As civilization faces an existential crisis, our leaders demonstrate their inability to respond. Theory of change shows that now is the time for radically new ideas to transform society before it’s too late.
Imagine a world where food routinely gets shipped thousands of miles away to be processed, then shipped back to be sold right where it started. Imagine cows from Mexicobeing fed corn imported from the United States, then being exported to the United States for butchering, and the resulting meat being shipped back to Mexico, one last time, to be sold. Imagine a world in which, in most years since 2005, China has somehow managed to import more goods from itself than from the USA, one of its largest trading partners.
This may sound like the premise of some darkly comic, faintly dystopian film – albeit one geared towards policy wonks. But it’s no joke – in fact, it is the daily reality of the global economy.
The above examples are all instances of ‘re-importation’ – that is, countries shipping their own goods overseas only to ship them back again at a later stage in the production chain. And these are far from the only instances of this head-scratching phenomenon. In the waters off the coast of Norway, cod arrive every year after an impressive migratory journey, having swum thousands of miles around the Arctic Circle in search of spawning grounds. Yet this migration pales in comparison to the one the fish undertake after being caught: they’re sent to China to be fileted before returning to supermarkets in Scandinavia to be sold. This globalization of the seafood supply chain extends to the US as well; more than half of the seafood caught in Alaska is processed in China, and much of it gets sent right back to American grocery store shelves.
Compounding the insanity of re-importation is the equally baffling phenomenon of redundant trade. This is a common practice whereby countries both import and export huge quantities of identical products in a given year. To take a particularly striking example, in 2007, Britain imported 15,000 tons of chocolate-covered waffles, while exporting 14,000 tons. In 2017, the US both imported and exported nearly 1.5 million tons of beef, and nearly half a million tons of potatoes. In 2016, 213,000 tons of liquid milk arrived in the UK – a windfall, had not 545,000 tons of milk also left the UK over the course of that same year.
On the face of it, this kind of trade makes no economic sense. Why would it be worth the immense cost – in money as well as fuel – of sending perfectly good food abroad only to bring it right back again?
The answer lies in the way the global economy is structured. ‘Free trade’ agreements allow transnational corporations to access labor and resources almost anywhere, enabling them to take advantage of tax loopholes and national differences in labor and environmental standards. Meanwhile, direct and indirect subsidies for fossil fuels, on the order of $5 trillion per year worldwide, allow the costs of shipping to be largely borne by taxpayers and the environment instead of the businesses that actually engage in it. In combination, these structural forces lead to insane levels of international transport that serve no purpose other than boosting corporate profits.
The consequences of this bad behavior are already severe, and set to become worse in the coming decades. Small farmers, particularly in the global South, have seen their livelihoods undermined by influxes of cheap food from abroad; meanwhile, their climate-resilient agricultural practices are actively discouraged by the WTO and ‘free trade’ agreements. And food processing and packaging – both critical for food that’s going to be shipped a long way from where it was produced – account for a significant proportion of the global food system’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Polly Higgins drew the stark link between corporate actions and the extensive destruction of ecosystems in the drive for profit that discounts the people and the planet.
Stroud, Scotland, Polly Higgins home
Sunday, April 21, 2019, is a day that would pass in history as one of a thoroughly needless and mindless bloodletting. On that day, marauding violent men snuffed the life out of 17 citizens in Yar Center, near Sherere Community in Kankara local government area of Katsina State, Nigeria. In Sri Lanka, multiple attacks in churches and hotels took the life of more than 300 persons in an unconscionable visitation of hate on innocent individuals. Various reasons have been hazarded as being the root cause of the murders, including revenge for attacks elsewhere and the sheer spread of terror. The truth is that murder cannot be justified and must be condemned.
Sadly, these crimes were committed at a time when the world was marking the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The mayhem in churches in Sri Lanka illustrated the depth of depravity that humans can sink to.
While shock and consternation gripped communities in diverse places, a key voice for sanity in our relationship with nature, ourselves and other species quietly slipped away. From reports, we read that she passed on peacefully. We are talking of Polly Higgins who passed on at the age of 50.
Higgins passed on in the evening of Easter Sunday, a day marked by the inconceivable mass murders in churches and hotels of Sri Lanka as well as atrocious killings in Nigeria and continued violence elsewhere. She stood out as a shining light demanding the recognition of ecocide as a crime in the class of the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and the crimes of aggression. She was in the forefront of the campaign for the addition of ecocide among these crimes against peace which are all listed in Article 5(1) of the Rome Statute.
Ecocide is defined as “the extensive damage to, destruction of or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory, whether by human agency or by other causes, to such an extent that peaceful enjoyment by the inhabitants of that territory has been or will be severely diminished.”
I was privileged to meet Higgins in the GAIA Embassy as we fondly call the home of Liz Hosken in London. She wrote three books on ecocide, including one titled Eradicating Ecocide. Higgins actively spoke on UN platforms and to governments, reminding them that this crime was indeed on the draft of the Rome Statute up to 1999 when it was dropped at the insistence of a handful of nations.
She drew the stark link between corporate actions and the extensive destruction of ecosystems in the drive for profit that discounts the people and the planet. Her clear illustrations of the massive ecological destruction around us as ecocide quickly captured my attention. It is certain that the objective observation of the ongoing or prospective crimes around the exploitation of Mother Earth will show that this is one crime that must be recognised today and not delayed any further. Crimes of this magnitude are going on around the world, benefiting powerful entities such as transnational corporations and the politicians that do their beck-and-call. MORE