Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The market is not a management system for the planet

Even the most convinced proponents of a free market realise that there are things that can't be left to the market to sort out. Human rights, law and order, security, basic social security have, in almost all societies, been regulated by some other institution than the market, often by a state. Most of our social relations are within the context of family, kinship, communities, etc. and thus also are not regulated by markets. And even for those things that are, mostly, regulated by markets there are many government rules. Even in the market-oriented United States there are supposedly 130,000 regulations for how economic agents may, or may not, behave. And the more central an issue is to our society, the more regulations there are. For example, all countries have labour regulations. They are there because we realize that the workers are a weaker party in an alleged "free" labour market: they need some kind of protection. There is no doubt, in my view, that some market regulations go too far, and that governments should refrain from micro-managing economic activity. A bigger threat, however, is when governments want markets to regulate things that are not at all suitable for market regulation.

Agriculture is a very complex activity. It provides us with our most essential need, food.  Throughout history, food supply has always been subject to political intervention. The Romans tried to regulate prices, although they failed, like most other subsequent efforts; the record of government interventions in food markets is rather poor. Faced with the prospect of food shortages, we now see country after country making bilateral food deals. They no longer trust the global trading system to safeguard their food supplies. The fact that we have major famine, e.g. in the Horn of Africa, while lots of food is wasted in other parts of the world is also an indication that markets in food don't work very well in safeguarding the survival of fellow humans. Agriculture is also largely the foundation of society. Human relations in the farming system shaped social structures over millennia. Even modern industrial societies have grown out of a context where agriculture played a pivotal role. The preservation of farming is not only about food production but also about culture, society and heritage.

Scientists now speak about the Anthropcene, the era in which planet Earth's big systems, hydrological, biological, climatic and even geological, are mainly shaped by humans. Farming already occupies around forty percent of the planet's terrestrial surface and with the urban and peri-urban areas, human activity covers perhaps sixty percent. We also know that farming and land-use accounts for around one third of the greenhouse gas emissions, the second largest source after fossil fuels. This means that farming is the most significant human management system of the planet; that the future of humans on the planet largely rests upon how we manage the farmscape. And markets are not the right tool for managing the planet. 
published as a column in Ecology and Farming  #4 2011. 

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