Bringing the Economy Home


When we think about our children today, it is difficult to feel optimistic about their future. The crises all around us seem to increase day by day – from unemployment and community breakdown to global warming and terrorism – problems that seem insurmountable. Many people are frightened to even think about global problems because the result is usually that they get the blame for causing most of the crises. ‘People on the other side of the world are going hungry, poverty is mounting and global warming threatens to endanger all life on earth – and it’s your fault! You are consuming vastly more than your fair share of resources and destroying the world, destroying your children’s future!’ These sorts of ideas are widespread and contribute to a fear of looking at the big picture.

But we should not be afraid to examine these issues, because if we look a little further we will find that it is actually our ignorance of the workings of the global economy that allows government and big business to pull the world in a suicidal direction. It is not our choices that are the driving mechanism of the destruction all around us. In fact much of it is happening against our wishes. But it happens silently, and out of sight. We are never asked.

Most of the problems facing us are not due to our greed or to some sort of innate tendency in humans to always want more. The most fundamental root cause is misguided economic policy and this is far easier to change than human nature. We all need to step back and look at the bigger picture to recognise the way governments use our taxes to stimulate growth (and this includes targeting three-year-olds with sophisticated advertising that makes them feel inferior if they don’t have the latest corporate plastic toy). We need economic literacy campaigns, campaigns that dispel the myth around growth and so-called ‘free trade’. Don’t shy away from thinking about the economy. Don’t leave it to the ‘experts’ – their vision is so narrow, they might as well be one-eyed. We urgently need the bigger picture.
The global economy is merely the latest form of colonialism, though this time the colonial masters are not governments but big business. Across the world, so-called ‘free trade’ is undermining the livelihood of countless millions of people, in the process destroying their identity and self-respect.

Ultimately, there are no winners in this process. Even the giant corporations themselves are not safe, forced to grow exponentially merely to survive. But in the short term the burden falls disproportionately on the people of the South, whose labour and resources are pillaged to keep the global economy on track. As the full impact of globalisation becomes more apparent, opposition is growing – not just in the streets, but from writers, politicians, even economists. And as the belief that big is always better or more efficient dies, a new paradigm is emerging. A rapidly growing number of people are not only rejecting the top-heavy, monolithic structures of the current economic system but are actively working to bring the economy home.

Today’s transnational corporations have grown so large and global not because they are inherently more efficient, but because they are heavily subsidised. Big business benefits from a whole range of supports: from tax breaks and export credits to massive grants for research. What’s more, billions of dollars of our taxes are spent on forever expanding transport and telecommunications infrastructures that are essential for global trade, but which provide little or no benefit to local or national businesses. More insidiously still, while smaller businesses struggle to survive in the face of ever more regulations and red tape, ‘free trade’ treaties are ensuring that the activities of the global corporations are increasingly deregulated.

Today, you find oranges from California in Australia at a lower price than local ones, and you find apples shipped from New Zealand to apple-growing regions of Europe. In Mongolia, a country with ten times as many milk-producing animals as people, shops carry more European dairy products than local ones. More absurdly still, the UK imports more than 100,000 tonnes of milk each year, then turns around and exports roughly the same quantity. Throughout the industrialised world, the contents of a plate of food often travel thousands of miles before reaching the dinner table.

In an era of global warming, this inefficiency and waste is utter madness. More than that, it’s killing the planet. We have no choice but to move in exactly the opposite direction. Shifting towards more localised economy activity does not mean requiring every community to be entirely self-reliant; it simply means shortening the distance between producers and consumers wherever possible – striking a healthier balance between global trade and production for local needs. It does not mean that whole populations would need to go back to the land, or that people in cold climates would be denied oranges or avocados, but simply that basic needs would not travel thousands of miles when they could be produced closer to home.

At the moment, the vast majority of the price we pay for products traded on the global market goes towards ‘middlemen’ – including an advertising industry whose whole raison d’être is to keep the global economy afloat. Going local would work like a party trick – enabling primary producers to earn more while consumers pay less.

A common objection to localisation is the belief that people in the less industrialised countries need our markets to lift themselves out of poverty. Nothing could be further from the truth. As things stand, the globalised economy requires the South to send a large portion of its natural resources to the North as raw materials; its best agricultural land is devoted to growing food, fibre and even flowers for the North; and a good deal of its labour force is employed in the cheap manufacture of goods for northern markets. For much of the South, globalisation means pulling millions of people away from land-based economies into urban slums. The promise is the American Dream – a job, a car, a consumer lifestyle. The reality is that the majority end up worse off than they were in the village. Far from increasing poverty on the other side of the world, localising the economies of the industrialised countries could play an important part in reversing this cycle of decline – allowing the poorer nations to keep more of their own resources, labour and production for themselves. Nothing is more important than agriculture. Localising the food economy would bring enormous benefits. Crucially, it would enable farmers to diversify – an essential prerequisite for restoring health to the soil and increasing productivity. Reductions in transport and packaging would directly benefit the environment, as would the consequent reduction in the need for fossil fuels. Moreover, cutting unnecessary global trade would help to rein in the economic and political power of today’s largely unaccountable transnational corporations.

Continuing down the path we’re on now can only lead to increased pollution, poverty and violence. Meanwhile, the alternative is staring us in the face – and it’s neither corporate nor Communist. Going local is not a utopian dream. After all, roughly half the global population still lives on the land, not yet so dependent on the centralised global economy. What’s more, millions of initiatives are already happening at the grassroots – from local banks and credit unions to farmers’ markets.

These initiatives show that people from all walks of life are longing for a deeper connection to the natural world and to one another. We all know that our children need clean air and water, healthy and nutritious food and plenty of love or community. And again and again people show that they are willing to sacrifice to make this possible for their children. The problem is not a lack of goodwill or intelligence, the biggest problem we face is ignorance about how the invisible hand of the global market operates to silently divide us from one another and from the earth. It may sound unbelievable but understanding these connections is actually incredibly empowering. I am very happy that Kindred has decided to carry this message further in a regular ‘global issues’ column. 

Published in byronchild/Kindred, Issue 11, September 04

The Economics of Happiness

Categories: Environmental Justice,Social Justice,Sustainability

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