Columns

A hub and a prayer

Grace VIRTUE

Tuesday, December 17, 2013    

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ON December 4, a day before Nelson Mandela's passing, President Barack Obama in a speech on income inequality, referenced Jamaica as an example of the extreme forms of wealth inequality in the world and lamented that the United States now compares with us on that measure.

"A child born in the top 20 per cent has about a two in three chance of staying at or near the top," Obama said. "A child born into the bottom 20 per cent has a less than a one in 20 shot at making it to the top. He's 10 times likelier to stay where he is. In fact, statistics show not only that our levels of income inequality rank near countries like Jamaica and Argentina, but that it is harder today for a child born here in America to improve her station in life than it is for children in most of our wealthy allies..."

Obama's speech highlights a major challenge for many governments and non-government organisations worldwide — the fact that millions of people have far in excess of their needs, while millions of others struggle to survive. In the United States, close to 40 million people live in poverty, and in Latin America and the Caribbean, the gap between the rich and poor is the widest in the world.

In a 2011 report by the International Monetary Fund, Jamaica ranks second worst, behind Suriname, among 23 countries in the Americas on the unequal distribution of income measure.

Unsurprisingly, we do not talk about the wealth gap, less we offend the wealthiest among us. Further, it carries the worrying spectre that some of us may have to give up something — such as modifying our vulgar excesses and paying our employees a living wage. It may raise inconvenient questions about the massive profits made by some banks, for example, while imposing onerous fees on the working poor just to maintain an account.

So we talk about poverty instead.

Abstractly, we love the poor. Concretely, we resent the youngsters at the stoplight trying to wash our windscreens in the hope that we may toss them a buck. We are contemptuous of the woman with the three children holding on to her skirt and an unborn protruding from her stomach.

It is this uncontrolled breeding that it is responsible for her poverty, we say, ignoring common sense and every evidence which shows that the more women are gainfully employed, the fewer children they have. Further, the more that men are gainfully employed, the less crime there is in society. The less crime there is, the greater the chance of economic growth.

Personal responsibility is critical, but depraved social and economic conditions inevitably breed certain kinds of behaviour.

Mandela knew this. He said: "Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice. Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings."

In a progressive country, such actions might include strategies to reduce the wealth gap, educating and empowering people to take responsibility for their lives, proper stewardship of existing resources, and engineering a legislative environment conducive to economic growth.

Transport and Works Minister Dr Omar Davies, in his defence of the trans-shipment port proposed for Goat Islands, a protected area, identifies poverty as the greatest threat to the environment. The port, with its vague promise of jobs, therefore, should be welcomed, preferably without opposition.

Davies' argument is convenient, clichéd and profoundly untrue. In fact, the biggest threat to the environment is consumption without conscience or responsibility. Think about the over-consumption of animal protein and their by-products for clothes, shoes, accessories; billions of plastic bottles that end up in waterways or landfills; massive hotels on the coastlines or the mansions on the hillsides that require not just the destruction of the natural environment but vast amounts of energy to light and cool; the cruise ships dumping effluent in the ocean; the SUVs and the amount of gas that they need.

According to Fred Pearce, writing in Yale Environment 360, "given existing income inequalities, it is inescapable that overconsumption by the rich few is the key problem, rather than overpopulation of the poor many".

Stephen Pacala, director of the Princeton Environment Institute, agrees that the world's richest half-billion people are responsible for 50 per cent of its carbon dioxide emissions. The poorest 50 per cent are responsible for just 7 per cent.

Given our economic challenges in Jamaica, the proposed trans-shipment port highlights the intractable conflicts between the soul and the stomach, wealth and poverty, capitalism and ethics. It is natural and right for environmentalists or Citizen John or Jane to question whether the benefits will outweigh the negative and it is responsible to proposed alternative sites.

The Government's response so far — which seems to trivialse those concerns — is disrespectful of the citizenry, our own laws, and the conventions to which we are signatory, and they fail to take into consideration the enormous credibility/trust deficiency between the Government and the people when it comes to stewardship and the economy.

Frankly, the best argument that I have heard in favour of the hub is that Goat Islands are so degraded already that a deal with the Chinese would actually allow the Government to bring the area under control and insist on enhancement of the environment through a well-crafted restoration and relocation programme of the plant and animal life in the area.

This is open for dispute from those who know better. In the meantime, the Government should respect the people's right to have a say in the direction of our country — the essence of what it means to be a participatory democracy — and it must aggressively ensure that our right to our heritage and our status as a sovereign state are protected.

Finally, the hub should not be sold as a panacea. It certainly will not absolve us from the hard work of controlling crime and from creating a broader and deeper framework to address economic stagnation and indefensible social inequalities.

That will take much more than a hub and a prayer.

gvirtue@usa.net

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