A world that doesn’t need poverty

For many of us, there’s a real tension between the mess that the world has become and the world that we see as possible. To understand what’s going on, and to figure out what to do next, we need to “zoom out” and look at what is happening over a much longer period of time.

The graph below shows human population going back to the year 0 AD. If you want to go back further, just extend the straight line to the left for another 10,000 years or so. The graph looks pretty scary, with population skyrocketing for the last hundred years, and it has prompted many people to worry that the population will increase indefinitely.

But when you look more closely at this curve, as shown below, you see that it’s actually an S-curve. Current United Nations projections have human population leveling off sometime after 2100 somewhere between 11 and 12 billion. Not so bad after all!

In the early 1970s, Dr. Jonas Salk (the biologist who developed the polio vaccine) pointed out that there’s an inflection point along the S-curve between the “concave up” portion and the “concave down” portion, and that a species must fundamentally change its behavior in order to produce that shift. If we humans are really producing an S-curve, we must be starting to do things very differently. (By contrast, species that don’t change their behaviorlike lemmings, for examplesee their populations pass through cycles of increase and collapse.)

Salk wrote that humans seem to be passing from Phase A to Phase B of human evolution, and that the underlying values of these two phases are very different. Writing in the 1970s, he could identify the values of Phase Arelated to growthbut it was too early to describe the values of Phase B.

Now that it’s 2016, I’m willing to make some guesses in this regard. I think we are seeing a value shift from achievement to equity, from exclusivity to inclusion, and from conformity to authenticity. As evidence on this shift on a global scale, I’d cite the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the Sustainable Development Goals (2015), and the Paris agreement on climate change (2016).

In the U.S., I’d cite the Affordable Care Act (2010), the “Occupy” movement (2011), the Supreme Court’s marriage equality ruling (2015), the surprising viability of the Sanders campaign (2016), and recent legal battles over transgender rights. (I mean, three years ago what proportion of Americans even knew what the word “transgender” meant?)

This shift has been frustrating for progressive Boomers who have worked for half a century on social issues, and who at this point are asking themselves, “Why can’t we just have universal healthcare coverage?” and “Why can’t we just have a living wage?” We see on the S-curve (see below) that the “inflection point,” which is actually a straight line lasting from 1965 to 2020overlaps perfectly with the adult working years of the Boomer generation, which may explain why they feel so frustrated. They’ve been living through the biggest shift in human values in 10,000 years, and they’ve seen the shift coming while people all around them have been stuck in the past.

As we look back on Phase A, we see that the system we have created based on the values of achievement, exclusivity, and conformity requires poverty as an essential element of the system. We sometimes see poverty as an unfortunate side-effect of the system, but it’s not. It is an absolutely essential component of the system that we have all created.

If you define yourself by your achievements (especially in financial terms), then you need people who have achieved less that you. If you are defined by your membership in an exclusive circle, then you must keep others out. If you value conformity, then you must ostracize those who do not conform. Thus, the current system necessitates a underclass of those who are poor, excluded, and different.

The system we could create in Phase B does not require poverty. In a system based on equity, inclusion, and authenticity, most actors may very well want to eliminate poverty altogether, and they may consistently act on that basis. We are seeing this already in the coming of age of corporate social responsibility, in the rise of business models (e.g., social enterprise, social impact investing) that integrate financial success and social good, and in new hybrid legal structures (e.g., B-corporations).

This has huge implications for nonprofit organizations whose mission is to reduce poverty, and for years have been the only organizations with that mission. Nonprofits often seen themselves in opposition to other system actors, like corporations, but those other actors may no longer be the enemy. As the private sector plays a more positive social role, the nonprofit’s traditional role of mitigating the economy’s negative effects will be less necessary and less sustainable. Further, some nonprofits will increasingly be accused of redundancy and “rent-seeking” behaviore.g., we’ve always existed so we should continue to exist. This will likely show up as reduced public funding for nonprofits, greater difficulty with private fundraising, and a reduction in traditional nonprofit volunteering.

Nonprofits will need to re-imagine their own roles. One way to start is to ask, “What value do we bring to a world that already wants to reduce poverty, and is in the process of doing so?” Nonprofits have been alone on the moral high ground for many decades, but they’re not alone anymore. That’s going to take some time to get used to. But by placing themselves mentally in Phase B of human evolution, in which the values of equity, inclusion, and authenticity are widely shared, nonprofits (or whatever legal structure they choose in the future) can discover what they have to offer that has not yet been brought forth.