Most commentators admit that the world is in the grip of a massive financial crisis. Here in the UK, enormous sums of money have been made available to the banks in an effort to avert financial melt-down. We’re left worrying about our jobs, pensions, mortgages, rising fuel bills and the cost of our food. The events of past few days/weeks seem to have affected our memories: only 6-7 months ago, our newspapers were full of stories about the dramatic rise in the worldwide cost of food - provoking riots throughout the Third World where millions more of the world's most vulnerable people continue to face starvation as food shortages grow and cereal prices soar: “It threatens to become the biggest crisis of the 21st century” (Paul Vallely, April 2008 in The Independent). “Who knows there’s a food crisis? The early signs are there, but the world seems to be sleepwalking towards disaster” (Magnus Linklater, March 2008 in The Times).
It’s obviously difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of soaring food prices - experts have placed the blame on rising fuel costs, lower agricultural production, weather shocks, more meat consumption, and shifts to bio-fuel crops. High prices threaten to increase malnutrition, already an underlying cause of death for over 3.5 million children a year.
In May this year, Veronique Taveau (spokesperson of the United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF), said that rising food prices could lead many families in poor countries to stop sending their children to school: "Increasing food prices will oblige families to reduce their budgets, cut expenses on schooling, pull their children out of school, and put them to work". And, of course, whenever you talk about poverty these days, you MUST do so in the context of climate change. When Sir Nicholas Stern published his Report on global warming in 2006, he warned that it would cost the world “up to £3.68 trillion unless it is tackled in this decade”. Such a figure now seems comparative chickenfeed in the light of the funds being poured into banks by Governments across the world!
To my mind, the really frightening thing as far as world poverty is concerned is that we will all try to bury our heads in the sand and adopt entirely selfish attitudes - at the expense of the world community and the “greater good”. Recent events in the UK for example, with many high-profile charities standing to lose huge sums after the collapse of Iceland’s banking system, will surely make some people question the point of charitable giving “if they’re only going to lose our money anyway”?
We live in a finite world, with finite resources. We should be thinking about living our lives more simply. It’s entirely possible that the events of the last few days, weeks and months will change the mindset of us all for the better….. but I’m very afraid that all they might do is simply to encourage people to become greedier.
I’m no economist, but this letter in last Saturday’s Guardian (from Bill North) echoed my own, perhaps somewhat naive, sentiments:“We have blamed the free market and the fat cats. What about the assumption that the economy can and should go on growing at 2% for ever? How is this possible in a world of finite resources? What about peak oil and climate change? Maybe the recession will give economists time for some really radical rethinking”.
PS: …. and if you think we’ve got it bad, spare a thought to the citizens of Zimbabwe – where inflation has rocketed to an astronomical 231 million per cent. A loaf of bread, which cost Z$500 at the beginning of August, now costs between Z$7,000 and Z$10,000, even when it can be found.