Living Simply For Others

by Mark A. Burch

Featured in Mountain Record 26.3, Spring 2008

See us go the fool’s way
gathering all about us
for a covering, a surety,
a pleasure;
Opiates to fill time’s hollow;
piles of things which rot away
or linger near our ankles
to stop us dancing.

Our time in history is marked by extreme differences in material well-being. One-fifth of the Earth’s people consume four-fifths of its resources to support lifestyles of affluence while the least advantaged one-fifth live in rags, starvation and illness. Individual extremes of wealth and poverty are even more pronounced.


Photo by Katie Bianchin


The moral unacceptability of this situation is recognized nearly everywhere, yet no society, including the most affluent, has eradicated destitution. In many cases, the affluence for the minority literally requires the involuntary impoverishment of the majority because of the centralizations, trade inequities and environmental exploitation required to deliver riches to the privileged.

Part of the reason for the persistence of such injustice can be found in the approach we have taken to redressing poverty. When one group has more and another less, there are basically two ways that greater equality can be attained. The first approach is the one that has formed the mainstay of economic thinking in northern countries. Those with less will acquire more, the theory goes, if the economy can grow. Economic growth is the proposed solution for the hardships of destitution.

In spite of enormous growth in the world economy, however, there is more poverty now than ever before. Economic growth tends to benefit those who are already in privileged positions at the expense of the poor and of the ecosphere. While growth sounds good in theory, in practice the capital needed to create growth is controlled by a minority, which in turn reaps the profits from its investment. Total wealth increases, but its distribution becomes more unequal. In addition, it is clear that there are ecospheric limits on the total human economic activities.