The Arithmetic of Compassion


 

Ever since I was a child, I have been searching for a certain number: namely, the figure for the annual Gross World Product (GWP). The GWP is the value of all goods and services produced each year by the entire human species, and the reason I was searching for this number as a child is that I wanted to take it and divide it by the number of people in the world, so that I would know what each human being was actually entitled to if the world's resources were divided fairly and equitably.

I finally ran into this number recently, and I have now performed the simple arithmetic of compassion. It turns out that the Gross World Product is now $65 trillion. It is important to note that this figure of $65 trillion — arrived at independently by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the CIA — has been adjusted in advance to take into account what is called "purchasing power parity" (PPP): which means that the figure is 65 trillion units, each unit of which represents what one U.S. dollar will currently buy IN THE UNITED STATES. (The PPP adjustment eliminates from the very start any strategies of denial such as, "Oh, that doesn't mean anything — you can live like a king in India for $5,000 a year." No. Wrong.)

You can find the documentation of the current GWP here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)

(The first line in each of the lists gives the world totals. Links to the original sources — World Bank, etc. — can be found in the article.)

Now to the arithmetic of compassion:

Since the GWP is 65 trillion U.S. dollars, if we divide that figure by the number of people in the world — 6.8 billion ( http://www.ibiblio.org/lunarbin/worldpop ) — we get a rough estimate of the maximum annual income that anyone in the world is morally entitled to (assuming that it is moral to strive for an equitable distribution of the world's resources to all of humanity).

So, dividing $65 trillion by 6.8 billion we get about $9,000 per year (again, that's already adjusted for purchasing power parity: it's 9,000 units, each unit of which is what one U.S. dollar will currently buy in the United States). That's what each of us is actually entitled to — $9,000 a year — and any more than that represents institutionalized and socially sanctioned armed robbery: indeed, every additional increment of $9,000 (beyond the maximum moral income of $9,000 a year) represents one slave somewhere in the world whose entire life, birth to death, is completely devoted to getting us our "stuff."

And unfortunately we can't "grow" our way beyond this $9,000 a year figure, since at the current level of $65 trillion GWP we have already OVERSHOT BY 30% what the Earth actually produces– see:

http://www.footprintnetwork.org/en/index.php/GFN/page/world_footprint

The fact that the human species is already in 30% overshoot means that not only can we not "grow" our way beyond the $9,000 maximum moral income level, we actually need to *shrink* that down to $6,000 just to come back to a level where humanity is merely using 100% of everything the Earth produces (rather than using 130% of what the Earth produces, as we are very temporarily doing!). This is especially the case since the world population is due to increase by almost 50% — to more than 9 billion people — by 2050:

http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=21847

Of course a $6,000 a year income may sound rather frightening to those of us who have become accustomed to the "American standard of living."

However, to place this figure in its proper perspective, it is helpful to keep in mind that according to the World Bank, at this very moment almost half of the people in the world (3 billion people) live on less than $2.50 (PPP) a day — $900 a year — and a quarter of the world's population (1.4 billion people) live below the official world poverty level of $1.25 a day — $456 a year. (See http://www.stwr.org/globalization/world-bank-poverty-figures-what-do-they-mean.html . The complete World Bank report can be found here: http://go.worldbank.org/5V41Z1WRL0 .)

In fact, three years ago World Bank chief economist Nicholas Stern estimated that a European *cow* receives $2.50 a day in subsidies, while 75% of Africans live on less than $2 a day. ( http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1132867,00.html ).

So although $6,000 a year may sound disturbing to us, for the majority of the people in the world it would literally constitute wealth beyond their wildest dreams.

Finally, it is crucial to realize that $6,000 a year per person is actually still far too high to be sustainable, even if there were no population growth ahead at all. This is because at the level of $6,000 a year per person for 6.8 billion people, we would still be consuming 100% of what the Earth can produce, and would thus be doing absolutely nothing to prevent the two greatest threats facing us in our own lifetimes: (1) a mass extinction of the Earth's biodiversity resulting from habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and over-harvesting (see http://www.massextinction.net ), and (2) catastrophic climate change that could render the earth uninhabitable for much of higher life including our own species.

The solution is clear: we must immediately and drastically reduce our levels of consumption. Something like $4,000 a year per person is probably in the right ballpark for what is ecologically possible and morally justifiable. Again, that may be difficult for many of us to hear, but remember that $4,000 a year is more than *4 times* the amount that half of the people in the world live on at this very moment. In fact, according to the World Bank, 95% of all people in developing countries (which means almost 80% of all human beings) live on less than $10 a day — less than $4,000 a year. (See http://go.worldbank.org/3KL75ZFJ60, page 3, note 5).

Of course then the question is: how can we in the "developed" world accomplish such a reduction? One common answer to this question is simply unworthy of discussion: namely, "It's impossible." Whenever I find that answer spontaneously rearing its ugly head in my own imagination, I like to remind myself that Eskimos live in houses made of ice, but their lives are filled with just as much love and beauty, and their children laugh and play with just as much joy — perhaps more! — as our own.

Beyond all its other characteristics, Homo Sapiens is a species capable of extreme adaptability. The time has at last arrived for us to become actual Human Beings, and to allow compassion — and celebration! — to guide us into a radically new world: a world where we experience "QUALITY of life" for ourselves as being indistinguishable from "EQUALITY of life" for all.

Image by TwOsE, courtesy of Creative Commons license.