Almost everyone I know who has traveled to or lived in the developing world have stories about their experience being close to levels of poverty most of us cannot imagine. When asked how they dealt with it, most said they were only able to confront it by “disconnecting” — going into a kind of blind zone where they “tune out” the death and suffering. Indeed, how do most of us deal with statistics such as a more than a billion people live on less than $2.50 a day and 80% of humanity is scraping by on less than $10. Most of us “tune-out” or give some money as a gesture to relieve our conscience. Attempts to rationalize these kinds of facts as somehow about ‘them’ or just about “their” culture or situation is to be totally blind to the increasingly obvious fact that we’re in this boat together whether we like it or not.
For those in “first class” to ignore or deny that their future and wellbeing are inextricably linked to everyone else in “steerage” is revealing one of the most central and practical ethical and moral dilemmas of all time. The world will have only one future and it will either include everyone or its future will look like many counties today — governments greased by corruption, populations hopelessly resigned and rich gated enclaves surrounded by cardboard barrios and slums with children scouring waste dumps for scraps.
Perhaps the most powerful and elegant expression of this question was in Pope Francis’s Encyclical message earlier this year. He essentially declared that climate change, social injustice and many of the excesses and abuses of capitalism are fundamentally moral issues and that any conscious and thinking person who doesn’t see his or her responsibility in the state of the world today should take a long and soul-searching look in the mirror.
There are many forms of poverty and many different contributing factors to its causes, but there is one overriding cause for its persistence. Poverty, including hunger and starvation, persists because so few people own the problem. They cannot confront the implications of tolerating unimaginable suffering of people who had nothing to do with being born into a particular culture or national conversation at this time in history. These kinds of problems are enormous and seemingly intractable, but they have all been solved in one way or another in various parts of the world. If we could learn from each other and marshal the political will perhaps we can acquire the courage to confront what has to be done.
Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees have recently exposed the scope and size and impact on human lives that the disruption from war and other political problems can reap. Many of these refugees are also motivated by having to live in unsustainable or failed economies. In June at the “World Refugee Day in Geneva,” it was announced that for the first time since WWII, the numbers of displaced people globally has exceeded 50 million. Most of our modern developed nations are stretching to absorb thousands, but the line and demand for sanctuary and opportunity seems endless.
What is more important to confront isn’t that Germany or France or England or the U.S.A. can allow 10 or 20 or even 50 thousand to immigrate, but what will the world do with the millions of other refugees who are waiting in camps for someone to resolve their situation. Since most have had to cross a line of no return there aren’t many options other than turn our backs and wait for either starvation, violence or a virus to ease our conscience. Most of the refugees from Syria are fleeing the war, but millions of others are economic refugees seeking opportunity. We don’t think about our immigration problems in the USA as refugee problem, but in many ways it is very much the same — impoverished people seeking a new life and opportunity in a rich nation.
Finally, if we are honest and look not too far into the future we can predict with a great deal of confidence that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet. Regardless of where you stand on the causes of climate change, the facts are not assailable and even if everyone and every government begins a full-court press to reduce greenhouse gases and restore rain forests and recycle everything in sight, the fact is that we won’t turn the ship around in time to avoid the economic collapse of dozens if not hundreds of small and developing nations. The result will be that their populations will as a matter of survival be forced to seek asylum as refugees and immigrants. Most studies on the timing and impact of climate change are speculating that we have somewhere between 10 and 20 years before the windows of opportunity are closed and it is simply too late. As we all know, when we are looking at a 10 to 20 year prediction of anything, it is more likely that we’ll feel the impacts much sooner and many are arguing that we already are.
If we accept the statistic that 80% of us are getting by on less that $10 a day which is roughly six billion people and if only half of those are forced to flee intolerable situations due to politics, poverty, the environment or lack of any kind of economic opportunity then the rest of us will need to rethink what we will do with three billion uninvited guests.