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Poverty Is Not Sustainable

This article from Climate Resistance about the sustainability movement is terrific.  I want to excerpt a relatively long chunk of it:

It is our belief that Oxfam’s increasingly shallow campaigns reflect the organisation’s difficulty in understanding development and poverty, and the relationship between them. In other words, it seems to have lost its purpose. This is a reflection of a wider political phenomenon, of which the predominance of environmentalism is a symptom. We seem to have forgotten why we wanted development in the first place. It is as if the lifestyles depicted in Cecil’s painting were to be aspired to, were there just a little more rain. Development is a bad thing. It stops rain.

If we were to add a city skyline into the background of Cecil’s painting it might ask a very different question of its audience. Why are people living like that, with such abundance in such proximity? Of course, in reality, many miles separate the two women from any such city, but the question still stands; there is abundance in the world, and there is the potential for plenty more. Yet Oxfam have absorbed the idea from the environmental movement that there isn’t abundance. This changes the relationship between development and poverty from one in which development creates abundance into one in which development creates poverty; it deprives people of subsistence. But really, the city (not) behind the two women could organise the infrastructure necessary to irrigate the parched landscape, the delivery of fertiliser, and a tractor. The field could be in full bloom, in spite of the weather. The two women could be wealthy.

Oh no, says Oxfam. That’s not sustainable....

The myth of sustainability is that it is sustainable. The truth is that drought and famine have afflicted the rural poor throughout history – before climate change was ever used to explain the existence of poverty. Limiting development to what ‘nature’ provides therefore makes people vulnerable to her whims. Drought is ‘natural’. Famine is ‘natural’. Disease is ‘natural’. They are all mechanisms which, in the ecologist’s lexicon are nature’s own way of ensuring ‘sustainability’. They are checks and balances on the dominance of one species. To absorb what Hitler called ‘the iron logic of nature’ is to submit to injustice, if famine, drought and disease characterise it. We can end poverty, but not by restricting development. Yet that seems to be Oxfam’s intention. That is why we criticise it.

Hat tip:  Tom Nelson.

Posted on November 18, 2008 at 10:23 AM | Permalink


Bloody Oxfam. A few years ago my wife and I were having a coffee at a pavement cafe in Oxford. At the next table four Oxfam managers were shouting their views. Mainly they were mocking the unpaid volunteers who do most of the work for that charity - staffing the shops and so on. Additionally, the three younger managers were sucking up to the senior one. It was a revolting display. They don't get a penny from us.

Posted by: dearieme | Nov 18, 2008 11:20:41 AM

With a lot of these guys, the message boils down to there need to be less people (which boils down to, there needs to be less brown people).

Posted by: ElamBend | Nov 18, 2008 4:28:22 PM

Bloody OXFAM indeed.

Posted by: dr kill | Nov 18, 2008 4:49:35 PM

Bloody OXFAM indeed.

Posted by: dr kill | Nov 18, 2008 4:49:48 PM

Bloody OXFAM indeed.

Posted by: dr kill | Nov 18, 2008 4:49:55 PM

Sustainability has become a wide-ranging term that can be applied to almost every facet of life on Earth, from a local to a global scale and over various time periods. Long-lived and healthy wetlands and forests are examples of sustainable biological systems. Invisible chemical cycles redistribute water, oxygen, nitrogen and carbon through the world's living and non-living systems, and have sustained life for millions of years. As the earth’s human population has increased, natural ecosystems have declined and changes in the balance of natural cycles has had a negative impact on both humans and other living systems.

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