X Close

Can we escape globalisation? We are dangerously dependent on fragile supply chains

Without salt there can be no medicine. Oliver Llaneza Hesse/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images

Without salt there can be no medicine. Oliver Llaneza Hesse/Construction Photography/Avalon/Getty Images


June 23, 2023   3 mins

If there is a place that embodies our most romantic notions of living in harmony with nature, it is surely a small farming community in the rugged north of Portugal, Covas do Barroso. This village still maintains a tradition of small-scale, independent agriculture that sustains its scarce resources and unspoiled landscapes. It is, according to the United Nations, a “globally important agricultural heritage system”.

In a story that is all too familiar in the fossil fuel age, this heritage now faces ruin; it is sitting on a wealth of natural resources, needed to fuel the modern world from which it stands so proudly aloof. Except this is not a story about fossil fuels at all. The mining company that Covas do Barroso is struggling to keep at bay is there to extract lithium, the key element in electric vehicle batteries.

This is not a battle the villagers are likely to win. The EU wants to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2035, and the emerging green economy will require lithium batteries for a host of other purposes. To make matters worse, global lithium production is expected to fall short of demand by 2030, and China controls almost two-thirds of the supply.

Yet all of this requires us to ignore the obvious fact that we are not in control of the material basis of our world. Before there is agency, there must be shelves that are stocked, medicine that is available, and technology that works. Perversely, the same global division of labour that has given us these goods and services in such profusion has also encouraged us to take them for granted, by moving their production to other parts of the world. This is what Conway calls the “quid pro quo of modern capitalism”, namely: “you can get anything you want from anywhere in the world for a bargain price, but don’t whatever you do expect to understand how it was made or how it got to you.”

Today we are increasingly finding that, like those farmers in the Barroso region of Portugal, our autonomy is not as secure as we thought. Eruptions of plague and war have exposed the fragility of the material world. In 2021 we learned that we cannot make cars without semiconductors made in Taiwanese factories, and the following year, that we cannot make semiconductors without neon, a gas produced by the now-devastated Azovstal steel plant in Ukraine. We learned that Britain needs affordable natural gas to supply itself with ammonia, and it needs ammonia, among other things, to produce carbon dioxide for preserving food and stunning livestock before slaughter.

More profoundly though, our detachment has been shattered by an awareness that our material systems are degrading the planet and contaminating our bodies. It is now difficult to escape information about vanishing polar ice, polluted groundwater, and microplastics circulating in our blood. Having been raised in the belief that anything is possible with enough willpower and imagination, we find ourselves implicated in a disaster of impersonal proportions.

The question that will define the coming decades is how our societies will respond to this staggering loss of agency. What we have seen so far are in large part coping mechanisms. An obsessive focus on carbon emissions, though it has caused a great deal of anxiety, has also helped to make our impact on the natural world seem like something that can be addressed through better consumer choices and activism.

No doubt environmentalism as a moral crusade can help at the margin; our use of resources remains heinously wasteful. But it can also be counter-productive. If people believe they can make a difference by resisting any industry that harms the planet, how will we actually get the materials we need for a new energy infrastructure? Renewables are generally much less energy dense than fossil fuels, and so must be built in huge numbers. A single natural gas processing facility, Ras Laffan in Qatar, produces more energy than all the world’s solar panels and wind turbines combined.

As Material World makes clear, we have become so dependent on harvesting the earth’s resources at enormous scale, the most important changes now will be industrial and technological. In particular, they will come from more efficient ways of extracting, processing, and recycling materials. It may seem absurd to rely on mining companies and oil refineries to save our disintegrating world, especially when so many of the hoped-for technical breakthroughs are still pipe dreams. But the tragedy of our situation is that there is no longer any route back to a more modest existence of the kind embodied by Covas do Barroso.

If we don’t produce concrete and steel, we can’t build hospitals and schools. If we don’t keep converting petrochemicals into nitrates for fertiliser, people will starve. If we don’t mine copper, we cannot have electricity. That’s just how things go in the material world.


Wessie du Toit writes about culture, design and ideas. His Substack is The Pathos of Things.

wessiedutoit

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

8 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Keppel Cassidy
Keppel Cassidy
11 months ago

A good article that summarises the problems that humanity faces now and in the coming decade. Despite being widely derided by experts who didn’t like their paradigms (and profits) being threatened, the authors of ‘The Limits to Growth’ were essentially right – all non-renewable resources have limits, and we are currently busy squandering what we have left. Yet the solution of magically transitioning our production and consumption systems to renewable energy and continuing along on the same path has been exposed by scientists such as Dr Simon Machaux as being completely unrealistic.
What to do? We need to start behaving more like stewards of the Earth and less like gluttons and pillagers for a start, and then focus on making the wisest use of what we have. Capitalism will need to be radically transformed, not by government decree but by a shift in focus to decentralisation, communities working together to meet local needs, and above all, moving beyond the fiction that selfishness and greed are fundamental to a healthy economy. If we can make this transition, we could actually end up living much healthier and happier, albeit simpler lives.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
10 months ago
Reply to  Keppel Cassidy

I agree with and respect the spirit of your post. But how can we – in these smaller communities with only a local focus – supply fertilizer for the fields, concrete for the schools, tar for the roads and everything we need to shelter feed and sustain us??

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
10 months ago
Reply to  Keppel Cassidy

I agree with and respect the spirit of your post. But how can we – in these smaller communities with only a local focus – supply fertilizer for the fields, concrete for the schools, tar for the roads and everything we need to shelter feed and sustain us??

Keppel Cassidy
Keppel Cassidy
11 months ago

A good article that summarises the problems that humanity faces now and in the coming decade. Despite being widely derided by experts who didn’t like their paradigms (and profits) being threatened, the authors of ‘The Limits to Growth’ were essentially right – all non-renewable resources have limits, and we are currently busy squandering what we have left. Yet the solution of magically transitioning our production and consumption systems to renewable energy and continuing along on the same path has been exposed by scientists such as Dr Simon Machaux as being completely unrealistic.
What to do? We need to start behaving more like stewards of the Earth and less like gluttons and pillagers for a start, and then focus on making the wisest use of what we have. Capitalism will need to be radically transformed, not by government decree but by a shift in focus to decentralisation, communities working together to meet local needs, and above all, moving beyond the fiction that selfishness and greed are fundamental to a healthy economy. If we can make this transition, we could actually end up living much healthier and happier, albeit simpler lives.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago

Wiki states that the population of Covas do Barroso declined from 1,672 in 1960 to 262 (109 of whom were over 65) in 2011. Even in 1864, there were over 1300 residents.
The latest news items, promoting the opposition to the mine, say the village has “just over 100 residents”
This despite the installation of a hydroelectric plant in 1966.
So it’s not exactly thriving in its UN-approved state of decline.
Even if the mine employed 1,500 who all came to live locally, it would still not be back to its 1960 population. But we are expected to believe the activists’ claim that the current depopulated ghost-town status of the village represents some kind of utopia, which by past standards, it clearly isn’t.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago

Wiki states that the population of Covas do Barroso declined from 1,672 in 1960 to 262 (109 of whom were over 65) in 2011. Even in 1864, there were over 1300 residents.
The latest news items, promoting the opposition to the mine, say the village has “just over 100 residents”
This despite the installation of a hydroelectric plant in 1966.
So it’s not exactly thriving in its UN-approved state of decline.
Even if the mine employed 1,500 who all came to live locally, it would still not be back to its 1960 population. But we are expected to believe the activists’ claim that the current depopulated ghost-town status of the village represents some kind of utopia, which by past standards, it clearly isn’t.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

Before there is agency, there must be shelves that are stocked, medicine that is available, and technology that works

That reminds me of something… What was it now…Ah, yes!

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.

Which leads to the question “What is to be done?”, as Comrade Lenin famously said…

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Ironic then that , once in power, the Marxist-Leninists proceeded to cause the most deadly famines in history. It’s all very well identifying human needs but they had no idea how to build an economy that provides, only how to destroy.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

Indeed! It would be amusing if the materialist conception of history had not had such tragic consequences.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

Indeed! It would be amusing if the materialist conception of history had not had such tragic consequences.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
10 months ago
Reply to  Simon Neale

Ironic then that , once in power, the Marxist-Leninists proceeded to cause the most deadly famines in history. It’s all very well identifying human needs but they had no idea how to build an economy that provides, only how to destroy.

Simon Neale
Simon Neale
10 months ago

Before there is agency, there must be shelves that are stocked, medicine that is available, and technology that works

That reminds me of something… What was it now…Ah, yes!

Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history: the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.

Which leads to the question “What is to be done?”, as Comrade Lenin famously said…

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
10 months ago

Ah, the romance of small scale, self-sufficient farming. The agency of unremitting, dawn to dark labor with the alternative of starvation. Since the Club of Rome in 1960, we have been informed that the sky is falling. Similar claims were made at the turn of the 20th century. New York City was doomed because it inevitably would be buried in horse manure. Railroads were doomed because ties rotted faster than trees could be grown to replace them. Apparently, the sky falls slowly.

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
10 months ago

Ah, the romance of small scale, self-sufficient farming. The agency of unremitting, dawn to dark labor with the alternative of starvation. Since the Club of Rome in 1960, we have been informed that the sky is falling. Similar claims were made at the turn of the 20th century. New York City was doomed because it inevitably would be buried in horse manure. Railroads were doomed because ties rotted faster than trees could be grown to replace them. Apparently, the sky falls slowly.

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
10 months ago

I agree regarding the difficulty of the energy side of things, but when it comes to farming and medicine we need to , in a hurry, wean ourselves of chemical medicines, fertilisers and pesticides. These three are for the moment taking care of life expectancy to reduce in the west. …oh maybe that will solve some of the energy issues???

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
10 months ago

I agree regarding the difficulty of the energy side of things, but when it comes to farming and medicine we need to , in a hurry, wean ourselves of chemical medicines, fertilisers and pesticides. These three are for the moment taking care of life expectancy to reduce in the west. …oh maybe that will solve some of the energy issues???