Will the Poor Always Be With Us? [Resilience.org]

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"Consider ... that poverty as we know it is not and has never been the fate of humanity, but instead is largely a product of civilization, as we know it. Columbus and other European explorers and colonists, for example, did not discover poverty here in the Americas; they created it. Defined in terms of security, control and access to life-sustaining resources, poverty and affluence take on a meaning apart from our conventional ‘standard of living’ measure. This reinterpretation prompted anthropologist Marshall Sahlins 50 years ago to identify tribal hunter-gatherers as the “original affluent societies”. He recognized a kind of wealth enjoyed – and enjoyed equitably – by tribal people that far surpassed in value the benefits we associate with having wealth in our culture. Perhaps because we have begun to change our own conventional measures of wealth, hunter-gatherers are beginning to be perceived by us in a more favorable light. My students do generally pause to consider if the Native Americans were ‘poor’ when encountered by European explorers, but then uniformly insist that they were not.

By the standards of tribal wealth, even our financially well off are quite poor. In my facilitation work with the materially comfortable in churches and nonprofits, I find a surprising receptivity to this disturbing message. A million dollars, for example, is not enough to insure against having to spend the last decade of life in a nursing home. One source of hope for me – as distant as it appears – lies in the potential for defection within the middle and upper classes. As ‘winning’ the products contest rewards us with a life that is increasingly accelerated, virtual, alienating and superficial – as well as ecologically perilous – the rewards of abandoning the game we play for life with the trees and sky – and each other – will prove increasingly irresistible. The ‘simple living’ trend of the past decade may portend a shift that is deeper and more widespread; this shift could provide a catalyst for the cultural break necessary to end poverty."


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