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Written by John Young-Jung Lee


The bad fruit of dehumanization comes from human being’s sinfulness, which is realized throughout history as oppression and exploitation of the powerless and, in the modern world of globalization, in the widening gap between rich and poor, environmental depletion and degradation. These problems are so complex and inter-related to each other and the prescriptions for the solution are varied. In this perplexity, the problem is how can we justify any program or strategy. What we are able to ascertain is that the fundamental resolution of these problems should point to recovering genuine humanity and, in our reality, begins with asking concrete questions based on the “preferential option for the poor.”

The “preferential option of the poor” is the hermeneutic key which is witnessed in the Bible and through Jesus Christ. The shift from the “option for the rich” to the “option for the poor” is not a mere historical development, but rather a revolution of the whole life in which the quality is totally different from that of the past. This shift enables us to have a true “beginning anew,” and for its historicization, Ignacio Ellacuría proposes the “civilization of poverty” as a point of departure and fundamental reference to take the place of the “civilization of wealth.”[1]

The “civilization of poverty” is a fresh alternative we have to consider seriously in a world where the notion of production oriented development prevails. If any ideology or strategy is not based upon the fundamental basis of the “option for the poor,” it is not a genuine solution or it merely is a superficial remedy. The “option for the poor” must be the base of any ideology or strategy for the resolution, and the “civilization of poverty” is a way in which we live out our faith in the “option for the poor.” The “civilization of poverty” proposes the dignifying of work thus values work as the means of perfecting humanity, and rejects the concept of work as a mere object for the production of capital[2].   When we actualize the “civilization of poverty,” we are able to envision the hope for the better future.

The “civilization of poverty” can be actualized in many different dimensions of economic activity. As an example, the GPI, which includes more than twenty aspects of our economic lives that speaks mainly of the painful side of reality, is the better assessment of real life situation than the GDP which ignores all these aspects. The new index, GPI, is a step closer for the poor and is a way in which we hear different voices and enables us to have a closer look at the situation “as it is.” The fundamental difference between the GDP and the GPI is that the latter is based on “the option for the poor” and finally leads us to “the civilization of poverty.” The GPI is a reliable index upon which we can project our future and plan for the holistic resolution of the world’s complex problems. Another proposal that suggests a concrete actualization of the “civilization of poverty” is Maria Mies’ “subsistence perspective.”


Maria Mies claims that the hope for a new life for present and future generations can be found only in the survival struggles of grassroots movements, hence suggests a feminist’s paradigm, a “subsistence perspective.”[3]  The subsistence perspective is based on a self-sustaining basic life, which brings out the power of grassroots in a positive direction. Mies finds that the subsistence perspective works especially for the resolution of the environmental problem as well as other related problems.

In regards to the ecological crisis, the socialist alternative is based on the same exploitative principles as their capitalist counterparts. The heart of the problem is not solely in the ideology, but rather in the people’s destructive attitude to work and the people’s relationship to nature[4].  It causes over-production without considering the need of consumer. Promoting the balance of the dynamics between production and consumption is a precondition for the resolution of the environmental problems, and the subsistence provides it.

The subsistence perspective seeks to produce use-values by self-provisioning and self-sufficiency and, since it is a perspective coming out of the reality of the problem itself, provides adequate and appropriate prescriptions. As an example, the SSK-commune lived off the garbage by collecting, repairing and re-selling old household goods, cleaning houses, gardening and the like[5].  The committed leaders of the SSK, by convincing a biologist to create a method to make compost out of organic kitchen waste, succeeded in developing a new and creative self-sustaining ecological technology.

One of the significant factors of the subsistence perspective is its immediacy. The subsistence perspective is a perspective of the people who experience the problem and who work for the resolution of their problem. Therefore, this perspective actualizes the localization of a program and thus leads the program to fit into context with the people who are engaged in the work for the resolution[6].  The localization in the subsistence perspective also invites the residents to planning, designing and carrying on of the project, thus provides flexibility of designing the program by utilizing their social, cultural and geographical resources and adds more efficiency since they are familiar to their own environment[7].

Subsistence economic activities helps us to re-establish the relationship of mutual respect between man and woman and to build the non-exploitative relationship to nature[8].  As the destructive power comes out of a distorted relationship, the creative power comes out of a just relationship. Therefore the subsistence perspective, by establishing new relationships that respect nature and mutual respect among people, promotes the dynamic of the whole population in a community toward the holistic resolution of the world’s problems.

As I assessed, although not exhaust, subsistence perspective has many positive aspects. However, it does not answer all the problems caused by existing destructive system. It is true that the subsistence perspective is based on the hermeneutic key, “the option for the poor” and “solidarity with the poor,” however, this perspective is one of many ways in multidimensional approaches to the solution[9],  thus we need a careful approach by “never absolutizing any methods or perspectives.”

As the leaders of subsistence programs believe, since subsistence perspective is a fundamental way to the resolution of the world problem especially the environmental problems, we need to expand its activities to wider community. However the difficulty lies in various dimensions such as political, economic, social and cultural ones[10].  As an example, the middle class urbanites are accustomed to their higher standards of convenient life style. It is not a simple aspect that we can blame those people since, in the life of our modern world of globalization, their use of technologically developed equipment and over-consumption of ecologically harmful product became tools for maintaining their lives[11].  


The subsistence perspective is a way that actualizing the “civilization of poverty” and has many positive features. However, to fulfill the vision in a society, it is necessary to convince the people to join in by enabling the people to understand the significance and necessity of the subsistence work and to enjoy doing it. The SST finds an answer in “the combination of work as a burden and work as pleasure,”[12]  but the question is how it can be made possible. This is not an easy way because the majority of people do not want to take up the burden by themselves.

To actualize the “civilization of poverty” for the holistic resolution of the world’s problems, we must open to the various forms of social movements with multidimensional approach. Therefore the subsistence community should build its trust within their community and expand to the wider community by establishing the networks of individuals and groups who share the same vision based on “the option for the poor” that covers the wider society and different classes. This is why we need to build up networks. It is the efficient way we actualize “the civilization of poverty” that enables us not only to solve problems, but also to prevent problems by promoting a qualitative change. It is also a positive means of way in which we  listen to the voice of the poor and have journey together towards the hopeful future.


The fundamental resolution is possible by recovering the genuine humanity through actualization of “the preferential option for the poor.” The shift from “the option for the rich” to the “the option for the poor” means a true “beginning anew,”  which enables us to live out “the civilization of poverty,”  and it leads us to the resolution of the problems and to prevent the problems. The “civilization of poverty” can best be actualized in and through the subsistence perspective.

A subsistence perspective leads us to work out problems in an efficient way. However in this world of complexity, the various causes and effects are interconnected. We need multifaceted approach of social movement, especially with establishing the network. Ezekiel’s vision of “the valley of dry bones” teaches us many things. “I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones come together, bone to its bone... there were sinews on them...breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude” (Ezek. 37: 7-10). “Listen to the voices, make a noise together, establish networks...”  These are crucial elements to achieve the holistic resolution of the complex problems of the world. We need to establish a reliable network by openning ourselves to a variety of ways, however, the fundamental base of “the option for the poor” is not an “option” but a “must.”


1.  Ignacio Ellacuría, “Utopia and Prophecy in Latin America,” in Ignacio Ellacuría and Jon Sobrino eds., Mysterium Liberationis: Fundamental Concepts of Liberation Theology, Trans. James Brockman, (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1993, 289-323), pp. 314-19.

2.  Ibid., p. 316.

3.  Maria Mies, “The Need for a New Vision: The Subsistence Perspective,” in Mies, Maria, Maria and Shiva, Vandana, Ecofeminism, (London: Zd Books, 1993, 297-324), pp.297-98. This concept rose out of the reality of poverty in Latin America and was first developed to analyze the hidden, unpaid or underpaid work of the subsistence people who are mainly woman.

4.  Ibid., pp. 298-99. One of the problems which Mies points out is that the dichotomy between producers and consumers leads the people to concern themselves merely with the transformation of work into money rather than direct satisfaction of need by promoting concrete use-value

5.  Ibid., pp. 3121-14. The Sozialistische Selbsthilfe Köln (SSK) movement, which originated with the students in Cologne, is a good example that demonstrates this aspect. This movement rose as an alternative to capitalist industrialized affluent societies out of the dark reality of society by forming a communal life of  the marginalized or/and powerless groups of people, and lived out subsistence communal life.

6.  Ibid., pp. 306-12. The Baliraja dam project was carried on by the grassroots people to work out the program for the restoration of the ecological and social problems which were caused by the Namada Valley Project with the support of middle-class elite who are concerned with these problems. The benefit of the localization is well demonstrated in the Baliraja dam project as well as in the SSK movement. In the Baliraja dam project, in their survey prior to their planning, they collected information on geographical condition of that area from area residents and gained the help of scientists and students for surveys.

7.  Ibid., pp. 301-302. Both Fidel Castro’s import of 100,000 bicycles and Dar es Salaam Declaration of Alternative Development Strategies for Africa, which are people centred and culturally based, speak of another possibility and benefit of localization. These programs makes de-industrialization possible since it is based on their own culture and life style, thus suggesting pre-industrial methods.  These programs would work to a lesser degree in industrialized countries, however,  the localization of programs have a positive aspect which we have to consider seriously.

8.  Subsistence perspective itself cannot make people to re-establish the just relationship without education, however, people learn, through their experience, that sharing with people and giving back to nature when we get something out of it.

9.  Ibid., p. 322.  Mies claims that subsistence perspective is the “only” way by saying, “only a society based on a subsistence perspective can afford to live in peace with nature...”  However, since the subsistence perspective is not “equal” to the hermeneutic key “the option for the poor and solidarity with them,” we should not absolutuze it, but leave ourselves to open for the multidimensional approach with keeping this hermeneutic key in its heart.

10.  Ibid., p. 314. After the disaster at Chernobyl, the leaders of the SSK questioned their model of socialism and discussed on how to change the SSK in order to contribute to a more ecologically sound society. Mies does not provide the detail why they failed. However to serve the community in its different dimension, access to professional knowledge and sharing of experience is necessary and mutidimensional multifaceted approach is necessary. Therefore, to achieve the efficiency of work in the global context with the problems which are deeply interrelated to each other, interconnection between diverse movements with preserving a
common subsistence concept is a crucial element.

11.  As an example, it is true that the SSK has many positive aspects in its ideal, however, the SSK’s socialism based ideal has its limit in convincing the middle class who are enjoying higher living standards.

12.  Ibid., p. 317.



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