Poverty, scarcity and frugality are related but importantly different concepts, as Wolfgang Sachs once wrote in a brilliant essay in just as good a book called Planet Dialectics in 1999. Importantly, for most of human history frugality has been the state of life, there was not really very much to go around, so people learned to be very careful with their possessions, a sort of ‘waste not, want not’ existence.
But then, capitalist markets, and the economics that justifies them invented scarcity as an organising principle of societies wherein the exploitation and expropriation of some peoples’ things and labour is carried out by others, creating a wealthy class that gets wealthier, which after 400 years or so leads us to modern day inequality, the worst ever recorded.
In economic theory, markets deal with scarcity by automatically balancing the available supply of a thing with the demand that people have for it, and at that point a price emerges. In other words, the rarer the thing, and the more people that want it, the higher the price.
A lack of ‘enoughness’ sends addicted shopperholics to malls day after day
This is often a very cruel ‘equilibrium price’, particularly when something that is scarce is also a basic good, like food. Before a famine, the cost of food skyrockets as traders and hoarders make merry at everybody else’s expense, while the price of other assets, such as livestock or jewellery drops like the proverbial stone, as people sell anything they can to try and meet the (rising) price of food.
Many economists with some semblance of a heart thus believe that governments need to regulate scarcity, particularly around basic goods and if markets are causing adverse outcomes, such as starvation in the case of food scarcity.
But there are also economists who believe in ‘free’ markets, as did the late Margaret Thatcher, who believed in the fundamental principle that ‘free’ markets, left unattended and to their own devices, generate the best outcome for society at large through a ‘hidden hand’ (although in her case this was often an iron fist, and yes many thought she had no heart at all).
Scarcity, however, is not necessarily a bad thing if we manage it properly. Indeed, humanity must do this as we live in a finite globe where commodities will just run out unless the sustainability clause in the increasingly popular concept of the ‘Green Economy’ is actually made to have some substance.
This brings us to the concept of poverty, which is essentially a classification as well as a real experienced existence for those called ‘poor’.
Now don’t get me wrong, poverty of course exists and is widespread and chronic for about 800 million to 1 billion people alive today. For these chronically poor people there is not enough food, or shelter, or clean water on a daily basis, and their notional right to government assistance under the UN Declaration of Human Rights is in some way ineffective. But for most of human history we have understood this as simply frugality, because people’s perception of poverty is critically a relative one.
Many people discovered they were poor when other people became rich(er) and when they were termed as such by government or economists. Before this point, they were living frugally, if at risk of an early and easy death.
But above this group that nearly all would agree are poor today, there are a larger number of people who live in relative poverty to others, some of whom have so much income and assets that it becomes counter-intuitive to see them as poor at all!
In fact, a common middle class form of ‘poverty’, in Europe at least, is the person who complains that they have no money – once the mortgage, the school fees, the bills, taxes and so forth have already been paid! This is not really poverty, this is a critical lack of a sense of ‘enoughness’, and it is arguably a global virus, as Oliver James so eloquently argues in his book Affluenza.
Having no sense of enoughness is the largest driver of the global economy, as the advertising industry works day and night to persuade us that we need the next new thing, or style, or fashion.
Again in Europe, firms like IKEA are busy telling people that even furniture should become subject to fashion, so that one’s sofa or kitchen table must be replaced seasonally, which of course hikes their profits and contributes to our landfill rubbish problem.
A lack of ‘enoughness’ sends addicted shopperholics to malls day after day, as 4 pairs of shoes is not enough, then 10, 40, 300. Capitalism loves this state of being as it drives economic growth, just as consumption drives many of us into debt.
Of course economists who love capitalism do not see a problem with the consumer as shopping machine, because for them consumption contributes to job creation and economic growth, which they also see as completely problem free positive things. I don’t.
If an oil carrying ship hits the rocks off the Durban coast where I live it will cause a spill that will create many jobs, to pick up all the dead birds from the beaches up and down the coast. To clean the gorgeous Bay of Plenty, Addington’s, Sun Casino, North Beach, Brighton Beach, up to Ballito and down to Amanzimtoti, and so on.
Indeed, it would cause a localised hike in economic growth and job creation – but only a crazy person would see this as a good thing.
Economic growth at all cost
So when South African Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told around 300 South Durban residents on 1 September, last year (2012), in Clairwood’s historic Tamil Hall, that the demolition of their houses to make way for the port extension in the South Durban Basin was a really good idea, I was left in a sense of morbid awe.
He argued that it would create jobs and cause economic growth. I was also struck by his inflective addition to the ‘There Is No Alternative’ (TINA) school of economics that is forever in favour of free markets – for Big Oil, for mining companies and for an unsustainable future of ever increasing amounts of consumption and global warming.
And again, there was here another critical lack of a sense of enoughness, that the beautiful Port of Durban, Wilson’s Wharf, the BAT Centre, the sandbank in the bay, the strip of grass beside the habour wall where the shareblock residents play football at dusk, the green and red directional lights twinkling at night is as it should be, and indeed is exactly the right size.
No sense that the Isipingo Beach, allegedly the most polluted in the world, or the primary school next to the Engen Refinery (which keeps throwing hot oil and flames into the air in sporadic accidents), where one in two children have to take inhalers to school for their asthma have not had enough already.
Then came the April 2013 notices of major refinery expansions by both BP at Sapref (next to the old airport) and Total at Island View Refinery – which together with Engen represents the largest oil refining complex on the continent. Has this community not suffered way more than its fair share of the ‘externalitites’ of capitalist markets to say ‘enough already’?
In fact, it occurred to me while listening to the Minister of Finance the Honourable Pravin Gordhan, telling people that ‘we’ are in a race with the Mozambicans for economic growth, and that ‘they’ were building new ports, so ‘we’ had to as well, that maybe he was talking about a sporting fixture.
But no, the Minister had embraced the race to economic growth at any cost, so ‘we’ had to as well, or otherwise it would be the End of Life as We Know It. Indeed he invokes fear by arguing that the ‘There is No Alternative’ view of economics, if not understood by the little people could mean national disaster – a distressingly weak case intellectually.
He said that The Nation JUST HAD TO make the Port eight times as large (by capacity), destroying the sandbanks, the rare birds, chameleons, the house that Mahatma Gandhi once lived in, the cultural icons of an historic Indian community, temples, grave yards and the communities of Clairwood, Merebank, Mobeni, Wentworth and parts of Isipingo, Bluff and lower Umbilo or the future would be BLEAK and JOBLESS, and the hole in the nation’s finances called sovereign debt would just grow into a figure of countless ‘noughts’.
Now to destroy so much I think you would have to be pretty confident about the economic case, so taking my professional interest in the assessments, or ‘impact’ studies that governments do to work out the affect that a development project will have on the people and environment I tracked down the particular report, with the help of the wonderful people at the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance that is supposed to justify this particular act of structural violence.
Before opening it, it doesn’t look good, as the places and people have already become an ‘interface zone’, and by page 3, the consultants are talking about the ‘redesign’ of their space.
People-less, the report talks of the urgent need that Gauteng has for oil, and the huge pipeline that has already been built from Durban to Johannesburg to fulfil the national addition to big cars, to mining and to ripping minerals out of the ground at a faster and faster pace, to pay for the stuff coming into the big malls.
It is rumoured that a Chinese company are providing financing to Transnet in exchange for a guaranteed proportion of freight volume through the port. The minerals of Africa ripped out of the ground at an ever faster pace to pay for the consumer goods imported, plastic pink things for girls, plastic blue things for boys, the waste products of global petrochemical addition. The beauty, the history, the heritage, culture, Life does not get a look in.
How many jobs lost for jobs created?
There is certainly no sense of Enoughness here. Only a shrill urgency claimed for growth and jobs, both of which are calculated and predicted in the absence of consideration for the growth that the local economy already produces, and the jobs already there, whether in a car parts vendor, a Samoosa maker in her back kitchen, a fisherperson on the sandbank or a surf club struggling on the Bay Head.
Thus the port will apparently, according to Transnet create 28,000 jobs up and down the whole infrastructural plan, from the new oil exploration work out on the continental shelf, through the logistics chain, and up to Harrismith and Joburg. More oil, more containers, more roads, more pipelines.
But how many jobs are already there in the 30,000 affected households, and in their small businesses and informal businesses. They simply don’t know. One sign of a disadvantaged community is that they are never counted.
There are many numbers, and much counting, and loads of figures, diagrams and data in the very long consultancy report. In Chapter 8, the ‘Composite Summary & Strategic Issues Final Draft March 2009 A Local Area Plan and Land Use Management Scheme for the Back of Port Interface Zone. Perspective’ Prepared by the Graham Muller Associates Consortium, the consultants commissioned by Ethekwini Municipality consider the challenges, possibilities and strategic issues, in a nice neat table, that arise from their Back of Port ‘interface redesign’.
Environmentally, under ‘possibility’ we are told that the biodiversity loss and further pollution mean “It may be necessary to plan compensatory reserve areas”, somewhere else, as land use within the area is too dense.
Thus a ‘strategic issue’ is that “A significant area will be displaced, compensation may require remaining areas of coastal grassland such as the racecourse in addition to significant areas outside the area. The loss of habitat associated with port development may not be replaceable in the location. It may be necessary to conserve other areas within the Municipal Area”. The grammar is not good here, but I take this to mean that all will be lost here, but never mind, we’ll call the (already existing) racecourse ‘compensation’.
In the trade of environmental impact assessment, this is called mitigation in a non-proximate offset. In plain English it is called, hard luck, we’ll save something for someone else, somewhere else, by calling it compensation and promising not to destroy that as well (even if it wasn’t under threat in the first place). In fact in this case, a chunk of the racecourse will indeed go under concrete, so maybe we should see what remains as our collective ‘mitigation’.
But arguably the most human cruelty in this project is to be found in the summary of social impact. Here it is a ‘challenge’ that there is a “Need for additional container capacity at a port (Super Port / Hub Port)” and a challenge that there is a “National focus on South Durban as key petro-chemical hub – industrial growth zone and the local desire of communities to continue living in South Durban”.
Indeed, a challenge if not total recipe for distress. This is a community which from Apartheid through to now has been systematically socially excluded and made to stand at the back end of the line for service delivery improvements.
Social programmes replace homes
It was of course no accident that the dirty industries were originally put next to Indian and Black communities, and though this may sound cynical to some, that there has been a lack of investment in these areas for some considerable time, in the expectation that a project like this would one day get done. Previous forced removals have left people in squalor in apparently permanent ‘transit camps’, with no history of compensation.
This lack of intervention now allows for an important framing of the community as dysfunctional, a cruel twist where a place and its people can be pathologised and their forced poverty made into a reason for their ultimate destruction.
It is a ‘challenge’ that there is, again in the view of Consultants Inc “Poverty, unemployment and [a] slow pace of transformation [which] impacts on [the] social character and conditions of [the] neighbourhoods”.
Consultants Inc. observe that “Social decline of large inner city zones as a result of the lack of intervention into critical social issues: [results in] crime, drugs, alcohol abuse, life skills, social norms and activities for the youth, and HIV/Aids”, while “Crime and the inability to manage the problem at all levels of government impacts on [the] quality of life and [the] stability of neighbourhoods”. In other words, they imply that there isn’t really much to be lost here as it’s a pretty terrible place to live. The complexity of a neighbourhood, problems and all, is then re-framed as a sequences of social problems.
So I was particularly interested to see what ‘possibilities’ there were, but then quickly grew alarmed as the job creation and economic growth spoken of by the Minister has magically turned into “programmes in key strategic areas to address social problems: crime prevention, drugs and alcohol and programmes for the youth”.
They will lose their homes and then be sent on a social reprogramming!
In fact look a little deeper, as the Stop the Port campaign are doing, and it looks like there are derisory plans to compensate people, who will just be asked to politely walk away. A letter sent on 22 May, 2012, from the Head of Housing of Ethekwini Municipality to the ECOD Housing Committee, sums up well – that what they have is a possible resettlement in a place that is imaginary/not yet built.
Parts of the letter read: “A report is to be submitted to the Housing Committee that suggestsfor relocation to Cornubia in terms of a prioritization process. The 12 settlements requested for relocation [as a consequence of the Back of Port ‘development’] will be included in that report…
“As the report currently stands there is a need of approximately 30 000 units identified for relocation to Cornubia. If the 764 structures (excluding the possibility of the “backyard shacks” in formal sites that are in the process of been quantified for Clairwood) the demand on Cornubia is further increased. The Cornubia development allows for the construction of approximately 12000 fully subsidized housing structures [not built yet]. Therefore there is an oversubscription of almost 18 000 units”.
Thus in this sorry tale of ‘free’ markets you have Transnet, Big Oil, ideologically explained by TINA forcibly removing 30,000 affected ‘units’ (that is households), with no plans for compensation.
Their ‘enoughness’, their frugality, their communities, are to be destroyed so [bad] economists can manage ‘scarcity’ for Oil, without any apparent hat-tip to the ideas of the Green Economy promulgated by the Government from COP17, and the cruelty of the footnote to the plans? The people, whose very ‘poverty’ is being used against them.
They are depicted, after years of government neglect, as communities not worth keeping. All of which goes to show how three other related words, ‘wisdom’, ‘education’ and ‘intelligence’ are also very similar, but again, and critically in this case, very different as educated consultants and government ministers demonstrate so little wisdom or intelligence.
Let’s say ‘Enough!’ I am humming that Chumbawumba classic anthem ‘Enough is Enough is Enough’, remembering the heroic Sokwanele group in Zimbabwe, who in a different context are shouting ‘sokwanele’ (‘enough’ in Shona), trying to get rid of the dictator and his de facto military state within a state.
I may write a book on the necessary need to restore enoughness as a concept in economics. I sometimes start that lecture with a metaphor, imagine the global economy is a car driving at 160 km per hour down the N1 with no seatbelts for the children. Would you want to increase the speed? No, not if you were sane. So why do we need any more ‘economic growth’?
It is only the measurement of how much faster insane economists want an already critically unsustainable and dangerously large global economy to go. More, bigger, better, faster, consume, consume, shop.
So let’s say enough.
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