one-seventieth the cash

You can have high literacy, life expectancy, and a low birth rate for 1/70th what we pay.  How do I know?  Because it’s been done, in Kerala, South India.  So there is no correlation between money and a good life, at least not a life as defined by these indicators.  And 70 times more money means 70 times more consumption, which makes us gluttons in extremis, and, according to McKibben, a vastly less successful society.

Kerala (pronounced ker’uh luh) , a state of 29 million people in southern India, is poor–even for India–with a per capita income estimated by various surveys to be between $298 and $350 a year, about one-seventieth the American average. When the American anthropologist Richard Franke surveyed the typical Keralite village of Nadur in the late 1980s, he found that nearly half the 170 families had only cooking utensils, a wooden bench, and a few stools in their homes. No beds–that was the sum of their possessions. Thirty-six percent also had some chairs and cots, and 19 percent owned a table. In five households he discovered cushioned seats. But here is the odd part.

The life expectancy for a North American male, with all his chairs and cushions, is 72 years, while the life expectancy for a Keralite male is 70.

After the latest in a long series of literacy campaigns, the United Nations in 1991 certified Kerala as 100 percent literate. Your chances of having an informed conversation are at least as high in Kerala as in Kansas.

Kerala’s birth rate hovers near 18 per thousand, compared with 16 per thousand in the United States –and is falling faster.

Demographically, in other words, Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash. It has problems, of course: There is chronic unemployment, a stagnant economy that may have trouble coping with world markets, and a budget deficit that is often described as out of control. But these are the kinds of problems you find in France. Kerala utterly lacks the squalid drama of the Third World –the beggars reaching through the car window, the children with distended bellies, the baby girls left to die.


It is, in other words, weird–like one of those places where the starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles Earth but is slightly off. It undercuts maxims about the world we consider almost intuitive: Rich people are healthier, rich people live longer, rich people have more opportunity for education, rich people have fewer children. We know all these things to be true–and yet here is a countercase, a demographic suddenly rising on our mental atlas. It’s as if someone demonstrated in a lab that flame didn’t necessarily need oxygen, or that water could freeze at 60 degrees. It demands a new chemistry to explain it, a whole new science.


Gross national product is often used as a synonym for achievement, but it is also an eloquent shorthand for gallons of gasoline burned, stacks of garbage tossed out, quantities of timber sawn into boards. One recent calculation showed that for every American dollar or its equivalent spent anywhere on earth, half a liter of oil was consumed in producing, packaging, and shipping the goods. One-seventieth the income means one-seventieth the damage to the planet. So, on balance, if Kerala and the United States manage to achieve the same physical quality of life, Kerala is the vastly more successful society. Which is not to say that we could ever live on as little as they do–or, indeed, that they should. The right point is clearly somewhere in between.

~What is True Development? The Kerala Model by Bill McKibben

4 Comments so far
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I don’t want to argue with you, cause what you’re saying there is wonderful, but I have one question: appart from life expectancy, literacy and fertility rate, don’t you think there are some other things which are necessary for a happy life? The main thing I mean is healthcare, cause I’m not sure Keralan old people get all the medicaments they need, are you?

Comment by Sandro Shanidze

I’m not sure either. I was injured at a beach in Kerala last year and my landlord took me on the back of his motorbike into town where I was able to buy painkiller and hydrocortozone etc to take care of my injury. It was a well stocked little pharmacy. I think basic medical supplies are available, but I don’t know about specialized medicines for aging people. And I don’t know if costs are prohibitive.

Comment by peter rudd

Thanks for the answer, this question of content is very interesting an important for understanding social systems indeed 🙂

Comment by Sandro Shanidze

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