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4. Homelessness and hunger
Goal 4 of RAFT 2035 is that there will be no homelessness and no involuntary hunger.
Goal 4 can be seen as a special case of Goal 3. No one will need to obtain paid work in order to enjoy a life of abundant flourishing. Therefore, present-day problems such as homelessness and involuntary hunger must become things of the past.
After all, secure shelter and reliable access to nutritious sustenance form the basis for many other positive experiences in life.
A stark assessment
The situation in the United Kingdom is described in a November 2018 report by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights. Here’s how the report starts:
The UK is the world’s fifth largest economy, it contains many areas of immense wealth, its capital is a leading centre of global finance, its entrepreneurs are innovative and agile, and despite the current political turmoil, it has a system of government that rightly remains the envy of much of the world. It thus seems patently unjust and contrary to British values that so many people are living in poverty. This is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see the immense growth in foodbanks and the queues waiting outside them, the people sleeping rough in the streets, the growth of homelessness, the sense of deep despair that leads even the Government to appoint a Minister for suicide prevention and civil society to report in depth on unheard of levels of loneliness and isolation. And local authorities, especially in England, which perform vital roles in providing a real social safety net have been gutted by a series of government policies. Libraries have closed in record numbers, community and youth centres have been shrunk and underfunded, public spaces and buildings including parks and recreation centres have been sold off. While the labour and housing markets provide the crucial backdrop, the focus of this report is on the contribution made by social security and related policies.
The results? 14 million people, a fifth of the population, live in poverty. Four million of these are more than 50% below the poverty line, and 1.5 million are destitute, unable to afford basic essentials. The widely respected Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts a 7% rise in child poverty between 2015 and 2022, and various sources predict child poverty rates of as high as 40%. For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster, all rolled into one.
But the full picture of low-income well-being in the UK cannot be captured by statistics alone. Its manifestations are clear for all to see. The country’s most respected charitable groups, its leading think tanks, its parliamentary committees, independent authorities like the National Audit Office, and many others, have all drawn attention to the dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well off in this country. But through it all, one actor has stubbornly resisted seeing the situation for what it is. The Government has remained determinedly in a state of denial. Even while devolved authorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland are frantically trying to devise ways to ‘mitigate’, or in other words counteract, at least the worst features of the Government’s benefits policy, Ministers insisted to me that all is well and running according to plan. Some tweaks to basic policy have reluctantly been made, but there has been a determined resistance to change in response to the many problems which so many people at all levels have brought to my attention.
Also in November 2018, homelessness in the UK was reported as reaching a record high, with 170,000 families and individuals experiencing destitution. This includes 38,000 under-25s and 4,200 over-65s. What’s worse, homelessness has increased every year since 2012.
The UK’s homeless rate of around 0.46% of the population compares poorly with that of many other countries, including Germany (0.37%), France (0.21%), Finland (0.13%), Spain (0.09%), Italy (0.08%), Norway (0.07%), Portugal (0.03%), South Korea (0.022%), and Japan (0.0039%). This gives confidence to the view that homelessness in the UK can be significantly reduced.
Addressing causes of homelessness
Many cases of homelessness arise, not from a shortage of available accommodation, but from individuals suffering psychological issues. This element of homelessness will be addressed by the measures in Goal 2 to significantly reduce mental health problems.
But a number of additional solutions are available to help abolish homelessness. First and foremost, the construction industry should be assessed, not just on its profits, but on its provision of affordable good quality homes – as part of the emerging tech-enabled abundance for all.
Consider the techniques used by the company Broad Sustainable Building, when it erected a 57-storey building in Changsha, capital city of Hunan province in China, in just 19 working days. That’s a rate of three storeys per day. Key to that speed was the use of prefabricated units.
Other important innovations in construction techniques that should be supported and accelerated include 3D printing, robotic construction, inspection by aerial drones, and new materials with unprecedented strength and resilience.
Similar techniques can be used, not just to construct new buildings where none presently exist, but also to refurbish existing buildings – regenerating them from undesirable hangovers from previous eras into attractive contemporary accommodation.
With sufficient political desire, these techniques offer the promise that prices for property over the next 15 years might follow the same remarkable downwards trajectory witnessed in many other product areas – remarkable price declines for TVs, personal computers, smartphones, kitchen appliances, home robotics kits, genetic testing services, and many types of clothing.
Addressing involuntary hunger
Just as for the construction industry, a similar transformation needs to take place in the food industry. Examples of methods that can be utilised to reduce food prices and improve food quality include vertical farming, algae production, and synthetic biology, along with the avoidance of unnecessary food waste.
A major complication here is the amount of misinformation regarding which foods are truly healthy. For example, many companies imply that their sugary, addictive, high-carbohydrate food products are, somehow, good for us. Genuinely useful health advice is frequently drowned out by waves of marketing from well-funded corporations who have unhealthy products to sell.
There also appears to be sharp divisions even between different medical experts as to what kind of diet is actually good for us. Controversies rage over different kinds of fat, different kinds of cholesterol, different kinds of meat, different kinds of sweetener, different kinds of wine, and so on. Given these ambiguities, it’s no surprise that inventive advertising material is able to suggest all kinds of health benefits from products that are actually more likely to harm us than to benefit us.
This is an example of the critical importance of highlighting real scientific methods and findings, rather than people falling for what can be called “fake science”. RAFT 2035 accordingly champions a greater focus on respect for science and objective data.
In principle, biochemical innovations (including GMOs – genetically modified organisms) can improve the quality of food, at the same time as reducing the costs of producing that food. However, there is a risk that debate over these biochemical innovations will lose sight of the goal of increasing human flourishing. Instead, the debate will become dominated by other motivations, namely, on the one hand an obsession with financial profits, and on the other hand a countervailing obsessive distrust of commercial corporations.
The first part of this risk is that powerful agrochemical corporations will develop and market products that boost their financial bottom line, without adequate consideration of negative externalities from these products. The logic of short-term boosts in revenues will lead these corporations to suppress or throw doubt on any studies that query the wisdom of these products.
These corporations are skilled at placing into official regulatory bodies people who are sympathetic to corporate viewpoints. There is often an overly cosy relationship between regulatory bodies and the corporations they are meant to regulate, with managers from one side looking forward to future well-paid employment on the other side of that revolving door. In this way, big-spending corporations often “capture” their regulators, distorting their independence via a mixture of overt and covert pressures. The same corporations often allocate large budgets to lobbying efforts.
Another complicating factor is that politicians are inclined to favour “light touch” regulations. These politicians, often swayed by eloquent lobbyists, look favourably at jumps in profitability for the companies involved, because these jumps contribute to overall metrics of the performance of the economy – and because, in the absence of a more balanced set of metrics, society gives undue attention to statistics of economic growth. Unfortunately, light touch regulation often means ineffective regulation.
An excess of force in one direction often leads to an excessive reaction in the other direction. Because the agrochemical industry is perceived by many critics as being a dangerous obstruction to free enquiry and open discussion, these critics in turn often become implacable foes of the entire industry. Accusations and counter-accusations fly in both directions. Minds narrow as battle positions are championed.
In this adversarial situation, the points of valid science raised by supporters of the agrochemical industry tend to be brushed aside by critics, without proper acknowledgement of their validity. Conversely, the valid safety issues raised by critics tend to be brushed aside by industry supporters, under the rationale that these critics appear to be motivated by bitterness and negativity.
Rather than a hostile discussion, we need an open-minded consideration. Rather than an antagonistic conflict between pro-industry enthusiasts and risk-averse critics, we need to be able to appreciate and integrate the valid observations of all participants in the debate. Rather than a shouting match, what we need is the ability to appreciate and integrate multiple perspectives and insights. And rather than regulators and politicians being out-of-depth in this fast-moving landscape of ideas and innovations, we need to connect everyone to collective intelligence. In this way, healthier food – and desirable high quality housing – will be increasingly available at lower and lower costs.
To accelerate progress with Goal 4, two interim targets for 2025 are proposed:
- The first interim target is agreement on a replacement for the GDP index as the guiding light for evaluating the success of the economy. Rather than focusing on increasing the financial value of goods produced and consumed, we need an alternative which better measures the basis for all-round human flourishing. One good starting point for this work is the UK National Wellbeing Index, produced by the Office of National Statistics.
- The second interim target is to establish a reliable, respected source of information about the true health benefits and risks of different types of diet and different kinds of accommodation. Existing highly contentious arguments about, for example, the role that can be played by GMOs, should have the raw emotion and panic removed from them, so we can all see more clearly what are the real risks and real opportunities.
Alongside good accommodation and good nutrition, access to good education is another basic foundation for people to be able to flourish. The next chapter looks at how the ideas of “spreading abundance” can provide free world-class education to all.
For more information
- Chapter 6, “Towards abundant food”, of the 2019 book by David Wood, Sustainable Superabundance
- The 2018 book by Charles Mann, The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World
- The 2017 book by McKay Jenkins, Food Fight: GMOs and the Future of the American Diet
- The 2013 book by Eric Drexler, Radical Abundance: How a Revolution in Nanotechnology Will Change Civilization
- The 2012 book by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think