Hear the voices of the poor

In the wake of the festive season, here are some statistics to help sober up. Your average Australian spends $163 a month on self-storage, sometimes just to hide things we’ve purchased from others. Excluding property debt of $565,880, each of us owes $3800 on credit cards and $17,000 in personal debt. In the six weeks to Christmas last year we were expected to spend $2458 per person. Over a year we pay over $2000 for food we throw out.

The figures are from an article in The Conversation last week by marketing academics Louise and Martin Grimmer (University of Tasmania) and Gary Mortimer (University of Queensland). 

It’s obvious Australians are living beyond the planet’s means and the authors offer some helpful advice on cutting that back. Like gambling and drugs, buying stuff is something of a habit; we do it because we can.

Consumerism is about supply as well as demand. Behind every shopaholic is the global economy, estimated to be around US $94 trillion in 2023. Per person, this translates to a global annual income of US $11,750. 

Put that against the annual income of people in poorer countries: Burundi, for instance, at $237.00 per person, Afghanistan at $517.00, Pakistan $1500, Indonesia $4300 and Tuvalu $5300. Russia at $11,900 and China at $12,900 are close to the global average.

At the top of the pile are people like us. On average, personal income in Australia, the US, Canada and most of western Europe is at levels beyond the wildest imaginings of the world’s poorest. While there’s a growing income gap between Australia’s richest and poorest people, our average per capita income approaches 300 times that of a Burundi citizen.

This is what John Kerry, America’s climate envoy, has in mind when he talks about rising anger in vulnerable developing countries like Pakistan and island states like Tuvalu. Total carbon emissions from the countries worst affected by climate change, in Sub-Saharan Africa, are just 0.5 per cent of the global total, he pointed out last month.

Massive rain events are a well-established outcome of atmospheric warming. One such event was the record-breaking rain and flooding that swamped Australia’s east coast in early 2022, killing 35 people. We thought that was pretty bad, but the impact of flooding in Pakistan between June and October last year was orders of magnitude greater. Over a tenth of the whole country was flooded and 1739 people died. 

Those respective flood emergencies cost each country hugely, in lost or damaged property, lost livestock, lost lives and whole populations traumatised. But to get back on a path to recovery Australia can draw on about 50 times the per capita resources available to Pakistan. Adding insult to injury, Pakistan has nearly 10 times our population, but its carbon emissions are about a third, and per person less than five per cent, of ours.

There’s another reason for countries like Pakistan, Burundi and Tuvalu to feel aggrieved about the behaviour of wealthy countries. Hold-outs in certain sectors of the latter countries are so insulated by wealth and privilege against the vagaries of common concerns like the weather that they confidently denounce everything from science – or any area of expertise – which contradicts their own fanciful notions of what is true and what is not.

The disparaging code word used by these people is “woke”, aimed at those who seek to raise awareness of prejudice against science or social minorities. It crops up often in Australia, and in the US has become everyday language among Trumpian Republicans. Disturbingly, new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy used it in his inaugural speech on Friday.

The dog-whistling against “climate wokeism” is happening both in the US Congress and among state administrators and legislators. A big irritant for them is something Florida governor Ron DeSantis recently described as “woke capitalism”: the influential and effective global divestment campaign aimed at a sell-off of coal, oil and gas shares. 

For people like him, extreme rain, wind and temperature events, river and coastal flooding, unseasonal warming, multi-year drought and ice loss – all key harbingers of climate change and all happening now – are inconsequential compared to the need for a free market. In the US and here, these people aim to stop national climate measures dead in their tracks. 

Their prejudices, protected by wealth and bolstered by mindless political and economic ideology, got us into this mess. Now they’re doing all they can to keep us there. They want to blur our vision of the awful reality fast overtaking us, which ironically will hit them too. The world’s poor can see it now, but who’s listening?

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