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Reduce poverty and sustainability will follow

By Eric Claus - posted Monday, 22 August 2005

Sustainability is the ability to live in such a way as to provide for our needs today without compromising the future generation’s ability to provide for its needs. It is not an easy thing to do even in a wealthy developed country like Australia and we are struggling with it. If living sustainably is a struggle for rich people, it must be impossible for people living in poverty.

When I, from my comfortable sofa in the developed world, think about making the world more sustainable and ensuring that my children and grandchildren have the high standard of living that I enjoy, I usually think about a sustainable population, wind farms, solar panels, clean industrial production, and recycled water. I don’t think about the developing world and the very different kinds of problems they face.

In the developed world, we worry about depletion of oil because the cost of driving our big 4WDs around will go up. In the developing world, the cost of diesel fuel means that it may be too expensive to plough the fields or get the produce to market. In Australia we worry about the depletion of natural gas because it will impact our balance of payments with China and Japan. In India fertilisers made using natural gas have powered the green revolution, allowing the population to be fed. When natural gas runs out, those fertilisers will not be available and farm production will decline, leaving millions hungry. We worry about degradation of farmland through salinity and erosion because the price of beef will get too high. In Africa the degradation of farmland means that many people will starve to death.


The double whammy for people living in poverty is that there are ingrained institutional and social problems associated with poverty that make living sustainably even more difficult.

  • The political leaders of poor countries can’t afford to think of long term or big picture issues when the people they represent need help in the short term. When decisions between what is best in the long term and what will help people survive this year are made, the short term option is usually chosen. (Political leaders in rich countries often follow the same course, because future generations can’t vote.)
  • People living in poverty can’t afford to send their children to school. This hurts for two reasons. First, the lack of education exacerbates poverty. The richest countries have the most formal education and the poorest countries the least. Second, lack of education means it is more difficult to make the changes needed for sustainable living. A farmer, who has grown up using the same farming techniques as his father and grandfather, might benefit from new, more sustainable methods, but it is difficult to pass on these new techniques if the culture has limited experience with education. Better educated societies can adapt more quickly to changes in energy costs or fertiliser requirements.
  • Poverty leads to conditions where people feel insecure in their old age. One way that poverty stricken people provide for themselves in old age is to have lots of children. Since health care and sanitary conditions in poor countries are often inadequate, many parents feel they need many children to insure enough survive to help support them. A review of the fertility rates and per capita wealth (Gross Domestic Product per person) of the 60 most populous countries in the world reveals there are 12 countries with fertility rates above 4.6 children per woman and all these 12 countries have GDP per capita less than $2,000 a year. These 12 countries represent over 600 million people. Conversely the 11 countries with the highest GDP’s per capita (over $18,000 a person a year) all have fertility rates below 2.1. High fertility rates lead to high population growth, which puts more pressure on resources in poor countries, making it harder to break out of poverty.
  • Poverty often leads to conditions in which women’s civil rights and social standing is far below that of men. When women must work all day to provide water, food and shelter for the family, they have no opportunity to exert their independence (often against a long history of subservience) and gain equal rights. Societies where women’s rights are unequal to men’s are less productive than societies with a more equitable social structure. Lower productivity makes it more difficult to battle out of poverty. Women without rights are also usually not able to control their own fertility and this often leads to an increase in the population, which contributes to keeping poor countries poor.
  • Poverty and perceived unfairness can lead to extremism and terrorism in developing countries and this can be carried to developed countries. Rather than battling poverty, extremists expend resources battling perceived injustices that face people in developing countries. The growth of terrorism means developed countries must divert resources to combating terrorism. Not just physical resources like energy and steel, but intellectual resources as well. Possibly most importantly, terrorism takes the focus off poverty and sustainability.

Many believe that it is the developed world that is eating up all the earth’s resources, so that is the part of the world that needs to be fixed. Carry on with the sustainable population, wind farms, solar panels, clean industrial production, recycled water, and so on, in the developed world and the sustainability war will be won.

Not gonna happen!

Unless we all (or at least the great majority of us) live sustainably, the sun, atmosphere, fresh water, oceans, land and ecosystems will not be able to provide the clean air, fresh water, food and other materials we all need to live comfortably.

There is no sense in half the nations fishing sustainably or reducing fossil fuel use, while the other half depletes the fisheries and uses up all the fossil fuels without any consideration for the future.


In most cases, the world’s resources cannot be separated anymore. Food, energy and most of the materials we use every day come from all over the world. Even if the specific product we use is local, the price is probably impacted by products from all over the world. If all the food, energy and materials are interconnected, one community living unsustainably impacts everybody else anyway, so we better make whatever efforts we can to insure that our neighbours are living sustainably.

Finding solutions to poverty and sustainability won’t be easy and there is evidence that the job is going to get tougher the longer we wait. Over the next 40 to 50 years, the population in the developed countries is likely to remain about 1.2 billion, but the population of the developing countries is set to increase from 5.2 to 8 billion. That means that there will be a lot more mouths to feed and most of the mouths are likely to be in countries where social and institutional factors lead to further poverty.

Fossil fuels have powered the industrial revolution and the ability to control the environment in such a way as to allow the world’s population to grow from 300 million to over 6 billion. At the current rates, oil and natural gas will run out in our children’s lifetime. At the same time, the earth’s huge population and unsustainable lifestyle have degraded many of the worlds ecosystems and other elements of the environment that provide the air, water, food and materials we need to live. The way we plan for the time when oil and natural gas are no longer easily available and our ecosystems are under even more pressure from the increasing population will determine whether we have a smooth transition to sustainability or a violent and catastrophic transition.

Either way we need to sort out poverty and sustainability together or neither will be sorted. I’ll bet Bob Geldof didn’t even know he was an environmentalist.

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About the Author

Eric Claus has worked in civil and environmental engineering for over 20 years.

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