Science behind poverty

By Massimo Pieri and Sara Mangani

Sustainable development as the science of poverty

The science of sustainable development  can be  defined as the science of poverty. While it analyzes the distribution of resources on earth, (and of the so-called negative side effects of development) this discipline necessarily confronts itself with poverty and environmental, economic, social decay.

Poverty has gone through history playing an important role for the development of the western world and it intensely fuels its reflections on ethics, politics and science. These are given the noble prerogative to heal the curse of poverty forever and to fight suffering due to decay and degradation: from these aims they achieve their prestige and reason for their existence.

In this way western political ethics and sciences, which have their role in causing poverty, keep themselves out of the loop of responsibility without asking themselves or clearing up what remains within the loop.  And while all this seems to be an irreconcilable contradiction (because who causes the damage doesn’t know how to fix it) we should ask ourselves which is the origin of poverty and what feeds it still today. To do this, it is necessary to agree on a widely-accepted definition of poverty.

Poverty: western definition and cultural diversity vision

From traditional point of view, the poor people is one who cannot allow him or herself to eat two times a day. From the Western point of view, the poor people is one whose consumption of energy and resources is quantitatively below a threshold indicated as standard. Evidently the first definition is an elementary version of the second if one takes “eating two times” as absorbed with the calculation of individual consumptions.  In reality, it is a question of opposing and irreconcilable representations.

In the first definition, a fundamental piece of information is contained:  the most elementary and necessary condition for the life of a people is being able to eat.  This singles out in food the first resource of a community and the community or its members are not “poor” as long as they know how to procure food.

All behaviours, techniques, rites that establish internal and external relations with others, with the living and the non-living guarantee this resource, food.   Among the modalities for guaranteeing the procurement of food, one can list nomadism, hunting,  fishing, gathering and agriculture and others that are all suitable for neutralize the poverty of a person or of a community and these modes of existence constitute the wealth of a people. In this definition of the wealth of a community, there is no direct indication of a comparative classification or hierarchy of techniques because what counts is food, as the result of the application of the food-procurement technique used.

On the contrary, the second definition brings in a comparative opposition: for example, to practice gathering is not at all equivalent to engaging in agriculture and the two techniques imply different energy expenditures. The agricultural production process is nourished by a flow of energy greater than the flow of energy in gathering; therefore agriculture is associated with a more elevated level of well-being for the community that practices it.   In this picture, gathering seems to be a primitive technique and agriculture an advance both technological and existential.

I believe that it is impossible to extrapolate a technique of existence from the (age-old) context in which it has been practiced and then attempt to objectively judge that technique by using abstract parameters, such as income and the quantity of energy employed in the vital processes. Such parameters strive to make the wealth of humanity something observable and measurable as a per capita phenomenon. According to this hypothesis, plausible at a first level of approximation, the contributions of the interactions that are developed locally in the midst of Environmental Diversity are negligible. In the same territory, there can be the co-existence of communities bound to different techniques of existence, but modes that all also complementary and correlated to the point of rendering it damaging to break the correlation for the purpose of promoting the advancement of the whole system to a more “evolved” technique.

The holistic approach: recognising cultural and environmental diversity

 The structure of the interactions that characterize a determined environment is the result of a multiplicity of events whose nature cannot be reduced to the sole dimension of the temporal unfolding, how complex one imagines it.  And yet, it is this hypothesis that is the foundation of every “mediated” representation and of the reasoning according to which the diversity of cultures would be the result of a progressive adaptation in time of the human community to environmental diversity, as an objective and independent resource.  It is not by chance that in both the oral and written tradition, no people has recorded this multiplicity of events in the form of a linear and progressive flow.  In the case of aborigines, those who possess a theory of the creation of the world, the structures of the interactions between people and the environment reaches so great a level of complexity as to render it useless to recapitulate the development over time.

One could in general affirm that those who possess a theory as to the origin of the earth, of the environment in which they live, can do without the parameter of time and of the notion of evolution. For them,  the entire complex of the correlation among all components of the environmental system, including their creation is encapsulated in a sole scientific vision. When the creator showed the people  the land of Israel, the gaze of the people took in every present, past and future instant of that land, every part and every relation of this land with the remaining ones.

Having taken note of this, it is necessary once and for all to recognize that environmental diversity is not at all an objectively quantifiable resource. It exists only in the measure in which a corresponding cultural diversity contains it and determines it, by means of knowledge and techniques, the modalities of existence.  In this sense “Cultural Diversity (and Linguistic Diversity) is the instrument, the art or means, the technique of existence with which humanity enters into relation with Environmental diversity, and perceives it, knows it, manages it, preserves it, increases it. Cultural Diversity expresses a local and functional relation with its ecological environment.”

In this perspective, the initiative of sustaining the resources of a territory, importing money, techniques, food from culturally distant contexts is evidently destined to fail: one would make the claim then that the definitive alteration of  territory and of its resources, a structural alteration of the territories not only had no repercussions on the definition of the relation between local population and territory, but even that it could reconstitute that relationship, having formed the quality of it out of thin air.

We  have already said that it is Cultural Diversity that determines the conditions of existence of Environmental Diversity as a Resource for life.

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