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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Hire the Third World to develop low carbon sustainable agriculture

What are the two major problems on the globe today? No, Tiffany, it's not finding parking for your Escalade. No, Buzz, it's not getting rid of the coach.

Global warming and global poverty.

The UN climate change conference in Bali ended in acrimony. The world produced a barely adequate so-called road map forward, a process for beginning a process that needed to be in its second decade last year. Obstruction and obfuscation are generated primarily by the United States and its chief supplier China, who refuse to alter their mode of self-interest from greed to simple survival. As we noted in an earlier podcast, it is an enormous market failure when clear information is available to all parties -- that is, the demise of the Earth as an environment suitable for human life -- and the response of the most market-driven economies is to insist on burning more fossil fuels and creating an ever higher tower of cards.

Let us look for a moment at two parts of this issue. First the abstract issue of the motivation of economic actors. The second being the way to connect the undeveloped world to a successful growth path, which by the definition of successful, means a path that is not carbon-intensive.


In economic science, or at least in the primitive form currently in vogue, the world is made up of billions of little units operating on the basis of a kind of primal automatic response to material self-interest. Sometimes economists will introduce institutions as a collective form of this self-interest. The simplistic and oft-repeated magic of the market is then proposed, a catalyst that organizes these billions of self-interested atoms into a perfect crystal of optimal outcome. The invisible hand molds the best destiny, unless of course, government interferes.

Among the many unexamined contradictions and assumptions needed to support this leap of faith are the mass of evidence to the contrary, the patent absence of free markets in the real world, the many anecdotal examples -- say the current financial sector chaos -- where markets that are relatively free produce not optimal outcomes, but crisis and dysfunction. Along with this are the billions who actually act on a basis not exclusively rooted in personal material self-interest. Family, community, nation, race, and many other non-individual, dare we call them social, elements compose the individual's motivation in any particular incident.

To the point relative to Bali and the UN's roadmap. The survival of the planet also entails at least a modicum of self-interest. But this form is not the personal greed of the free market that is supposedly cleansed by the invisible hand. It is a survival where all must survive if one is to survive. The optimal survival of one means the survival of all. This is a powerful shift in motivation and is felt deeply by many of our society. The good of the whole is very much in direct concert with the good of the individual. This creates the opposite perspective on many economic actions, but one still impelled by self-interest. (Leaving aside the Game Theory discussion for the moment.)

I leave that for your reflection with only one additional note. The self-interest of survival ought to engender no less ruthlessness on our parts than that exhibited by the self-interest of those whose world ends at the edge of their skin.

Second point from Bali.

The dispute in Bali seemed to center on equal opportunity to stone our children to death. The U.S. demands its historical rights to foul the common nest. The developing world insists it has not had its full opportunity to pollute.

Pretend for a moment that we need a low carbon replacement for carbon-intensive agriculture and that we need the planting and maintenance of billions of carbon consuming planet regenerator units, aka trees. Suppose we see that we need to replace the current food production method within, say, thirty or forty years with an entirely new method. Not new acreage or sites or substitute fuels for the current method. And entirely new, carbonless method.

If that method were labor-intensive instead of capital intensive, and needed two or three or four decades lead time to come into full production, you would have a compelling rationale for supporting the agrarian economies of the undeveloped world with schools, roads, libraries, intensive R&D in green technology and assistance of all other kinds. A self-interested motive for cooperation.

These conditions exist in exactly this way. Therefore the way to address poverty is exactly the way to support the end of carbon, which is to generate this next agricultural system.

It is a misreading of history to say that the great industrialization of the world drew people from farms to better lives in the city. The great industrialization began on the farms and evicted and continues to evict those working there out over time. The tractors, combines, chemical fertilizers. It was the mechanization and technological alteration of the farm that expelled the population into the cities. If we now find that mechanization, chemicalization and technical complexity is damaging to the planet, then a reversion to technology that is simpler, though more sophisticated in its appreciation of the interrelation of systems, will do nothing but reinvigorate a healthy, prosperous life for billions of people.