This week’s New Yorker carries an excellent essay by John Cassidy discussing the history and evolving standards of poverty in the United States, and some of the different ways in which poverty can (and should) be measured.

Most interesting and relevant to some of our discussions is the idea of “relative poverty.” If we hold most of what we call poverty in the U.S. up against the 1 billion dispossessed that Mike Davis writes about in his new book Planet of Slums, we find that most Americans are incredibly wealthy. Even if we compare poor Americans today with poor Americans in the 1960s when poverty was first "discovered" in this country, we find today’s poor loaded up with stuff (most of America’s poor own television sets and dishwashers and have running water and electricity, among other services).

But this kind of measurement may miss the point about poverty, Cassidy suggests:

Although many poor families own appliances once associated with rich households, such as color televisions and dishwashers, they live in a society in which many families also possess DVD players, cell phones, desktop computers, broadband internet connections, powerful game consoles, S.U.V.s, health-club memberships, and vacation homes. Without access to these goods, children from poor families may lack skills — such as how to search the Web for help-wanted ads — that could enhance their prospects in the job market. In other words, relative deprivation may limit a person’s capacity for social achievement.

Cassidy concludes that a more honest measure of poverty would use the concept of social justice — measured by relative access to the necessities of a given society — and work to remedy the problems of access in modern society.

From an ecological perspective, this may sound like a terrible idea. Why wouldn’t remedying the problem of access put even more pressure on already taxed resources? Aren’t we talking about merely justifying the profligate consumption patterns of the developed world at the heart of the modern ecological crisis?

But maybe we should take seriously Cassidy’s suggestion that the sort of social leveling that would occur under such remedies would also dampen rampant competition; the solution could thoroughly change the context of politics and public dialogue.

To me, this is compelling and an extremely strategic way to begin addressing the problem of power that stalls all our efforts to construct a more sane, reasonable, habitat-friendly world.

Understanding poverty is not about trying to define the volume of material goods someone should or should not have, but trying to understand the relative level of participation individuals are granted (and structured into or out of) in their political and economic society.

This helps draw the connection environmentalists are trying to make between poverty and the environment. The old paradigm said poverty made over-population, and over-population led to environmental deterioration. (Ugh!)

The new paradigm being offered here says poverty is a relative condition across the globe. Its consequences are not only hunger, deprivation, and poor health, but also powerlessness and lack of social/political engagement. This absence of political power, as Mike Davis’s "Slum Like It Not" shows, creates the global ecological vulnerability that threatens all of us.

Save the Earth; end poverty.

Are we ready to make to make this shift and take on this challenge? I think we have to be.