Social Divide


In the early 1970s, when I took the highest level graduate economics course in economic development offered at Cornell University, the agenda to resolve global social problems focused on poverty and hunger--absolute immiserization found especially in Africa, Asia, and most of South America. When the term sustainable development was invented in 1987, it spoke to the need to protect the global environment while improving the life chances of the poorest of earth's inhabitants. Hence, the use of the term development, as in economic development. The orthodox panacea, economic (material) growth, erodes the global environment and fails to meet the needs of those excluded from the process of growth. Hence, the need to pursue a general policy of sustainable development, not simply economic growth per se.

In this chapter, Brown explicitly frames an agenda for meeting the unmet social needs of the world's poorest inhabitants. Brown entitles this chapter Early Signs of Decline to indicate the now obvious results of overshoot, when population exceeds carrying capacity. He begins with a dire report that the life expectancy of 750 million people inhabiting sub-Saharan Africa has fallen from 61 to 48 years. This large drop of this seminal indicator of well being clearly frightens Brown. Notice what Brown cites as the cause: The failure of governments to enact policies to prevent the spread of the HIV epidemic. Brown ticks off a list of social problems:

  1. The top of the list is the disparity in life expectancies, which is growing rapidly.
  2. Next is the widening income and wealth gap between rich and poor, growing in an era of globalization.
  3. Education and health care varies dramatically, but influences life chances for all, especially the young.
  4. Emerging conflicts over such basic resources as water, grazing land, and cropland increases want, creates environmental refugees, and fuels desertification.
  5. The growth in failed states that cannot meet the needs of their inhabitants and threaten to become breeding grounds for terrorists, drug lords, and other social pathologies.

The literature on world social problems had typically begun with the Malthusian catastrophe that hunger would inevitably starve millions. While Brown discusses hunger, this is not his point of departure: He recognizes that the deficiency is not food production but access to food, a political problem. Instead of a dire sense of world poverty, he depicts a divided planet, describing what might be called an ecology of rich and poor. The preferred remedy to Brown is to build a just and sustainable world, much more difficult than he suggests in this chapter. Brown points to realistic, although seemingly incremental, steps, making the whole effort actually seem feasible. I will argue that building a just and sustainable world poses daunting challenges--not that such a worthy goal is unattainable--and that effort must overcome the vested interests, dominant ideology, and entrenched processes promoting material growth for the few at the expense of the many.

Our Socially Divided World

Brown delivers the punch line as he opens this section, the heart of this chapter:

The social and economic gap between the world's richest 1 billion people and its poorest 1 billion has no historical precedent. Not only is this gap wide, it is widening. The poorest billion are trapped at a subsistence level and the richest billion are becoming wealthier with each passing year. The economic gap can be seen in the contrasts in nutrition, education, disease patterns, family size, and life expectancy.

Just as 1.2 billion lack food 1.2 billion suffer obesity. The pattern of gross disparity run through this well researched chapter. Remember, Brown is defining the problem, setting the agenda, not yet looking for answers. Much deficiency in health, literacy, access to water and sanitation, food, landlessness, energy, and education mirrors the disparity between rich and poor. Imagine this not only as a problem of just distribution but as a more fundamental phenomenon, the ecology of rich and poor. He point to the plight of children, for example 20 million underweight infants are born to malnourished mothers, leading to enduring damage.

Brown cites progress: China and, partially, India. He points to success in Brazil, noting the positive results of policies designed to provide education for women, which he will continue later in his book. Notice that the bad news vastly outweighs the good.

A recent interpretation of the world's social divide is offered at, a progressive current affairs web site. WorldWatch Institute, a global events think tank, provides another article on our socially divided world that is consistent with that of Lester Brown.


Half of the adult population of Botswana and Zimbabwe will die within a decade. By the end of 2004, 78 million will have been afflicted with HIV, half of them already deceased. The rapid decline in global public health depicted in this chapter exceeds any efforts that can be mounted to prevent or to treat the epidemic, a tragic chapter in human history. And the public health deterioration not only denies human resources to desperate economies, but rather drains resources in a vicious cycle of historical decline. Brown's restrained lament does not point to a Malthusian determinism but to the lack of response by governments and rich countries. He does not blame the victims of HIV for their afflictions.

Brown then turns his attention to the affluent world, beginning to struggle with the threat of avian flu and West Nile disease--imported along with the other products of globalization. He notes that we are surrounded with a toxic brew of chemicals in our bodies--even infants-- and in our environment, mostly untested for their hazards. In other words, Brown says that the poor countries should not emulate the unfolding experiment in public health now conducted by the rich countries and that the rich countries are advised to change their ways to do better with less. Indeed, in health care in particular, the USA needs to do much better with less.

Throwaway Economy

Brown cleverly plants what appears to be an anomalous agenda item, waste rampant within mature industrial economies, the throwaway economy. He points to the obvious glut of the waste stream that we all know from and produce in our daily lives. He points to such obvious but telling points as:

The throwaway economy is on a collision course with the earth's geological limits.


The one-way economy depends on cheap energy.

Brown thus frames policy analysis that will specifically include both physical limits and energy shortages. He introduces the discussion of the material stocks of resources and the energy flows that together form the throughput to an eco-economic analysis which will be fundamental later in the book. He quietly builds his case for sustainability.

Population and Resource Conflicts

Emerging shortages will ignite regional resource wars. As shortages emerge, the price of resources can spike, evoking aggressive acquisitive or simply desperate survival behavior. Recall the case of herders and farmers in the Sahel presented in our discussion of natural resources.

Drought is one common feature of environmental change that has been associated with conflicts in many African countries. The severe drought of the early 1970s that hit African Sahel countries instigated a series of changes that affected seriously the lives of millions of people in that belt for ever. The western part of the Republic of Sudan was among those areas deeply affected by that drought which culminated in the 1984 infamous famine. Almost exactly two decades after Darfur hits the news again as experiencing the worst “humanitarian crisis” in the world today. This time the crisis resulted from the on-going civil war that has polarized Darfurian people into two non-distinctive ethnic groups: Africans and Arabs. Since most African Darfurians are settled cultivators and most Arab Darfurians are nomadic pastoralists, a legitimate question arises in this case regarding the extent to which the current conflict is somehow related to competition over natural resources; notably land. A further question to be asked is how much of the competition over natural resources is directly linked to environmental degradation? As time goes by, there is growing demand for more productivity in order to feed an ever increasing population. Keeping the delicate balance in issues of land use becomes more difficult because customary land tenure systems have less elasticity to enable them to cope with changing conditions. On the other hand, new changes can play an important role in turning an otherwise peaceful coexistence between groups into a hostile confrontation or even a full-scale war. For that matter, some researchers tend to consider ecology as an important factor that explains many conflicts in Africa today (chiefly Suliman, 1999). When there is a change in the environment the capacity of land to sustain people’s livelihoods shrinks; but when this is combined with a population increase a conflict is already under way. In the case of Darfur, the combined effects of a multitude of factors culminated in a chronic land degradation. Overgrazing and deterioration of range land resulted from the fact that much of the land in the semi-desert and goz zones lost their capacity to grow grazing grasses, forage, and trees. Combined with drought the human factor (in the form of tree-felling, excessive cultivation and overgrazing) contributed greatly in speeding up the desertification process to the extent that vast areas lost their capacity to sustain traditional livelihoods for its inhabitants. Some experts assert that millet cultivation in the semi-arid zone has dangerous implications for the environment and have even advocated the prohibition of millet cultivation beyond certain boundaries (Ibrahim, 1980: Environmental Degradation and Interethnic Disputes in Darfur).

Brown bases his resource conflicts on growing population. My cases, below, add the material and energy resource acquisitions needed to support economic growth as currently practiced. The easy to acquire resources are taken first, such as the Spindletop oil field in Texas and Oklahoma. The evening news now reports about the prospects of drilling in sensitive coastal waters off, say, New Jersey, California, and Maine. This coastal extraction will surely pit states against giant energy corporations, a major resource conflict but not one based on population growth:

ATLANTIC CITY — Joining environmental groups, New Jersey lawmakers are showing bipartisan opposition to a federal plan that could allow oil and gas drilling in the ocean less than 75 miles from the tip of Cape May. But support for the plan is coming from both expected and unexpected corners, such as a Republican-oriented senior citizens' group reportedly backed by the pharmaceutical industry. At issue is a proposal to lift a ban on drilling off the Atlantic coast, ending a 24-year-old congressional moratorium. The federal Minerals Management Service, or MMS, has started developing a plan that assumes Congress will lift the moratorium next year. If that occurs, oil and gas production could begin off Virginia's coast by 2031, according to MMS staff estimates. (Press of Atlantic City November 13, 2006)

Take diamond mining:

Since the early years of the 20th century, when Cecil Rhodes sowed tribal strife in South Africa to gain control of rich diamond deposits, diamonds have often been associated with violence and misery – the very opposite of the advertising images of diamonds as symbols of joy and love. The connection between diamonds and conflicts goes far beyond rebel groups seizing control of diamond-rich areas and selling the precious gems for arms and war supplies. Large diamond companies are involved in this deadly game, along with traders, transport companies, arms smugglers and financial firms. Most such conflicts arise in Africa, where valuable gem diamonds are largely found. During the 1990s, diamonds fueled the civil war in Angola with terrible consequences. In 1999, the UN Security Council acted to enforce sanctions on diamond sales by the UNITA rebel group and the conflict finally ended a short time later. But since then, further diamond-related conflicts have raged in Sierra Leone, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo . (Global Economic Forum)

Or take water as another example of struggle over precious resources:

Demand for clean water, caused by surging population growth, environment abuse and poor water management, is becoming a dangerous source of friction in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East, experts say. The peril is being spelt out for World Water Day, a UN-sponsored event Thursday that is appealing for better international cooperation and smarter use of a precious and declining resource. (Agence France Presse, March 20, 2001)

Or finally, conflict over forests:

A Choice for China: Ending the Destruction of Burma’s Frontier Forests (October 2005) China, the world’s second largest wood importer, is plundering vast portions of forests in Burma, reports Global Witness. The cross-border timber trade results in an annual loss of around $250 million to the Burmese people. Revenue from timber has funded conflict in northern Burma between the Burmese army and local militias trying to control the trade, disabling Burma’s development and political progress. Global Witness calls on China to live up to its responsibility as a regional and global power and halt the damaging trade. (Global Witness)

Notice that these conflicts can involve neighboring poor cultures, rich countries or corporations versus poor countries, or one poor county versus another--the potential for resource wars is ceaseless, but growing. And we have not touched fisheries here. And what role might oil reserves have played in the decision to invade Iraq? The Carter Doctrine, promulgated in the late 1970s, reserved the right of the USA to deploy its military to defend its needed energy resources around the world:

Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force. (State of the Union Address, 1980, by President Jimmy Carter)

Resource wars will inexorably be on the rise, an essential component of the ecology of rich and poor fighting for the spoils of an unsustainable and unjust world that our children shall inherit.

Environmental Refugees

This topic can hit close to home. Guess what was at the top of my Google search on "environmental refugees"? The top two articles were both by Lester Brown. An article in 2004, Troubling New Flows of Environmental Refugees by Lester Brown explained the situation of environmental refugees. Think about Katrina. This disaster displaced thousands of our fellow citizens who were actually environmental refugees, after all. Brown depicts this epic in his 2006 article, Global Warming Forcing U.S. Coastal Population To Move Inland.

Remember John Steinbeck's disquieting classic The Grapes of Wrath? He depicted environmental refugees fleeing a continental soil conservation disaster zone, the Dust Bowl of the Central Plains of the USA. Think of the despair of Haiti boat people washing onto the Florida coast as they flee their barren homeland. Or the thousands from Somalia. Bodies are washing up on the shores of northern, richer nations, a disquieting story.

Consider this:

Scholars are predicting that 50 million people worldwide will be displaced by 2010 because of rising sea levels, desertification, dried up aquifers, weather-induced flooding and other serious environmental changes. So says Andrew Simms, policy director of the New Economics Foundation in the United Kingdom and the author of a book titled, “Environmental Refugees: The Case for Recognition.”

Global warming threatens to displace literally hundreds of millions. The majority of the 3 billion new inhabitants of the earth by 2050 are destined to be born onto lands experiencing critical shortages of groundwater. As deserts expand, people pack up and move--but where? Brown evokes scenes from Dante's Inferno to capture the mood of this tragedy now in the making.

Failed States

Failed states had been easy to ignore. No more. Terrorism incubates in failed states, moving failed states from the periphery to the center of the international agenda. The reputable Carnegie Endowment for International Peace issues an annual report, States at Risk and Failed States that explains the meaning of failed states:

Failing and failed states are a threat to their citizens and to the international community, creating a need for international intervention. The oft-advocated model of early intervention to restore human security in states at risk cannot be implemented except in rare cases, because it requires large resources. In addressing failing states, the international community should concentrate first and foremost on the narrower and more achievable task of restoring state security. But it should also accept that in some cases the restructuring of the state may be the only way of restoring human security.

Failed states, numbering somewhere between 46 and 60, have lost political legitimacy; cannot provide basic services, including security; flourish on political corruption; and suffer declines in living conditions. These territories are easily infiltrated by terrorists and other criminal elements, creating enclaves within which such elements can thrive. Since 9/11 the failed states have threatened not only the inhabitants of these territories, but global security as well. A recent Carnegie press release defines the problem succinctly:

Failing and failed states are a grave danger to international stability as well as to the well-being of their populations. They can become havens for terrorist organizations, centers for drugs and arms trades, and breeding grounds for diseases. Yet the ambitious models for intervention that are often advocated—emphasizing human over state security—are too complex and costly and often divorced from realistic assessments of what can be accomplished. Cases from the recent past make clear that a sustainable and just approach is elusive: Kosovo, a territory of less than two million people, has been the target of well-funded, protracted intervention, while the international community did nothing for the 800,000 Rwandans who were slaughtered in 1994.

Notice that Brown points to no easy solution, leaving this section of the book littered with wicked problems within a broad, complex global agenda intertwining the economy, the environment , and social conditions--a daunting challenge.

In other words, Plan A has failed. Now, Plan B.

Wayne Hayes, Ph.D. | Initialized: 11/13/2006 | Last Update: 2/18/2010