Small is Beautiful

25 Aug 2002

The second world summit on sustainable development (the first was held in Rio de Janeiro in 19927 is now well under way in Johannesburg, South Africa. It is being attended by representatives of almost all the countries in the world and hundreds of NGOs, all keen to discuss the future of our planet. Rio spawned Agenda 21, which countries theoretically had to apply, but which, like the Kyoto treaty on ecology, many have ultimately chosen to ignore. Logically enough, I am following events in Johannesburg with hope and interest, but also a certain amount of skepticism. Why? Because occasions of this kind (witness the recent FAO summit in Rome) increasingly resemble media jamborees; their intentions may be good but, alas, they have no practical consequences. They talk, as a rule, about agreements that, based on common denominators, will be capable of pleasing everyone concerned. Then some superpower (the USA in Kyoto, for example) or multinational comes along and foils every attempt to arrive at a protocol.
Let’s a hope that Johannesburg will, at least, make people in the West aware of the way things are without having to wait for some American research institution to come up with a report explaining that we are consuming more resources than the earth can provide or regenerate. These are apocalyptic visions that many (especially the people who exploit resources for a profit) prefer to exorcise, but the time really has come for us to change our habits. I just can’t see any other option.
Consumer habits have to change. When are we going to realize that our consumption of water is disproportionate, wasteful and irresponsible? That drinking water is going to be the oil of the future? And that there are already people around who are filching the planet’s water resources on the sly?
We also have to change production methods and redesign the world of agriculture. First and foremost, it is necessary to support and develop small and medium production units – tangibly and immediately. We don’t need large-scale projects and grand models that are unfeasible in practice. ‘Small is beautiful,’ said the German economist Schumacher: he wasn’t only right, he was also far-sighted. Only with small eco-compatible production units bound to single local realities will it be possible to achieve the objectives of sustainable development – in wealthy and poor countries alike. On the one hand, it will be possible to improve the quality of production and make it more human; on the other, to avoid exploitation, achieve self-sufficiency quicker and establish a remunerative market.
To continue to favor and subsidize large-scale production units is to perpetuate ad infinitum a model that is destined to shrivel up and lead us to ruin in the medium-long term. The signals are there aplenty. What puzzles me is how agriculture and food production are so influenced by welfarism and protectionism they that no revival is in sight. In Europe, 40 percent of the EU budget is earmarked for agricultural subsidies, but 25 percent of the quota goes to France alone. 80 percent of resources goes to 20 percent of large enterprises, and small production is entirely neglected. Total protectionist aid for western agriculture is seven times higher than the that sent every year to developing countries.
To think that these data are necessary to keep the agricultural production of wealthy countries separate from that of the so-called third world – how absurd can you get! Protectionism is influencing everything. Open our eyes and you realize that the much vaunted liberisme doesn’t actually, nor can it. And neither does capitalism!
It’s unthinkable to provide aid to the ‘third world’ then bang the door in its face if it tries to sell us something. If only they would start to allocate the money currently used to protect intensive, pollutant and disastrous agricultural production of Europe and the United States for something more useful for the development of a global economy healthy from every point of view. If only they really would start circulating decent merchandise on the world market without constraints, thus enabling small-scale producers in developing countries to have outlets.
But I reckon no-one – neither rulers nor the protesters – will ever have the courage to do any of this. The fact is that the only characteristics of capitalism that are still left today are egoism and avidity.

Carlo Petrini

First published in La Stampa on 25/08/2002

Adapted by John Irving

Carlo Petrini

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