Why rules are necessary and free trade is an attractive myth

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or how the erosion of trust is expressed in the symbolic tearing up of agreements

As the Brexit saga continues its agonising journey, it is worth reflecting on the realities of trade between countries and why rules are necessary. Free trade sounded great in the words of the Brexiteers. Suddenly we would be free of all those unnecessary rules from Brussels and be able to trade with whoever we like. What a wonderful opportunity we might have thought. Yet making such a bonfire of rules is actually part of the erosion of trust that is sweeping across the world. It comes from people who do not appreciate the more subtle realities of trade in a civilised society.

If countries trade ‘freely’ with one another, without any rules, then the field is open for one partner in the trade to undercut all the others because it is abusing people or the environment, or creating unsafe products and suchlike. So, it is always necessary to create a trading platform between nations in order to ensure a ‘level playing field’ for competitive trade.  That is what the European Union achieved for its member countries. We may not have liked all the laws it generated, but the vast majority were of real importance and the system was relatively efficient.  More than that, having lived with this trading platform for years, our industries have adjusted to its demands.  Our farmers, for example, are absolutely dependent on the schedule of subsidy payments that they have learnt to live with over the years.

The Great Repeal Bill, as it has been called, translates all those Brussels rules into our own law. This seems like a very strange thing to do if we are looking for ‘free trade’, but it is vital if we are to make any sort of transition to a different future. We cannot live without a set of rules. The Brexiteers respond by saying, ‘Aah but now we can adjust these rules ourselves. We have taken back sovereignty over these rules.’ But the truth is that whoever we want to trade with in the future will require a set of rules to be developed and the danger is that we will now become consumed with the mass of trading negotiations involved.

Yet there is opportunity in all this, if we can grasp it. Whilst we now have to develop new sets of trade rules with a whole host of countries, then we would do well to take note of some serious inadequacies in our existing systems. Take the food system, for example. James Rebanks, a shepherd from the Lake District, recently travelled through Kentucky and witnessed the tragic decline of rural areas there. His article in the New York Times pointed to the fact that we have all colluded in the process of driving down food prices such that traditional farmers can hardly make a living[1].  Another way of putting this would be to point out that we have allowed supermarkets to dominate our food system, force suppliers into a dependent position, drive food prices down and duck a whole range of social and environmental problems that the supermarkets are responsible for creating.

The great difficulty with today’s context is that the free traders will look for less rules as a rule of thumb, because they do not adequately appreciate the positive benefits of trading rules. What they might best consider is not less rules in principle, but wiser rules. Only wiser rules can create the economic conditions for genuine well-being and long term harmony with the earth.

This is the political struggle that we must now engage with.

[1] Thanks to Bristol Food Network for this reference

A Riff on Colour

cowparsleysmIt is the enchantment of the artist and the joy of the walker, the bright spring green and the deep azure sky. We are enriched by colour. We are captivated by colour. But is it real? Silly question says the artist. Or not so silly. Come with me.

Let’s think about our perception of colour and what it depends on. Colour does not exist by itself in the way that a tree does. Colour is perceived through an eye that carries a set of colour sensitive photoreceptors. Those who are ‘colour blind’ know this well.

The perception of colour also depends on a conscious mind that is able to interpret what it sees. We must assume that the perception of colour dies when the brain dies.

So we have the eye and the conscious mind as two dependencies determining the reality of colour. Yet there is more. Without light there is no colour. There is no colour in a darkened room and there would be no colour in the natural world if it were not for the sun.

We perceive colour through the eye, but you could equally argue that the plant world perceives colour through its own set of photoreceptors, absorbing energy to power plant growth and emitting colour related to the wavelengths of light that are not absorbed.  Such is the green of the natural world. It is the non-absorbed part of the light that falls upon the plant.

So it is that pondering our enjoyment of colour connects us to the natural world in a dynamic sense. It is real now because we are alive and the sun is shining and life is throbbing through the world. It is not necessarily real forever. For us, because one day we will die. For the earth, because we need the sun, every day, to make it real.

I think that is why I like to think about colour. It connects me to the ongoing reality of my existence as a participant in the great web of life. It is not a static thing, or a material thing. It is real and now and wonderful.

The Wounds of Pure Reason

loughrigg fellsmAlexander Von Humboldt was an extraordinary person on many counts. An explorer scientist, travelling the world, measuring everything, collecting, describing, climbing mountains, canoeing into rainforests- and all in search of knowledge and understanding.

Yet he was not just a scientist as we have come to know them today. He felt the world around him as well as studied it. He allowed his imagination to run as well as his analytical brain. And it could be that it was for this reason that he is credited with being one of the first to really appreciate the unity of the natural world. Before Lovelock he was thinking Gaia. Before our modern concern about climate change, he had understood the climatic impact of human beings on the rainforest.

One of the memorable phrases for me in Andrea Wulf’s book entitled ‘The Invention of Nature’ is the comment made by Humboldt about being on top of great mountains and the great vision and imagination that arose at such moments.

This imagination, Humboldt said, soothed the deep wounds that pure ‘reason’ sometimes created.

I know some people who become lost in analysis or in technology. They always have the answer to any technical problem, but it is like their being has shrunk from the richness of authentic humanity into something mechanical. It is inspiring to read of someone like Humboldt who was such a great scientist, but could also look up, appreciate and feel the big picture.

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