No-affluence, no poverty

The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement of Sri Lanka has since 1958 been advocating a “no poverty, no affluence society.” This has been the foundation of its economic philosophy. It turns out there’s one small problem: no one quite knows what it means. Does “no poverty, no affluence” mean that once a poor person meets a certain standard of living, things start getting taken away? Does it mean complete equality, at whatever the average standard of living turns out to be, regardless of whether a person tries to better their situation or not? Or does it mean limitations on extravagance and waste? The interpretation of this simple, nice-sounding phrase has huge repercussions on what kind of support it will receive in the field.

Sarvodaya is wrestling with this at the same time we discuss various economic approaches to global climate change, where a similar problem arises. Recent posts have used terms like socialism, the greater good, environment first, mandatory reductions, global solutions, massive spending (by whom?), massive cutbacks, rationing, strict limits on growth, and so forth. But what do these mean? We all assume that “some rich guy” has to pay the price. But if you’re reading this post on a computer with internet access, you are one of the rich guys (gender notwithstanding).

Consider: Half the world lives on less than two dollars a day. A day’s income won’t buy a gallon of gasoline or a single cup of Starbucks coffee. A month’s income wouldn’t cover a pair of New Balance sneakers. Though they have an impact on global warming through sheer numbers, on an individual basis their impact is nearly zero. India’s annual per capita CO2 emissions are .29 tons. By contrast, the average American is responsible for 5.37 tons of CO2 per year, more than 18 times more.

Global climate change is real, and it needs a solution. But as we toss theoretical arguments around, pwrhaps without thinking of the practical definitions of our terminology, let us be clear what’s at issue: When we talk about changing the lifestyles of the wealthy, we’re talking about our own lifestyles, and the lifestyles of our neighbors. If we are to maintain the freedom we crave, our society must be convinced to make the necessary changes voluntarily. Otherwise change will come involuntarily by the choice of a government, or involuntarily as the result of not making changes. In either case, we’ll be giving up most of the liberty we take for granted.

It would serve us to find ways for people to make the necessary changes voluntarily. Because if we don’t, some undeserving despot will reap the benefit.