Cucumber Globalization

People may not take a cucumber crisis very seriously, but they should. It is representative of a wider problem that exists within our globalized economy.

If a cucumber is contaminated in Spain, it has grave consequences for multiple countries. One result is that the lever of the export machine becomes momentarily jammed. Cucumbers from Spain are rejected by other countries. The farmer, the packer, the shift supervisor and the company overseeing the distribution of cucumbers lose out. The free flow of perishable goods is interrupted. Shoppers from Berlin to Brno may become anxious and avoid buying Spanish cucumbers. They might even steer clear of them altogether for a period of time.

OK, not a travesty. But cucumbers are only, if you’ll excuse the salad based pun, the tip of the iceberg.

As we have seen over the past twelve months, nature has the potential to disrupt what many of us take for granted – the ability to travel by air, unimpeded. The consequences of the recent Japanese tsunami were felt all over the world. Car assembly lines were closed in the UK owing to the delay in the delivery of components. Toyota suffered a significant slump in productivity and sales. Similarly, the Icelandic volcano saga of 2010, and to a lesser extent last week, highlighted our sensitivity to air travel disruption.

The grounding or disruption to freight flights also reveals just how reliant some countries are on exporting single commodities. This is a ludicrous situation. Countries that possess the natural conditions or resources to grow a range of crops or produce materials domestically have been restricted in doing so. Instead, they channel most of their resources, time, labour and expertise into exporting a single commodity. The words eggs and basket spring to mind. When things go wrong, as they frequently do, the pain is intensified by the fact that there is nothing to fall back on. No plan B, let alone a Plan C.

The global economy can be dynamic when it works but it is also susceptible to disruption when a small cog in the machine temporarily jams. We cannot predict when such jams will occur or how consequential they will be. It is important, however, that we are aware of their potential and do not think – as many so-called experts did in the pre-recession boom years – that the status quo is infallible. In fact, the one thing we can be sure of is the uncertainty of the future.

With this in mind, I reach for my well-thumbed copy of Keynes’ General Theory.

Update: Spanish farmers have accused Germany of making unfounded allegations about the origin of the E.coli outbreak. The Spanish government is now considering whether to take legal action.



Five from the Web

Forty years ago this 22 April, Earth Day was first celebrated by 20 million Americans. Visit to see how you can get involved in 2010.

An article in Treehugger looks at the energy impact of Twittering. How much does each Tweet cost in carbon footprint terms?

According to the Times, one side effect of the Eyjafjallajokull Volcano has been that carbon emissions have been cut dramatically over the past five days.

The Telegraph reports how the LibDem leader, Nick Clegg, today commited £3bn for a green jobs revolution.

And finally, Mark Lynas vowes to practise what he preaches.

"Dethroning GDP" and "Redefining Progress"

The ongoing Icelandic Volcano saga poses many questions that are fundamental to the survival of mankind. Like what happens when your local supermarket can no longer fly in box upon box of pre-sliced pineapple chunks?

It also calls into question the very basis of our economic system. Many thousands of airplane journeys have been cancelled over the past five days. Countless numbers of people are stranded in foreign lands far away from home. And many, many less cartons of pineapple chunks have been consumed. In short, the daily routine of modern capitalism has been disrupted. Household passenger-plane companies are being hit with potentially knock-out blows to their profit margins, key workers such as teachers and nurses cannot get to work and the supermarket chains are having to deliver tinned pineapple rings in place of the real thing. But the wheels haven’t fallen off yet. Profits have surely slumped and many holiday-makers have been inconvenienced. But items such as this and this remind us of some of the advantages of economic “regression”.

In late March a diverse group of academics, NGOs and representatives from different US states met to discuss some of these very issues. An article in the World Resources Institute reviewed the meeting and its efforts to replace GDP as a barometer for progress and prosperity.

This article by Christopher Doll in Our world also examines the relationship between economic growth and sustainability. Amongst other things it looks at “Decoupling”, Amartya Sen’s “capability approach” and “Survivalism”. Well worth a read.

There are two issues that always need to be considered when thinking about the growth versus sustainability conundrum: (1) if climate change is, as Gordon Brown asserted prior to the Copenhagen conference, “the greatest challenge that we face as a world” then we must act decisively, but also that (2) those in the industrial/post-industrialised world are accustomed to seeing low-priced/out-of-season perishables in almost every supermarket in the northern hemisphere. Heaven forbid any national government impose restrictions on chunky pineapple pieces or other luxury goods.

It cannot be a question of either or. There must be compromise.

Eyjafjallajoekull Volcano

The cold weather that hit much of the US and Europe over Winter was not proof of a great global warming scam. Nor is the theory of Climate change a conspiracy for global governance. In the past half-century, temperatures have been rising. Yet the climate “skeptics” refer to short-term events such as snowmageddon to outline their case.

That is why Greenopolis is hesitant to report acts of nature as if they are directly linked to climate change/global warming trends. However, this morning the world awoke to extreme landslides in Brazil, devastating storms in South Asia, earthquakes in China and this Volcano eruption in Iceland.

The impact that landslides, storms, earthquakes and volcanoes have on communities across the world reminds us all just how important it is to understand even the slightest of changes to our environment. For now though, sit back in awe at this amazing sight at Eyjafjallajökull (pronounced AY-uh-full-ay-ho-ku). It is a once in an every two hundred year event: