Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Poverty, low carbon, Transition and history

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UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

Energy Bulletin, which is a project of the Post Carbon Institute, has just published my article on the Transition movement and poverty (in the South, Asian and African). I have raised some questions and perspectives about this aspect of the Transition movement which has intrigued me for some time.

It also has to do with knowing the perspective from Europe – which sadly has too often been coloured by a “we know best how to help you” approach. That’s led to all sorts of inter-cultural problems and the last thing I want to see is for Transition ideas to be looked at with suspicion in the South because of historic blunders on aid and ‘dev-econ’.

The full article is available on Energy Bulletin. Here is the intro:

Serious traders see the trends before anyone else. They do so because their business depends on seeing the minute deviation that signals the beginning of a trend. Early in June 2010 commodities traders charted the new signals they were getting from the world’s agricultural exporters and major consumers. What they saw then became the picture that in late July began to alarm governments and international development agencies. World foodgrain supplies were entering a new phase of tightening, as the impacts of drought and extreme weather in grain producing countries around the world became clear.

For the trading community – whose strong and deep links with the world’s financial markets and banks have become more visible since 2008 – the opportunity is large, perhaps even bigger than the one that slowly unfolded in 2007, when the last global food price crisis swept through cities and villages alike. For inter-governmental agencies such as the United Nations system, the news is a body blow to the idea and effort that has sustained work on social justice and equality.

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UNICEF Photo

The effects of the 2007-08 food price crisis were still being unravelled when the 2009 financial crisis took hold. That prompted many UN agencies, major aid organisations and hundreds of large NGOs to quickly study the impact of both on their work, and on those whom they work for, which is the poor and marginalised on all continents. Much less visible and quite unrecognised is the impact of the same two crises on the small but philosophically very sound transition movement. Guided by tenets that became clear in the 1960s and 1970s, this constellation of movements (low carbon, sustainable communities, local resilience being some variations readily recognisable in the ‘west’) has adapted practices central to all ur-rural settlements, and continues to internalise the collected wisdom and practice of the world’s indigenous peoples. In so doing, the transition movement in the ‘west’ (and therefore North) has for the most part been unable to conceptualise a response to the human development and social justice needs of the South.

Much of this lack, as I see it, has to do with the very formidable inertness which western societies inherited from the transformations wrought by the Industrial Revolution, and the apparently incontrovertible ideas of ‘progress’ and ‘growth’, which by the time the Bretton Woods institutions came into being were well suited to form the core of a ‘development economics’ that has wrought havoc on both North and South, although in different periods of the 20th century. Transition ideas and praxis have had to therefore first wage an intellectual battle against ‘development economics’ and then launch a physical struggle against the socio-ecological degradation that followed such economics on the ground.

What we do know is that rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little. Here are a few points that help explain why the MDGs assessment is crippled by its reluctance to face facts:

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

UN Millennium Development Goals Report 2010 / UN Photo

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished – their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements – not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. The US$1.25 a day line (which can be replaced by any currency unit at any ruling amount) does not describe a poverty threshold. At best it provides a measure of one marker out of many for poverty, and even that marker needs to be localised for it to have community meaning. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa – correlated with poverty – most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

2. The percentage of chronically hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for years even though the number of hungry worldwide has barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these years of slow gains, and now the gathering 2010-11 food crisis (a shortage of availability coupled with price rise) will further reverse the gains.

There is another linkage, that of population. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and could plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall production of food has meant that the fairly weighted global average of available calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water and energy, is not (which is exactly where transition concepts and praxis come in).

3. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares – mostly from South America and Africa – without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.

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