a new approach to understanding the relationships between digital tech and the environment, and the third provides positive suggestions for the next steps that need to be taken if we are indeed to use digital tech wisely to help manage our human relationships with the environment. Throughout it emphasises the need to understand the interests underlying the present rhetoric and practice around the interactions between digital tech, climate change and the environment.

The rhetoric of climate change: itself part of the problem

Changes in the earth’s climate are very real, and have existed since long before humans could appreciate them. The dramatic impact of humans on the world’s weather patterns and climate that have occurred over the last century, though, have only really been recognised and appreciated more widely in the last 40 years, in large part as a result of the dramatic increase in funding given to scientists working in this field. Climate activism and the UN’s interest in appearing to try to do something about it are relatively recent phenomena (the first COP meeting was held as late as 1995). It is fascinating to recall that ground-breaking works in the 1960s and early 1970s about human impact on the environment, such as Rachel Carson’s (1962) Silent Spring, and the Club of Rome’s (1972) Limits to Growth report, focused on a much more holistic view that paid surprisingly little explicit attention to climate. Five key inter-related concerns with the current dominant rhetoric about “climate change” can be teased out from these basic observations.

Over-simplified rhetoric of “Climate change” hides the significance of human impact

The term “climate change” has become so bowdlerized that is has lost any real value. At best, in common parlance it can be interpreted as being a shortened form of “human induced climate change”, but this shortening hides the fundamental importance of “people” as being the main cause of the changes in climate and weather patterns that are being experienced across the world. The expression “climate change” is actually just a collective observation of a series of aggregated changes in weather patterns across the world. It has no explanatory or causative power of its own. It is we humans who are causing fundamental changes to the environment, and these go far beyond just climate. We still know far too little about the complex interactions between different aspects of the world’s ecosystems to be able to predict how these will evolve with any real certainty. “Keep it Simple Stupid”(KISS) quite simply does not work when discussing human induced climate change.

Externalising “climate change”

The use of the term “climate change” also has much more subtle and malign implications, because it externalises our understanding of impacts and thus the actions that the global community (and every one of us living on this planet) need to take. Rather than human actions being seen as the fundamental cause that they are, externalising the idea of “climate change” as a cause means that the focus is subtly turned to finding ways to limit “climate change” rather than actually to change our underlying human behaviours. The classic instance of this is the focus on reducing carbon emissions by developing renewable energy sources – without actually changing our consumption patterns. The very considerable emphasis within the digital tech community on reducing its own carbon emissions and inventing ways through which digital tech can be used to contribute to “green energy” (typified by the ITU’s emphasis thereon) is but one example of this (see further in Part 2). Moreover, at a very basic level, the emphasis on carbon although important, has tended to reduce the attention paid to other contributors to global warming, such as Nitrous Oxide (N2O) which has a Global Warming Potential (GWP) 273 times that of CO2, or Methane (CH4) which has a GWP of 27-30 times, for a 100-year timescale (USA EPA, 2022).

The focus on climate means that wider environmental impacts tend to be ignored

Focusing on “climate change” in general, and rising temperatures (global warming) in particular, has had a very serious negative impact on the ways in which other environmental parameters are considered and affected. In essence, “climate impact” often trumps most other environmental considerations, even when at a local scale other environmental impacts may actually be very much more serious. In reality, climate is but a part of the wider interconnected world in which we live, and for a more sustainable future it is essential to adopt a comprehensive ecosystem approach to understanding the full environmental impacts of any intervention. But one example of this is the way that batteries are now required to store “renewable” energy from solar panels or wind turbines, and the resultant serious environmental degradation caused by mining for lithium in Chile, Australia, Argentina and China (note too that total global reserves of lithium in 2018 were only 165 times the annual production volume, and demand is increasing rapidly).

Sustainable development, climate change and economic growth.

I have long argued that the term “sustainable development” is a contradiction in terms, and that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) alongside the UN’s Agenda 2030 are deeply flawed, not only in implementation but also in design (see Unwin, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2021 and 2022). In essence, while development is largely defined in terms of economic growth, it is difficult to see how it can be compatible with sustainability when defined as the maintenance of valued entities. A deep flaw in much of the global “climate change” rhetoric about the use of renewable technologies to replace energy based on hydrocarbons is that it still tends to be combined with an economic growth agenda based on technical innovation. It does little, if anything at all, about changing global consumption patterns, the “perpetual growth” model, and the underlying capitalist mode of production (see Unwin, 2019). Indeed, elsewhere, I have often reflected on what a “no-growth” model of society might look like.

One of the core problems with the dominant global rhetoric around climate change (as expressed particularly in COP27, but also in much popular activist protest) is that it does not sufficiently tackle the fundamental challenge of population growth and increased consumption. The two simplified graphs below illustrate the scale of this basic problem.

The broad similarity in these two curves is striking. More than anything else, it has been the overall global growth in population over the last two centuries, enabled in large part by the enterprise associated with the individualistically based capitalist mode of production that has driven the environmental crisis of which “climate change” is but a part. The controversial film Planet of the Humans (Produced by Michael Moore) makes similar arguments, and it is unfortunate that its many critics have tended to focus more on some of its undoubtedly problematic points of detail rather than the crucial message of its overall argument (see Moore on Rising). The “capture”of the UN system by global corporations, exemplified by the large numbers of business leaders attending COP27, seems to confirm one of Moore’s core arguments that these companies are now driving much of the climate change agenda.

If the world’s peoples really want to “mitigate the effects of climate change”, there needs to be a dramatically more radical change to our social, cultural, political and economic systems than has heretofore been imagined, and this needs to begin with a shift to more communal rather than individualistic systems, a focus on reducing inequalities rather than maximising economic growth, and the crafting of a more holistic approach to environmental issues rather than one primarily focussing on carbon reduction to “solve” “climate change”.

Who benefits most: understanding the interests behind “climate change” rhetoric

Social movements, economic practices, cultural behaviours and political systems do not just happen, they are created by those who have interests in making them happen and the power to do so. This is as true of the “climate change” rhetoric and movement as it is of any other. Five particular groups of people have shaped and sought to take advantage of this. First, have been the scientists who have believed in the importance of this issue and have sought to build their careers around it. Academic careers are not neutral, and the story of how they built coalitions and peer networks, influenced research councils and political groups, and helped to forge a global “climate change” agenda that served their own interests is a fascinating one that remains to be told. Second, have been private sector businesses and corporations big and small who have sought to influence global policy and profit from a shift from hydrocarbons to renewable energy. This has been fuelled by the fetish for innovation, and the idea that technological change can inject a new impetus to economic growth. Their lobbying of governments to subsidise many of the start-up costs of renewable energy technologies, to overturn existing environmental legislation to permit the creation of new industrial landscapes in the name of solving”climate change”, and to enable consumers to afford to purchase them through further subsidising their energy costs, has been hugely successful. The global capitalist system, utterly dependent on economic growth, is ultimately leading ever more rapidly to its own environmental catastrophe. Third have been those who enjoy the thrill and camaraderie of political activism who have found in the simple “climate change” mantra something that will unite many of their common interests. Fourth, has been the UN system with all of its distinct agencies, each of which has found a cause around which to promote its identity as contributing in a worthwhile way for the benefit of humanity. Finally, have been the politicians, eaager to be seen to be doing “good”, and to contribute to a worthy international cause, in the interests of enhancing their own political careers.

The trouble is that it is not “climate change” itself that is the problem. Instead it is these interests, shaping the rhetoric of climate change, that have helped to exacerbate the very real environmental damage that is being caused to this planet. Self-interestedly promoting the rhetoric of “climate change” is of course much easier than it is to tackle the real roots of the problem, which lie in the economic, political, social and cultural processes that they too have crafted over the last half-century.

Part 2 of this trilogy of posts examines how these arguments apply in the context of the digital tech sector, and Part 3 calls for a dramatic new approach to balancing the environmental harms and benefits of the creation and use of such technologies,

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Servants of the poor – WSIS TalkX

TalkXIt was a great honour to have been invited – a few hours beforehand – to give one of the inaugural WSIS TalkX presentations last Thursday evening as WSIS 2019 drew towards its close.  Seven of us had been asked if we would like to talk about our lives in technology for around 5 minutes. I opted to go last – just before the closing cocktail party.  Several colleagues had to leave before the end to get to other commitments and so they spoke first; I knew I would be remaining to enjoy the wine.  Before me there were some amazing, inspirational speakers: Stephenie Rodriguez, Joel Radvanyi, Gloria Kimbwala, Ayanna T Samuels, Sebastian Behaghel and Ted Chen

With little time to prepare it was difficult to know quite what to say.  We had been asked to tell our own stories, and so I chose five images as five “scenes” around which to tell my tale.  Posting the images on social media, I had hoped that people might be able to see them as I spoke…

1 2 3 4 5


In reality, I’m not sure that many people actually saw the pictures, and I know many were rather confused when I began and introduced myself in the persona of one of my aliases.  I had, though, been introduced by the Master of Ceremonies as someone learning from the life of Hassan-i Sabbah…

Screenshot 2019-04-15 at 20.29.34

To see and hear what I had to say, click on the image above (or here).  Fully to understand it, though, you would need to listen to the other six talks, because I tried hard to link it to what the speakers had to say – especially, for example, about the best university in the world, and the SDGs!

The basic message is simple – if we really believe in empowering the poor and the marginalised through digital technologies we must become their servants…

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Filed under Africa, agriculture, Asia, capitalism, Commonwealth, Development, Disability, Education, Empowerment, Geography, Higher Education, ICT4D, Photographs, research, South Bihar

Reflections on “corruption”…

I have long argued that people tend to use the word “corruption” mainly to describe cultural practices that differ from those with which they are familiar.  It is a term that is almost always used negatively. Re-reading Transparency International‘s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index has very much reinforced this view, but in a way that I suspect will not be expected by those who read what follows!

Corruption TI

I have huge admiration and respect for the work of Transparency International. The map above shows the perceived levels of public sector corruption in 177 countries in the world.  In brief, it indicates that 69% of countries have a score of less than 50%, indicating a serious corruption problem.

However, what stands out most to me about this map is that it is very largely the countries of northern Europe, northern America, and Australasia that are perceived as being least corrupt.  The yellow “holiness” is so marked against the “evil” red of corruption that swathes most of the rest of the world!

Corruption according to Transparency International can be defined  “Generally speaking as ‘the abuse of entrusted power for private gain’. Corruption can be classified as grand, petty and political, depending on the amounts of money lost and the sector where it occurs”.

Three ideas seem particularly pertinent in this context:

  1. The notion of corruption is intimately tied up with the nature of capitalism.  Put simply, the apparently least corrupt countries according to this definition are generally the most advanced capitalist countries.  This suggests that it serves capitalist interests to try to reduce “corruption” as much as possible. It is interesting to ponder why this might be.  One reason may be that reducing the abuse of entrusted power for private gain actually reduces the tendency for the rate of profit to fall.  However, it is difficult to see how this might happen, and it seems in stark contrast to a fundamental characteristic of capitalism which is that it is actually designed to ensure the maximum possible private gain for the capitalists.  I guess the reality may be that limiting or preventing private gain from entrusted power actually enables the market (i.e. the principles of capitalism) to flourish as effectively as possible.  By extension a reduction of all entrusted power (i.e. limiting the power of the state) could be seen to enhance the power of the market, and therefore increase the potential for private gain of those who do not hold political power.  Hence, keeping the power of the state as small as possible, and ensuring that it functions in a way that does not lead to private gain for the holders of power in the state, will ensure that the maximum surplus profit is available to the leaders of global corporations and their shareholders.
  2. However, it is very clear that there is also corruption in the leading capitalist states.  The countries shaded yellow on the above map may be perceived as being less corrupt than others, but corruption still abounds in them!  Hence, there is huge hypocrisy when leaders (and indeed others) in the “yellow” countries accuse those in the “red” countries of being corrupt.  Those in the banking sector, for example, who pay themselves and their staff huge salaries are surely also using their positions of power for private gain?  The amount of money spent in US Presidential elections is also an indication of the way in which “money speaks”: Obama thus raised $715,677,692 in the 2012 elections, and Romney raised $446,135,997.  Together, this sum of money was worth more than the GDP of 25 countries in 2012 (according to UN figures).  One needs huge amounts of money to be elected President of the US, and those who contribute this money expect the policies that the President introduces to benefit them – for private gain.  Likewise, in the UK in 2012, Michael Meacher in a letter to the Guardian newspaper noted that “that the richest 1,000 persons, just 0.003% of the adult population, increased their wealth over the last three years by £155bn. That is enough for themselves alone to pay off the entire current UK budget deficit and still leave them with £30bn to spare”.  Is not this also a form of corruption?
  3. Corruption is seen differently in countries where rampant capitalism and private financial gain may not be seen as the most important priorities.  According to the Transparency International report, most countries in the world are perceived as having a serious corruption problem.  This poses an interesting question: might their systems of priorities actually in some ways be better?  If they were not, why do these systems persist?  For a person living in a culture where ties to family and tribe are more important than individual private financial gain, it must seem very wrong not to give employment opportunities to members of one’s family, regardless of actual ability. Likewise, where personal loyalty matters more than direct monetary return, supporting a friend to achieve their particular job aspirations would seem much more appropriate than ensuring that there is a “fair” competence based application process.  Giving gifts to reciprocate for generous hospitality is merely a different way of redistributing and sharing financial benefits.  Moreover, much of what passes for probity in the “yellow” countries actually tends to be a smokescreen for traditional modes of “corruption”.  The appointments process is invariably biased through friendship ties – not least through the reference system and the use of headhunters – and is never purely competence based.  Likewise, the UK’s honours system is still very largely determined by personal friendship networks, rather than necessarily by ability or contribution to the common good.

In short, I am more than ever convinced that “corruption” is simply a pejorative term that people use to describe political, social and economic systems that are  different from their own.  In a world dominated by capitalist interests, it is scarcely surprising that less-advanced capitalist economies are perceived as being more corrupt than those where the search for individual gain and success is highest.  Yet this very focus on individual gain in capitalist societies is itself fundamentally “corrupt”, since it detracts from the communal good which, at least for me, is ultimately far more valuable.  I suggest that we may have much more to learn from the mutually supportive social and cultural networks that underlie such “corrupt” regimes, than we do from the economic interests that determine definitions of probity in the capitalist heartland. However, this is because I believe that the common good is far more important than private individual gain.


Filed under Africa, Commonwealth, Development, Entrepreneurship, Universities

Save the Hobbit – that is, the pub in Southampton

I have often driven past the Hobbit pub in Portiswood, on the edge of Southampton, and although I have never been inside I have always thought that it was a great name for a pub – and it has been there for some 20 years.  So, I was more than a little concerned to read a recent BBC report that mentioned that the pub has been threatened with legal action by the Saul Zaentz Company (SZC) back in March 2012.  SZC owns the worldwide rights to various brands association with the author JRR Tolkien (acquired in 1976), including the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, and appears to be flexing its muscles to ensure that these rights are not infringed.  However, taking it out on an English pub seems to be going a bit too far.

It is good to see that others have come to the rescue of the Hobbit – that is, the pub!  Some 59,830 people have indicated that they like the Facebook page Save the Hobbit, Southampton, and actors Stephen Fry and Sir Ian McKellen have apparently offered to pay for the copyright licence fee so that the pub can carry on trading under its present name.

Tonight, there is a party at the pub to raise money to pay for legal fees to ensure that this dispute is resolved sensibly.  So, if you are anywhere near Southampton do get on down to the Hobbit and party for a cause.

Could this be a reason not to watch the Hobbit (in all its money making parts) when the film comes out?!

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US poverty: a good example to follow?

Official US date recently released shows that the number of US citizens living in poverty rose to a record 46 million last year.  Yet the world is encouraged to believe that the US model of ‘democracy’ and ‘economic growth’ is the one that should be followed to eliminate poverty.  Surely there is a contradiction here?

The BBC reports the release of these data as follows: “The number of Americans living in poverty rose to a record 46.2 million last year, official data has shown. This is the highest figure since the US Census Bureau started collecting the data in 1959. In percentage terms, the poverty rate rose to 15.1%, up from 14.3% in 2009. The US definition of poverty is an annual income of $22,314 (£14,129) or less for a family of four and $11,139 for a single person. The number of Americans living below the poverty line has now risen for four years in a row, while the poverty rate is the biggest since 1993. Poverty among black and Hispanic people was much higher than for the overall US population last year, the figures also showed. The Census Bureau data said 25.8% of black people were living in poverty and 25.3% of Hispanic people. Its latest report also showed that the average annual US household income fell 2.3% in 2010 to $49,445. Meanwhile, the number of Americans without health insurance remained about 50 million. The data comes as the US unemployment rate remains above 9%”.

Is it not time that global organisations, aid agencies, and governments across the world stopped pretending that economic growth leads to a reduction of poverty?  Capitalism fundamentally depends on the maintenance of inequalities: between rich and poor countries, between rich and poor people.  The increase in US poverty revealed in these data reinforces such arguments.  The US ‘system’ enables Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to acquire huge wealth, while large numbers of their compatriots are consigned to poverty.

Freedom carries responsibilities.  The focus of US capitalism on the freedom of the individual at the expense of the wider public good is surely not a model that the world should be encouraged to follow.  As the BBC report notes, 50 million people in the US do not have health insurance.  While the rich can have the benefit of the latest medical research, such care is beyond the means of the poor.

These figures should be seen as a wake up call to economists and politicians across the world.  Unfettered capitalism, fueled by a self-reinforcing cycle of individual greed, can never lead to a reduction in poverty.  Only when governments act explicitly to support the most marginalised in their societies can we begin to redress the balance.

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