Archive for category EU

A tale of two cities (or why Europe has something worth protecting)

Are European cities more liveable? A poor neighbourhood of Santander, northern Spain

Are European cities more liveable? A poor neighbourhood of Santander, northern Spain

A week ago, while visiting American relatives, I took a walk around the neighbourhood of Harlem in New York City. Guidebooks and popular wisdom had led me to believe that, rather than blighted inner-city slum, the area was now a home to the arts, culture, and community. Yet, walking streets just a stone’s throw from Central Park, it was a shock to discover the deep poverty that persists in the heart of New York City. Long queues of destitute people waited with shopping trolleys at bottle exchanges in the hope of appropriating people’s recycling bags and gleaning a few pennies or a few drops of alcohol. Homeless men wandered around the Marcus Garvey park with their belongings. And busy roads intersected the neighbourhood, leaving few spaces for people to live, walk and congregate.

A couple of months earlier, I was walking through poor suburbs on the outskirts of Santander, a medium-sized city in northern Spain. A sub-city of drab high-rise flats said loud and clear that this had been, and still was, a poor neighbourhood. And judging by national unemployment rates (still as high as 25%), many of the residents were probably out of work. However, the experience was far from depressing. At the base of these high-rise towers were cafés where people of all ages, whether in decent employment or otherwise, could enjoy an espresso for less than a euro, or could walk and chat in among the well-kept playgrounds, pétanque pits, cycle tracks and pedestrianized sitting areas.

These are anecdotal experiences, and there are plenty of counter-examples. The rest of New York City does contain pleasant public spaces. And many European cities are plagued by social problems of their own – begging, petty crime and ethnic segregation, e.g. in the Parisian banlieues. Nonetheless, these experiences crystallized a feeling I have often had outside Europe, and raised a series of questions that are critically important, and yet often absent from political debate. Was it just my perception, or are European cities generally more liveable than others? Are they more liveable for those without much money? Is it better to be poor in (Western) Europe than elsewhere? How important is this in the grand scheme of things, and how do we ensure that issues like the quality of life, the quality of public spaces and the  liveability of cities – for rich and poor – are taken into account when it comes to planning our future?

Only this week, Brussels’ political class was furrowing its brows over another round of sluggish growth forecasts, while looking longingly across the Atlantic. According to the latest IMF data, the Eurozone will have grown a mere 0.8% in 2014, rising only to 1.3% in 2015. Meanwhile, the US economy is roaring back into action, with growth due to rise above 3% next year. The Eurozone is now the sick man, and many are the doctors prescribing remedies for how to emulate the American example.

There is no doubt that Europe’s sovereign debt crisis and high unemployment rates are of major concern. But there is a risk that we lose sight of the bigger picture, or in other words, the type of society we hope to create – or to sustain – via economic reforms. The bigger picture is composed not only of growth rates and unemployment rates, but also of the more intangible things that make it possible to live a decent life even in the poorest and most indebted corners of the Eurozone. The danger, here, is that we take these things for granted, and end up sacrificing them as we chase the tail-lights of an American-style recovery.

So what does the bigger picture show? We need not rely only on anecdotes. Where these things can be measured by social indicators, European countries of comparable wealth to the US generally come out on top. Alongside promising growth forecasts, the IMF this week recalled that a stunning 50 million Americans were living in poverty in 2012. The poverty rate has in fact stagnated at 15%, even as growth has returned and average incomes have increased. As the IMF warns, any attempt to remedy it will require not only continued macroeconomic recovery (be it via stimulus or austerity), but also “a greater transfer of fiscal resources to society’s poorest”. In other words, to improve the lives of its citizens, the US will have to do what many European countries have been doing for years.

The costs of US-style inequality are arguably higher than the costs of not growing fast enough. In their recent book, ‘The Spirit Level’, UK academics Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett showed that the net wealth of a society has little to do with social outcomes. Rather, it is the most equal societies that have the lowest rates of depression, teen pregnancy, obesity, infant mortality, violent crime and a host of other health and social problems.  On this count, countries such as Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France and Spain fare better than the US and the more unequal European countries such as the UK and Portugal.

Structural inequality is likely to grow over the coming decades as technology further reduces the labour intensity of manufacturing, generating ever-larger pools of surplus labour at the bottom end of the services sector (see Tyler Cowen on ‘The End of Average’). This scenario represents a time-bomb for all countries, but particularly those where inequality is already being acutely felt, and where principles of income redistribution and social safety nets are least embedded.

The environment is another part of the bigger picture. Whether or not the world acts collectively to cut back CO2 emissions, all societies and all cities will eventually run up against a set of more tangible socio-environmental thresholds. Energy will become scarcer and more costly as fossil fuel reserves are depleted; soil fertility will be seriously threatened by increasing land degradation and ecosystem disturbances due to pesticide run-off and urban encroachment (not to mention the effects of climate change). In the face of these challenges, all societies will have to radically adapt their way of life. City bikes, car-sharing, recycling and upcycling are the leading edge of a major shift from private ownership to common usage, from energy-intensive individualism to the efficiencies of sharing and re-use, from a producer-consumer paradigm to something altogether different. Societies will have to find a way to share around the essentials (food, energy, productive land) as they become scarcer. Simultaneously, they will have to make a decent life affordable and liveable for the increasing numbers of people who find themselves surplus to market demand.

Again, Europe and its cities are on the right side of the ecological transition.  Having opted to maintain public spaces and public transport, having a well-established welfare state, and having generally refrained from the urban sprawl that accompanied the rise of the motorcar in the US and elsewhere, Europe is better placed to maintain some form of social cohesion and economic liveability as it negotiates its way through this transition.

To recap the point made earlier, this is not a plea for Europe to do nothing. Indeed, a failure to bring sovereign debt under control could lead to a situation where the burgeoning interest payments on these debts crowd out social spending altogether. Nor is it an argument against economic growth (the question of whether additional growth is feasible or desirable is discussed here). Rather, it is an appeal for us not to lose sight of the bigger picture as we embark on the next stage of economic recovery. It is an attempt to rebalance the narrative, so that we take into account not only what Europe lacks (high growth), but also what is has in abundance – liveable cities, more or less cohesive societies, manageable levels of poverty and inequality, and a strong basis for ecological transition. As hinted at by the IMF, these are things that cannot simply be secured by additional percentage points of economic growth.

It is unclear exactly what Jean-Claude Juncker’s new European Commission intends to do to relaunch the European economy. However, given the dominance of fiscal hawks in key positions, it can be assumed that it will involve chipping away at the public expenditures and public priorities that, collectively, make Europe a fairly equal and liveable place to be.

Quality of life is a fragile edifice that could easily be dismantled. Who knows what really holds it all together? A few more rounds of austerity, a few more cuts to healthcare budgets here, or urban planning expenses there, a further sharpening of wage inequalities, and the balance may shift.

Given how much we have to lose, this should be at the centre of the debate about Europe’s future. The trade-offs are key. What if lower growth is the price to pay for not dismantling the state, for not gutting expenditure on public transport, libraries, public spaces, festivals and bike tracks, for not dismantling the social systems that allow most people – even the poorest – to stay healthy, get a decent schooling, and participate in society without being priced out of basic pleasures like drinking a coffee in a square? What if lower growth is a price we are willing to pay to keep this edifice intact? Are there other ways to bring debt and unemployment down to sustainable levels without pushing social systems to breaking point in a bid for competitiveness? The UK is a beacon of light in Europe’s growth outlook, its economy having expanded 3.2% in 2014. But at what cost? Rarely a week goes by without news of a new social crisis (food banks at breaking point, mental health services cut to the point of implosion…), and this in a country plagued by American-style inequalities and what opposition leader Ed Miliband has dubbed a ‘cost of living crisis’.

Europe must now measure its immeasurables, and decide what it is willing to sacrifice, and what must be protected at all costs.


Nationalism bad, patriotism good?

In the opening scene of HBO drama ‘The Newsroom’, renegade news anchor Will McAvoy shocks his audience by declaring that ‘America is not the greatest country in the world’. The fallout plays out through the rest of the series, as McAvoy is hounded from all sides for ‘hating America’.

At first glance, this seems to be a very American debate, with less relevance for a European public. If there is one thing that brings Europeans together, it is the sense that we are not American. We do not subscribe to flag-waving shows of patriotism (except during the World Cup); we do not pledge our allegiance to anyone; we are allowed to be self-critical. But is this really the case? Or are European countries also guilty of feeling exceptional?

Only a month ago, nationalist and Eurosceptic parties burst onto the scene in European elections. Marine Le Pen’s Front National won in France, Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party topped the polls in the UK, the anti-immigrant People’s Party triumphed in Denmark, while far-right parties came in third in Austria, Hungary, and Greece – with an anti-EU party of the left, Syriza, topping the polls in Athens – and a strong fourth in the Netherlands.

There is now a familiar script for why this happened. Voters are disillusioned with the distant bureaucrats in Brussels, who, they feel, have robbed them of sovereignty, foisted a flawed currency onto them, mismanaged the financial crisis, and plunged them into austerity. This is surely part of the story, but is it the whole story? What about the flipside – the resurgence of patriotism? What if the main reason for rejecting Europe and rejecting multiculturalism is not disillusionment with bureaucratic mismanagement, but rather a surge of patriotic pride?

David Cameron’s patriotism offensive

In the UK, David Cameron’s government is on a patriotism offensive. Amid fears about the takeover of Birmingham schools by Islamic extremists, Cameron has told the country to stop being ‘bashful’ about the principles it holds dear, calling for ‘British values’ to be drummed into school-children. These values consist of ‘freedom, tolerance, respect for the rule of law, belief in personal and social responsibility, and respect for British institutions’, and are ‘as British as fish and chips’.

fish and chips

When Cameron tells people to be more patriotic, the assumption, clearly, is that patriotism is a good thing. This builds on an existing narrative we are all familiar with: while nationalism is bad, patriotism is good.

But this needs to be challenged. What is the actual value of delineating national values and building patriotism around it?

The first problem is, how do we decide what these values are? While Cameron’s Britishness is all about respecting institutions, for others the proudest traditions are those of radical protest against these institutions, from the Peasant’s Revolt of the 14th Century to the trade unionism of the more recent past. As Owen Jones explains in the Guardian, this is a highly political exercise: “Where the government’s agenda becomes dangerous is if one side claims its values are those of the nation as a whole”.

Selective story-telling

Secondly, what makes any of these values uniquely British? Surely it is misleading to suggest that freedom, tolerance and the rule of law are uniquely British values. According to Cameron, it is the longevity of British democratic traditions that makes them exceptional. In an echo of the tea party’s obsession with the American constitution, Cameron continues to invoke the ‘Magna Carta’, an 800-year old document limiting the monarchy’s powers. However, it is hard to trace current democratic practices back this far, given that the great reform acts granting the vote to ordinary people came some 600 years after the Magna Carta, and had more to do with the industrial revolution than any underlying values. Then again, this is far from being the most dubious of Cameron’s patriotic claims. He recently declared that the economy was experiencing a ‘great British revival’. Does this mean that the double-dip recession preceding it was also distinctly British? If so, he failed to mention it.

Those rallying to Cameron’s side have been equally unable to pinpoint specifically British values. LBC radio presenter Nick Ferrari highlighted ‘D-Day Spirit’ as the essence of unique British values. But this is an isolated historical event. True, it could not have happened in any other country. But this is a fact of geography more than values: no other major European state had a buffer of water between it and the Nazi-dominated mainland.

What about the empire?

And besides, picking out D-Day is highly selective. Let’s take another important event from 20th century British history. In 1919, hundreds of unarmed Indian civilians were gunned down by British soldiers in what is now known as the Amritsar Massacre. Arguably, this is a more representative event, given that it was the culmination of three centuries of overseas expansion involving slavery, expropriation and routine exploitation. Are these British values? How can we square the idea of ‘freedom’ as a British value with the fact that Britain’s modern ascendancy was based on denying the freedom of self-determination to millions of people around the world? This goes to show the dangers of cherry-picking historical events and trying to build national values around them. The results are always historically misleading and socially divisive.

Tellingly, sparks have flown in Britain and France over recent years as politicians have attempted to reshape the historical curriculum to put an extra positive spin on their national trajectories. In 2005, attempts were made to rehabilitate French colonialism as a positive ‘civilizing’ force in the school curriculum; more recently, patriots came out in force against the decision to dedicate some history classes to African pre-colonial civilizations, at the expense of teaching time for Napoléon and the French Revolution. Meanwhile, the British Empire has been largely absent from the British history curriculum, allowing people to graduate from school with a hazily benevolent view of Britain ruling the seas, alongside an intimate knowledge of Nazi Germany and Britain’s heroic resistance to it. Current education secretary Michael Gove has moved to reinstate the British Empire, but in worryingly patriotic terms. He has enlisted the help of pro-empire historian Niall Ferguson, and introduced pioneering colonialist ‘Clive of India’ as a key British figure, as part of an overhaul which has been heavily criticized for its anglo-centric jingoism.

The flipside of patriotism

This sheds light on problems not only with the UK government’s form of patriotism, but with patriotism per se. Patriotism does not occur in a vacuum. Erroneous and selective historical accounts not only give people a trumped-up sense of their own country, but also a dismissive view of others. The idea of one country’s uniqueness and exceptionalism could not exist without the accompanying view – consciously or unconsciously held – that other countries are in some way inferior.

In this light, patriotism and nationalism are not so far apart. If British people are convinced that freedom is a British value, then the logical assumption is that other Europeans do not have or understand freedom in the way that Brits do – and will only constrain British freedoms through the Brussels bureaucracy. And if French people are convinced that culture is essentially a French virtue, as emphasized by Marine Le Pen, then they will naturally be dismissive of the cultural practices of immigrant populations. These are the beliefs that make people more susceptible to vote for anti-European, anti-immigration parties.

That is not to say that there is nothing unique about the UK, France or any other European nation. And perhaps it’s impossible for a Brit not to feel a bit of pride while sipping an ale in a country pub (à la Farage), or for an Italian while contemplating the architectural glories of Rome. But there is a fine line between taking pride in unique elements of one’s nation, and succumbing to trumped-up patriotism based – at some level – on a feeling of superiority over others. Politicians and public figures push sentiment across that line when they cherry-pick from history, culture and tradition – when they mix freedom and fish & chips – and whip these ingredients into a sense of superior national values.

The whole spectacle is a great diversion from what is actually important. As Will McAvoy tells his outraged audience, America is truly exceptional not because of its freedoms, but in terms of its percentage of incarcerated citizens and its military expenditure. Politicians like Cameron should spend less time dubiously boasting about what is historically great about Britain, and more time brainstorming solutions to what is statistically bad about it, e.g. binge drinking, teen pregnancies, obesity.

Rather than redoubling our patriotism, we have a lot more to gain from self-critique, honest historical accounting and modesty – itself a supposedly British value that Cameron may have forgotten along the way.


Lessons for Europe in the Central African Republic

CAR photo2Following months of violence across the Central African Republic (CAR), the last two weeks have seen the EU agree to deploy 500 troops to Bangui in support of French forces, and now a unanimous UN Security Council vote in favour. In parallel, hundreds of millions of dollars of humanitarian aid has been pledged by donor countries and international organizations in response to the unfolding crisis.

What has become clear is that the international community, and particularly the EU, are no longer willing to accept the narrative that this is a ‘forgotten’ country and a forgotten conflict.

But was that critique ever justified in relation to CAR? Was enough done in peacetime to stop the slide into the current critical situation, where 100,000 refugees are taking shelter at Bangui Airport alone? What role has the EU played in CAR over the past decade, and why was it unable to stop this train of events?

In answering these questions, all roads lead to development aid. The standing, peacetime assistance offered to developing countries (not to be confused with ad hoc humanitarian aid) is the key tool through which the international community engages with Africa, and is the carrot with which the EU and other donors encourage countries to implement governance reforms, the rule of law, sound budgeting and the other supposed tenets of a peaceful and prosperous society. When these strategies fail to deliver basic stability, let alone growth and poverty reduction, it is natural to return to the age-old question: does development aid help or hinder the world’s poorest countries?

Somehow, the jury is still out – and the situation in CAR is no clearer.

Too little aid, or too much?

On one hand, the country’s plight can be seen as the result of aid failing to arrive on the requisite scale. The EU has been by far the most committed donor over the past decade. However, the Oxford development economist Paul Collier has argued that countries such as CAR receive only a fraction of what is needed to break the cycle of poverty, instability and conflict. Collier has lambasted the EU for continuing with aid programmes in stable, middle-income countries (e.g. in Latin America) rather than freeing up money for ‘the bottom billion’: the poorest and most conflict-stricken countries such as CAR. The figures seem to bear out the argument that CAR has received relatively little aid from the international community: in 2011, official development assistance to CAR from all donors amounted to $270 million. This was roughly the same amount netted by El Salvador, where income per capita is 7 times greater, and life expectancy 23 years higher (72, compared to 49 in CAR).

The idea of African countries being ‘locked’ in poverty, and requiring a massive infusion of aid in order to break the cycle, is nothing new. It has been propagated for decades by celebrity aid campaigners and their intellectual spearhead, Jeffrey Sachs, an advisor to the UN Secretary General and designer-in-chief of the Millennium Development Goals. Myra Bernardi, of the Overseas Development Institute, pointed out that the similarities between the current situation in CAR and that of ten years ago, when President Bozizé first came to power through a coup d’état: “You have to ask yourself the question of whether the low levels of donor commitment over the past decade could ever have reasonably been expected to help bring about transformative changes in CAR, either politically or economically.”

On the other hand, CAR is a textbook case for why development aid – in quantities big or small – fails.  Without a functioning state bureaucracy and without state authority extending beyond the main cities, the money rarely makes it to its intended beneficiaries, and only provides enough stability to keep the current elites in power, rather than bringing genuine opportunities for the rest of the population.

Does this argument apply to CAR? A significant share of aid to the country has been channelled to ‘DDR’ – disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combattants – which is surely a worthwhile and necessary endeavor in a country long plagued by violence and coups. However, there is evidence that aid has not always reached the intended parties: reports are now suggesting that some people have signed up to militias only in order to pocket a paycheck when they subsequently disarm. There are few better illustrations of the perverse incentives set in place by development aid than it becoming a magnet for recruitment into violent militias.

Seeds of consensus

Occasionally the opposing views in this debate have been reconciled. Few question the effectiveness of targeted, aid-financed healthcare interventions such as the distribution of insecticide-treated bednets by the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Meanwhile, there is generally agreement that humanitarian aid is a crucial and necessary lifeline in zones afflicted by natural disasters and conflicts, such as CAR now is.

When it comes to who is supplying the aid, the sceptics have largely focused their criticism on government-to-government transfers, while identifying fewer problems in regard to village-level projects run by NGOs. But herein lies the problem: it is only the government-to-government aid flows that can realistically be big and sustained enough to set a new dynamic in motion, and to push a country out of the ‘poverty trap’. Conversely, it is only aid on this scale that is likely to breed dependency and corruption. And yet it is over the impacts of this form of aid – the biggest and most potentially transformative – that disagreement still reigns. This missing consensus, after decades of aid-driven development strategies, represents one of the greatest knowledge gaps in the modern world.

Is Europe turning away from aid?

Europe, for its part, is showing signs of aid fatigue. While continuing to outstrip the efforts of the US and other donors, aid from the EU27 dropped to 0.39% of GNI in 2012 – its lowest level since 2007, and a long way short of the 0.7% pledged by the G8 at Gleneagles. And in order to pad these dwindling figures, European countries are resorting to counting an increasing share of interest-bearing loans to developing countries as official development aid.

Is this merely evidence of Europe’s financial strains showing? Or does it mark a creeping ideological shift away from aid? It may be more than coincidence that military operations in Africa are on the rise as aid flows are stagnating. Following the Franco-British efforts to topple Gaddafi in Libya, France has led targeted deployments in Mali and now in CAR. Meanwhile, the success of the European anti-piracy task force in the Gulf of Somalia will have emboldened those in favour of EU-level military actions on the African continent.

However, it must not be forgotten that we intervene militarily and pour in emergency humanitarian aid because standing support has failed to deliver peace and economic security. And in these failures aid will often have played a crucial role – by having a corrosive and corrupting impact, or by failing to arrive in sufficient quantity to effect positive change.

Aid is not in a vacuum

But what does the evidence really show? The problem is that the impacts of aid can never truly be isolated from the multitude of other factors that, collectively, make a state able – or unable – to deliver peace and prosperity. Many of these factors are linked to the actions of donor countries beyond granting aid. Take South Korea, one of the development success stories of the 20th century. Aid was part of this story, but so was everything else that was done to ensure that the US had a successful capitalist ally on the doorstep of the communist bloc. In other cases, Cold War concerns had the opposite effect, allowing aid to be channelled to patently corrupt allies such as Mobutu in Zaire with little concern for development outcomes.

When the problems of struggling states are diagnosed today, it is therefore crucial to look at the whole picture. Perhaps aid could be working, or would be working, were it not for other things that donors are doing or failing to do in tandem.

What is needed most of all is country-specific analysis, and the subsequent design of cooperation strategies that involve aid but are not limited to it.  When it comes to countries where government capacity is as limited and poverty is as rife as they are in CAR, there is a strong case for getting involved more deeply and with more resources – or not at all. Higher aid flows to CAR may have helped avert the crisis, if only because with more money at stake, the international community would have sounded the alarm earlier and taken action as the situation slipped out of hand.

Europe must decide where it stands in this argument. If it is to move away from aid, it must do so for the right reasons, i.e. because the evidence genuinely shows that aid is counterproductive in the country environment in question. The worst result would be for the EU to quietly turn its back on aid for the wrong reasons:  because of fiscal austerity, because ‘nothing works in Africa’, because it is fashionable to reject development aid, or because quick-fix military interventions play better with the European public.

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Eurosceptics: freedom-fighters or falsifiers?

“People came to this country for either money or freedom. If you don’t have money, you cling to your freedoms all the more angrily. Even if smoking kills you, even if you can’t afford to feed your kids, even if your kids are getting shot down by maniacs with assault rifles. You may be poor, but the one thing nobody can take away from you is the freedom to f*** up your life whatever way you want to.”

So laments Walter Berglund, the protagonist of Jonathan Franzen’s brilliant 2010 novel Freedom. This may be the insight of a fictional character, and it may concern the founding values of America. Nonetheless it captures a counter-intuitive truth at the heart of modern politics: those who have the least, and need Government the most, are often hardwired to reject it.

The defence of freedoms when all else has failed is an instinctive reaction tied up with pride. Much of politics hangs on these die-hard freedoms and to what extent they should be reined in by laws and regulations. But much of it doesn’t – and yet cliques have realised that they can achieve their own minority interests by convincing people that their freedoms are at stake when they are not.

The result is a highly destructive force in politics.

Freedom from food stamps?

The most obvious examples can be found in Franzen’s homeland, the US. Few policies are more obviously beneficial to the poorest segments of society than food stamps (‘SNAP’), used by around 48 million Americans at the latest count. This support is a lifeline for many, as is the state-subsidised flood insurance that stood between many people and homelessness in the wake of natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy.

‘Big Government’ should be more popular than ever – and yet a powerful coalition of Tea Party-inspired commentators and politicians has managed so relentlessly to paint the State as an invader of freedoms that it has discredited Government intervention in the eyes of those who need it the most. Obama, who defended social programmes such as SNAP throughout his first presidency, is frequently labelled as an elitist who wants to tell poor people how to live their lives.

When it comes to food stamps, what is supposedly being encroached on? The freedom not to be offered social assistance? A general feeling of indignation is nonetheless sparked, and this taps into the underlying sense of injustice that is close to the surface where freedoms are concerned.

To put it crudely, the anger of the poor is turned to the benefit of those who don’t want to subsidise the poor, and this unlikely coalition can be activated to resist any attempts by Government to have a real impact (and especially a redistributive impact) on the life and wealth of the nation.

Euroscepticism and freedom

The defence of freedoms in the face of an anti-democratic EU has meanwhile become the rallying cry of Eurosceptics across the bloc as they seek to capitalise on the Eurozone crisis and ramp up the case for exit or repatriation of powers.

The UK is the pioneer of all things Eurosceptic. Last week’s BBC Question Time saw the trade unionist Bob Crow join forces with the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and a Daily Mail columnist to condemn the EU and demand that the UK leave (12 minutes in):

Crow’s EU exit call is based on a general lament about inter-EU and non-EU immigration undercutting British salaries and working conditions.

Yet if a decent situation for workers is what he really wants, surely his anger should be directed at the UK Government for opting out of the EU Working Time Directive? Or why not push for a better Working Time Directive at EU-level if it needs improving?

In many European countries labour movements have been highly critical of EU internal market policy (e.g. the Bolkenstein Directive) and have sought to reorient the European project away from liberalisation, a position that often translates into strongly anti-Brussels rhetoric.

However, the UK example is more problematic because not only are UK workers more likely to attain labour protection at EU than at national level, but also because key figures like Crow ignore specific policies and head straight for the EU exit.

Trade unions and far right parties are odd bedfellows – and their alliance in the service of a ‘Brexit’ is testimony to the genius of a particular clique in conscripting a broad coalition of people to do its dirty work.

Who are those with an unequivocal interest in the UK leaving the EU, as opposed to reform of EU policies or other incremental change? If we exclude a small fringe of outright nationalists and patriots, we are left with a) company CEOs whose ability to exploit their workers and capture the lion’s share of profits could be threatened by current and future social legislation which can be stifled more easily at national than EU level; and b) the city of London, whose freedom to speculate, pay out exorbitant bonuses and operate without a financial transaction tax hinges on multiple legislative debates in Brussels.

Overall this is a fairly limited bunch. But a much wider coalition has been built to demand an exit, not least thanks to the efforts of a vicious partisan press – ideologically and often financially tied to the self-interested clique – which works to convince people that their freedoms are genuinely at stake. To do so, the freedom of the few to make exorbitant amounts of money has been conflated with the freedom of ordinary citizens not to have rules dictated to them by Brussels.

Eurosceptics have bullied their way into every discussion of politics at the European level, not least through concerted campaigns to label the BBC as elitist europhiles if they do not feature the likes of Nigel Farage (the UKIP leader) whenever the word EU is mentioned.

As such, no EU-level policy can be discussed in isolation or in detail, because the debate is always brought back to the original sin of the EU itself, and the assault on freedom that it supposedly represents.

Labour MP Gisela Stuart summed up the problem in advice addressed to her party leader Ed Miliband in a recent Prospect article: “First, stop thinking that we will ever come to love any institution of government… So make sure you and your team talk about the substance rather than the structures”.

The success of Eurosceptics is to make the entire debate about the structures rather than the substance, and thus to make all EU business a question of personal freedoms versus the dictatorial power of an anti-democratic, illegitimate body.

Crying EU withdrawal every time we don’t like a particular policy is like the county of Cornwall demanding secession from the UK, or Brittany from France, every time they don’t like a national-level policy. Legitimate? Very occasionally. Practical or constructive? Certainly not.

What if the anti-EU outrage were channeled at improving policies at the national and EU level? When lambasting Brussels people perhaps forget that the EU is not set in stone, and is only as good or bad, as free-market or nanny-state, as accommodating or restrictive of freedoms, as its citizens choose to make it. This they do when they elect the MEPs who sit in the European Parliament, and the national governments who will represent their interests at Council, as well as nominating Commissioners.

Decisions are made by consensus, which may feel alien to British voters – more used to attritional two-party politics than to the trade-offs of coalition-building – especially when a consensus without the UK in it is presented by the Eurosceptic press as ‘anti-democratic diktat’.

The individual decisions are of course rarely given the attention they deserve, given that people’s attention – on the trade unionist left and free-market right – has been trained on the ‘bigger’ but emptier question of in versus out, freedom versus no freedom.

When the UK drifts towards the EU exit door, it is not people’s freedoms that will have been protected, but rather the special interests of a minority who have too much to lose from a genuine policy-oriented debate, and much to gain from manipulating the concept of freedom and making the EU the bogeyman.

The opinions in this article are those of the author alone


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How to sell out a country in 30 seconds

At Davos last week, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev made a naked call to the World Economic Forum for investment to flood into Russia. In a message echoing so many of those ringing out around the world, Medvedev declared his country open for business. It provided an interesting insight into what Davos – and the modern global economy – is all about.

Davos is perhaps the natural place for countries to sell themselves; CEOs and fund managers line the corridors, and keynote addresses can be backed up by discussions of economic data in the margins.

But the global contest to pull in the investors spills out far beyond the meetings of the rich and powerful in places like Davos. In fact, wherever you look, countries are bending over backwards to convince the business and investment communities that they are the place to be.

Capital now flows so freely that everyone is a potential investor, and there are few geographical limits as to where that investment could go. What remain are risk assessments and psychological barriers, based on perceptions about a place and the security of an investment therein.

A huge battle for hearts and minds is therefore underway to change these perceptions. Just as the globalised internet age has made everyone a potential investor, it has also made everyone the target audience for rampant destination marketing.

Anyone who tunes into international news channels such as BBC World and CNN – commonplace in cities like Brussels where international TV packages prevail – will have noticed the ample country infomercials in the advertising breaks between newsreels.

Many are purely focused on tourism – these generally feature well-to-do Westerners being wowed by the breath-taking landscapes and wonderful people of the country in question, all capped off by slogans such as Incredible India, Malaysia Truly Asia, or Touching Moments, Experience Macau.

Aside from being sickeningly cheesy (swans and sunsets abound), these adverts have a tendency to patronise the country they are advertising – the locals are portrayed as warm-hearted types engaged in a seemingly endless stream of festivals, dances and other eccentric traditions.

Should it be any surprise that they are simplistic? The idea of branding a country in one minute will always be an exercise in simplifying and stereotyping. Irritating as it is, this is perhaps the unavoidable face of country branding for tourism purposes. And it probably works – a minute full of stereotypes may well suffice to swing a holiday decision.

What is more pernicious is the other face of country branding: the ‘Invest in’ advert. These occur in the same places – on international news channels, before embedded videos on news websites – and are presumably aimed at the same well-to-do, cosmopolitan audience as the tourism ads. Except here the goal is not to convince you that this is a great place to visit, but rather to show that this is a great place to invest, outsource, or set up a new business. Ads like these have become all the rage for countries emerging from the economic shadows and desperate, like Russia, to convey the message that they are ‘open for business’.

The investor figure, as in Grow With Georgia, is typically a debonair Westerner who finds himself pleasantly surprised by the excellent infrastructure, business comforts and general professionalism of the host country. And the hosts are helpful, well-groomed people who look overjoyed to assist in the business venture.

But what is troubling is what is not said. These adverts speak in codes. If an investor is to be convinced to invest in a country in the space of a clean, breezy 30 second montage, there is clearly plenty of detail that will be left aside. So the viewer is invited to read between the lines. Euphemisms such as ‘reform-minded’ and ‘business-friendly’ often crop up in the voiceover. The general message that is meant to transpire from these adverts is pretty much the same regardless of the destination: that salaries are low, the workforce is obedient, regulations are loose, tax arrangements are favourable, and the country is free of anything ugly like social unrest.

The Korean Free Economic Zone is particularly creative in its quest to convince investors of its free-market credentials (as if the name did not suffice) – words like ‘deregulation’ and ‘tax reductions’ appear momentarily in bubble writing on the surface of the ocean. It is as if the creators of the ad, inspired by Inception, want the viewer to emerge thinking that the idea of Korea being a deregulated economy is something he has always known.

The Invest in Macedonia ad is an exception in that it is more brazen about its intentions. ‘In an economic downturn, it’s time to cut costs’, the voiceover announces, before listing average monthly salaries as low as 430 euros as one of the benefits of investing.

The adverts crystallise what is happening, and has been happening for decades, in the global economy. One after another, countries are outbidding each other to be the latest low-cost, low-tax paradise. They are as much as admitting that they will depress domestic wages, forgo tax revenues and do whatever neighbouring countries are doing and more to make life comfortable for investors and companies – providing that business is brought to their shores. This is the ugly side of globalisation. This is the beggar-thy-neighbour economics that tells us that the race to the bottom is well and truly on.

More than 6,000 bilateral investment agreements currently in force between countries. This is testimony to the growing importance of investment as a force in the global economy – a force for good, for bad, for change, or for none of these, depending on the circumstances.

These adverts provide a unique window into this new frontier of the globalized economy. In 30-60 seconds of slick montage the logic of the system is laid wonderfully bare. And the spectacle is troubling, not only because of the stereotyping, but also because of the underhand nature of the messaging.

It raises a set of questions: Is there something fundamentally wrong with the global economy when the things governments tout to a moneyed, international audience – low salaries, unregulated markets, preferential tax arrangements – are the very things they would tell their citizens they are against? And why do countries feel the need to sell themselves so brazenly to investors? Investment is ‘necessary’ to keep an economy growing and create jobs. But should any investment do? Will investments secured against the tacit promise of suppressing salaries and working rights not do more harm than good? Will infrastructural investments funded by foreign capital eventually lead to hikes in the cost of public services, so as to ensure a good return for the investors?

Russian citizens, like so many others, are in the process of finding out.

These are the personal opinions of the author alone


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Why the EU must dare to debate ‘degrowth’

The continuing expansion of the global economy is confusing, but is it also making us poorer?

What if, instead of saying that Europe must get back to growth, European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso decided to say the opposite?

For all of its bluster, the current EU budget battle is being waged over fairly narrow stakes: whether Europe will get back to growth more quickly by spending a little more or a little less at the EU level. The stakes are narrow, firstly because what is spent at EU level is only a fraction of public spending in the 27 member states, and secondly because all of the bickering is focused on how to get growth, and not on whether it is actually necessary or desirable.

Do alternatives to growth really exist? The debate remains on the margins of the public political sphere, but in Europe and elsewhere serious academic theories and grassroots movements are building around the idea of a ‘steady state economy’ with zero growth, or even ‘sustainable degrowth’.

What is degrowth?

The degrowth movements believe that producing more year on year will not make us truly better off, and cannot go on infinitely due to ecological limits.

US ‘steady state economy’ advocate Herman Daly argues that we have already hit a threshold where growth no longer brings net gains even in purely economic terms, i.e. the costs of all the damage done by additional growth (e.g. paying for environmental clean-up and health afflictions linked to pollution) already outweighs the benefits.


Daly argues:

‘No one denies that growth used to make us richer. The question is, does growth any longer make us richer, or is it now making us poorer?’

Degrowth theorists also rubbish the idea that economic growth can realistically be decoupled from growth in resource use and carbon emissions.  According to UK economist Tim Jackson:

‘In a world of nine billion people all aspiring to western lifestyles, the carbon intensity of every dollar of output must be at least 130 times lower in 2050 than it is today’.

What’s more, this growing body of thinkers and activists does not believe that additional growth in advanced economies is socially desirable. Data used by degrowth theorists point to rising wellbeing up to modest per capita income levels of around $20,000, after which it depends much more on other factors such as love, family and friendships. So the extra things that extra growth produces, and our extra per capita income allows us to buy, do not lead to extra wellbeing.

Nudging into the mainstream?

How significant is this movement? Mainstream political parties have been reluctant to debate, let alone to defend, a concept that runs so deeply against the grain of current political discourse. The Greens, in several European countries, are a notable exception (see previous blog on green parties).

The closest that degrowth has come to the corridors of political power was the publication in 2009 of a report drawn up by Tim Jackson for the UK Sustainable Development Commission, an advisory body to the government that was subsequently abolished by David Cameron. Jackson’s ‘Prosperity Without Growth‘ report drew plaudits but has remained on the margins of the debate as politicians in the UK and elsewhere have gone firmly into recession-mode, asking only the old, familiar question: how can we get back to growth?

Meanwhile, grassroots movements have been growing in strength. Over the last two months alone the 3rd International Conference on Degrowth, Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity has taken place in Venice, while the Global Women’s Forum in Deauville held debates centred on degrowth. Meanwhile the local initiatives that underpin the movement are flourishing. In Italy, where a strong Decrescita Felice (‘happy degrowth’) movement has sprung up, the ‘Cittaslow’ network has brought together dozens of towns and communes in the interests of slowing the pace of urban life and repurposing urban space away from commercial uses – a movement that has now spread to more than 20 countries.

Why should this be the EU’s battle?

But why should EU policy-makers pay attention to these alternative voices if they barely feature in the political debate at national levels?

Firstly, because they can. The EU executive is used to raising the uncomfortable questions and being blamed by national politicians who are themselves more constrained by the short-termism of electoral cycles. ‘Bonkers Brussels wants to ban growth’ and other such headlines would of course abound from the British tabloids if the EU were even to open a reflection on degrowth. But headlines like this are business as usual, and unfortunately are the price that must be paid for bringing a new and sensitive debate into the mainstream.

Secondly, the European Commission should embrace the degrowth debate because disillusionment with growth-based strategies is Europe-wide, and is growing. Across Southern Europe determined protest movements are building against the price of past growth (mountains of debt) and the prescribed remedy for returning to growth (austerity).

The whole bloc is facing hard questions about how to squeeze more growth out of its factories, farms and financial centres. The answers all point towards an unappetising race to the bottom: Europe must work more, work longer, and regulate and spend less for health, wellbeing and the environment.

For many, these are necessary compromises. After all, what are the alternatives? Without more growth, and with an expanding population, everyone’s piece of the pie gets smaller – meaning reduced employment and reduced income.

This, however, is not the whole story. Jackson’s ‘Prosperity Without Growth’ theory openly acknowledges the need to shift to labour-intensive, resource-light activities, where existing work is shared around and people have more time for leisure, volunteering, and tending to themselves and their relationships.

As a result we would earn less, but we would not necessarily be less wealthy – even in strictly monetary terms. Debating growth vs degrowth can help us to understand the cycles we are in: we need lots of money so we work hard; but we also need that money because we work hard.

Paying for crèches, stress and fatigue-related medical expenditure, commuting expenses, on-the-road snacking, comfort purchases, insurance payments for our comfort purchases, expensive getaways… it turns out that many of our financial ‘needs’ are contingent in some way on working (too) hard. Of course if we weren’t taxed so much we wouldn’t need to earn so much in the first place… and yet much of this tax is levied to fund the public services whose need arises from our individual over-working and over-consuming (e.g. healthcare) and our collective over-working of the environment (e.g. the clean-up of water courses from agricultural and industrial run-off).

Can these cycles be broken? Can there be another way? Could it be the European way? Surely this is too important a debate not to have?

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author alone

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti

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The slow death of fast food

How sincere is the McCafé revolution?

Another year, another dire health warning about fast food.

This time the sector is under fire from the influential American Institute of Medicine. The dangerous obesity epidemic engulfing America – and many other countries – cannot be put down to personal choice alone, the report states. Washington is advised to consider a tax on sugary drinks, and to ensure that healthy options – and not merely fast food – are available at shopping malls and sports facilities.

In short, it is the obesogenic environment that must change – and nothing characterises this environment more than fast food outlets and the cheap and abundant calories they offer.

How has fast food survived so long, and what future does it have, when McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC are the public face of a public health crisis? Judging by the figures, the fast food industry is in much ruder health than its customers. Fast food sales remained steady in the US through the worst of the economic crisis, and actually increased in Britain, France and Japan, while whole swathes of the restaurant and retail sectors fell by the wayside.

But while individuals can still afford a Big Mac, the public purse can no longer afford to pay for the fallout. The costs of fighting diet-related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease are becoming untenable: obesity in the US – now afflicting 34% of people – is responsible for an additional $190 billion (€241 billion) per year in healthcare costs, according to Reuters. In this climate, all avenues for tackling overeating will be explored, and fast food will be subject to more scrutiny than ever.

However, recent evolutions in the sector demonstrate just how resilient and adaptable it has proved itself to be. For many years now, a combination of public opinion and regulatory pressure have forced the sector into an ongoing process of rebranding and reinvention. Offering salads and smoothies alongside burgers and coke is no longer an eccentric marketing ploy – it is effectively a prerequisite for chains that wish to stay in business. Burger King fell behind its competitors during the recession, but is bouncing back this year largely on the basis of revamping its menus to include new healthy options. There is, presumably, no healthy way to produce fried chicken – but KFC has nonetheless signposted its own commitment to de-stodgifying its output by bringing in the Kentucky Grilled Chicken range. McDonald’s, through its McCafé experiment, has gone furthest and fastest in its bid to associate itself with Starbucks-style modern consumerism: quick but healthy, snack and beverage-driven, young professional.

From nutritional greenwashing to real change

Often these healthy branding offensives are the nutritional equivalent of ‘green-washing’. McDonald’s new UK kids’ beverage, Fruitizz, contains twelve spoonfuls of sugar – and yet promotional campaigns highlight how it delivers one of the requisite ‘five a day’. Subway, which now holds more franchises worldwide than McDonald’s, goes to lengths to convince customers that it is a fresh sandwich company rather than a fast food outlet. Yet stacks of processed meat, melted cheese, abundant sauce, and the possibility for the sandwich to be 12 inches (30 centimetres!) long, make its offerings nutritionally akin to fast food.

Even when the healthy options are genuinely healthy, expanding and adapting the menu in the way McDonald’s and Burger King have done is a relatively painless rebranding process: the core items remain as fatty, salty, sugary – and cheap – as ever, and continue to drive business.

Only rarely have the ingredients and preparation processes of these core items come under genuine scrutiny – and it is only then that the real change starts to happen.

Following a Jamie Oliver-led campaign, McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell recently declared that they would no longer use ‘pink slime’ – beef containing ammonium hydroxide-treated ground connective tissue – to fill out their burgers. Following a similar outcry in the early 2000s, the leading fast food chains moved to scale back or eradicate trans fats in their cooking oils. Meanwhile the Happy Meal, and similar offerings aimed squarely at children, have been revamped to reduce calories, add fruit and vegetable snacks, and generally pre-empt regulation to this effect – none of which would have occurred had the threat of regulation not been real.

Evolution or revolution?

None of this is enough to stem the negative health outcomes of what remains a food offering based around fried, processed items. But the gradual eradication of the most harmful ingredients and practices does go to show that slowly, surely, with the right mixture of political carrot and stick, and sustained consumer scrutiny, fast food can move towards detoxifying its brand – and the arteries of its customers.

Since the inception of McDonald’s in 1940, fast food restaurants have undoubtedly played a role in democratising the experience of dining out. But healthier options are now available in the same price bracket. A shish kebab – freshly grilled chicken or lamb in pitta bread with ample fresh veg – will generally have a better nutritional profile than the pre-made, pre-frozen burgers that pass through the industrial-scale supply chains of major fast food retailers.

Will consumers eventually abandon the Big Mac in favour of healthier convenience food? Or will McDonald’s and co ditch the Big Mac altogether in favour of wraps, salads, smoothies and coffee? What, then, will be their unique selling point?

Fast food will not reform itself out of existence, whatever the pressures brought to bear on it. But more likely is that it continues along its current path towards a slow death – in the form of gradually eradicating the corner-cutting, obesity-fuelling practices that define fast food as we know it.

The opinions in this blog are those of the author alone.

Image courtesy of

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Test-tube burgers and skyscraper farms

An urban greenhouse design that could soon be taking hold

Humankind has degraded its environment and stretched the planet’s ecological limits beyond the point of no return. The food supply is threatened, and the world’s top scientists embark on a race against time to develop novel means of producing food.

This may sound like a science fiction plotline, but it is effectively the thinking behind the massive real life research efforts now being undertaken to secure the food supply of the future. The 2007-2008 and 2010-2011 food price spikes have intensified existing efforts to rethink food production, in the face of rapidly escalating demographic and environmental challenges.

Here are four of the candidates – two well-established, and two recent arrivals on the scene – to lead the technological revolution and become the face of futuristic food.

1. Genetic modification (GMOs) and the ‘climate gene’

Genetic modification involves pre-programming a plant to respond to its environment in targeted ways, by inserting external genes into a plant’s genome. Twenty years in, food safety concerns have been largely assuaged, but the industry has failed to shrug off concerns that wide-scale GMO cultivation leads to ultra-resistant pests, unpredictable impacts from gene leakage, and patent battles over what is, ultimately, a proprietary technology.

There is likely to be an added premium on developing drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant crop types over the coming years. GMO uptake to date has been mostly limited to maize, soybean and cotton cultivation in the Americas, but the quest to ‘climate-proof’ crops will target other staples such as wheat and rice, in other parts of the world.  Drought-resistant qualities are not conferred by a single gene but by several, meaning that whole sequences will need to be patented. Expect controversies on a greater scale.

2.     Cloning

Cloning, like GMOs, is a technological heavyweight for which the scientific processes – if not public acceptance – are already well advanced. This is a form of animal breeding where nothing is left to chance. The goal is to yield an animal with identical qualities (e.g. lactation, disease-resistance) to the source animal, and subsequently to use the clone as a breeder.

On the back of welfare concerns for the cloned animal, the EU is primed to place a moratorium on the process. However, Brussels is, by its own admission, powerless to prevent imports of meat/dairy derived from the offspring of clones reaching consumers. Climate change, and the need to breed resilience into our food systems, will once again provide an impetus for wide uptake.

3.     Test-tube meat

Dutch scientists unveiled the first test-tube meat tissue to the world last month, raising the possibility that the future of meat production lies in the lab. Using stem cells from adult cattle, the scientists developed strips of beef muscle in a petri dish, and will soon produce an entire burger, to be served up to a celebrity by gourmet chef Heston Blumenthal.

Conventional livestock rearing involves extensive land, GHG emissions and eventual slaughter, not to mention the huge inputs, in the shape of land, water, fertiliser and pesticide, required to produce animal feed. Test-tube meat could offer the diner a taste of flesh, without the fallout. Should the technology become financially viable on a mass scale, and should the taste be to consumer liking, the approach could start to gain serious momentum.

4.     Skyscraper farms

Vertical farming is also on the cusp of moving from science fiction to practical application. The attraction of layered ‘skyscraper farms’ – normally envisaged as multi-storey greenhouses – is that every drop of water and nutrient would be recycled within a closed system, while light and temperature would be optimised for plant development. By growing upwards, rather than outwards, we would be squaring the circle and producing more food without consuming more resources. Until recently, the concept had existed only in the imagination of architects. But now a 17-storey conical greenhouse is set to enter the construction phase in the Swedish town of Linköping. Drawing on energy from local power plants, the structure will carry rotating pots of fruit and veg slowly around a central helix, and will sell harvested produce direct to local urban populations. This could be the first of many – or a costly experiment that starts and ends in Linköping.

The opportunity cost

All of these solutions are promising when held up against the initial premise: that conventional food production techniques, working within nature’s self-sustaining cycles, are a spent force. But the danger of promoting these technologies is that they reinforce this very message. It is as if we have over-stepped nature’s self-sustaining capacities, and instead of looking for ways to restore the balance, we are trying to circumvent nature altogether.

The real danger is therefore the opportunity cost. The first test-tube burger will have set scientists back €250,000 euros, while the cost of the biggest vertical greenhouse model (25 storeys) is estimated at $280-$555 million. The cumulative costs of twenty years of public and private GMO research are astronomical, while cloning-related innovation could become an equally bottomless pit.

What if this money were ploughed into simple solutions with a proven track record of restoring and maintaining the ecological balance and biodiversity that must underpin all productive farming in the long term? What if the real funding priority were not food innovation, but the dissemination of existing, highly effective techniques? What if the innovation that did occur was focused on advanced breeding techniques (e.g. marker assisted selection and bio-fortification of crops) that raise less ethical issues, and can be kept free of patents? What if we were to improve agricultural infrastructure in Africa, where more than 30% of crops are spoiled in post-harvest storage and transportation? And what if consumers stopped wasting nearly half of their food, and consumed a bit less meat?

Organic-style solutions cannot feed a world of 9 billion people, critics say. And they are right – not while demand is so wastefully high, and supply so infrastructurally crippled. And not while the custodians of degraded or abandoned farmland are deprived of the know-how to keep this land productive. If climate change is allowed to force farming into ever-more-restricted fertile bands, then we will indeed have to rely on miracle, yield-raising technologies. But sooner or later we’ll be confronted, once again, with the resource pressures that intensive farming entails – in all of its incarnations.

Innovation is crucial. But it must come in addition to, not instead of, much-needed investments in simple, low-tech, non-proprietary solutions which can be used freely and effectively by farmers across the world. With food, as with climate change, there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution, and the sci-fi allure of new innovations should not be an excuse for deferring the key decisions about how to live within our limits.

Photo: ‘Plantagon. Illustration: Sweco’

The views expressed in the article are those of the author only.

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Food waste: beating bourgeois etiquette

The thermos: the world's most underrated invention?

Why is it a social faux pas to bring a half-eaten cheese to a dinner party? Food waste is one of the most irrational and soluble problems of the modern world, but tackling it is not simply about logistical questions such as supermarket sell-by dates and discount policies. We must also ask fundamental questions about our food culture, and the values which make wasting food more socially acceptable than thrifty consumption.

The European Parliament sounded the alarm this week, warning that nearly 50% of edible and healthy food is wasted every year in the EU by households, supermarkets, restaurants and the distribution chain. Meanwhile 79 million citizens live beneath the poverty line and 16 million rely on food aid.

These figures are shocking but hardly surprising; it seems that everyone has a personal horror story about food profligacy. Workers at an elite London catering company were expressly forbidden from taking home the leftovers from corporate dinners, according to a friend who worked there. And anyone who has attended events in the European Parliament will be aware of the lavish buffet spreads on offer. Unfortunately most people are too busy hobnobbing, networking and lobbying to get through the mountains of options and courses, meaning that much of it goes to waste. No wonder MEPs have cottoned onto the problem.

There are some promising solutions out there for tackling waste in the retail and catering industries, e.g. using public procurement to favour companies who donate leftovers to food banks, and requiring supermarkets to heavily discount damaged or near-expired items. However, as much as 42% of EU food waste is accounted for by households. Leverage is harder to achieve when the target is 500 million citizens who have extremely diverse ways and means of wasting food.

Public awareness campaigns are the likely approach. However, if they are to make a real dent in the mountains of food waste amassed by individuals, they will have to go beyond the narrow logistical questions. The problem is essentially cultural.

Corporate culture and bourgeois etiquette

In the cities where most Europeans live – and where most of the food is wasted – a culture of plenty still prevails, and is surprisingly pervasive. While one office varies from the next, corporate culture remains, by and large, hostile to thrifty and diligent forms of consumption. Lunches packed in tupperware and coffee in a thermos flask are still a rare sight in and around Brussels’ EU quarter. What are more prevalent are discarded cappuccinos in polystyrene cups, and corporate lunching in restaurants and cafes, often involving excessive portions and ample waste, while at home the remains of last night’s dinner go bad in the fridge. Tonight’s dinner ingredients might meet the same fate, given that for many people the working day often drags on to the point where there is little time or energy left to cook – and a takeaway becomes the easiest option.

Peer pressure is hardly limited to the office. Middle class socialising involves multiple dinner parties and brunches; they may be so regular an occurence that it becomes difficult to realistically plan and get through the food you have at home. The result is a handful of half-used items which may have to be thrown out at the end of the week. Yet it is almost unthinkable to bring half a Camembert, or an open bottle of red wine, to someone else’s house. Instead we shell out for fresh nibbles or drinks, often paying a premium at whichever shops are still open, and end up wasting the semi-used items.

The resulting wastage is extremely avoidable, especially when considered that none of the people involved in the social interaction are likely to be actively hostile to economical use of one’s food. Why would they be? We are simply unused to seeing an already opened item brought to a dinner party, and the fear of the unknown makes us frown at it.

Companies can provide microwaves and eating areas for their staff, and many already do, but ultimately the amount of people who take advantage will depend on the prevailing social values. And supermarkets can make it advantageous to buy smaller, more manageable items, but the financially comfortable shopper may still choose a bigger, more expensive portion, and end up wasting much of it, because social values do not tell him/her to do otherwise. As with the broader sustainability debate, much will depend on whether peer pressure can be turned on its head; the change will happen only if it becomes as socially unacceptable to waste food as it currently is to recycle and finish old items in the company of others.

Bike renaissance – breaking the cycle

The transition must occur in society’s collective conscience – and a well-timed public intervention can help to set the tone. Public investment in city bikes has been a huge success, both practically and symbolically. People who do not own a bike have been encouraged to sign up to the schemes and cycle to work. Meanwhile, the growing legions of city bikers will have encouraged others, perceiving a bike-friendly culture, to get their own bikes out of the garage. Seeing these bike users back on the road reinforces the commitment of city bike users to uphold their choice, and so on.

The renaissance of the bicycle, essentially a regression back to a less sophisticated form of transport, shows that modern urban populations can shun the accepted paraphernalia of a modern, sophisticated life, and pick a simpler, more sustainable, and more rational option. The same can happen for food waste, providing that we are able to create a thermos-friendly, lunchbox-friendly, and leftovers-tolerant culture. To do so effectively, we must not underestimate the weight of peer pressure and unwritten social rules.

The views expressed in the article are those of the author only.

Photo by Valentina Pavarotti

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Salvaging Durban’s invisible climate talks

Food security is on the front line of the climate change battle

What marks out the current climate talks in Durban– ‘COP17’ – from Cancun, Copenhagen and its other predecessors? A lack of media coverage is perhaps the most conspicuous factor. Type COP17 into Google News and the shortage of coverage from big-hitting newspapers is striking. Admittedly the second week – the ‘end-game’ – is only now getting under way. And politicians have been managing expectations for months, effectively extinguishing any hopes of a Kyoto II agreement. But in Cancun (2010) and Copenhagen (2009) it was the intensity of coverage – and by extension, public debate – before and throughout the meeting that rebuilt these expectations, and forced countries to genuinely engage in the end-game negotiation.

The low-key nature of COP17 has nonetheless allowed a key issue to fill the void: food security. New studies from Oxfam, the FAO and the IPCC have painted a stark picture of how climate change is already wreaking havoc on the global food supply, and how much worse this could get. Polar bears drowning because of melting ice caps is one thing. But people being pushed to the brink of starvation because of climate change-induced desertification is quite another, and is surely too shocking an eventuality to be ignored.

2010 saw drought in Russia, China and Brazil, and flooding in Pakistan and Australia, severely straining the food supply and sending world grain prices through the roof, while this year’s intense drought in the Horn of Africa has created a humanitarian disaster in an already food insecure region. These events alone are not evidence that climate change is happening. But they are a crystal clear insight into the fragility of the food system, and how little it takes to send it out of kilter – and to send millions more people into malnourishment. Therefore, as temperatures increase and extreme weather events multiply over coming decades, the impacts on food security could be huge.

And this is exactly what the science is saying. Amid a host of more cautious findings (e.g. on cyclones and droughts), the latest IPCC report deems it ‘virtually certain’ that on a global scale abnormally hot days will become even hotter and more frequent – by a factor of 10 under high emissions scenarios. So, agricultural conditions will be threatened both by the steady upward creep of average temperatures, and by the acute heat waves and temperature volatility along the way – extreme events which can wreck harvests in a stroke. The belief that climate change will bring new land into production, to compensate for lost productivity further south, is highly optimistic. It may be possible to grow a more diverse range of crops at certain northern latitudes, but Siberia is not set to become the world’s breadbasket – as Nigel Lawson’s Global Warming Policy Foundation would have us believe. The problem is that the climate will become more hostile to agriculture everywhere. Rainfall will be more unpredictable and temperatures more variable across the globe, pushing ecosystems to the point of failure and depriving the planet of these self-sustaining systems which make it resilient to droughts, floods and forest fires when they strike.

Food security – too compelling a case

With food security in the front line as the climate changes, it would seem natural that they be dealt with hand in hand. However, this is by no means guaranteed.

Food prices have been on a steep upward trajectory since 2008, garnering political attention and granting food security an agenda of its own. With or without climate change, food prices are likely to continue rising and exacerbating hunger in developing countries. The food security argument is so compelling that it has already created an appetite for drastic, tunnel-vision solutions. The current orthodoxy is that food production must rise by 70% by 2050, a figure which has been wheeled out so often that it has now taken on a life of its own.

There is a real risk of rushing into a second ‘green revolution’ where long-term sustainability is once again sacrificed on the altar of fertiliser and pesticide-driven short term yield increases. Natural indicators are telling us that huge swathes of our planet are already saturated; 25% of land is highly degraded and 8% moderately degraded, according to the FAO.

And as the remaining dregs of productivity are squeezed out of some areas under the stampede for 70% more food, other struggling areas would be abandoned rather than rehabilitated. Food insecure countries may be convinced by non-agricultural developers to cash in on their degraded farmland, and to rely on food imports to make up the food deficit. In doing so they would ignore the lessons of the current food crisis: that a high dependence on food imports means extra exposure to price shocks on international markets – and extra hunger risks. 

Agro-ecology must underpin the change

There is therefore a strong interest in tying the food security and climate change agendas more closely together. Ecological realism must be injected into the quest to secure our food supplies. Agro-ecological alternatives are out there (e.g. agro-forestry, integrated crop-livestock production) and hold real promise of rehabilitating struggling production zones and making them more resilient to the climate challenges to come. Meanwhile this approach would maintain a food production base – and the communities and livelihoods it supports – in all regions, rather than driving agriculture into ever more intensive production in soon-to-be-saturated breadbasket zones.

The logic is becoming clearer: climate change cannot be allowed to happen because it will make hunger even more endemic. And food production cannot simply be ramped up in a way that contributes to climate change, and further degrades land, water and ecosystems in a way that leaves harvests vulnerable to more extreme weather. So food security must be the trigger to take climate change seriously, and climate change must be the constant reminder that food security cannot be pursued in an industrial, anti-ecological way.

If Durban cements an understanding of this, and ties the two agendas inextricably together, then it will have made more than modest progress.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the personal views of the author

Image courtesy of Evgeni Dinev


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