Our Habit of Forgetfulness…

‘This course is called the ‘transformation of the ancient world,” the lecturer pronounced, ‘because that world was ancient. Life was totally different to the modern day. You and I struggle to imagine an era before the agricultural revolution. What it meant was that a considerable body of people were needed to provide for the few. In fact, in Roman society, we estimate that eighty percent of people worked for half a year to provide for the twenty percent. That eighty percent don’t appear in our historical records, they are just a necessary statistic for antique culture to work. This was a different world…’[1]  

Leaving that lecture, I was left asking how different that world really was. In one sense, a swift examination of British culture leaves this lecturer vindicated. Not many people in Britain work the land anymore, those who do use combine-harvesters and tractors. British agriculture works in a very different way today. Most people end up in jobs in the tertiary, services sector; most of us in Oxford end up in very comfortable jobs in that sector. Life is totally different for us, he is right. Where his account falls down is when we consider the picture with a wider lens. We live in an age of globalization. The agricultural revolution may have transformed British agriculture but the majority of our food is not from Britain. As a society, we are wonderfully provided for… but not by ourselves. The luxuries we have are imported. Produced by people far way, we take them for granted. It is easy to forget that there is someone on the other end of that product; that there is someone being paid tuppence to produce goods we think are necessities. The many providing for the few is not just an ancient phenomenon; it is a very modern problem.

How real this problem is becomes clear when we analyse the statistics. In 2010, the World Bank estimated that 1,215 million people live on $1.25 a day or less. Those living on less than $2.50 amounted to nearly half of the world’s population, more than 3 billion people. Perhaps more interestingly here, the Human Development Report of 2007 reported that eighty percent of the world population live on less than $10 a day (PPP). Eighty percent of the world lives on less than $3700pA. The richest twenty percent account for three-quarters of world income. It is sobering to think what these statistics suggest. Life hasn’t changed as much as we’d hope. How can it be that even today the eighty percent provide for the twenty percent? We look back at history and say what about the 80% who didn’t have a voice? Will people be asking the same question of our generation? 

Why write this? It is not the intention of this piece to provide a solution to the problem – there are plenty of ways of trying to help alleviate inequality whilst at Oxford. The Oxford Hub, Just Love and Giving What We Can are all approaching the issue from different angles. Our problem is not the methods available, it is the fact that so few of us are willing to engage with them. What is needed is a challenge. If we want to see change, break the cycle that has lasted a millennium, we need a change of mind-set. Human nature is pretty consistent. People like comfort and always have. The reason that inequality is such a feature of history is not because we are innately vindictive – most people intuitively dislike injustice. The reason that inequality is a feature of history is because there is a difference between disliking injustice and being willing to pay a price to make it stop. For us, it is easier to forget the poor than step outside our comfort zone. We fall into a habit of forgetfulness. A few weeks ago, the reality of this was brought home to me. A homeless man came up to me and asked if I could buy him a sandwich. He was shaking with hunger and I couldn’t really say no. As I was walking home, I found myself grumbling that the sandwich had cost more than my average lunch – £4.69. And then I stopped myself. £4.69 – a man, shaking with hunger and I begrudge him £4.69. I’d forgotten just how privileged I am. Let’s not be people who do that. Let’s not live life comfortably unaware of the suffering of other people. Let’s remember the privileged position we are in – and let’s act on it.

[1] Paraphrase


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