Ecological self-sufficiency

Forest, Bliesgau, Germany (picture Oliver Herold)

According to the New Economics Foundation, the UK goes into ecological debt to the rest of the world on Easter Sunday (16 April). From tomorrow onwards, the British are living off the natural resources of other countries having exhausted their own. (Read the report here)

I suppose this is the green equivalent of Tax Freedom Day, the day each year when we have paid all our taxes and start earning money for ourselves. According to the Adam Smith Institute, Tax Freedom Day this year is 3 June – the later in the year, the larger the size of the state.

Now, the point about tax is not only what you pay but what you get for it. In the Scandinavian countries, for example, taxes might be higher than here but they get excellent public services in return. I think the same is true of ecological imports.

On the one hand, it is important to understand the reality of ecological interdependence. For example, imports of fruit and vegetables from the south of Spain are in effect imports of water from the south of Spain, and the south of Spain doesn’t have a lot of water to spare. Similarly, Japan may have the most extensive forest cover of any industrialised country but it is also the world’s largest importer of timber, much of it from the tropical forests of south-east Asia. Japan is not protecting forests: it is merely exporting its destruction to other countries where it turns out to be even more damaging to the ecosystem. So, the ecological interdependence is real and serious.

On the other hand, what do we pay for it? Why focus on individual countries? I suppose it catches the headlines, but I am instinctively suspicious of statistics like this based on national aggregates. Look at the differences between countries:

2 March Netherlands
3 March Japan
13 April Italy
16 April United Kingdom
29 May Germany
24 June United States
27 July France
1 October Austria

Just compare Germany and Austria, say. They have pretty similar economies and lifestyles, yet the Germans are held to be almost twice as dependent as the Austrians (turning to the rest of the world after 149 days as opposed to the Austrians’ 274). Is there really that much more virtue in Austria? Whether a natural resource is by accident in the territory of one country rather than another should be irrelevant to the consideration of the ecological impact of the lifestyles of the people in that country.

By a national measure, different countries are bound to have different levels of self-sufficiency, and the same will be true of individuals.

The farmer will be owed an ecological debt by the lawyer, the doctor, even the blogger. But the farmer also needs to have his contracts enforced and he needs to get well when he falls sick, so what matters is not the size of the debt but whether the payment is big enough to cover it. (It is not for me to say whether the farmer needs anything from the blogger.)

If the Dutch are providing lots of valuable services to the rest of the world, they can pay for the fact that they go into ecological debt on 2 March. I suppose that anyone living in a small crowded country can expect nothing else. People should be allowed to live how they wish, but they have to pay their own costs.

But there is a broader point, which is that the world as a whole goes into ecological debt on 23 October. This is a measure of the unsustainability of present lifestyles, looked at as a whole. Now, sharing the pain of adjustment against a background of widely differing resource use is a huge challenge. It is going to require political thinking beyond the narrow calculations of national interest.

If the New Economics Foundation report can highlight the extent of our interdependence, then that’s a good thing, but it needs to do so without reinforcing the national thinking it claims to be against.

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