Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wealth: water or diamonds? What is worth more to the thirsty and hungry?

Ed Miliband drew on the well known Oscar Wilde quote ‘What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.’ in his first conference speech as Labour leader. Strange coming from a man who directly equates ever increasing money flow through our economy (GDP growth) with progress and wellbeing. Ed, along with Tory David Cameron and Lib Dem Nick Clegg, supports and advocates a corrupted notion of wealth which is narrow, materialist and cash-value centred.

Wealth creation has come to mean the stockpiling of affluence, running down finite natural resources, wasting and mismanaging potentially renewable resources like water such that many people around the globe struggle even to get enough to drink and wash. What is worth more to the thirsty and hungry – water or diamonds?

‘Value’ is largely what can be bought and sold if you have Ed’s (and Dave’s and Nick’s) view. The rich continue to hoard, deny the poor, and build for their leisure, recreation and luxury. The poorest around the globe continue to be unable to meet their basic needs such as decent public clean water supply and healthy sewage disposal systems. In fact the rich (and relatively speaking that’s most of us living in the Western hemisphere) are rich precisely because others are poor – GDP growth, Ed’s, Dave’s and Nick’s primary focus, has been very large over many decades and in many countries but numbers unable to meet basic needs are also very high!

We are GDP growing out of proportion to the proper, healthy working of life support systems. These systems include: those that can continually supply rainwater; those that keep our climate in a reasonably stable balance; those that process our soils, keeping them productive; many that keep ecosystems in a diverse state. Furthermore, we are sapping the energies and threatening the existence of the whole interconnected water, air, soil and biodiversity system – yet this is the source of our resources and the basis of our lives and thus is our true wealth.

We are also GDP growing out of proportion to the healthy working of socio-economic systems. Acting on the notion of wealth creation as increasing money flow through our economy has resulted in relatively small numbers of individuals and institutions with inordinate, concentrated cash and property. This inequality and unfairness decreases quality of life and as time passes is increasingly destabilising. Very strange, then, that Ed – and Dave and Nick – talk so much about building a fair society.

To benefit people and planet, GDP growth needs to pass tests of: efficiency; renewability; respecting environmental limits; building stronger local communities; meeting needs now and in the future; local and global fairness; health, wellbeing and quality of life. This means taking a very different view of wealth.

For more on water and related issues see:

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