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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,... Read more

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  • Poverty and environment redux

    I commend Grist's editors for this landmark series. Their efforts, along with the many great writers who have contributed, have helped exemplify one of the central themes of environmental justice:

    Environmentalism in the absence of people (as both political participants and right-endowed members of the Earth community) has led to worse social and ecological conditions by concentrating the negative impacts of industrial civilization on the disempowered, while not solving the core ecological issues it set out to fix.

    If this is correct, then environmental justice offers a very serious and very useful critique of our environmentalist agenda.

    If, as reformers, we can face up to this difficult reality, we can begin to re-form our own movement in ways that recognize our short-comings and work to avoid them in the future.

    The critique implies a question: How do we be sure to "include people as both political participants and right-endowed members of the Earth community" in our environmentalist agenda?

    I believe we must. I have offered some tentative suggestions for how to do so elsewhere (I would add make all landscape decisions local in character to that list), but I would love to hear from others who are wrestling with these issues.