EPIBuilding a Sustainable Future
Lester R. Brown

Chapter 5. Our Socially Divided World: Introduction

The social and economic gap between the world's richest 1 billion people and its poorest 1 billion has no historical precedent. Not only is this gap wide, it has been widening for half a century. The differences between the world's most affluent and its poorest can be seen in the contrasts in nutrition, education, disease patterns, family size, and life expectancy.

World Health Organization (WHO) data indicate that roughly 1.2 billion people are undernourished, underweight, and often hungry. At the same time, roughly 1.2 billion people are overnourished and overweight, most of them suffering from exercise deprivation. So while a billion people spend their time worrying whether they will eat, another billion worry about eating too much.1

Perhaps not surprisingly, education levels reflect the deep divide between the rich and the poor. In some industrial countries, more than half of all young people now graduate from college. By contrast, although five centuries have passed since Gutenberg invented the printing press, 875 million adults are illiterate. Unable to read, they are also excluded from the use of computers and the Internet. Because they cannot read or write, their prospects of escaping poverty are not good.2

Disease patterns also reflect the widening gap. The billion poorest suffer mostly from infectious diseases—malaria, tuberculosis, dysentery, and AIDS. Malnutrition leaves infants and small children vulnerable to infectious diseases. Unsafe drinking water takes a heavier toll on those with hunger-weakened immune systems, resulting in millions of fatalities each year. In contrast, among the billion at the top of the global economic scale, it is diseases related to aging, obesity, smoking, and exercise deprivation that take the heaviest toll.3

Close to a billion people live in countries where population size is essentially stable, neither increasing nor decreasing very much. With another group of comparable size living in countries where population is projected to double by 2050, the demographic divide between rich and poor is wider than at any time in history.4

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1. World Health Organization (WHO) cited in Gary Gardner and Brian Halweil, Underfed and Overfed: The Global Epidemic of Malnutrition, Worldwatch Paper 150 (Washington, DC: Worldwatch Institute, 2000), p. 7.

2. Hilaire A. Mputu, Literacy and Non-Formal Education in the E-9 Countries (Paris: UNESCO, 2001), p. 5.

3. WHO and UNICEF, Global Water Supply and Sanitation Assessment 2000 Report (New York: 2000), pp. v, 2; Gardner and Halweil, op. cit. note 1.

4. Population growth rates from Population Reference Bureau (PRB), 2002 World Population Data Sheet, wall chart (Washington, DC: August 2002).


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