All Shook Up

While the media wittered away about the joys of con-trail free skies and the unsettling quiet that befell Twickenham, initial impact seemed to go no further than temps missing their pre-sliced fruit salads, frustrated ‘must-have-its’ waiting for their iPad to be FedExed to them, stranded travellers forced to extend their ‘volcation’ and airline execs forced to watch their monthly profits tickertape into the incongruously clear blue skies (estimated at $200 million a day by the International Air Transport Association).

While supermarkets played down the flight ban (Tesco claim less than 1per cent of its goods come in by air) and the creaking ‘Dunkirk spirit’ was wheeled out once more, at the other end of the supply chain the tension quickly tightened. Kenyan fruit and flower producers, for example, forced into dumping up to 15 tons of produce daily, at a cost to the economy of $1.7 million dollars a day in lost shipments and over 5000 redundancies.

Had the problem persisted much longer, other African products, including coffee, tea, sugar, honey, cocoa, spices and wine would also have been susceptible, creating a wobble in the vast free market economy that has evolved to keep us in the style to which we’ve become accustomed. Despite a limited local market, the tab for further delayed air freight would have been picked up by the farmer, fair trade affiliated or not.

We were afforded an insight into how our highly complex, streamlined food distribution system has destroyed local food infrastructure, becoming an industry which treats food as just another commodity.

This glimpse of the fragility of the global economy, the sand upon which its foundations are built, provides a timely warning, if we’re willing to heed it; while we obviously have a responsibility to the farmers that provide the exotica TV chefs incessantly persuade us are vital ingredients to modern life, we need to ‘think local’. Buying seasonal food from as near by as possible has well-documented positive results; less preservatives, less packaging, less refrigeration, fewer food miles, less CO2 and, crucially, less oil consumed in its production.

And did the paying public suffer due to the ash restricted supply of imported produce? Tony Reynolds of major UK produce distributor Reynolds Catering Supplies doesn’t think so. At the recent Footprint Forum he observed that although it had caused some problems, “nobody went hungry” and it was in fact a good healthy challenge. “Do we really need to air freight? All our customers found alternatives,” he said.

It might be a hard habit to kick, but when your doctor advises you to change an aspect of your lifestyle that’s threatening your health, you listen. Don’t you?

What is questionable is whether we will take the hint; our inability to do so is one of the characteristics that defines us as a species. Despite recent research from Exeter University’s psychology department demonstrating an ‘early warning signal’ in the brain that helps us avoid repeating previous mistakes, so we learn more from our incorrect predictions than from our correct ones, the weight of advertising and marketing is such that it apparently overrides our common sense.

The conditioning is too strong. We all know instinctively that to consume the finite resources that sustain us is, da-daa, unsustainable, yet we are assured that this is the way to live, the road to happiness and the expression of freedom.

As the Nobel Prize winning American economist, Paul Krugman, said recently, ‘What was truly impressive about the decade past was our unwillingness, as a nation, to learn from our mistakes.’

And it’s not as if we haven’t been given enough opportunity. Throughout human history catastrophe has, in some form or another, always beset us, whether brought about by our own tampering with what we’re increasingly beginning to realise are infinitely subtle and interwoven forces of nature, or by the earth’s own unpredictable processes.

Wars aside, examples of our own folly are legion; cut down the trees and top soil fertility disappears; feed cow’s brains to cows and they’ll get BSE; abuse antibiotics and immune systems collapse; test nukes underground and earthquakes increase in frequency; burn the world’s fossil fuels and the planet heats up.

What is certain now is that we know what we’re doing. We no longer have the excuse of ‘ignorance’. Indeed, it’s regarded as a symptom of psychosis in an individual to continue to do something you know will kill you.

Yet the global economy is dependant – since there is no such thing as sustainable economics – upon the consumption of the very resources that sustain it, and us.

In his 2003 documentary The Corporation, FBI criminal profiler and psychologist Dr. Robert Hare describes how corporate behaviour perfectly expresses the characteristics the World Health Organization uses to define psychopathic personalities: Reckless disregard for the safety of others; callous unconcern for the feelings of others; deceitfulness, repeated lying and conning others for profit; incapacity to experience guilt; failure to correspond to social norms regarding lawful behavior. Standard practice for any multi-national.

This may all be moot. Reports are emerging that the Deepwater Horizon’s arterial leak in the Mexican Gulf might be much, much bigger than currently estimated by BP – in whose financial interests it is to keep the figure low – and that the reserve is of unknown proportions; possibly big enough to bring forward Peak Oil by a decade and kill all the world’s oceans (1 gallon of oil can render 500,000 gallons of seawater toxic; do the maths). Even the hundreds of thousands of gallons of the dispersant chemical, Corexit, being used is itself toxic to marine life.

Soil Association director, Patrick Holden, thinks Peak Oil might just be the tipping point we need to get back to what he calls, ‘One Planet Agriculture’, and ‘a form of agriculture which intrinsically didn’t need to be powered by fossil fuel energy, the idea of building fertility, using crop rotation, farming in such a way that the plants and the animals had positive health to the extent that they didn’t need pesticides, antibiotics and more recently mutilations to deal with the consequences of ill health.’

Perhaps, like an individual faced with bereavement or a life threatening illness looking at life anew, we as a species will start to appreciate what we have around us a little more, and revere the planet instead of trying to eat it.