24 Apr 2006
The UK Interdependence Report – A Review
The UK Interdependence Report: How the world sustains the nation’s lifestyles and the price it pays by Andrew Simms, Dan Moran and Peter Chowla has just been published, and is essential reading for those of us promoting localised responses to peak oil. Produced by the excellent New Economics Foundation, it builds on the concept of ‘Ecological Debt’, as outlined in Andrew Simms’ book of the same name. The concept of ecological debt is straightforward. Once we start to live beyond our ecological footprint, we require the resources of other nations in order to sustain our lifestyles. It is a nonsense, Simms argued in ‘Ecological Debt’, to talk of third world debt, really we in the developed West have so plundered these nations for so long that we actually owe them the most enormous debt.
The report is easy to read and packed with useful ‘ammunition’ for those arguing for localisation. The authors calculate that the ecological footprint of the UK is 3.1 Earths, and say that if this is seen as a year, then the date when we exceed our ecological footprint and begin to live on ecological debt is April 16th, the day they call *ecological debt day*. The main focus of the report is exploring the concept of ‘ecological debt’ in relation to various aspects of life.
Firstly they look at food, and how the UK’s degree of self sufficiency in food has been declining since the mid-1990s. Domestic production, they argue, is now at its lowest point for 50 years, leading to an unhealthy degree of dependency on cheap imports. They also identify the incredibly wasteful and ridiculous way this dependency manifests. They discuss what the call the phenomena of “lorries passing in the night”, that is food being transported around the world for now obvious reason.
Some of the more compelling examples are that the UK exports half a million tons of gingerbread each year, and them imports exactly the same amount. Similarly, the UK imports 1.5 million kilos of potatoes from Germany and exports exactly the same amount to them. We import 43,000 scarves from Canada and send them 39,000 back. The list of examples goes on and on. Clearly this is absurd at the best of times, but with climate change and peak oil, this is not funny. We do not have the ‘luxury’ of wasting fossil fuels in this way.
In terms of energy, the UK also finds itself becoming steadily less independent. The UK lost its energy independence in 2004, and North Sea production is falling away much faster than anyone expected. NEF have argued for years, particularly in its excellent 2005 study Mirage and Oasis, for decentralised energy grids and renewable energy, and in this study they argue that this is essential in terms reducing our dependence on the rest of the world. Their published figures for where the UK sources its gas from were somewhat confusing, but I’ll look at these in more detail in a later post.
Other less obvious areas of dependence that they explore are the many ways in which the UK draws ‘human resources’ from around the world to drive the economy here. They explore the fact than many developing nations use precious resources to educate doctors, many of whom then leave to work in the UK. They quote a study by the WHO which suggests that more than 1 in 10 of doctors trained in India now live in the UK, Pakistan loses half of its medical school graduates each year, and in Ghana, only one-third of medical graduates remain once they have completed their training.
Similarly, the report looks at where the UK sources its footballers (!). It turns out that scouts from big UK football clubs are scouring African clubs for the stars of the future, resulting in what has become termed the ‘brawn drain’ from Africa. The worst offender in the UK is Arsenal (another reason not to like them), the first team, recently, to field a team containing not a single English player.
The report concludes that “the recent wave of ethical consumerism shows potential. But as much as we can consume better, nothing can hide the fact that we also need to consume less”. They also argue that our increasing levels of consumption have done nothing to increase our levels of happiness, “so having a larger ecological footprint is not even increasing our personal well-being”. Their final thought, which opens the door for those of us developing the Energy Descent Action Planning model, is to identify the need for “new survival maps for an island planet”.