2:   Sen and the Art of Market-Cycle Maintenance

Molly Scott Cato

How do you know that Adam and Eve  were Russian?

Because they thought they were in paradise  when they had no clothes and only one apple  to share between them.

— Russian joke

Ever since the publication of Peter  Townsend’s book, Poverty in the  United Kingdom, in 19791, liberals have  generally agreed that an absolute  definition of poverty is archaic and  that in a modern, civilised society we  should define poverty in relation to  some proportion of the average  income in that society rather than in  terms of the absolute minimum  necessary for survival. The most  recent contribution to this consensus  comes from a Nobel-Prize-winning  economist, and darling of the liberal  elite, Amartya Sen.

Sen’s approach to poverty has been  refined over several decades, most  recently in his collection of essays,  Development as Freedom. In this he  provides a powerful case for his  ‘capability approach’ to poverty,  suggesting that the inability to function in society is the best marker of  poverty, and that this can be related to  different levels of actual income in  different societies at different times.  “Poverty” he says, “must be seen as  the deprivation of basic capabilities  rather than merely as lowness of  incomes.”2 He goes on: “Being  relatively poor in a rich country can  be a great capability handicap, even  when one’s absolute income is high in  terms of world standards. In a generally opulent country, more income is  needed to buy enough commodities to  achieve the same social functioning’.3

Sen considers that in this definition he  has achieved a neat transcendence of  the old, and admittedly rather sterile,  debate about the relative versus the  absolute definition of poverty. From  my perspective, however, the capability definition seems to include  within it an assumption of the relative  definition of poverty without making  this explicit, and, more importantly,  without addressing the possible  disadvantages of such a definition.  This matters to those of us striving to  achieve sustainability because a  relative poverty definition means that  the resources required to reduce  poverty are related to a country’s level  of economic growth and the pressure  on the planet that such growth  creates. 

Traditional economists see the  economic system as being like the  peach in the Roald Dahl story James  and the Giant Peach: it will simply  expand for ever, while we sit on its  ever-fattening skin, enjoying the  sunshine, and munching to our hearts’  content. Greens, on the other hand,  are opposed to growth because they  recognise that planet Earth is a closed  system. Growth must face the limits  imposed by that system, whether they  become apparent via resource depletion or the overloading of the natural  environment with waste products.  And, since the resources of planet  Earth are finite, if there are five  peaches and I eat four, that only  leaves one for you. Or if we eat five  between us and then our friend  Bettina comes along, she will have to  do without. 

From a Green perspective, then, the  danger of defining poverty as relative  is that it follows the growth dynamic.  If, as the relative definition requires,  we base our understanding of poverty  on the consumption of a sample of  ‘ordinary people’, then it will be  driven by the consumerist, advertising- led society we live in. Most people  consider a fridge a necessity, but what  about a tumble-dryer, a mobile phone,  or an MP3 player. [this list was already  left behind by the growth dynamic!]

Unfortunately, the assumption that the  standard of living typical of one’s  neighbours is a given, which one can  rightfully claim for oneself, is unquestioned in Sen’s theory: ”The need to  take part in the life of a community  may induce demands for modern  equipment (televisions, videocassette  recorders, automobiles and so on) in a  country where such facilities are more  or less universal (unlike what would  be needed in less affluent countries),  and this imposes a strain on a relatively poor person in a rich country  even when that person is at a much  higher level of income compared with  people in less opulent countries” (p.  90).

In a rich society, as the rich accumulate more gadgets, the poor will be  forced to follow along, always a little  behind, always rather ‘deprived’, but  always in the direction of an inexorable increase in consumption. But  what about international comparisons?  It would be naïve to ignore the fact  that General Motors is targeting the  Chinese market with advertising that  will soon suggest that another one  billion are deprived unless they have a  car. But the planet cannot survive  such a massive increase in CO2  production. We are caught between  the need to avert global warming and  a commitment to permitting equal  development of all nations. A definition of poverty that accepts the  cultural norms about what citizens  have a right to is an advertiser’s dream  but the planet’s nightmare. In this  context it is no accident that the  Green movement has been attacked  on the grounds that it is elitist because  it is opposing the right of citizens of  developing nations to the ‘standard of  living’ that we in the West enjoy.4

Rights and Freedoms

The Courage to Desire Little

An unexpected consequence of the  relative definition of poverty and the  growth dynamic that underlies it is the  loss of another freedom: the freedom  to be poor. In response to the realisation that the level of consumption of  most citizens in the developed world  is a threat to the survival of our  species, some environmentalists have  adopted a frugal lifestyle, yet this can  result in disapproval from their  neighbours. In an article called ‘Poor  not Different’, the German economist  Wolfgang Sachs tells of a visit he  made to Mexico City shortly after the  1985 Earthquake. He was impressed  by the restoration that had been  carried out: 

“We had expected ruins and resignation,  decay and squalor, but our visit had made us  think again: there was a proud neighbourly  spirit, vigorous activity with small building  co-operatives everywhere; we saw a flourishing  shadow economy. But at the end of the day,  indulging in a bit of stock-taking, the  remark finally slipped out: ‘It's all very well,  but, when it comes down to it, these people  are still terribly poor.’ Promptly, one of our  companions stiffened: ‘No somos pobres,  somos Tepitanos’ (‘We are not poor people,  we are Tepitans’) . . . I had to admit to  myself in embarrassment that, quite involuntarily, the cliches of development philosophy  had triggered my reaction.5

The insult was created by Sachs’s  assumption that he could impose an  objective judgement of poverty, that  he could decide from the outside the  acceptable standard of living, that he  could deprive the Tepitans of their  right to be poor. As Sachs concludes,  “The stereotyped talk of ‘poverty’ fails  to distinguish, for example, between  frugality, destitution and scarcity . . .  Frugality is the mark of cultures free  from the frenzy of accumulation.” His  conclusion about the Mexican village  where he was working was that  ‘Poverty here is a way of life maintained by a culture which recognizes  and cultivates a state of sufficiency;  sufficiency only turns into demeaning  poverty when pressurized by an  accumulating society.’

Much of the suffering for those in  poverty in Britain and Ireland today is  caused by unsatisfied wants rather  than basic needs. Of course we have  no real basis from which to judge  which wants are valid and which not,  but it would be naïve to ignore the  impact of the advertising industry on  such preferences. There have been  cases of mothers going to gaol  because they have stolen expensive  trainers to keep their children happy;  can these women really use poverty as  an excuse? Sen himself presents a  quotation from Adam Smith pointing  to an early awareness of the relative  aspect of poverty, which he offers in  terms of ‘necessaries’:

By necessaries I understand not only  the commodities which are indispensably necessary for the support of life,  but whatever the custom of the  country renders it indecent for  creditable people, even the lower  order, to be without . . . Custom has  rendered shoes a necessary of life in  England. The poorest creditable  person of either sex would be  ashamed to appear in public without  them.6

In other words, people are poor if  they do not have enough money to  buy shoes, not because they need the  shoes to keep their feet warm, but  because they would be embarrassed to  be seen with bare feet. But can we  extend this to the example of the  child who is embarrassed to wear  supermarket-brand trainers to school;  and if so, where do we draw the line?  Certainly, we cannot assume that  wants and needs are the same, or that  either is innate. Wants do not arise  from human nature, or even from a  social agreement; for the most part  they are created by an advertising  industry that has no other purpose.  Following a simplistic relative definition of poverty without taking this  into account will inevitably lead to  ever-increasing consumption, and the  economic growth that facilitates this.

The Right to Be Socially Excluded

The importance of consumption in  establishing who is in poverty has  advanced in recent years thanks to the  redefinition of the poor as ‘socially  excluded’: as if there were a club we  were all members of that they were  not allowed to join. Of course, within  the club we all agree about what is an  ‘acceptable’ way to live, what items we  should all have, how often we should  wash, how our children should be  dressed and should behave. And the  most serious cause of being excluded  from the group is being unemployed.  Those who are accidentally out of  work may be considered with patronising sympathy; in the UK they may  claw their way back into the club by  claiming various means-tested benefits. But what about those who reject  the work ethic, or the kinds of  employment that are possible within a  complex, developed, capitalist consumer society? What about those who  choose to exclude themselves? The  refusal to grant normal social rights to  those who are poor, and especially  those who are unemployed, is not an  accident: as Beder has demonstrated,  the social inferiority of those outside  the work system is an important  support system for the work ethic.7

There is much evidence to support  the contention that the psychological  results of unemployment are almost as  crippling as the financial ones,8 but  this is a consequence of the nature of  our economic system rather than an  intrinsic aspect of human nature.  There is no reason why paid work  should provide the only basis of our  human identity, such that we claim a  ‘right to work’.9 When stripped of its  capitalist assumptions, this clarion call  seems likely to fall on deaf ears. Can  you imagine a Trobriand islander or a  New Age Traveller marching for the  right to work? If paid work is necessary for our identity within a capitalist  economy then that is a problem with  capitalism, not with those who choose  to find their identity elsewhere.  Instead of a system that assumes work  as the norm, many of the ‘self-excluded’ have suggested an alternative  view of the provision for basic needs  based around a Citizens’ Income as a  rightful share of the national or global  wealth.10

The Freedom to Destroy the Planet

A debate has been underway amongst  political philosophers at least since the  time of Hobbes and Rousseau about  competing freedoms. I may have  perfect freedom of action up to the  point where my actions impinge on  you. At this point the argument  diverges, with libertarians arguing that  the disagreement should be resolved  in law, with the prior or more essential right taking supremacy, while  more interventionist political theorists  allow a role for government in  determining fair allocations. But the  expansion of human activity has  added an extra dimension that has yet  to find its way into political philosophy. Following the recognition of the  closing of the planetary frontier and  the pressure on its ecology resulting  from such a vast human population,  the Brundtland definition of  ‘sustainable development’ makes clear  our obligation to weigh our freedoms  against those of future generations.

As individuals we may claim the  freedom to drive whenever we  choose, and as societies we may  choose the freedom to produce  whatever level of carbon dioxide we  choose, but how can we justify this  when our actions remove the freedom  of those in Bangladesh to exist, as  rising sea levels overwhelm their  low-lying land, or when we deprive  future generations of existence on a  planet whose air is no longer clean  enough to breathe? The trivial  freedoms to buy and sell, or to decide  whether or not to engage in labour- market activity, can be considered  second-order when compared with the  freedom of the species as a whole to  survive. This is the limitation to the  concept of ‘development as freedom’  and it is absolute.

Hyacinth Bouquet and the Trip to  Mount Splashmore

The key concept of ‘shame’ features  prominently in discussions by those  who favour a relative definition of  poverty, including Adam Smith and  Sen. Although these definitions are  almost invariably made by men, those  who suffer the shame are more likely  to be women. The struggles of  women to maintain their social  position are the stuff of dramas  ranging from mam scrubbing the  front step free of coal dust in How  Green Was my Valley to Hyacinth  Bouquet in the UK sitcom ‘Keeping  up Appearances’ who is always  peering through her net curtains to  make sure she has successfully kept  up with the Joneses next door. Yet  where do these ideas about social  acceptability come from? Although  they are often taken as innate they are  of course the result of social processes  and primarily the overpowering  influence of the advertising industry.  If you doubt this you need only spend  some time perusing the pages of the  International Journal of Advertising and  Marketing to Children. It includes  articles on marketing to children via  the classroom and the internet and  provides helpful profiles of what  might appeal. An example is reproduced as Box 1.

The statements such as ‘turned on by  money and the prospect of making  money’, ‘Violent TV and Videos rule!’,  and ‘risk takers with tobacco, alcohol,  drugs (including solvent abuse) and  gambling’ are reproduced without  comment: they are useful selling tips  requiring no moral judgement.

This lack of special moral concern for  children is unsurprising given that we  read in another article that ‘I look at  children as just another group of  consumers’. This director of a promotional marketing agency continues:

I would like to introduce you to Charlotte;  she is my target and my customer. What do  I know about her and her friends? . . . She  has taken pester power to new levels.  Remember her disposable income depends on  it.11

These pressures on the consumers of  the future are often mediated through  their mothers. Advertisers have turned  their attention to children as responsive targets of advertising, but since  they are legally barred from earning  for themselves, once they have been  inculcated with a desire for a certain  product, in order to obtain it they  must put pressure on their parents --  so-called ‘pester power’. This phenomenon is satirised in the episode of  The Simpsons when Bart and Lisa  watch the advert for the themepark  Mount Splashmore and repeatedly ask  Homer ‘Can we go to Mount Splash- more?’ all through the evening.  Eventually he gives in, asking ‘If I say  yes, will you let me get some sleep?’

An account of the advertisers’ plans  for China demonstrates their endless  amoral concern to create new and  wider markets for their brands:

China’s population of children is the largest  in the world. . . Since marketers tend to use  a simple formula for determining market  potential of a geography, that is People X  Dollars = Markets, these facts are causing  China’s children to receive increasing  attention from Western marketers. Brands  such as Lego, Barbie, Nestle, M&M, Pepsi,  Kraft, Crayola, Johnson & Johnson, Nike,  and McDonalds are in head-to-head  competition with many of China’s major  producers and retailers for a share of this  market.12

The domination of global capitalism  by brands has aroused concern in  recent years13, and it is clear that this  strategy is most successful with  children. ‘Brands’, we are told ‘are an  active part of their lives, they are  fundamental to their existence. The  wrong trainers or T-shirt and there  goes all that hard earned credibility.14  Advertisers also attempt to persuade  us that they play a useful role in  ‘socialising’ our children, although the  people that are likely to result will be  shoppers rather than human beings as  we are informed that: ‘Socialization is  the process by which "young people  acquire skills, knowledge and attitudes  relevant to their functioning as  consumers in the marketplace"’.15 And  it is made clear why advertisers target  children: ‘In the short term, the  hedonic value of a commercial, its  emotional allure, and its ability to tap  into powerful motives may be sufficient to eclipse momentarily any  cognitive knowledge/defense’.16 In  less technical terms, advertising on  children works because they are  intellectually vulnerable. Their additional advantage is that they have a  much longer ‘consumption life  expectancy’ (as an adman might say)  than the older person with more  disposable income and hence are the  ideal target for maintenance of the  market cycle.17


The relative definition of poverty and  the growth dynamic of a capitalist  society enjoy a symbiotic relationship,  catalysed by the advertising industry.  These major forces combine to  impose consumptive pressure on  people and the planet and in themselves increase perceived inequality  and hence unhappiness. Such definitions actually reduce human freedom,  by setting a standard of consumption  that we feel pressured to achieve. The  role of the advertising industry in  driving the onward advance of that  standard is clear: its purpose is to  manipulate the market for consumer  goods against the interest of both  people and planet. The limits of  planetary capacity must be recognised  as a brake on this accelerating movement towards greater consumption.

It is important that we do not seem to  be self-satisfied and neglectful of the  needs of others. But what we need to  keep sight of is the fact that it is  inequality that is the central problem.  Studies repeatedly indicate that  income disparities generate ill health  in advanced societies such as the USA  and UK.18 A correlation of the Robin  Hood Index (used as a measure of  inequality in societies) with longevity  indicates that inequality causes reduced life expectation for the wealthy  as well as the impoverished: the more  unequal the society the worse are the  life chances of everybody in that  society.19 Research on the psychological ill-health of citizens of the United  Kingdom concludes that the constant  pressure to reach a level of consumption equivalent to that of our neighbours generates a significant  proportion of the epidemic of mental  illness.20

So from the viewpoint of sustainability what is an acceptable level of  consumption? The major constraint of  global warming means that we may  indeed be able to find an absolute  answer to this question. The absolute  planetary limit we are facing is the  ability of the planet to absorb carbon  dioxide. The Contraction and Convergence model  is based on  respecting this limit and sharing it  fairly between countries. The Tyndall  Institute based at the University of  East Anglia in Norwich has recently  proposed that each person within a  country should be allocated their share  of carbon dioxide and that those who  consume more should have to compensate those who consume less. The  next step is to impute the carbon  dioxide used in their production into  goods purchased and the absolute  level of sustainable consumption  could be established. This would be a  global standard, with no special  pleading for over-indulgent Western  lifestyles.

To be reduced to a global average  consumption would be a severe shock  for most of us. So more immediately,  we need to challenge the ideological  power of the advertising industry and  reject the pressure to consume. Many  in the green movement already do  this, setting themselves a different  standard and choosing to live within  planetary limits. In past centuries  inequality on a massive scale was  often patiently tolerated because  people believed in the concept of  ‘social station’ and did not aspire to  live like ‘their betters’. A similar  acceptance is found in countries  where a rigid hierarchical class system  -- an example is the Indian caste  system -- is used to justify massive  inequality. This sort of inequality  would no longer be tolerated in a  modern, Western society, and yet  people can find other stories to justify  their lower levels of consumption,  perhaps substituting their status as  planetary saviour for material wealth.

From a philosophical perspective the  discussion of poverty needs to  question what we really value, once  we have extracted that concept from  its ubiquitous attachment to the word  ‘monetary’. While material consumption needs to be reduced to achieve  sustainability, we can enjoy infinite  amounts of the best things in life,  which are free and cause no environ- mental destruction. The area of Wales  where I live is receiving the highest  level of European grant aid because of  the low level of GDP per capita. Yet  in my small town of 10,000 people we  have 20 choirs, two cinemas, an arts  centre, healthy locally-grown organic  food, beautiful countryside, the  seaside, and infinite amounts of  friendship, dance, massage, and fun.  We do not have work opportunities  or high levels of consumption, but  most people here do not seem to miss  them much.

The route to sustainable living requires us to challenge assumptions  about human happiness and well- being. If, as Sen and the comfortable  liberal consensus suggest, development is about freedom, then we must  not forget the Brundtland definition  and must respect the freedom of  future generations to meet their own  needs. We must also free ourselves  from the advertising industry’s views  of what constitutes an acceptable level  of consumption and be spared its  endless cycle of new market creation.  This would represent a move towards  development as emancipation, from  oppressive economic structures and  the ideologies that perpetuate them.

— Molly Scott Cato


1. Townsend, P. (1979, 1989 edn.), Poverty in  the United Kingdom: A Survey of Household  Resources and Standards of Living  (Harmondsworth: Penguin).

2. Sen, Amartya (2001), Development as Freedom,  first published 1999 (Oxford: University  Press), p. 87.

3. Ibid. 89, author’s emphasis

4. See Richard North’s (1995), Life on a  Modern Planet: A Manifesto for Progress  (Manchester: Manchester University Press);  Frank Furedi (1997), Population and Development: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Polity).

5. Sachs, Wolfgang (1992), ‘Poor, Not  Different’, in Paul Ekins and Manfred  Max-Neef (eds.), Real Life Economics: Under- standing Wealth Creation (London: Routledge),  p. 161.

6. Smith, Adam (1776/1987), An Inquiry into  the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations  (Edinburgh: Akros), pp. 351-2.

7. See Beder, Sharon (2001), Selling the Work  Ethic: From Puritan Pulpit to Corporate PR  (London: Zed Books); see also Scott, Molly  (1996), Seven Myths about Work (Aberystwyth:  Green Audit).

8. Send discusses this point in Development as  Freedom, pp. 94-6; see also Smith, Richard  (1997), Unemployment: A Disaster and a Challenge  (Oxford: University Press).

9. See my further discussion in ‘Butcher,  Baker, Candlestick-maker: Lifeworlds and  Work Identities with Particular Reference to  the South Wales Valleys’, presented at the  conference Linking Theory and Practice:  Issues in the Politics of Identity, University of  Wales, Aberystwyth, September 1998; and ch.  4 of The Pit and the Pendulum: A Cooperative  Future for Work in the Welsh Valleys, (Cardiff:  University of Wales Press, 2004). See also the  conclusions of a workshop at an OECD  conference on the future of work held in  Oslo in 1996, which reached similar conclusions: published as Creativity, Innovation and Job  Creation (Paris: OECD, 1997).

10. Van Parijs, Paul (1995), Real Freedom for  All (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

11. Bowen, Mike (2000), ‘Kids Culture’,  International Journal of Advertising and Marketing  to Children, 2/1: 19-23, pp. 18-19.

12. McNeal, James U. and Zhang, Hongxia  (2000), ‘Chinese Children’s Consumer Behaviour: A Review’, International Journal of Advertising and Marketing to Children, 2/1: 31-5, p. 31.

13. Klein, Naomi (2000), No Logo: No Space,  No Choice, No Jobs: Taking Aim at the Brand  Bullies (London: Flamingo).

14. Bowen, op cit., p. 19)

15. Mangelburg, Tamara F. and Bristol, Terry  (1999), ‘Socialization and Adolescents’  Scepticism toward Advertising’, ch. 2 in  Macklin, M. Carole and Carlson, Lester  (1999), Advertising to Children: Concepts and  Controversies (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage), p.  28.

16. Goldberg, Marvin E. (1999), ‘Advertising’s  Effects’, ch. 15 in Macklin, M. Carole and  Carlson, Lester (1999), Advertising to Children:  Concepts and Controversies (Thousand Oaks,  Calif.: Sage), p. 287.

17. See also Beder, Sharon (1998), ‘A Community View’ from a conference Caring for  Children in the Media Age, ed. John Squires  and Tracy Newlands, New College Institute  for Values Research, Sydney, pp. 101-111.  Available online at: sts/sbeder/children.html.

18. Kawachi, Ichiro and Kennedy, Bruce P.  (1997), ‘Health and Social Cohesion: Why  Care About Income Inequality?’, British  Medical Journal, 314: 1037-40.

19. Kennedy, B.P., Ichiro, K., and Prothrow- Stith, D. (1996), ‘Income Distribution and  Mortality: Cross Sectional Ecological Study of  the Robin Hood Index in the United States’,.  British Medical Journal, 312:1004-1007.

20. James, O. (1998), Britain on the Couch  Treating a Low Serotonin Society (London:  Random House).