Candid(e) thoughts on globalisation

How should a free-market green respond to globalisation? Is there anything to worry about there? (we like having things to worry about)

The obvious problem is of buying things from a long way away and the associated impact on the environment of that trade.

The image of petit pois being flown to the UK from Brazil kind of rubs. Particularly if you think of the forest it used to be. Or if you are a market gardener in Kent. And saying it with flowers is not so sweet if you are one of the hippos that are dying out on Lake Naivasha in Kenya because the water you have used for several million years is now being taken for the cut flower industry. Cut flowers which last a few days on your window sill then get landfilled. Really nice for the hippos.

But at the same time the green sector is behind the most global business there is: emissions trading. Emission trading deals come from every corner of the planet. So there must be something good about internationalism.

Deeper down there might be a theoretical conflict which will only become evident in time. Globalisation is about comparative advantage, which means that economies, like individuals, will tend to specialise and focus.

Taken to extremes this surely means that locally a loss of diversity will occur. Like: in my home village you can’t get a decent pair of shoes anymore, but the high street has 15 shops selling tourist trinkets. If tourism takes a plunge, the town is in trouble.

Does a loss of economic diversity also imply also a loss of biodiversity? Not necessarily, but it does, by definition imply a more volatile economy since it is more sensitive to fewer influences. A more volatile economy probably means people are more stressed out and probably means that they are less attendant to the needs of nature. But that is speculation, which someone should consider rigorously. Just in case the blind pursuit of free trade has some small print we’d overlooked.

The response is simple: information. With information, awareness. With awareness, guilt or aspiration. With guilt or aspiration, a change in practice. Possibly. But it’s worth a try.

Scrap the health-warnings on cigarettes. Everyone knows they give you cancer. It’s a private choice about something which principally affects the smoker only. And smoking is sustainable and self-regulating.

Instead let’s get some labels onto products which really matter:

Environmental Warning
The sourcing, production, transport, or use of this product may have caused or may cause damage to the environment

Product: Cut flowers
Origin: Kenya
Transport distance: 7,800 km
Additional note: This product is from a farm at Lake Naivasha, where the hippopotamus population has fallen by 25% in recent years through reduction in water levels due to increased use of water for agriculture and horticulture.

Thanks for buying this product
Herb the Hippo

— or —

Product: Petit pois
Origin: Brazil
Transport distance: 12,100 km
Additional note: Ten years ago the land where they were grown was pristine jungle

Thanks for buying this product
Arthur the Ant-eater

Or how about compulsory text in big letters on the side of a car, not in the small print of the advertising blurb:

Product: Car
Origin: Germany
Transport distance: 700 km
CO2 from manufacture: 400 kg
CO2 from use: 250 kg per 1,000 km
Additional note: Use of this product contributes to climate change and the submersion of low-lying and coastal areas.

Thanks, Rita, Bangladesh (8 years)

Clear compulsory communication about provenance and environmental impact is the quid for the quo of untrammelled free-trade and globalisation. If you want to source your peas from Brazil, fine, but you should have to clearly communicate to the customer the pertinent environmental impacts.

Then at the very least the dumb, dull, uninterested, uncurious, lumpen consumer-voter can share responsibility with manufacturer, the financier, the wholesaler, the trucker, and the retailer. At least she can’t say “I never knew”.

What’s different about emissions trading? The difference is the inherent traceability. When we contract a CDM transaction we know about where it comes from. We know the details of the underlying project, we know the individuals involved, and we know the environmental impact. Part and parcel of a deal is information about its environmental impact.

Manufacturers won’t do it voluntarily. It will have to be legislated. Ecolabelling with enough information to detail all the ills of globalisation will create a huge, horrible, crawling, sprawling, global industry of consultants, software geeks, systems nerds, standards writers, special advisors, academics, inspectors, verifiers, validators, bureaucrats, journalists, and I-told-you-so-ers. It will add billions of Euros to the cost of things. It will collapse in on itself into a babel of millions of sticky labels, and get covered in bits of dust. It will not work.

But the thought or threat of such a system will surely make even the most radical globalist rush to his local farmers’ market and give up strawberries at Christmas.

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