THE RICH REALLY DON'T CARE ABOUT THE POOR
We spend far too much time and energy worrying about the supposed global divide between north and south, rich country and poor country. It doesn't actually exist. The planet's real fault line is between elites and the middle class in some countries, and the bottom of the pyramid, everywhere.
The world's four richest citizens -- Carlos Slim, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Mukesh Ambani -- have more in common with each other than they do with the bottom strata of their respective countries. Yes, they do handle their wealth differently. Gates and Buffett are giving most of it away, Ambani just built the world's most expensive house, and Slim is somewhere in the middle. But all four can count on their home governments to take care of their needs first. Preserving that kind of social hierarchy is an unwritten assumption in deciding which solutions to the world's problems arrive on the table and which do not.
Many have observed that countries whose boundaries happen to include large deposits of oil, diamonds, tropical timber, or some other valuable commodity tend to have miserable populations that suffer from poverty and violence -- the "resource curse." But we politely overlook the reality that for every resource-cursed country, there is a resource-blessed kleptocracy. With rare exceptions like Sudan, those who pillage their countries' wealth are accepted into the top ends of global society. They come to Davos, stay at the Four Seasons, bank in Switzerland. The oil oligarchs of the Persian Gulf are welcomed as investors in News Corporation and American banks, even when they hold views that might otherwise put them on a U.S. terrorism watch list.
India, justifiably, comes to global climate negotiations to argue that it has hundreds of thousands of villages with no access at all to electricity and that the United States and Europe cannot reasonably say, "Well, given the climate crisis, those villages are just going to remain in the dark." That reality gets a lot of attention. But the other reality is that India devotes very little of its energy investment to getting light for those villages, while it invests considerably more in keeping Ambani's streetlights on. India is not exceptional. In fact, the poor pay 20 percent of the world's lighting bill -- and get only 0.1 percent of the world's lighting services in exchange. Seventy-five years after Franklin D. Roosevelt demonstrated that reliable access to credit was the key to electrifying rural households, the United States still has a shameful number of off-grid communities on Native American reservations.
We write and talk glibly about the increasing emphasis in our economies on "knowledge," but rarely focus on the reality that a knowledge-based society makes it far easier for much of the workforce to be left behind. Ugandan coffee farmers receive only 2.5 percent of the British retail price and 4.5 percent of the U.S. retail price for their coffee. A few cents added to a cup of coffee or a basket of strawberries would cover the costs of doubling or tripling the wages of peasant farmers. But if we raised prices in today's world economy, the increases would be absorbed not by the farmers but by marketing, wholesaling, and retailing markups.
The knowledge workers and investors who benefit from this global supply chain have far more in common with each other than they do with the peasant coffee growers who supply their corner Starbucks. Enriching them would mean lowering the status and wealth of bankers, distributors, and advertisers -- and they've got all the leverage.
Together, Slim, Gates, Buffett, and Ambani control more wealth than the world's poorest 57 countries. The danger is that while we have a global economy that knows how to concentrate money and power in an ever smaller set of hands, we have no robust mechanism to alert us to the injustice, dangers, and instability that come along with this package. Someday, to our peril, the poor will find their own way to remind us.
Carl Pope is chairman of the Sierra Club.
Mark Power/Magnum Photos