One of the recurring issues within the discussion about achieving a low carbon sustainable economy is the question of ‘Food Miles’. It is generally taken as self-evident that the shipment of food commodities, such as apples, half way around the world from, say, South Africa is evidence that ours is a high carbon and unsustainable economy. Indeed, the Transition Movement (http://transitiontowns.org/) have as a key metric of sustainability the percentage of apples sold within a community that are sourced locally.
This is an approach that has started to enter into the mainstream of futurist thinking. For example, at the European Futurists Conference in Lucerne this year, Professor Stuart Walker from Lancaster University repeated the view that food miles are unlikely to be sustainable in the next few decades (click here to access the slides and a video of the presentation), and treated as axiomatic that a sustainable solution was one of local production. As I was watching the presentation, I was wondering why it was that I was finding it unconvincing. I think that the lack of conviction comes from my love of bananas.
We could grow bananas in Ipswich, but we don’t. Why we don’t is worth a bit of reflection because it says a lot about the sustainability agenda. To grow bananas in Ipswich, we would need to create an artificial climate that would allow bananas to grow. Ipswich lacks the warmth and sunlight to grow the crop naturally, but this could be overcome with sufficient heating and lighting. A banana grown in Ipswich would have a huge carbon footprint – much larger than one grown in the Caribbean and shipped to Ipswich.
Drilling further into this story, why is that so? It’s all to do with comparative advantage – an economic theory developed at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution by David Ricardo. This theory states that when an area does what it does best and imports those things which are best produced elsewhere, the welfare of all areas is increased globally. This is quite a significant statement when taken in the context of the sustainability debate. It implies that a move towards more local production is likely to lead to a sub-optimal global solution (that’s economist speak for everyone being worse off).
What does that mean in practice? In the context of bananas, it means one of two things. First, it could simply mean that I am no longer able to eat bananas, in which case my quality of life will be reduced because of my reduced choice and the reduced access to something that I like to have. Second, it could mean that bananas are grown locally in Ipswich, in which case their monetary and carbon cost would be much higher than if they were imported into the UK. Again, I would suffer a welfare loss as I would be compelled to pay more than I otherwise would have to pay for my bananas.
Without knowing why, people appear to have grasped this concept intuitively. According to Gallup, about 40% of the population believe that the environment should be protected, even at the cost of a reduced living standard. However, just over 50% believe that economic growth should be a priority, even if it entailed a degree of environmental damage. As we prepare for the meeting of the IPCC in Copenhagen, it is worth dwelling on these thoughts. Even if man-made climate change were to occur in the future (as futurists we have to accept the possibility that the climate-sceptics might be right), even in those changes were to be catastrophic (there is only scientific speculation here), even if the need for action is immediate (we might have more or less time than we think – we don’t know), then it still does not follow that we should do something about it.
The cost of climate action will fall upon present generations disproportionately, and upon the poorer nations disproportionately. If we value the present to the future, then it would be inconsistent to act now for future benefits that we are unlikely to see. If we act now, then we have to accept the consequence that the poorer nations will be kept poorer for longer than they otherwise would have been because they would be denied the access to trade that has been such a powerful force in poverty reduction over the last couple of decades. When it comes to a choice between prosperity and the environment, prosperity has always won the argument, which is one of the reasons why I am not hopeful for Copenhagen.
And it’s all my fault for liking bananas!
© The European Futures Observatory 2009