Catching up (with how things could be)

World Social Forum 2008While mainstream media reported on the gloom and indecision of power-brokers at the World Economic Forum, it somehow overlooked the energized and decisive proceedings at the ninth World Social Forum held in Brazil, which concluded in early February with a raft of resolutions and proposals for implementation through 2009.

One of these will be to target the summit of the G20 group of industrial economies scheduled for April with calls for the disbanding or deep reform of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Other campaign areas will be the nationalization of banks; energy and food sovereignty for the poor; the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan; the right to land, decent work, education and health for all; and the democratization of media and knowledge.

A worldwide set of actions is planned for October 12th, the day in which Spanish conquerors reached the Americas, to honour ‘Mother Earth’ and ‘vindicate the rights of indigenous peoples around the world’.

WSF 2009 attracted a total of 133,000 people from 142 countries, including 1,900 indigenous people of 190 ethnic groups and tribes. ____________________________________________________

UK think-tank Chatham House warns that instabilities in the international food market could result in food crises in rich countries like the UK as well as poorer ones, and suggests they should be averted by transforming domestic farming industries to produce more food, ‘more sustainably.’ Yet its recommendations favour technological innovations (including GM agriculture) over the eminently sensible suggestions put forward for years by the Soil Association in the UK. The Soil Association’s 2006 report ‘Organic Works’ points out that if we invested in organic farming we would not only protect our food security and invest in local livelihoods but would also create employment for thousands of people. Wouldn’t that be a good idea in a recession? The benefits were highlighted neatly by Jonathon Porritt recently.

Such an approach might also help another ‘key player’ in food production: the bee. ‘Native British bees are dying out — and with them will go flora, fauna and one-third of our diet,’ says The Times. Hang on, isn’t this a bit important? It’s not just the UK either, and if you prefer it in monetary terms, take this: the economic value of insect pollination worldwide has been estimated at €153 billion – which amounted (in 2005, the year of the research) to 9.5% of the total value of the world agricultural food production! Shouldn’t every country on the planet be turning their farms over to organic, bee-friendly farming?                                  ____________________________________________________

While we’re on farming, small farmers have expressed outrage that their views do not get air-time at forums like the High Level Meeting on Food Security that took place in Madrid in January, where the World Bank, the IMF and the WTO, and transnational companies such as Monsanto set out their plans for the international food market. To counteract this, small farmers and social movements have banded together to promote a model based on food sovereignty (where every state has the right to define its own agricultural policy) and orientated towards peasant-based agriculture and artisan fisheries, so that local markets and sustainable production methods are given priority.

A total of 49 organisations have signed the declaration ‘Accelerating into disaster – when banks manage the food crisis’. It warns that the food crisis should not become an opportunity for large corporations to make more money (through the sale of fertilizers, agrochemicals and genetically modified seeds) and calls for an end to initiatives such as the High Level Task Force or Global Partnership, instead calling for a single space within the UN in which the food crisis can be addressed with the full participation of social movements and smallholder food producers.


The people of Bolivia have voted to approve the country’s new constitution, which in aiming to ‘decolonize Bolivian society,’ gives indigenous people new rights (including to practise community justice according to their own customs) and representation within government – these being same people who 60 years ago did not even have the vote. It also supports freedom of religion, extending the same recognition to the Andean Earth mother god Pachamama as it does to the Christian God.


GDP is dead – let’s try National Accounts of Well-being instead! This alternative indicator of wealth has been devised by the New Economics Foundation (in the UK), which describes it as ‘a radical proposal to guide the direction of modern societies and the lives of people who live in them. In contrast to the conventional narrow focus on economic indicators, it calls for governments to directly and regularly measure people’s subjective well-being: their experiences, feelings and perceptions of how their lives are going.’

VIVID thinks it is time for governments to invest their trillions of dollars, pounds and euros into developments that improve this indicator, instead of the failed ones, before said pounds, euros and dollars become worthless. Check it out and see how you are faring compared with everyone else.


  1. Bee-in-my-bonnet time … the biggest change to agriculture for a hungry world would be to abandon the western developed world emphasis on livestock.

    I’m not urging the world to go vegan … but farmed meat and dairy produce are massively less efficient as food sources in terms of productivity per unit area. A rational world would grow only human food crops on agricultural land, fish and (wild) meat being minority supplements.

  2. Good point. At least I think it is. Coincidentally, I read an intriguing beginning of a yet-to-be-published book recently that suggested that it’s not eating meat that’s the problem, but (a) the way we farm it, (b) distorted figures relating to how much land is needed to grow equivalent amounts of meat and grain respectively and (c) an exaggerated view of how benign growing vast quantities of grain, soy etc for humans would actually be. If we only fed cattle and sheep on pasture, and didn’t deploy the horrendous machinery of factory farming, eating (gently farmed) meat, it says, could be OK. I’m not sure how much of it we’d all be able to eat at current human population levels, but at the very least the book seems to present an interesting challenge to prevailing veggie wisdom (and from a former vegan too)…

  3. The chapters are interesting – thanks for the reference!

    On (c), “how benign growing vast quantities of grain, soy etc for humans would actually be”, I agree that it’s not benign at all. Monoculture is the root of the problem: whether it’s a monoculture of cattle feed crop, human feed crop, cash crop, or whatever, is beside the point.

    Ultimately, the problem is a six billion (and rising) monoculture of human beings – and how that is dealt with I don’t pretend to know.

    I’ve recently been reading*, in a separate context, work which suggests that a global human population of between 10 and 15 million managed, somewhere around six thousand years ago, to completely flip the Mediterranean ecology from broad leafed evergreen forest to shrub and deciduous woodland – with all the subsequent consequences of that. Now we are at something like five hundred times that density with irreversible changes already wrought.

    To switch away from a meat/dairy dominated diet is not a solution; it would simply buy some time in which we might try to think of alternatives to Malthusian mass die back.

    – – –

    * For example: Colombaroli, D, et al, “Fire-vegetation interactions during the Mesolithic-Neolithic transition at Lago dell’Accesa, Tuscany, Italy”, in /The Holocene/, 2008. 18(5): p. 679-692. Also Hajar, L, et al, “Vegetation changes during the late Pleistocene and Holocene in Lebanon: a pollen record from the Bekaa Valley”. /The Holocene/, 2008. 18(7): p. 1089-1099.

  4. Point taken: we cannot continue as we are, and the volume and methods of meat production mean that action there would yield relatively high benefits. (I liked your reference to a human monoculture too.)

    I’ve also read somewhere about the detrimental effects of humans on ancient Mediterranean woodland (amazing how easy it is to assume it was always bare and arid) and on forests in other surprising places too, all of which were explained (wherever I read it) by the civilisational (i.e. city based and extractive) model of society.

    As many of us already suspect, civilisation has perhaps not made us civilised after all…

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