EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 6. Early Signs of Decline: Our Socially Divided World

The social and economic gap between the world’s richest 1 billion people and its poorest 1 billion has no historical precedent. Not only is this gap wide, it is widening. The poorest billion are trapped at subsistence level and the richest billion are becoming wealthier with each passing year. The economic gap can be seen in the contrasts in nutrition, education, disease patterns, family size, and life expectancy.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization reports that 862 million people are undernourished and often hungry. A much larger number, roughly 1.6 billion people, are overnourished and overweight, most of them suffering from excessive caloric intake, exercise deprivation, or a combination of the two. While close to 1 billion people worry whether they will be able to eat, another 1.6 billion worry about eating too much. 4

Hunger is the most visible face of poverty. Those that are chronically hungry are not getting enough food to achieve full physical and mental development and to maintain adequate levels of physical activity. The majority of the underfed and underweight people are concentrated in the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa—regions that contain 1.4 billion and 800 million people, respectively. Twenty-five years ago, the nutritional status of Asia’s population giants, India and China, was similar, but since then China has eliminated most of its hunger, whereas India has made limited progress. During this last quarter-century, China has accelerated the shift to smaller families. While gains in food production in India were absorbed largely by population growth, those in China went mostly to raising consumption per person. 5

Malnutrition takes its heaviest toll among the young, who are most vulnerable during their rapid physical and mental development. In both India and Bangladesh, almost half of all children under five are underweight and malnourished. In Ethiopia, 47 percent of children are undernourished, while in Nigeria the figure is 29 percent—and these are two of Africa’s most populous countries. 6

Although it is not surprising that those who are underfed and underweight are concentrated in developing countries, it is perhaps surprising that most of them live in rural communities. More often than not, the undernourished are either landless or they live on plots of land so small that they are effectively landless. 7

The penalties of being undernourished begin at birth. A U.N. report estimates that 20 million underweight infants are born each year to mothers who also are malnourished. The study indicates that these children suffer lasting effects in the form of “impaired immune systems, neurological damage, and retarded physical growth.” David Barker of Britain’s University of Southampton observes soberly “that 60 percent of all newborns in India would be in intensive care had they been born in California.” 8

Disease patterns also reflect the widening gap between the rich and the poor. The billion poorest suffer mostly from infectious diseases—malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery, measles, respiratory infections, and AIDS. Malnutrition leaves infants and small children even more vulnerable to such infectious diseases. Unsafe drinking water takes a heavier toll on those with hunger-weakened immune systems, resulting in millions of fatalities each year. In contrast, among the billion at the top of the global economic scale, it is diseases related to aging and lifestyle excesses, including cardiovascular disease, obesity, smoking, high fat diets, and exercise deprivation, that cause most deaths. 9

There is also a demographic divide. Close to 1 billion people live in countries where population size is essentially stable. But another billion or so live in countries where population is projected to double or more by 2050. 10

Education levels, too, reflect the deep divide. In some industrial countries—for example, Canada and Japan—more than half of all young people now graduate from college with either two- or four-year degrees. By contrast, in developing countries 72 million youngsters of elementary school age are not enrolled in school at all. Although five centuries have passed since Gutenberg invented the printing press, some 781 million adults are illiterate. Unable to read, they are also excluded from the use of computers and the Internet. Without adult literacy programs, their prospects of escaping poverty are not good. 11

The world’s illiterates are concentrated in a handful of the more populous countries, most of them in Asia and Africa. Prominent among these are Bangladesh, China, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, and Pakistan, plus Brazil and Mexico in Latin America. From 1990 to 2000, China and Indonesia made large gains in reducing illiteracy. Other countries also making meaningful progress were Brazil, Mexico, and Nigeria. However, in four other populous countries— Bangladesh, Egypt, India, and Pakistan—the number of illiterates increased. 12

Illiteracy and poverty tend to reinforce each other because illiterate women typically have much larger families than literate women do and because each year of schooling raises earning power by 10–20 percent. In Brazil, for instance, illiterate women have more than six children each on average; literate women have only two. 13

To be poor often means to be sick. As with illiteracy, ill health and poverty are closely linked. Health is closely related to access to safe water, something that 1.1 billion people lack. Waterborne diseases claim more than 3 million lives each year, mostly as a result of dysentery and cholera, and mostly among children. Infant mortality in affluent societies averages 8 per thousand live births; in the 50 poorest countries it averages 95 per thousand—nearly 12 times as high. 14

The connection between poverty and disease is strong, but it has been broken for most of humanity by economic development. The challenge now is to break this link for that remaining minority who do not have access to safe water, vaccines, education, and basic health care.

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4. FAO, op. cit. note 3; WHO, “Obesity and Overweight,” fact sheet (Geneva: September 2006).

5. FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006 (Rome: 2006), pp. 8, 32, 33; FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2002 (Rome: 2002); U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.

6. FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2005 (Rome: 2005), p. 33.

7. FAO, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2004 (Rome: 2004).

8. Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, “Nourishing the Underfed and Overfed,” in Lester R. Brown et al., State of the World 2000 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000), pp. 70–73.

9. WHO and UNICEF, Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report (New York: 2000), pp. v, 2; WHO, op. cit. note 2.

10. Stable populations compiled from Population Reference Bureau, Datafinder, electronic database, at www.prb.org/DataFind/datafinder7.htm, updated 2007; doubling projections from U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.

11. “Population That Has Attained Tertiary Education (2003),” in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance 2005 (Paris: 2005); children not enrolled from United Nations, Millennium Development Goals Report 2007 (New York: 2007), p. 11; adult illiteracy from UNESCO, EFA Global Monitoring Report 2007: Strong Foundations (Paris: 2006), p. 2.

12. Hilaire A. Mputu, Literacy and Non-Formal Education in the E-9 Countries (Paris: UNESCO, 2001), pp. 5–13; UNESCO Institute for Statistics, “National Illiteracy Rates Youths (15–24) and Adults (15+),” at www.uis.unesco.org, updated 19 June 2007.

13. Gene B. Sperling, “Toward Universal Education,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2001, pp. 7–13.

14. Access to safe water from World Bank, Global Monitoring Report 2007: Millennium Development Goals (Washington, DC: 2007), p. 13; Peter H. Gleick, Dirty Water: Estimated Deaths from Water-Related Disease 2000–2020 (Oakland, CA: Pacific Institute, 2002); U.N. Population Division, op. cit. note 2.


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