All eyes curently focus on Copenhagen. Will a workable consensus on tackling climate change emerge from the summit, or will we have another expensive round of cocktails, dinners and diplomatic mumbo jumbo? One hopes for the former. As countries play passing the parcel, I devote this post to the perils of playing with the environment by focusing on Serbia’s economy in the nineteenth century, whose development was thwarted due to man’s insatiable appetite for resources and material ambitions. The key takeaway is that a similar future awaits us if we fail to take cognizance of the matter of climate change seriously today.
Over the first half of the nineteenth century, Serbia was home to a relatively sparse self-governing population. Primarily an agrarian economy focused overwhelmingly on susbsistence farming, Serbian farmers found little incentives in opening up to the world. However the process of global transformation in the nineteenth century provided a fillip to commercialization in agriculture. Serbia had found a perfect opportunity. Gradually. the economy came to rely heavily on animal exports. Livestock, cattle and pigs were valued and export incomes from this trade helped sustain the economy, which saw a period of strong growth in the mid-nineteenth century. Apart from livestock, pigs played a vital role in the economy. Availability of forests, abundance of acorns and beech nuts were conducive to pig rearing. As overseas demand picked up and the process of integrating with the global economy gained traction, Serbia found itself favourably placed to capitalize on this opportunity due to its competitive advantage in pig rearing. A unit of pig fetched several times more than a unit of cereal and it took less labour to rear pigs. Compelling pig economics, a growing external market made people lethargic over time and the country fell behind in the innovativeness pecking order.
Population was low relative to land and forest availability. Low population, easy land availability and growing prosperity were the perfect ingredients for attracting immigrants to the country, and Serbia saw its population more than doubling within 40 years. Rising population pressures and political motivations in attracting and building a loyal emigrant base led to changes in land ownership policies that encouraged deforestation. Increasing population density led to deforestation which ultimately reduced fodder availability for pigs. Farmers responded by feeding pigs with maize instead of acorns. While this seemed a short-term fix, pigs started becoming leaner as a result of this change. Not only did leaner pigs fetch lower prices in the global market, the farmer now had to grapple with rising costs (he had to raise maize). This led to a progressive deterioration in pig economics and led to a shortage of pig availability for domestic consumption. As pigs continued getting leaner, global market demand fell off a cliff. Deforestation had killed the pig that laid the golden whatever…These unsustainable longer term developments eventually led to a slowdown in growth rates in the Serbian economy. The regime shift from an animal exports-dependent economy to a cereal-driven agrarian economy was painful and Serbia paid a heavy price by lagging behind peer countries in the region…
A similar – if not bleaker – future awaits us if we fail to rein in our abuse of ecological balances. Some of the effects of long term climatic changes are already being felt across the globe and if anything, this is only going to get worse. It is a one-way street…Will Copenhagen help?
While the idealist in me wants to cry ‘yes!’, the realist has more pessimistic prognostications. The realization that we are in this together is almost a given at the international level. The bigger issue is who does what? And to what extent? The developed countries, account for roughly 20% of global population but emit over 55% of global emissions. While in absolute terms China stands above everyone else, US emits 4 times as much as China and 15 times as much as India on a per capita basis. Also when one considers that a proportion of China’s emissions are a result of outsourced assembly lines and factories from the US/UK, who is ultimately responsible for curbing emissions? A serious move to curbing emissions is imperative and the lead has to come from the developed nations, primarily the US and UK.
Till then…warm regards.