Poverty is not solely a social or political matter, nor is it caused simply by population pressures as Thomas Malthus postulated in 1798. A new understanding of poverty is emerging in which natural and environmental drivers, together with social, political, and demographic causes, underpin livelihoods. The Earth sciences, therefore, play a critical role in identifying the deep causes of human suffering and in identifying solutions.
For far too many the state of human well-being is bleak. Around one in six human beings—1 billion people—live in extreme poverty struggling to survive on less than $1 a day; another one sixth of humanity ekes out existence on $2 per day (U.N. Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Report, 2004; http://hdr.undp.org/2004/). The extreme poor lack all normal attributes of a decent, dignified life: adequate food, housing, sanitation, health care, education, and employment. Some 800 million people lack sufficient nourishment almost every day. It stunts their mental and physical development and shortens their lives, making them susceptible to common illnesses that attack their hunger-weakened bodies. Poor nutrition in mothers and infants is the leading cause of reduced disability-adjusted life years in poor countries [Economist, 2004].