Commusings: The Poverty Industry by Paul Hawken

Sep 24, 2021

Hello Commune Community,

When Paul Hawken first proposed the idea for Project Drawdown in 2001, the conversation around reversing global warming focused primarily on technical solutions such as renewable energy and electric cars — and there wasn’t a clear sense of which solutions had the most potential.

But when the Drawdown research team analyzed the numbers, a remarkable pattern emerged. Many of the top solutions – such as reducing food waste, educating girls, and walkable cities – had social roots. Climate and social systems are profoundly interconnected, and those connections open up solutions that are often overlooked.

The British charity Oxfam recently released a study that found the richest 10 percent of people produce half of the planet's individual-consumption-based fossil fuel emissions, while the poorest 50 percent — about 3.5 billion people — contribute only 10 percent. If you make $38,000 per year, you are in the top 10%. Given that the most impoverished people will likely need to increase their carbon footprint to secure basic human needs, the balance of the world needs to deeply contemplate their own consumption. We must ask, “What do we really need to be well?"

Last Sunday, Paul came to Commune Topanga to speak about his new book and Commune course, Regeneration. I also had the pleasure of speaking with him in-depth for the Commune Podcast.

At its heart, this radically different philosophy for reversing global warming is the need to address human needs. As he told the small group of us sitting on the patio, “If we want to get the attention of humanity about climate, humanity needs to feel it is getting attention.”

Today’s essay from Paul speaks to that quote, and is one of many gems of wisdom plucked from Regeneration. I hope it elicits not just thought, but also action, as to how we can heal life on this planet now and not in some dystopian future.

Always here at [email protected] and on IG @jeffkrasno.
In love, include me,


• • •

The Poverty Industry

by Paul Hawken


Poverty is an extractive industry. 

It takes value from people, transfers it to others, and disvalues the producers. The impoverished struggle to gain fairness, whether it be in work, pay, health, education, or housing. They may dwell in makeshift shelters where there is pollution, insufficient sanitation, impure water, and marginal schools—if any. They suffer constant economic stress and lack of healthcare. 

In rural areas, poverty creates destructive forms of deforestation and desertification. Roads into formerly inaccessible areas built by mining and logging companies open land to farming companies deploying slash-and-burn agriculture, displacing traditional Indigenous stewards of the land. In the forests of Asia, Africa, and the Amazon, some species populations are crashing because of the hunting of wild bushmeat. 

Degeneration of land, water, forests, biodiversity, and human health is a cause of climate change. And climate change is yet another cause of poverty. Turning this vicious circle to a virtuous one is crucial to addressing the climate crisis.

The other harm caused by chronic poverty is the insensitivity of those who do not notice or have “no time to care” about such remote matters. Bryan Stevenson points out that how we treat the poor impoverishes us: “Our humanity depends on everyone’s humanity. Our survival is tied to the survival of everyone.” This has never been truer than today. 

Reversing the climate crisis cannot be done by one country, one economic sector, one industry, one culture, or one demographic. There is not going to be a magic technology that will fix it. We cannot wait to see if experts, governments, or corporations figure out how to end the crisis, because they can’t by themselves. 

The crisis, if it could speak, would tell us all that we have forgotten that we truly are a “we,” and nothing less than our joint effort is sufficient to reverse decades and centuries of exploiting people and the earth. Climate change and poverty have the same root cause.

The idea of global poverty is a new concept, conceived in 1990, when the World Bank defined poverty as earning less than one dollar per day. It was called the International Poverty Line and has been used as a measure of scarcity and need ever since. Today, threshold income is pegged at $1.90 per day, an increase of ninety cents in thirty years. 

Going by that measure, the World Bank believes that poverty has decreased from 36 percent of world population to 10 percent by 2015. Living anywhere on $1.90 per day is called destitution, not poverty. To better describe the disparities that exist today, one month of poverty income is equal to one Lululemon bra, the hood ornament on a Mercedes, or two bags of Purina Dog Chow (with real chicken). 

When the World Bank reported in 2015 that 700 million people lived in poverty, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization stated that 821 million people did not have enough calories to sustain minimal human activity that year, much less work and earn an income. In fact, 1.9 billion were food insecure, and 2.6 billion suffered from malnutrition. The International Poverty Line is monetary, and does take into account complementary needs, including the lack of public goods—education, nutrition, healthcare, and sanitation. 

The World Bank now refers to the $1.90 threshold as a measure of extreme poverty. If it were two dollars a day, would that be normal poverty? This points to the problem when lives are measured by income. Suffering cannot be monetized.

Different nonprofit aid organizations set the global poverty threshold at a more realistic seven to eight dollars per day, an income level at which a family can achieve basic nutrition and reasonable life expectancy. Using that metric, the number of poor has increased from 3.2 billion in 1981 to 4.2 billion in 2015. In the United States, 62 million people work full-time but cannot live on their income. Nearly one in five Americans are poor, and 72 percent of them are women and children. Fifty-four percent of working African Americans do not receive a living wage.

Although per capita income doubled between 1980 and 2016, global poverty levels escalated by 31 percent. The cause is unambiguous: fewer people gained more income, and many people received less income. During those thirty-six years, only 12 percent of global income growth went to the poorest 50 percent of humanity. The remaining income growth, profits, and capital migrated to the top 40 percent of income earners, with the majority of income growth going to the top one-tenth of 1 percent of humanity. 

At the current rate of capital distribution, The World Bank Economic Review estimates that it will take more than two hundred years of current economic growth to end poverty, which means poverty won’t end at all.

To better understand poverty, three questions are helpful. 

Question number one: Who benefits when someone suffers? This reveals root causes. 

Question number two: When was the last time you were in a room with an impoverished family or group? This demonstrates cultural gaps and lack of understanding. 

Question number three was asked by Pulitzer Prize–winning author Marilynne Robinson, and it may be the most important: Is poverty necessary? 

It is not necessary, but it is reinforced and exploited. Poverty is an industry. In the United States, there is a vast network of for-profit “human service” corporations, funded by state and federal agencies, that form a business empire worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Financial support that is intended to go to children, the elderly, the disabled, and the underserved is skimmed and siphoned off. As bizarre and untenable as this may sound, human suffering is a profit-making enterprise. For example, in the United States, companies reclassify foster children in order to claim extra benefits, which they direct back to the foster-care agencies—a practice known as revenue maximization but might better be described as kick-backs. Employees of agencies hunt for federal or state survivor benefits, which they will divert to their employer after earning a commission. The child knows nothing of this. She or he is a foster child with no parental protection or guidance. State governments are in on exploitation too. They redirect federal aid intended to serve the poor into state coffers. Another practice utilized by for-profit “care” enterprises is heavily sedating the young and elderly who reside in juvenile detention facilities and nursing homes in order to reduce staffing and labor costs.

Funding for prisons is an $80 billion industry in the United States. America is a country of mass incarceration—2.3 million are in prison, and 4.4 million are on probation or parole. Nearly half of the prison population is there for writing a bad check, petty theft, or possession of a substance. Private prison corporations lobby for stricter sentencing and longer confinement for minor crimes. In 1997, a thirty-nine-year-old Black man was sentenced to life imprisonment for stealing hedge clippers. Private prison companies have perverse incentives; rehabilitation and improved public safety are not in their best interest. 

To reify and enforce ongoing poverty, convicted drug use offenders cannot obtain food stamps or gain access to public housing, and they are unable to find employment due to their record.

Private companies have also found ways to turn a profit along borders by incarcerating migrants and refugees who have traveled thousands of miles for their survival. In Europe, companies like Swiss-owned ORS Service AG are contracted by governments to run for-profit detention centers. When migrants flooded into Europe in the past decade, ORS expanded its migrant “reception” services from Switzerland into Austria and Germany, replacing the nonprofits that usually assist migrants and refugees. The retired founder explained that when running refugee camps, “the margins are very low,” so to maximize profit, “the key is volume.” 

Some of ORS’s camps were so overcrowded that thousands of women, children, and men were forced to sleep out in the open. In 2019, ORS had revenues of almost $150 million, whereas refugees were often not even allowed to work. Addressing European politicians, one Syrian refugee in the Moria camp, in Greece, proposed, “If you want to know the true meaning of fear, hunger, and cold, come and stay here in Moria camp for a month.” In the eyes of for-profit service providers, refugees are assets to extract value from. Almost half of these “assets” are children.

Migration is the last resort when facing conflict or when crops fail from erratic weather patterns. The impoverished first cope by eating less, selling their possessions, and even removing their children from school. 

In a future where increased natural disasters and changing weather make parts of the planet uninhabitable, more will be forcibly displaced; people will have no choice but to leave their homes. Popular media narratives depict most refugees traveling halfway across the globe, but the vast majority of refugees come from poor countries and flee to other poor countries, and more than three-fourths of those who will be forcibly displaced stay within their country’s borders.

In Somalia, floods, droughts, and conflicts drive people to leave their homes; more than 2.5 million people were displaced within the country as of 2019. The underlying condition of poverty forces families to see migration as the only option, since they do not have the resources to rebuild after houses are destroyed or enough savings to weather a bad harvest. More than half of the working population is unemployed in the country, so when natural disasters strike, like the 2016 drought that decimated livestock populations and croplands, economic conditions become especially dire. Families flocked to cities in hopes of finding opportunity, but instead, many found limited jobs, infrastructure, or public services. Water prices almost doubled, and families spent all their energy sourcing food, water, and other basic necessities. Many found it impossible to survive on their earnings and lived in constant fear of eviction or further displacement from natural disasters. 

Living for months or even years under these conditions, many become reliant on international aid, with very little say on the decisions that impact their lives. More than 96 percent of participants in one study said they did not feel they had been consulted about the aid they received and did not have a platform to voice their concerns. Under this model, when the next natural disaster strikes, families will be displaced, they will lose everything, and the cycle will repeat itself.

Globally, poverty alleviation is a multibillion-dollar industry involving governments, companies, celebrities, and charities that can create dependency rather than the means to create prosperity. Celebrity-graced distributions of shiploads or planeloads of surplus corn and wheat reinforce the idea that money and largesse are helping to solve the problem. 

It is kind, but it hasn’t worked. The poor will remain poor until they are asked what they need—and someone listens. 

Invariably, mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons will point to the lack of fairness, justice, and opportunity in their country. The poor are like everyone else. They need care, time, energy, relationships—they need to be connected to resources in the form of people who do not go away after the photoshoot.

Desmond Tutu once said, “There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” Philanthropies and governments place significant money into programs to abate poverty. Activists are different. They go upstream to find out why people are being thrown into the river. 

Regeneration enlarges the conversation by making a simple point: The breadth of solutions, techniques, and practices that address the climate crisis absolutely address poverty. 

Poverty does not want to be “fixed.” Poverty wants to fix itself. 

Those who are economically disadvantaged want to regenerate their well-being, villages, communities, schools, and cultures. They do so with tools, education, and collaboration. The most effective path to reversing warming is to turn to the people who are most impacted, with the greatest need, yet are the least heard—and then listen, support, and empower. 

The climate crisis will not be addressed unless the bulk of humanity is engaged. Statistically, that means those beset by poverty. 

Regeneration is about creating the conditions for self-organization. The poor know what to do. The more than four billion people who share some level of poverty will engage and act to counter climate change when social justice and climate justice are the same thing—more nutritious food, clean water, resilient and profitable agriculture, restored fisheries, accessible mobility, dignified housing, renewable electricity, free and safe education, and public health.

Reversing centuries of prejudice that have told us that some people are not good enough, smart enough, or deserving enough is a big task. 

Realizing that the climate crisis cannot be fixed with technology runs counter to what so many believe. Understanding that those with little or no financial resources impact the destiny of those who may have more seems illogical. 

At this time, all of humanity depends on all of humanity. 

In a globalized, digitized, hyperconnected world, we have become one system, just as the earth is one system. Humanity’s common needs want to be synchronized, harmonized, and recognized. Regeneration creates abundance, not scarcity. It expands what is possible. It enlarges the human prospect.





• • •

Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, and bestselling author of eight books that have been published in thirty languages in more than fifty countries and have sold more than two million copies. Hawken is a renowned lecturer who has keynoted conferences and led workshops on the impact of commerce upon the environment, and has consulted with governments and corporations throughout the world.

From REGENERATION edited by Paul Hawken, to be published on September 21, 2021 by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Paul Hawken. Photo Credits: Education of Girls - p. 136 (Ami Vitale)

Leading teachers, life-changing courses...

Your path to a happier, healthier life

Get access to our library of over 60 courses on health and nutrition, spirituality, creativity, breathwork and meditation, relationships, personal growth, sustainability, social impact and leadership.

Try Membership Free for 14 Days

Stay connected with Commune

Receive our weekly Commusings newsletter + free course announcements!