Twenty Questions that Will Make you Rethink Trade

July 29, 2020

We live in the age of trade. Trade, supported by an infrastructure of criss-crossing cargo ships, mega-ports, and an endless armada of trains and trucks plying the railways and highways, has become the foundation of the modern global economy. (And let’s not even talk about the virtual infrastructure of banking and finance that undergirds all this real-world activity.) In fact, we’ve taken trade so far that the actual transactions are routinely irrational from an ecological or an energetic perspective, let alone a common-sense perspective. For example, consider the 10,000-mile cod. Scottish fishermen catch cod in the North Atlantic. Now, the fish could be consumed fresh in Scotland, but no… First, the poor piscine provisions are deep-frozen into codsicles, which are then shipped to China, thawed, filleted, packaged, re-frozen, and shipped back to Scotland for eventual consumption. The energy balance for codsicle processing is indefensible, as the calories spent to run the fish through this globalized Rube Goldberg machine immeasurably outstrip the calories gained from eating them.

OK, let’s pull back from the criticism for a moment. Trade isn’t all bad. Any college economics student can regurgitate a neoliberal rehashing of David Ricardo’s early-19th-century treatise of comparative advantage—trade can create benefits for a person or nation willing to engage in it. Researchers even hypothesize that trade was an advancement unique to Homo sapiens that allowed us to outcompete the Neanderthals. The thinking is that, through trade, we developed both specialization of labor and new technologies, while Neanderthals (who apparently were reluctant to trade) failed to develop either. But something’s gone awry with the idea of exchanging goods and services.

Trade ought to be a simple thing. I give you something, you give me something else in return, and we’re both better off. But our capitalism-on-steroids society has converted the simple idea of exchange into an overly exploitative monster. With continuous economic growth as the sine qua non of national and international policy, humanity has embraced more and more trade, year after year. That means more resources burned, more mines depleted, more transportation, and more pollution, all caught in an upward spiral of exponential expansion. We’ve gone bat-shit crazy! Seriously, check out the history of trade in bat guano.

Despite the best efforts of politicians and business leaders to maintain delusions about growth, trade disruptions already abound. The coronavirus pandemic has prompted a slowdown, and climate change is pushing us to consider degrowth and whole new ways of organizing economic life that involve more local production and a hell-of-a-lot less trade.

It’s critical, therefore, to find a different way forward. Doing something different requires us first to think things through. Many privileged people around the world have become complacent—there’s no need to think about the consequences of trade when you can just go to the store and raid shelves (or webpages) overflowing with the latest, greatest, shiniest goodies ready to be unboxed. In the spirit of curtailing this complacency, thinking more broadly, and considering the tradeoffs of trade, here are twenty questions asking, “What would you trade?”

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  1. Would you trade the Amazon rain forest for
  2. Would you trade someone having to experience miserable working conditions and meager wages for a twenty-seventh pair of impractical shoes?
  3. Would you trade a stable climate for a fleet of SUVs with really, really big tailpipes?
  4. Would you trade paradise for a parking lot?
  5. Would you trade your dignity for a steady paycheck?
  6. Would you trade a child’s tomorrow for an unneeded comfort today?
  7. Would you trade endlessly productive soil for a few good crop yields from artificial fertilizers and pesticides?
  8. Would you trade an eye for an eye?
  9. Would you trade the survival of a species for more widespread production of a commodity?
  10. Would you trade the false security of products galore for the real security of family and community?
  11. Would you trade the hours of your life, the productivity of your mind, and the labor of your hands for some extra trinkets from the big box store?
  12. Would you trade ecological health for economic growth?
  13. Would you trade the ability to provide public goods and services to all people for the enrichment of a few billionaires?
  14. Would you trade long-term livelihood for short-term overexploitation?
  15. Would you trade a lifelong quest for daring, caring, and sharing for a lifelong surrender to someone else’s plan for your days?
  16. Would you trade the vitality of your body for a good desk job?
  17. Would you trade a moral life for an easy life?
  18. Would you trade a diversity of cultures, languages, and lifestyles for a monoculture based on competition, consumption, and comfort?
  19. Would you trade doing what you know to be right for acceptance into mainstream society?
  20. Would you trade selflessness, a lifetime of service to others, for self-interest (no matter how often economists repeat how “enlightened” that self-interest is)?

If you found yourself answering “no” to most or all of these questions, then you’re aligned with an economy that diverges significantly from the global-trade-obsessed, neoliberal, capitalist, consumerist setup that came to dominate the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Fortunately, despite conservative TINA rhetoric, there are a lot of alternatives. Academics, activists, and even a few plucky politicians have referenced ecological economics, Viking economics, doughnut economics, and other ways that we can organize economic life. All of these economic flavors differ from mainstream economics in two important ways: (1) they pay attention to physical/environmental realities, and (2) they seek social justice for all. It’s almost as if we have a modern container ship loaded with ideas on how to proceed.

Rob Dietz

Rob Dietz is the Program Director at Post Carbon Institute, where he guides projects from conception to completion. With training and experience in ecological economics, environmental science, and conservation biology, he has built a career aimed at moving society in sustainable directions.  Rob is the lead author of the bestselling book Enough Is Enough: Building a Sustainable Economy in a World of Finite Resources (Berrett-Koehler, 2013).

Tags: alternatives to neoliberalism, building resilient economies, free trade