The Origin of Poverty

Poor Us: An Animated of Poverty

Ben Lewis (2012)

Film Review

This documentary divides the history of poverty into six broad areas: pre-civilization, “early civilization” (8000 – 800 BC), Greece and Rome (800 BC – 400 AD), the Middle Ages (400 – 1500), European colonial era (1500 -1850) and industrial civilization (1850 – present). The use of animation is surprisingly effective in painting an overview of the lifestyles typical of these different periods.

Prior to the agricultural revolution that marked the advent of civilization, no one was poor. In a hunter-gatherer society, very little work is required to procure adequate food and water. Leisure time is plentiful. The downside of being a hunter gatherer is that life is very precarious and there’s was no way of planning for sudden climate change and other natural events that periodically wipe out the food supply.

During early civilization, everyone was poor except for rich kings and priests who ran everything. There were repeated famines and the average life expectancy was 35 years.

Greek civilization produced historians and philosophers who, for the first time, tried to identify the causes of poverty. They concluded that poverty was essential to civilization because it induces people to work.

The concept of charity first arose in the early Middle Ages and is a key component of all the world religions, which emerged during this period.

The film maintains that all modern poverty results from plunder and force, mainly at the hands of European colonizers. In the early 1500s, Europe was much poorer than contemporaneous civilizations in China, Africa and the Americans. In medieval China, for example, the government was responsible for flood control and vast granaries that fed the entire population during famines.

Europeans systematically plundered and destroyed the advanced pre-European civilizations in China, Africa and North and South America. Then the European elite used this wealth and power to drive their own peasants off their communally farmed lands. Those who didn’t end up in jail or the workhouse, ended up in squalid city slums and worked in early factories.

Prior to the industrial revolution, 90% of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 1948, this percentage had dropped to 50%. By the 1970s, it was down to 15%. At present most extreme poverty is in third world countries that have been systematically exploited by the industrial North for their resources and cheap labor.

The film features a number of economic analysts with differing perspectives on why industrialization caused the rate of extreme poverty to drop. Most agree it was a combination of fossil fuel-based technology and successful revolutionary and union activity which allowed workers to keep a bigger share of the wealth they produce.

Over the last few decades, the relative weakness of grassroots movements has led to significant increase in poverty within the supposedly wealthy industrialized countries.

11 thoughts on “The Origin of Poverty

  1. THE TRUE ORIGIN OF POVERTY BEGAN WITH ADAM AND EVE, WHEN THEY DISOBEYED YAHVEH THE CREATOR. POVERTY DID MAGNIFY, WHEN NIMROD SET UP THE FIRST GOVERNMENT AND BEGAN TO TAX. THE ONLY WAY, BUT THE ONLY WAY POVERTY SHALL EVER BE ELIMINATED IS WHEN JESUS CHRIST RETURNS, AND SETS UP THE KINGDOM OF YAHVEH THAT CAN NEVER BE PUT TO RUIN. THERE SHALL BE NO HOSPITALS, CEMETERIES, EVIL, OR SIN. ALL DEMONIC BEINGS AND FALLEN ANGELS SHALL BE CLEANSED FROM INFINITE UNIVERSES. WE SHALL THEN BE ASSIGNED DUTIES TO SERVE IN OUR IMMORTAL SOULS WHICH SHALL NEVER CONTAIN EVIL OR SIN. NO MORE DEATH!! AMEN.

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  2. It looks to me that at start Technological revolution everyone became less poor and more productive but now the pendilum has reversed and technology has lead to where the everyday piece of the pie gets smaller everyday and the controller of pie share become larger.

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  3. Watched the film. You’re right: a range of perspectives. A lot of questions.

    But everyone recognizes that, however it came to be, the material preconditions for the eradication of poverty are now at hand.

    What is missing, and what is left out of the discussion (unless I missed it), are the preconditions in the realm of social relations, i.e., the issue of how the overall burden of work and its fruits are to be distributed and allocated as a matter of course.

    ‘Profit,’ as the supreme value currently guiding these distributions and allocations, will have to be dethroned and replaced with a more life enhancing crowning obsession.

    Perhaps maximizing productivity for the sake of increasing leisure time for all for cultural pursuits might do nicely, as opposed to maximizing productivity for the sake of greater profits for the rich, which currently benefits no one but the rich, while putting an increasing number of people out of work and increasing the burden of work for those lucky enough to remain in their jobs.

    By advocating that we should ‘maximize productivity,’ I don’t mean that we should aim to produce even more goods than we do now.

    In fact, ‘maximizing productivity’ is perfectly compatible with shrinking our collective environmental footprint and doing away entirely with the fetish of consumerism. Rather, it means to devise ways of performing given sets of tasks with less effort or fewer material inputs, or both — which is what the real promise of technological innovation could and should be, but currently can’t be under the rule of profit.

    Somehow or other, capitalism — the pursuit of profits over people and the environment — must finally be euthanized. Unless and until this happens, a better life for all, although technologically eminently feasible, will remain an empty aspiration.

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    • Excellent point you make about fairly distribution work and its “fruits.” You’re right. The film neglects to mention this. My viewpoint is that the fossil fuels will run out in the next few years, and when this happen this will cause us to revert to a more labor intensive system of horticulture. It’s labor intensive, in the sense that we won’t have machines to do the work. But if the work is divided equally, and we deliberately incorporate design principles like they do in permaculture, I reckon that we’re looking at four hours a day to produce sufficient food for a family of four – and lots of leisure time.

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      • This is a very optimistic outlook, Stuart. But you’re right, things like this can be done in future if people put their minds to it. I think that I, at my rather advanced age, are not going to see it implemented world wide. But I very much hope that this is the way mankind is going. 🙂

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        • It’s hard to say, Aunty what people of our advanced age will witness. In my own community, I see a lot of people taking things into their own hands – starting savings pools (in lieu of banks), growing their own fruits and veggies, chickens eggs, living off the grid, saving rainwater, participating in crop swaps, and starting free koha (Maori for donation) huts where people can give away stuff for free to struggling families.

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