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Twenty Questions that Will Make you Rethink Trade

Twenty Questions that Will Make you Rethink Trade

We live in the age of trade. Trade, supported by an infrastructure of criss-crossing cargo ships, mega-ports, and an endless armada of trains and trucks plying the railways and highways, has become the foundation of the modern global economy. (And let’s not even talk about the virtual infrastructure of banking and finance that undergirds all this real-world activity.) In fact, we’ve taken trade so far that the actual transactions are routinely irrational from an ecological or an energetic perspective, let alone a common-sense perspective. For example, consider the 10,000-mile cod. Scottish fishermen catch cod in the North Atlantic. Now, the fish could be consumed fresh in Scotland, but no… First, the poor piscine provisions are deep-frozen into codsicles, which are then shipped to China, thawed, filleted, packaged, re-frozen, and shipped back to Scotland for eventual consumption. The energy balance for codsicle processing is indefensible, as the calories spent to run the fish through this globalized Rube Goldberg machine immeasurably outstrip the calories gained from eating them.

OK, let’s pull back from the criticism for a moment. Trade isn’t all bad. Any college economics student can regurgitate a neoliberal rehashing of David Ricardo’s early-19th-century treatise of comparative advantage—trade can create benefits for a person or nation willing to engage in it. Researchers even hypothesize that trade was an advancement unique to Homo sapiens that allowed us to outcompete the Neanderthals. The thinking is that, through trade, we developed both specialization of labor and new technologies, while Neanderthals (who apparently were reluctant to trade) failed to develop either. But something’s gone awry with the idea of exchanging goods and services.

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