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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Exploiting globally

President Barack Obama and Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo, meeting in the White House on Oct. 26, released a statement that Indonesia intends to join the TransPacific Partnership, a huge trade agreement among Pacific Rim countries which soon will be submitted for Congressional approval. Joko then flew home to cope with the fires raging in his island nation.

So far this year, perhaps 100,000 wildfires have burned there. But Joko’s government hasn’t been willing to address the primary cause of the fires — the clearing of lands for large palm oil plantations — even though his government calculates the fires have cost Indonesia $30 billion. Nor is the disaster merely national. One estimate is that the fires have released more carbon this year than has total activity in the U.S.

The globalization of business and the globalization of environmental disaster aren’t separate developments, despite the obtuseness on display at the White House that day. The trade pacts negotiated in secret by representatives of multinational corporations and the national trade representatives who act in their interests are designed to expedite the exploitation of planetary resources. Decisions by their dispute tribunals will trump all efforts by local, state or national governments to protect their environments as well as their health and their workers.

Agriculture represents an enormous share of global trade. According to the USDA, our nation alone in the one month of August exported $9.5 billion and imported $9 billion worth of farm products. This volume of trade incentivizes large-scale production of commodities like palm oil.

Corporate agriculture is environmentally unsustainable, and for the most part unjust and unhealthy. Palm oil is no exception. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, its cultivation destroys rainforests, displaces indigenous peoples and jeopardizes health (especially the oxidized form used in processed food).

The basic measure of sustainability is energy inputs versus energy outputs. Most estimates for U.S. agriculture vary between five and nine calories of input for every calorie of output (i.e., energy from the food available to our bodies after we eat it). The energy used by corporate agriculture is almost entirely from fossil fuels, mainly for making fertilizers, running machinery and transporting their products great distances. The USDA reports that between 1997 and 2002 the use of energy along the food chain for food purchased by or for U.S. households increased at more than six times the rate of increase in total domestic energy use, and represented more than 80 percent of energy flow increases nationwide over that period. I didn’t find more recent data, but these make the point.

It’s almost impossible, and not desirable, to secede from the global economy. Striving for individual self-sufficiency would consume all our time and energy, and there is so much more to human life than just sustaining it. Urban culture depends on a complex division of labor. As Aristotle wrote in his “Politics,” the household (“oikos,” from which we derive the word “economy”) exists for life, the city-state (“polis”) exists for the good life.

When it comes to food, however, the more local the better. Ashlanders get this, and we’ll know that America does when the U.S. Postal Service issues a stamp honoring J.I. Rodale. Meanwhile, we mustn’t just act locally. We have an obligation to those our trade pacts have most victimized, such as the family farmers in Mexico ruined by the flood of subsidized U.S. corn that NAFTA released.

It’s time to globalize care for each other and for our common mother.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.