So much choice versus so much poverty

15th July 2005 at 01:00
Choose life . . . Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a big television.

Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisure wear and matching luggage . . . Choose rotting away at the end of it all . . . in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish brats you have spawned to replace yourself.

Choose your future. Choose life."

These words from Trainspotting, more than could ever have been imagined when they were first published in 1993, have gathered pace in an unstoppable manner. To the original lament, we can add laptops, iPods, digital cameras, endless evidence of the fat of our land. One planet Earth? One world? You can't imagine it? Neither can I.

This was much in focus in anticipation of last week's G8 Summit. Also, my fourth-year pupils have just started the new religious, moral and philosophical studies unit titled "Morality in the Modern World", examining globalisation issues. The pupils find the statistics overwhelming. Thirty thousand children die each day south of the Sahara. Africa has been loaned pound;300 billion since 1970, but is now poorer than it was then.

Forty-three million African children are receiving no formal education at all. Reciting the statistics is both sobering and soul-destroying. One of the wilder boys in my class, clearly moved, responded to the statistics with: "I knew it was bad, but not this bad."

Yet we suffer from statistics fatigue and become inured to the skeletal figures behind the numbers. As is quickly spotted by 15-year-old schoolchildren, the world poverty issue is fraught with contradictions.

Africa is soundly rebuked because of its widespread failure to organise genuinely democratic government. Yet one bright spark in my class was appalled that the future of the world seems to be entrusted to eight men secluded in the opulence of Gleneagles for a couple of days. How legitimate is that?

And, contributed another astute teenager, what about trade? Africa's share of world trade has dropped to just 2 per cent, with little prospect of change as a result of the Gleneagles meeting. Young people are quick to pick up the scent of hypocrisy.

Teachers, who understand the issues, have the potential to effect real change in the thinking of their charges. Pictures of dying babies can move even the hardest heart, but emotional reactions in the classroom will not cause real change. Is it the duty of teachers, who are encouraged to remain politically neutral, to examine the morality of a world which continues to allow vast gaps between rich and poor?

The problem for us in doing this is our complicity in a system which legislates against equality for Africa and promotes the rampant materialism of our own culture. In our classrooms, we see children so overfed on processed food that the medical profession predicts they will be the first generation to die before their parents. There are children whom PE departments assess as so chronically unfit that they can hardly run at all, while their African counterparts may be walking 15 miles a day simply to find water.

I don't have the answer. Protest activists, like Bob Geldof and his army of musicians, have become the establishment. Meanwhile, Africa continues to starve and I wonder just how much I can say to pupils who virtually all have television sets in their bedrooms and whose favourite meals come from a fast-food vendor. Not counting my own duplicity, with my failure to donate large chunks of my income to the developing world.

Choosing life, choosing a future, suddenly seems very complex and maybe a responsibility to which we cannot rise. I hope my pupils will share the Earth's resources better than my generation.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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