Thursday, June 9, 2011

On choice, poverty, and sustainability

I have written about choice a few times before, and I've tried to explore the issue in the context of tradeoffs, political consumption, and the choices that may (or should?) be available to us in an ecologically sustainable world. For the past few days, I have continually thought about the issues of choice in light of living on two dollars a day recently (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). I have realised how lucky I am that I can make choices for myself in many regards, while recognising of course that I am still embedded in an ecologically degrading society.

I would like to write a little bit about the linkages between poverty and sustainability through the lens of choice. I pulled the following graphic from the Unhappy Planet Index 2.0 website. What you see for each country is the number of planets that would be required if everyone lived a certain way. For example, if everyone in the world lived as they do in India, what this planet, our Earth, provides for us would be "enough," so to speak. If everyone, however, lived like we do here in the US, well, then we'd need more than four planets worth of provisions to fulfill everyone's lifestyles.

What is not difficult to realise is that all of the countries that are in red are the highly industrialised countries, countries with a lot of choice, and those in yellow and green are the unindustrialised or industrialising countries, countries with limited choice, or growing choice. It is clear that an increase in choice defined through natural resource extraction is unsustainable ecologically. I realised that when I lived (symbolically) on two dollars a day, I made even more sure that my hedonism and profligacy was kept in check, which I am certain reduced my burden on the world. What this meant, however, was that my choices were limited, no doubt. Yet what the above graphic shows me, given the dominant and hegemonic trends of capitalism and natural resource extraction, is that increasing choices that do not take into account ecological burdens, such as choices that have been made for the past couple hundred years in the West, is unsustainable. This is of course clear with ever new technologies and fads. But what a paradox - the countries with the most "choice" (or "freedom" as many would say) are the "richest" yet at the same time the most degrading. The poorest countries are less degrading, with lifestyles being more sustainable.

What the problem of sustainability throws in our way is the issue of limits, which necessarily will limit the choices available to people. I concede that I do not have the answer to what the choices we have should be pared down to, but I do know that this is probably not the right direction to look in, macro to micro. Rather, we should look at ourselves first, and see what it is that we think constitutes a happy and meaningful life, given the constraints the natural world puts on us. I think this is a more tractable approach.


  1. " Rather, we should look at ourselves first, and see what it is that we think constitutes a happy and meaningful life, given the constraints the natural world puts on us. "
    so true!
    btw it's what JMG is explainng practically in his blog

  2. Paris,

    Thanks so much for pointing me to his blog! His writing seems very compelling! I'll be sure to catch up on it.

    And what is your background? What is your background? Where are you from?

    I hope to hear from you soon.

  3. You're welcome! actually I'm from Paris.