“Somewhere bodies are being broken so that I can live in my shit” (91). This is the main argument of Stephan Lessenich’s book Living Well at Others’ Expense. Lessenich, in a clear and accessible manner, has done an in-depth analysis of the asymmetrical power relations between the Global North and the Global South and the consequences of them. He uses various examples ranging from the ecological disasters to the refugee crisis to explain how capitalist society is inherently political and extractive in nature, calling it an Externalization Society, which keeps the few chosen ones inside and the rest on the margins of the periphery.
Lessenich begins the book with a depressing ecological disaster in Rio Doce, Brazil, to prepare the reader for what to expect: various crises happening simultaneously around the world and many of us choosing to be oblivious of them. He explains that there is nothing natural about the bursting of the walls of two reservoirs containing the wastewater from an ion ore mine in Rio Doce. It was all fated right from the beginning, when the poor countries of the Global South agreed to sell their labor, their minerals, and other resources to satisfy the desire of the Global North to elevate themselves. He problematizes the situation further, discussing the distribution of wealth of the certain Nations—the “opportunity hoarding” (39) or “social closure” through terms of trade and finance and law. He warns that we live in an era of a “Boomerang Effect” (52), where nature is going to spit out what we have been throwing at it. Simply put, climate change is too big a crisis to externalize.
He discusses the Anthropocene or Occidentocene—the ecological burden of the various practices adopted by the large agribusiness corporations—China gaining momentum, and the tiny bits of plastic finding their way into the food of citizens of the Global North. He points to the irony of ethical consumerism—delivered on the same day on your doorstep.
Law, he points out, has been used to create boundaries. It is an effort to keep the dangers and diseases out of the Externalization Society. Lessenich is critical of global leadership, in which people sitting in ivory towers talk about inequality. Here, developing countries like Pakistan and Lebanon, which are host to millions of refugees, expose the double standards of the Global North. The book closes with radical ideas like the restructuring of the national and international institutional frameworks and discusses the need for collective acceptance leading to collective empowerment. Besides this, Lessenich has continued his criticism of the Global North and the complicit nature of its citizens.
This book is an important addition to the scholarship on inequality, environmental policy, and international relations. Various themes, such as climate crisis, monopolization of travel, and the desire to “keep up with the Joneses,” have been used masterfully to highlight the comparison between the citizens of the Global South and those of the Global North. Lessenich’s dissatisfaction with Thomas Pikettey’s seminal work and concerns with other indicators like gross domestic product and the Human Development Index demand serious consideration. He could have used quantitative data to strengthen his argument and could have spent more time exploring the complicit attitude of the elites in the Global South in maintaining the status quo. Future research can be built on his important work to analyze and measure inequality in both the Global North and the Global South.