Imagine a world without poverty. What would it look like? Is it even possible? How do we get there? When people working at foundations, nonprofit organizations, and government agencies dive into this topic, they typically do so with the assumption that poverty is just a natural part of the universe. And yet, if they simply looked to the anthropological literature, they would think very differently.
Poverty appeared recently — some 10,000 years ago when we entered the Neolithic Age of agriculture with its permanent human settlements, stratification of wealth and inequality, and the invention of imperial conquest. Poverty doesn’t arise, it is created. As software engineers would say “it is a feature, not a bug” of all economic systems built on hoarding behavior and the concentration of power.
The best academic sources for this topic are Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame by Christopher Boehm and Debt: The First 5000 Years by David Graeber. Boehm’s work includes a detailed exploration of the anthropological literature on hunter-gatherer societies with particular focus on the emergence of social morality. His analysis makes clear that egalitarianism ruled the day throughout the vast majority of human history. Would-be dictators could not rise to power because their selfish behaviors would jeopardize the social cohesion on which the tribe depended for its survival.
Graeber’s work corrects a widely held misunderstanding about the invention of money. Contrary to what is said in nearly all economic textbooks, money did not arise to help people barter goods with one another. In every historic instance where some kind of coinage was introduced the scenario was the same. A warrior chieftain would rise to power, build a professional army, and begin to pillage neighboring lands. Soldiers were unable to grow their own food, make clothing, or build shelter. So they had to be paid money (and the conquered were forced by the threat of violence to accept it).
Were money invented to pay soldiers? (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
I share these bits of anthropological evidence as part of the Story of Poverty Creation. Throughout most of human history, there was either enough for everyone or the group suffered collectively. Poverty didn’t exist. Until, that is, complex societies arose, following the agrarian revolution, with separate social classes and the now familiar divisions of labor we take for granted in our own industrial world.
The social cohesion expressed in small tribal groups (e.g. shaming or punishing would-be dictators to keep them in check) was broken apart by the hierarchies of power. These hierarchies were accompanied by the invention of two new qualities in human communities — inequality and poverty. The few would hoard the riches by making it scarce to the majority.
So we should be able to envision a world without poverty quite easily. Just think back to the small bands of humans hunting and gathering on the savannah throughout most of our history as a species. Of course, this is not a very satisfying picture for the 21st century and the global civilization that brings us so many wonders of the modern world — medicine, long life, the ability to travel, such a wondrous variety of foods and cultures to explore, etc. So we still have a challenge of envisioning the great complexities of social life today without any hint of chronic poverty.
Luckily, the puzzle pieces for building such a world can be found in the same antiquities from which we sprang. It was the capacity for group sanctioning of anti-social behavior that kept small tribes from starving the majorities of their kin. In today’s world, this sanctioning process will naturally be more sophisticated — transparency and accountability through public institutions, decentralized communication systems, and so forth. But the basic principles will be the same.
Humans got to the present by acting out our cooperative social morality. We are still genetically very much the same as we were when this innate psychological capacity evolved in our ancestral lines. And so we can take the many findings from human evolution and apply them to the present to start building a new world without poverty.
It may frustrate the many “charity” groups who earn their livings by serving the poor to learn that more schools, trucks filled with food and supplies, and “bandaid” solutions with regard to the spread of disease or violence against women are not going to be enough. We have to bring chronic inequality to an end by radically transforming the paradigms of finance and political power –in other words, change the way we sanction moral behavior as a society — before we have any hope of bringing global poverty to an end.
From there, it becomes possible to see many structures of society (e.g. tax havens, corporate subsidies, money-influence in elections, etc.) that help create poverty. But in order to see these structural causes, we must first recognize that poverty itself is a human invention. We create it by design. And by design, we can unmake it.
Joe Brewer is a researcher at Culture2 Inc. where he combines insights from complexity research, cognitive science, and cultural evolution to address major challenges confronting humanity. He works extensively with nonprofit organizations, government agencies, and social impact businesses to support the transition to planetary thriving.