Self sufficiency – not just for cranks

by | 21 Sep 2021

Following yesterday's analysis of why we're seeing so many global shortages, what exactly do we do about it in Scotland?

Yesterday I tried to explain the real underlying causes of the current global shortages, rising prices and emerging trade wars. So far so ‘massive problem’ and not enough ‘what to do about it?’. That undoubtedly reflects the debate as it is – public policy (at least on the face of it) is trying to ‘will us back to where we were’.

But it won’t work. As I explained, it’s not ‘Covid’ or ‘Brexit’ that is the problem. They are the shocks that reveal the problem. The problem is structural. If we don’t face up to that then we will be hit by the many shocks certain to come from climate change (and a rather nasty-looking new Cold War everyone seems totally committed to…)

An important part of the solution is to reduce consumption. I never, ever write that these days without clarifying that this does not mean reducing our quality of life – it is about how we deliver that quality. Rather than buying and disposing we need to borrow and reuse. This is common sense, not a sacrifice.

But it isn’t enough. We now expect and rely on many, many things that we don’t produce and can’t reuse. Let me call it ‘the tomato problem’. In Scotland we want and expect tomatoes in the winter, tomatoes we can’t (currently) grow in the winter.

We currently live on the basis that there is somewhere in the world that can grown them in our winter so we get them shipped in from there. And that is precisely the problem; we don’t look carefully (or frankly at all) at where our tomatoes are produced. They just ‘turn up’.

But if you do look closely what you will find is a bit alarming. We are reliant on food from parts of the world where the nature of the agriculture needed to supply us is constantly reducing the long-term viability of the very production we rely on. Either by depleting the water table or by exhausting or eroding the soil faster than it regenerates, or by relying on irrigation systems which are running out of water, we may find soon that some of these regions can’t deliver any more.

Even if they could, we know that extreme weather events are increasing in their frequency and scale. Inevitably, we are going to find floods or droughts will wipe out production in some regions, possibly for years at a time.

Then if we lose say 10 or 20 per cent of food supplies in a given year at a global scale there will be a rush to ensure supply (the nation-level equivalent of panic buying) and this will immediately exacerbate the problem. Food shortages will become a way of life if we’re not careful.

For food you can replace virtually any product that relies on either hard-pressed biological systems for their production or dwindling mineral resources. And that is before unexpected shocks to this system come along.

We are reliant on food from parts of the world where the nature of the agriculture needed to supply us is constantly reducing the long-term viability of the very production we rely on

I became convinced this was a real problem a number of years ago when I delved down into some of the detail of our ‘chains of consumption’ and their potential vulnerability (not to mention the enormous secondary environmental harm they do in pollution of all sorts – carbon, plastic, pesticides…).

I became convinced that a responsible nation must increasingly return to producing a greater proportion of its own consumption. I even said it out loud a few times, to discover this was largely met with what I can only call patronising guffaws. Didn’t I know that the structures of globalisation are the pinnacle of human achievement and to have total faith in them forever?

When I used the phrase ‘greater self sufficiency’ people looked at me like I was mad or was proposing returning to hunter-gatherer society.

But really, greater self-sufficiency is the only logical conclusion of where we’re going (unless you actually favour a military solution). It just doesn’t mean digging up our back gardens to plan tatties any more.

Let me give you some examples of greater national self-sufficiency. Immediately we could start producing much, much more of the construction materials we use in Scotland by investing in wood processing. I bang on about this a lot because it is a fast, easy win if pursued as a national project with serious strategic support.

If we really are going to a circular economy then the primary characteristic of many products stops being ‘price’ and starts becoming ‘longevity’. There is no need to buy cheap washing machines every ten years if we start leasing properly manufactured ones. There is absolutely no reason Scotland couldn’t manufacture them, but we can certainly maintain them domestically.

Food is a big issue. Scotland is calorie self-sufficient as it stands – we produce as many calories as we consume. But an awful lot of this is in the form of barely for the whisky industry (and we come back to our year-round tomatoes problem). But modern technologies change this. We can grow indoors using artificial light and we can do this year-round.

We imagine a single giant thing called ‘globalisation’ – but it’s not a single giant thing, it’s got lots and lots of intricate moving parts and they’re increasingly vulnerable

In theory there isn’t anything we couldn’t grow – an avocado orchard in a warehouse if we want. Common Weal priced this (roughly). Using today’s technology (which is getting more efficient constantly) we could grow about a quarter of our current calorie intake for about £1.75 per person per day. That’s without public subsidy.

From hemp for fabric to bioplastics, Scotland is a place tailor-made for greater self-sufficiency. This used to be treated like a kind of observation only raised by cranks, but that time is changing. We need to think seriously about how we rapidly reduce our environmental impact, ensure security of supply of essential goods and insulate ourselves from the approaching devastating of extreme weather.

That this all produces a very substantial economic stimulus for Scotland isn’t really it’s purpose – but it does.

What we have been observing is a world cruising along on it’s almost religious faith in a complex system of centralised production, international trade relations and complex logistics which we imagined as a single giant thing called ‘globalisation’. But it’s not a single giant thing, it’s got lots and lots of intricate moving parts and they’re increasingly vulnerable.

Right now nations everywhere are looking at the vulnerability and planning accordingly. Suddenly you can say ‘greater self sufficiency’ and no-one laughs. Sadly, public policy in Scotland is nowhere near that point. There’s a doctrinaire belief that ‘the EU’ solves all our problems and a zeal for ‘free trade’ in our strategic outlook.

It means that, as things stand, when greater impacts start to be felt, Scotland will be unprepared. We need to drop our faith in globalisation and free trade (like everyone else is) and take the concept of greater national self-sufficiency seriously. And we need to invest accordingly.

Otherwise the future is in the lap of the gods and looking back and bemoaning all the things we didn’t do will count for nothing.

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