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7. Inequality, sustainability and revolution

by Colin Butler


The rise and fall of global democracy
Globalisation and neo-liberalism
Global inequality
The global “claste” system
Relative poverty
A recent decline in global inequality?
Environmental brinkmanship
Inequality and sustainability
Reasons for hope


If a civilisation worthy of that name persists, its future historians are likely to identify two seminal realisations, made at the dawn of the third millennium, as crucial to its survival. These are, firstly, the survival disadvantage of the widening gap between rich and poor and, secondly, the re-awakening of consciousness of the dependence of civilisation upon ecological and environmental services.

The unprecedented, increasingly global, capacity of civilisation to manipulate natural and human capital in the final centuries of the 2nd millennium fuelled, in influential circles, faith in the economic conceit that humankind could at last be liberated from its ageless dependence on nature. Enormous wealth, enjoyed by a shrinking proportion of the world’s richest people, in large part derived from exploitation of its poor and least empowered populations, was justified by doctrines of ‘wealth and health for all,’ in the face of mounting contrary evidence.

Global inequality contributes to nuclear and environmental brinkmanship. The powerful exhibit contempt - for the poor, for nature, and for the future - of breathtaking scale. In this paper, humanity is compared to the travellers on the Titanic, crossing an ice-strewn Atlantic Ocean. Most live below the waterline, in steerage, unable to sense the iceberg’s proximity or to escape. Above deck, well-dressed ladies and gentlemen enjoy a party in the first class dining room. The music and conversation are entrancing. If the unthinkable should happen, they know they have disproportionate access to the lifeboats.

In 1912 those on the lifeboats reached the safety of New York. But if human demands on natural capital exceed the “environmental Plimsoll Line” then we risk not only civilisation’s failure, but its collapse. Even New York may not be a sufficient haven for those sufficiently privileged to access the lifeboats, because the hegemony of the U.S. and its allies is not able to guarantee national security.

Technology, combined with ideological, religious and national fundamentalism has enabled the expression “weapons of mass destruction” to enter the vernacular. These weapons, both nuclear and their discounted equivalent - biological and chemical - have multiplied, risking dissemination to “rogue states” and even to terrorist and religious cults. At the dawn of the 3rd millennium, despite the ‘end of history’ supposedly ensured by the triumph of capitalism, the U.S. remains entranced by the myth of a missile umbrella, to assuage a perhaps increasing sense of unease among its privileged public. But the missile umbrella cannot replace the UV umbrella of an intact stratospheric ozone layer, just as neo-feudal walls and harsh immigration laws cannot exclude the ecosystem and climatic effects caused by the rapid, inexorable accumulation of global greenhouse gases.

Safer, alternative pathways to the future do exist. The world must try to pass through a benign, rather than a malignant ecological and environmental revolution. An essential, but as yet under-recognised component of such a benign transition will be the reduction, rather than intensification of global inequality.

The rise and fall of global democracy

Alex Carey wrote that the 20th century was marked by the rise of democracy, the rise of corporations, and the rise of the ability of corporations to distort, undermine and control democracy (Carey and Lohrey, 1997). Carey particularly referred to democracy in the First World, but his analysis can also be applied globally.

In the decades following 1945, humanity appeared ready to learn from the barbarity and suffering of the preceding global wars and intervening depression. Technological breakthroughs, many of them stimulated by the war, were accompanied by an unprecedented awakening of hope and concern for the oppressed, leading to hopes of genuine global democracy. The founding of the United Nations, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the birth of global institutions, including the World Health Organisation, embodied these hopes in institutional forms designed to ensure that the hope for a brighter world would be more than lofty rhetoric. The will of the mainly European colonising powers to maintain their overseas possessions was weakened. Some colonies, including the jewel in the British Empire’s crown, India, were freed without war.1

First published in 1940, Colin Clark’s groundbreaking book “The Conditions of Economic Progress” (Clark, 1940) drew attention to the previously little-recognised existence of what came to be called the “Third World.“ A reviewer of Clark’s book emphasised “one conclusion beyond doubt: the world is a wretchedly poor place” (Rothbarth, 1941).

The post war spirit saw not only the Marshall Plan, but new efforts to help the “developing countries”. In 1949, U.S. President Truman’s inaugural address2 declared:
“More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas…  I believe that we should make available to peace-loving peoples the benefits of our store of technical knowledge in order to help them realize their aspirations for a better life...  Our aim should be to help the free peoples of the world, through their own efforts, to produce more food, more clothing, more materials for housing, and more mechanical power to lighten their burdens. .. Only by helping the least fortunate of its members to help themselves can the human family achieve the decent, satisfying life that is the right of all people.”3

Twelve years later, John Kennedy declared, in the corresponding presidential inaugural address:
“To those people in the huts and villages of half the globe, … we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required, not because the Communists may be doing it, not because we seek their votes, but because it is right. If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” 4

The presidential rhetoric was bolstered by the rapid pace of scientific and medical discoveries, particularly of anti-microbial therapies and vaccines, which promised the cure and prevention of many epidemic diseases, including smallpox, polio and tuberculosis. The wars had also stimulated increased technological and organisational capacity, while the chemical industry led to better fertilisers and methods of pest control, including of DDT, which made the global eradication of malaria also appear plausible (Roberts et al., 2000). New ideas and technology diffused widely, through television, radio and air transport. By the 1960s satellites were commonplace, as were, by 2000, personal computers and the internet.

In the post-war years the ancient human experience of seasonal food scarcity and systematic state-sponsored violence also seemed, for the first time, potentially solvable on a global scale. The famines of South Asia and Africa, though serious, fell short of the scale predicted by writers such as Ehrlich (Ehrlich, 1970) and Lester Brown, who failed to foresee the success of the Green Revolution. The most serious post-war famine, in China, though scarcely reported at the time, has since been widely recognised as a failure of organisational, rather then agricultural capacity (Smil, 1999).

The U.S. pledge to help poor nations was mirrored by similar offers from its great rival, the USSR. Communism also gave hope and promised help to the masses in developing countries, and numerous doctors and other agents of development were trained in the Soviet Union, before returning to the Third World.

Yet, paradoxically, the ideological struggle between two systems, each pledging to reduce poverty, sabotaged the global attempt to do so. The “decade of development” began with U.S. attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro, despite Castro’s undoubted domestic popularity, soon to be followed by substantially improved Cuban average living standards and life expectancy. The U.S. became embroiled in a politically costly war in Vietnam, fought to stop the supposed “domino effect” of Communism sweeping throughout South East Asia. In Indonesia, the U.S. supported the anti-communist strongman General Suharto, turning a blind eye to his role in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of suspected pro-Communist Indonesians (Chomsky, 1993, pp121-131). The U.S. supported numerous other corrupt regimes in the South, including Presidents Markos and Mobuto, the latter becoming the first African leader to be honoured by a reception at the White House (Chomsky, 1993). The Soviet and Chinese communists also supported dictators who appeared to have either little interest or ability in furthering their people’s genuine development, including Mengistu in Ethiopia and the regime in North Korea.

Globalisation and neo-liberalism

A widespread acceptance in western capitalist countries (the First World) of a greater role for government parallelled the early phase of decolonisation and the rise of institutional concern for the South. Keynesian policies legitimised interventions to counter business cycle fluctuations, reduced the risk of recessions and speculative booms and checked the perceived excesses of unrestrained capitalism. Nationalised health care and improved social security systems were widely introduced.

Keynes also helped to establish the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, though before his death he became concerned that these bodies would not have the independence he had envisaged (Caufield, 1997, pp 40-47). For decades, this institution has proudly proclaimed its intention to lift the South from its poverty. Fifty years later, the World Bank’s numerous critics contend that it has, instead, contributed to the globalisation of poverty and crippling indebtedness (Abbasi, 1999).

Following the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, economic policy shifted to the right, particularly in English-speaking economies. Aid to the Third World became an even lower priority, and concerns for social justice were replaced by doctrines of “user pays” and victim blaming. Development was to occur by a process of “trickle down”.

Despite these gigantic shifts in geopolitical policy, many global humanitarian organisations, including UNICEF and the World Health Organisation, appeared to continue to believe in the benign world depicted by President Truman. This optimism culminated, in 1978, in the Alma Ata conference, attended by the health ministers of more than 100 countries. Primary Health Care (PHC) as proclaimed at Alma Ata, had strong sociopolitical implications. It explicitly stated the need for a comprehensive health strategy to address the “underlying social, economic and political causes of poor health.” The Alma Ata declaration called for “the attainment by all peoples of the world, by the year 2000, of a level of health that will permit them to lead socially and economically productive lives. PHC is the key to attaining this target as part of development in the spirit of social justice.”

Now, barely two decades later, the Alma Ata declaration of “Health for All by the Year 2000” is seen as hopelessly naïve, though analysis of the retreat from this and similar promises of global justice is embarrassingly scanty (Werner and Sanders, 1997).

Global inequality

As early as the mid 1960s, public health workers in the South were criticising the gap between the rhetoric of the rich world assisting Third World development and its practice (King, 1966).

The 1960s ended with the Pearson report claiming that “the widening gap between developed and developing countries” was the “central issue of our time” (Berry et al., 1983). Thirty years later, the gap between rich and poor has widened much further. The UNDP calculated that, in U.S. dollars the ratio of income of the richest quintile to the poorest had risen from 30:1 in 1960 to 74:1 by 1997 (United Nations Development Program, 1999). In fact, these figures are conservative, because they assume, falsely, that national income is distributed equally; a more realistic, though still conservative estimate, taking partial account of unequal national income distribution, is 124:1 (Butler and Smith, 1999).

Between 1990 and 1997 the global Gini coefficient (see figures 1 and 2), a measure of inequality which, unlike the quintile ratio, uses information for the whole income distribution, approached 80%, far higher than the Gini co-efficient of any single country, including Brazil – about 60% (World Bank, 1999) and Australia – 30% (Barrett et al., 2000; Butler et al., 2000).

Figure 1 Global Lorenz curve 1997 (exchange-adjusted US$)

The Lorenz curve plots the cumulative income received by the cumulative global population. If income is distributed equally the curve will follow the diagonal line. The Gini coefficient is the ratio of the area between the straight line and the Lorenz curve to the area under the straight line (a/(a+b)). It can vary between 0 (perfectly equal distribution) and 1(all income received by a single person). The above distribution has a Gini coefficient of .793 (Butler and Smith, 1999). In comparison, the Gini coefficient for income distribution in Australia, in 1993, was .302 (Barrett, 2000).


Figure 2 Time series: Gross world product and exchange-adjusted income distribution 1964-1997

Three time series of economic data were constructed. Raw data, in constant exchange-adjusted US$, were obtained from the World Bank. Data are for more than 99% of the global population, for each year, though a number of estimates for national income were made, mostly in the earliest decade. The longest times series of Gini coefficients makes the assumption that income is distributed equally within each country, resulting in a substantial underestimate of true income inequality. The short time series from 1990-1997 (the top line) also partially accounts for national income distribution. Global income inequality has fallen since 1995, but is still substantially more unequal than in the previous decades.


Some economists, using a measure of income adjusted for “purchasing power parity” (PPP), argue that inequality has actually fallen over recent decades (Berry et al., 1983; Summers and Heston, 1991). Such claims are disingenuous. Firstly, although it is well known that the cost of a typical basket of goods and services in the South is lower than in the North, the quality of the cheaper goods and services is also inferior. It is unclear to what extent PPP incomes adjust for these differences (Summers and Heston, 1991).

Secondly, there are hidden differences in the costs of producing goods or services, even of identical quality. For example, a car made in Detroit by a well-paid, unionised, tax-paying labour force protected by high standards of occupational safety and social security, is far more expensive to produce than one made by a hypothetical labour force of semi-slaves; poorly paid, barely taxed, disunited, unprotected and uncompensated. There is no free lunch. The market forces that reduce the competitiveness of the products produced by well-compensated workforces do so because the hardships experienced by the semi-slave labour forces in “developing” countries are hidden, ignored and uncosted. In turn, semi-enslaved Third World labour forces subsist from a cheaper basket of goods and services, produced by fellow workers who endure similar or lower, work, health and safety standards (Brecher and Costello, 1994; Martin and Schumann, 1997).

Thirdly, advocates for using PPP income to compare international living standards are unable to explain the composition of the G-8 which, according to their logic, should include China and India, each of which have larger GNPs, measured using PPP dollars than most of the G-8 members. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) points out that more than a dozen of the world’s poorest nations are unrepresented in the main negotiations of the WTO, because they are unable to maintain a mission in Geneva, where the main negotiations take place; “the cost of hotels (used by the W.T.O. negotiators) must be paid in Swiss francs, not in PPP$ dollars.”5 A solution, consistent with the arguments of advocates of PPP income, would be to move the WTO negotiations to the Third World, such as to Freetown, Sierra Leone. Such a solution, of course, would be unthinkable.

Fourthly, the resources available for collecting PPP data are inadequate, with PPP income data for many countries estimated for many years, rather than being repeatedly measured (Hughes, 2000). Time series estimates of inequality trends, using PPP income data are thus unreliable.

The global “claste” system

“Claste” is a neologism, a combination of class and caste. Like the Hindu caste system, there are four main clastes. Loosely, these are the super-rich,6 the “system analysts,” or highly skilled workers, 7 the lesser-skilled workers,8 and a reserve army of undernourished, mostly illiterate human beings.9 Unlike the caste system, clastes are generally defined by wealth and power, rather than birth, and similar to the class system, movement between clastes is possible; unlike the class system, the claste system is global.

The downward pressure on low-skilled wages, fuelled by still-rising populations in poor countries, together with the lowering of tariffs, contributes substantially to the historically low inflation rates in wealthy countries. Globalisation has increasingly permitted wealthy countries to import goods and services relying on offshore labour. Naturally, this contribution of off-shore exploitation is rarely, if ever recognised by self-congratulatory economists and politicians in the countries which benefit.

Offshoring of production also means the externalities of social agitation from poverty and environmental pollution are easier to ignore. The industrial accident in Bhopal, India (Kumar, 1993; Raina et al., 1997) was much easier and cheaper for Union Carbide to contain than if it had occurred in Louisiana. At the same time, India’s lower safety standards increased the accident likelihood and enabled higher profits to be made.

The powerful and wealthy have created a system with three key pillars which contribute to increasing inequality. These are the manipulation of trade barriers, the freeing of impediments to the flow of capital from North to South and the prohibition of reverse migration by low-skilled workers. This system makes possible the export of low-paid and often illegal “guest workers” to wealthy countries, to undertake menial jobs. It also encourages the export of skilled workers, particularly trained in medicine and science, trained in the South.

Rather than being defended, this chain of exploitation is touted as being of mutual benefit for rich and poor. But the exploitation of those at the bottom represents a human rights atrocity that, in absolute numbers, imprisons an unprecedented number of people in comparative poverty, probably by more than an order of magnitude compared to the peak of the officially recognised slave trade.

Prices paid by wealthy countries for primary products exported mainly from developing countries are also comparatively low, while those of elaborately transformed goods from wealthy countries are comparatively expensive. Prices are set by supply and demand, but the more powerful market players exert disproportionate influence. These include depressing prices by stimulating over-supply (eg woodchips) and by dumping excess produce, sometimes in the form of aid, consequently undercutting and harming local producers. Frequently, capital-intensive industry in the South is controlled by the North and managed by a local elite with little interest in local development. The doctrine of market forces is used, without apology, to justify both higher wages for the global elite and lower wages for the deregulated masses; a very convenient economic principle for those with more power.

Relative poverty

Poverty engenders poor education, poor health and poor social organisation in a self-reinforcing cycle, whereas wealth engenders the reverse. Poverty is important relatively as well as absolutely. Thus, a poor population in a poor country may slowly escape from poverty if they see themselves able to make progress. An example is the South Indian state of Kerala, which for many years has valued education and comparative egalitarianism. This led to an early demographic transition.10 Conversely, a wealthier and better-educated population may have its position erode if it sees itself unable to make progress in a more unequal society. An example may be African Americans. Up to one third of black men in the U.S. are under police surveillance or in prison (Davis, 2000).

Widespread media and advertising images promoting consumption are likely to influence people’s perception of poverty, sometimes in unexpected ways. For example, in Brazil exposure of the masses to television “soaps” is credited with unexpectedly accelerating Brazilian demographic transition (Martine, 1996).

Simon Kuznets, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics, postulated that increasing inequality is a temporary phenomenon experienced by populations with an increasing average income (Kuznets, 1955). However, without conscious intervention by the wealthy or by the state, such as tithing for the benefit of charity, progressive taxation, or the biblical Mosaic economic system11 (Daly, 1996) inequality appears likely to increase in many societies, until checked by social revolution, or the fear of it.

Like the caste system of ancient India, globalisation is a wonderfully efficient and apparently successful system for those at the top of the consumption pyramid. Unlike the caste system, the claste system is rarely justified on moral grounds. Instead, its supporters argue that it reduces the cost of goods and services and enables higher global levels of consumption. Rising inequality, if it exists, is dismissed as irrelevant because, it is argued, absolute poverty is falling. And, most dishonestly, supporters of globalisation argue that only the creation of a larger cake can solve poverty.

This is disingenuous because, for a start, the number of absolutely impoverished and undernourished people, of at least 800 million (Dyson, 1999), almost equals the total global population at the turn of the 20th century; yet average global income is now far higher. Even if this number, both in absolute and percentage terms is falling, which is unclear, it is clear that enlarging the cake is, by itself, an inadequate solution to poverty. Redistribution of wealth and food from the powerful and obese to the poor and hungry is needed. This is clearly politically difficult, if not impossible. It is so difficult that the problem is rarely stated in these terms; it is much less challenging to the powerful to assert simply that more of the previous policies are the solution.

A recent decline in global inequality?

However, while figure 2 illustrates a significant increase in global inequality between 1964 and 1995, it also shows a slight decrease in 1996 and 1997. This decrease is mainly because of the relatively large recent increase in exchange-adjusted incomes in China and, to a lesser extent, India. Although the data, especially from China, may be questionable, it is plausible that the trend of global inequality may have reached or even passed its peak. In part, this may be used by proponents of globalisation to argue that reduced tariff barriers on goods imported from developing countries is finally benefiting the South as well as the North. However, it also can be interpreted as evidence of an increasing disjunction between national and claste boundaries. If this theory is correct, then a potent genesis of the recent Seattle anti-WTO protests may be the perception of an increased infiltration of the third claste –impoverished, semi-enslaved workers – into the First World. Thus, even though the purported beneficiary of the protests is Third World labour, the tightening of tariffs in the First World, proposed by the protesters is likely to bring further impoverisation in the South; a point rarely, if ever made by opponents of globalisation.12

Addressing the problems of globalisation is thus far from simple. There is an even bigger problem with the “bake a bigger cake” approach to solving global poverty; that is that the “cake” may, in fact be a balloon.

Environmental brinkmanship

The intensifying Cold War led to the development of the policy of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) (Forrow and Sidel, 1998). This policy, essentially, arrogated the fate of human civilisation to a tiny percentage of elite American and Soviet policy makers. Less well-recognised, human civilisation is now hostage to an eerily familiar environmental brinkmanship. Perhaps only a generation which grew up under the shadow of the bomb can calmly pursue policies which inexorably move the hands of environmental self-destruction of civilisation towards midnight.

Individually, most of these dangers are well known. Almost half a century ago, atmospheric scientists warned: “human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind which could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future. Within a few hundred years we are returning to the air and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored over hundreds of millions of years” (Revelle and Suess, 1957). The 1997 Kyoto Protocol, even if ratified and honoured, is hopelessly inadequate to stabilise atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations (Bolin, 1998). Carbon dioxide, because of its long atmospheric half-life, is likely to rise well above 500 p.p.m. before stabilising.13 The Western Antarctic Ice Shelf, considered likely to remain stable in the current century, may be at risk of changing in the lifetime of today’s children (Oppenheimer, 1998).

The Arctic ice is thinning (Johannessen et al., 1999; Vinnikov et al., 1999), spring is earlier (Menzel and Fabian, 1999), and the melting of the Greenland Ice Cap is already contributing appreciably to global sea level rise (Krabill et al., 2000).

Exacerbating sea level rise, extreme weather events may be increasing (Leggett, 1999). Vector-borne disease, allergies and heat wave related deaths are also predicted to increase in distribution and severity in the warmer brave new world (McMichael et al., 1996). There are real reasons to be concerned that feedback effects, including the deliberate clearing and accidental burning of both tropical forests and the high altitude conifers of the taiga (Myers, 1997) may damage the “carbon sink” thus aggravating global warming. Global warming may also interact with and further deplete environmental and ecosystem services, including by aggravating stratospheric ozone depletion (Shindell et al., 1998) and reducing fisheries productivity (O’Brien et al., 2000).

Numerous other risks face humanity, from contamination of the food chain by radiation (Smith et al., 2000), persistent organic pollutants and prions (Butcher, 2000), to those of genetically modified organisms and falling biodiversity (Wilson, 1993). Aquaculture, as currently practised, is probably unsustainable (Naylor et al., 2000). Global warming is likely to produce a world with as many agricultural winners as losers; future food security is likely to require a willingness to tranship food on an increasing scale. Nuclear-armed South Asia may be an agricultural loser (Parry et al., 1999); political instability as a result of famine in South Asia is likely to have greater, and more widespread global consequences than famine in Africa.

Inequality and sustainability

There are many “proximal” causal factors (McMichael, 1999) for environmental brinkmanship. These include the pressures placed on global carrying capacity by population and consumption patterns and the hegemony of an economic system that treats the global environment as an interchangeable factor of production (Butler, 1994). In fact, the human economy is a subset of the global environment (Arrow et al., 1995; Daly, 1996).

Less proximal causes include the management of public opinion, the still rising population in the South, and the slowness of technological transition.

Public concern for approaching ecological and environmental limits is managed, particularly in developed countries, by the manipulation of information, the recruitment of the public relations industry and the suppression of protest (Beder, 1998; Butler, 2000; Gelbspan, 1998). Additional constraints thwart the emergence of environmental concerns in developing countries, especially China, where, according to Hertsgaard, the problem is barely recognised by the masses (Hertsgaard, 1997). Third World governments argue their countries suffer from under-pollution, cogently arguing that Western development was fuelled by smokestacks and forest clearing and that, therefore, the Third World must also be free to pollute to develop. The drive for development, often fostered by western capital, has stimulated a frenzy of dam building, coal mining, forest clearing and factory erecting in the Third World. Agricultural insecurity and the lure of higher cash incomes with which to purchase advertised, high-status goods drives increasing urbanisation, even in impoverished shanty towns and slums. Urbanisation, in turn, helps fuel illusions of human independence from nature.

Often, the best escape from Third World rural poverty appears to be by accelerating the mining of local natural capital, even if this results in future hardship – the perpetrator can always hope (if he or she reflects upon this) that the future victim will be someone else, an example of the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1998, 1968). Third World governments, which are rarely democratic,14 have few short-term incentives to protect national natural capital, where to do so may challenge existing power structures. Such governments have even fewer incentives to be concerned for global environmental problems, such as global warming. Third World countries, especially on a per-capita basis, have contributed little to the build up of greenhouse gases, and argue, convincingly, that they should be exempted from greenhouse gas targets on moral grounds. Less explicitly, Third World governments perceive, probably correctly, that their best national defence against any future climatic or other environmental instability is from increased technological sophistication and industrial capacity, even this is achieved by increasing the rate of adverse global environmental change.

Rather than providing assistance to the Third World to enable “technological leapfrogging” (Reddy and Goldemberg, 1990) over a carbon-based energy system, most Western global policy makers appear curiously indifferent to the global environmental impact of the Third World. Although market forces and clean technology, left alone, may eventually lead to a transformation in environmental impact (Hawken et al., 1999; von Weizsäcker et al., 1997) the lag effects of continuing Third World population growth, rising expectations and climatic inertia urgently require policies to hasten the global sustainability transition (Butler et al., 2000).

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, policies implemented by wealthy countries towards the poor countries have, in recent decades, resulted in the net transfer of billions of dollars to the North, and have also allowed the runaway development of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. The population of the first two clastes, in both North and South, have been the primary beneficiaries. Although taboo in public discussion, the comparative dismissal of the suffering in the South (United Nations Development Program, 2000) lends credibility to a willingness by the North to “write off” the lives of millions more human beings, should “ecological entrapment” (Butler, 1997) become reality. For example, a catastrophic rise in sea level is likely to have a far greater adverse effect on population health in Bangladesh than in Florida. Flooding exacerbated by climate change in deforested, malaria-prone Venezuela or Mozambique will harm far more people than similar rainfall in NSW.

Northern unwillingness to genuinely assist the South also impedes demographic transition. Yet, it may be argued, the rapid rise in population growth in developing countries has been considerably accelerated by intervention from the North, especially in the immediate post-war decades, including by the introduction of cheap antibiotics, vaccines and simple technologies such as water purification, fertilisers and oral rehydration solution.

Reasons for hope

Although a substantial risk of nuclear war remains, in recent years the risk of global nuclear war between the superpowers has receded, in large part because of the success of the global anti-nuclear movement. The power of this movement stemmed from the realisation of millions of people, particularly in the liberal democracies (especially in the second claste), that the proliferation of nuclear weapons, far from increasing their security, instead undermined it. Similarly, ordinary people need to awaken to the security risks of environmental brinkmanship. Demographic transition needs to be hastened in the South. The rhetoric of Presidents Kennedy and Truman need to be converted to reality.

Increased education in the South, accompanied by technological leapfrogging that enables transition from cattle and carts to a solar-based economy (Reddy and Goldemberg, 1990), may liberate the energy of billions of humans to work for a sustainable future, rather than to squabble over pieces of an inexorable declining biosphere in which an increasingly isolated and vulnerable elite barricade themselves. Of course, such a path is extraordinarily risky and will be difficult. The alternative is not only morally repugnant but also likely to be even riskier.

The internet offers the potential to provide mass education at a lower cost. Solar, wind and fuel cell-based technologies raise hope that the age of fossil fuel domination will soon be history. Market forces, sensing that corporate profits and credibility will increasingly depend on environmental friendliness, may yet drive a green technology stock rush that makes the recent “new technology” boom look modest. Indeed, many of these new technologies are already comparatively environmentally friendly.

The world is likely to walk a tightrope to achieve the sustainability transition. We will need luck – particularly the avoidance of runaway climate change – to avoid “ecological entrapment.” There is not a moment to lose.


This paper has benefited particularly from discussions with Ian Castles. I also thank Susan Butler.


1 India, of course, was not freed without conflict. Up to ten million died, during partition, particularly in the Punjab.

2 “…Each period of our national history has had its special challenges. …It may be our lot to experience, and in a large measure bring about, a major turning point in the long history of the human race. The first half of this century has been marked by unprecedented and brutal attacks on the rights of man, and by the two most frightful wars in history. ...We are ready to undertake new projects to strengthen a free world. …our program for peace and freedom will emphasize four major courses of action. …Fourth, we must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. …The old imperialism-exploitation for foreign profit-has no place in our plans. …What we envisage is a program of development based on the concepts of democratic fair-dealing. … All countries, including our own, will greatly benefit from a constructive program for the better use of the world’s human and natural resources. Democracy alone can supply the vitalizing force to stir the peoples of the world into triumphant action, not only against their human oppressors, but also against their ancient enemies-hunger, misery, and despair… ( 30.7.00).

3 However, in 1948, while working for the U.S. state department, George Kennan wrote “We have 50% of the world’s wealth, but only 6.3% of its population... In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security....” (Athanasiou, 1998, p 298).

4 The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations.

5 ( 30.7.00

6 The first claste are found in both North and South. Examples include entrepreneurs and speculators such as Gates, Rockerfeller and Soros; inherited wealth and power such as the British and Brunei monarchies, and Third World kleptocrats such as Presidents Mobuto, Marcos and Suharto.

7 For example senior executives, bureaucrats, academics, professionals and entertainers.

8 Most of the global population: from bus and taxi drivers to factory workers and peasant farmers.

9 The boundaries between the clastes are fuzzy, substantial gradations exist within each division.

10 Demographic transition is the passage from a high fertility high mortality society to one with low fertility but low mortality. Both societies have low population growth rates.

11 The Mosaic principle, described in the Old Testament, was that every 49 years, all income and wealth should be redistributed enabling all members of society to again be equal. However, I am not aware of any evidence that this system was ever practised.

12 Similarly, proponents of bans on goods made by child labour rarely if ever seem to have coherent policies to deal with the child-labourer unemployment which successful implementation of their policies would cause.

13 Carbon dioxide concentrations have risen to almost 370 p.p.m. from 280 p.p.m. prior to the industrial revolution.

14 Even in the long-established democracy of India, where fair elections are frequently undermined by corruption and manipulation, facilitated by illiteracy and poverty.



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