New Internationalist

Earth

Issue 320

new internationalist
issue 320 - January-February 2000

Country profile - Saudi Arabia

[image, unknown] From the dense, damp heat of the rainforest to the frozen emptiness of the Arctic tundra, from the bleak, bitter silence of the desert to the cacophonous crowds of its capital cities, Earth's physical appearance is nothing if not diverse. But the contrast between the living conditions of its richest and poorest inhabitants is even harder for the visitor to credit.

In the North American region, for example, a standard household will have automobiles, washing machines for clothes and dishes, electronic ovens, multiple televisions with access to hundreds of digital channels, computers and mobile telephones. People here worry about eating too much rather than too little and are unlucky if they do not live till their late seventies.

A relatively short flight away, North Americans' nearest neighbours to the south-east, in the African region, have been dealt a rather different hand. The majority here cannot expect electricity, let alone sophisticated appliances feeding from it. They have to go out in search of water, which even then may well not be clean. They worry about their next meal rather than their waistline. The average life expectancy is around 50 years, though in many areas three in every ten children will die before the age of five.

Earth's rulers care very little about this vast gulf between rich and poor. Most claim to care when put on the spot but in practice prefer to ensure that their own region's lifestyles are preserved - or actually enhanced. Thus while in 1965 the richest 20 per cent of Earth's people consumed around 70 per cent of its income, they now consume around 85 per cent and are eating up a still-bigger share with every passing year.

What is odd about Earth is that this gross inequality between the minority in the 'developed world' and the majority beyond is no longer sustained by military force. Earth's colonial era had come to an end by the 1960s, a decade which promised a new dawn as the first movements were made towards democracy - a 'United Nations' was formed in 1947 which many thought would evolve into a genuinely democratic government replacing the destruction and chaos caused by rival warlords in the developed zones.

In practice the United Nations (which is significantly located on American soil) has become a representative fig-leaf hiding (though ever less effectively) the dominance of economic warlords just down the road in Washington DC. These warlords seldom have to resort to the use of their indubitable military muscle - though occasionally a rebel territory is bombed back into the Stone Age pour encourager les autres.

Instead a clever system has been developed whereby the poorest regions are so strangled by debt and poverty that they have to come cap in hand to Washington for relief. In order to qualify for such relief they must agree to do the bidding of local governors (or 'adjusters') who ensure that the status quo is preserved and that the supply of raw materials to the rich zones is not interrupted. More cleverly still, the whole system is presented as a triumph for 'freedom'.

Even a passing visitor to Earth soon sees that this is unsustainable - the physical environment has long ago gone into (possibly terminal) decline and disrepair. Sooner or later the regional warlords in Europe, North America and East Asia - and the shadowy corporations with whom they have entered into unholy alliance - will have to be reined in by a meaningful democratic institution. If not, then the disenfranchised majority will surely rise in revolt - provided Earth's own physical structure does not do so first.

A Mar-Shan

 

AT A GLANCE

Illustration by: CLIVE OFFLEY Leader: UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is the figurehead but real power lies with American warlord Bill Clinton.

Economy: GNP per capita $5,051 (Luxembourg $45,360, Mozambique $80). The health of Earth's economy is judged by how much and how fast it is growing rather than by whether it can be sustained. The attempt to divide the world into consumers (the North) and producers (the South) continues.
Monetary unit: Many local currencies but in the marketplace the US dollar is pre-eminent.

People: 6,000,000,000 and counting. Population annual growth rate 1.5% - down from 1.7% in the 1970s and 1980s.

Health: Infant mortality 59 per 1,000 births (Finland 4, Niger 191). The overall infant-mortality rate has declined from 124 per 1,000 births in 1960. But while rates in the sub-Saharan Africa region have been cut by 32%, in the industrialized zone they have tumbled by 81%. In Niger the rate is exactly the same now as it was in 1960.

Culture: There are around 4,000 languages. The most widely used first language is Chinese, which is spoken by about 20% of Earth's inhabitants (70% of those speak Mandarin). The next most spoken mother tongues are English (7%), Spanish (5%), Hindi (4%), Arabic, Bengali and Russian (3%). But English is the most common second language.

 

STAR RATINGS

[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown]
Appalling. The gulf between rich and poor continues to yawn ever wider.
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LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
75%. The absolute number of illiterates declined for the first time ever in the 1990s.

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SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Earth does not yet have to rely on other planets for its raw materials, though accelerating environmental degradation and rape of finite resources may make this necessary one day.

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FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Less of Earth is blighted by military dictatorship than in the 1980s. But the quality of what passes for democracy still leaves much to be desired.

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POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Improving almost everywhere, though oppression remains severe in many regions.

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LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
64 years (Sierra Leone 37, Japan 80). Most regions are improving but the stranglehold of debt and poverty has left an appalling 19 countries (18 of them African) with a life expectancy under 50.


POLITICS

[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown]
The strong rule the roost both in military and economic terms. Democratic institutions that can counter the most powerful governments and corporations have failed to emerge. As a result the key problems of poverty, environment, hunger and human rights are not addressed with any urgency. A political sea change is required in the 21st century.

 

NI star rating

EXCELLENT
GOOD
FAIR
POOR
APPALLING
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