The 2008 financial meltdown, which started on Wall Street, rippled around the world, leading some to question the advantages of economic interdependence.
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New political figures such as Donald Trump, in the United States, and Narendra Modri, in India, began to promote the idea of prioritizing one’s own needs and self-sufficiency, and in Europe, the United Kingdom voted in favor of Brexit and became independent from the European Union.
But the strongest blow against globalization came with the coronavirus pandemic, which led many countries to close not only their borders, but also their export of medical equipment, from masks to vaccines, essential to combat the virus.
Since then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led many European countries to run out of the gas they used to import from Vladimir Putin’s country, and limited others’ access to Ukrainian grains, causing international food prices to soar.
This has exacerbated calls in many countries to develop what the ancient Greeks defined as autarky: basically a self-sufficient system.
But can a country really depend only on itself to survive? And is it convenient for you to produce everything you need in your territory instead of importing, even a part?
That’s what journalist Ben Chu, BBC Newsnight’s economics editor, investigated in a Radio 4 series called “The New Age of Autarky?”
Chu noted that the leaders of the world’s two largest economies, the US and China, have given clear signals that they are heading in that direction.
“The future of our manufacturing, our economic future, the solutions to the climate crisis, it’s all going to be done in America,” US President Joe Biden declared in March, who, shortly after taking office, launched a government initiative called “Made in America” (Made in the USA)
Meanwhile, his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, launched his own “Made in China” strategy, which aims to increase investment in technology, and has repeatedly defended his “zili gengsheng” policy, which is translates as “self-sufficiency“.
“The trade war under the Trump administration made China realize that unless it is self-sufficient, if the world decides to turn its back on it, either politically or economically, it has no way out,” said Cindy Yu, host of the “Chinese Whispers” podcast.
What would a less globalized and more autarchic world look like? Would it bring more prosperity?
To analyze it, Chu investigated the two main areas in which self-sufficiency is sought: food and energy.
Today almost all the countries in the world import part of what they eat, but more and more people are defending the idea of consuming what is produced locally. And not just for a matter of self-sufficiency.
Food self-sufficiency could reduce emissions of gases that are harmful to the environment and thus help combat climate change, since it would avoid transporting food from one end of the planet to another.
Another argument in favor of greater self-sufficiency in food production is that it makes a country less vulnerable if international supply chains are severed due to weather, war, or even accidents, such as the Suez Canal blockade that occurred in the early days. of 2021.
The cargo ship Ever Given is completely ungrounded after almost a week blocking the Suez Canal
“The notion of autarky and food security are high on the list for policy making at the moment,” says Tim Lang, Professor of Food Policy at the University of London.
But can a country that currently imports much of its food be self-sufficient?
To find out, Chu traveled to Devon, England, where many of the crops that feed the British are grown.
Today the UK produces about half of its food and imports the other half. Could you produce 100%?
“Yes we can, but we would have to radically change our diet,” replied Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverside Organic and twice BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year.
“People would have to get used to eating only what we can produce locally in each season,” he said. That would mean saying goodbye to products that are now part of the common diet, such as bananas.
“We would also have to eat a lot less animal protein – dairy, eggs and meat,” added Singh-Watson.
The reason is that much of the land for grazing animals would have to be devoted to crops that were previously brought in from outside.
Economist Brad DeLong, author of the book “Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century” (“Slouching towards utopia: an economic history of the twentieth century”) points out that, due to these limitations, self-sufficiency is not advisable.
“You can’t grow or mine everything you want within your borders, and, above all, you can’t do it efficiently and cheaply,” says this defender of free trade.
DeLong further points out that by trying to produce everything yourself “you are sacrificing an enormous amount of potential gains through trade” as different countries have different advantages when it comes to producing.
Other experts warn that attempts to achieve food self-sufficiency in the past have had serious consequences.
If we talk about energy, there is greater agreement among many experts that it makes a lot of sense to try to generate as much as possible indoors.
Not only for safety reasons, but because modern forms of locally generated renewable energy such as wind and solar have negligible carbon emissions, unlike fossil fuels such as gas, oil and coal, which in the most cases are imported from abroad.
In this sense, the autarkic turn that the world is experiencing due to the post-pandemic and the war in Ukraine could help the planet decarbonise and stop global warming.
But is it possible to achieve energy self-sufficiency?
For his series, Chu investigated the potential for the UK to create its own energy sources.
However, journalist and former US official Scott Malcomson, an expert on globalization, warns that countries will not be able to achieve true energy autarky if they do not own the resources used to produce that energy.
“If you want to achieve self-sufficiency you have to be self-sufficient in inputs. It can be oil and gas or the minerals needed to make batteries in clean energy vehicles,” he says.
Malcomson adds that in an increasingly authartic world, these resources could lead to conflicts between countries, putting not only their security but also their economic prosperity at risk.
In other words, while depending on other countries to import energy can represent a threat to national security, guaranteeing energy self-sufficiency can also entail dangers.
“If the countries do everything behind closed doors, they have more risks because within the countries there can also be turbulence,” adds Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, of the International Monetary Fund.
“It’s going to be important to have a balance between diversifying (supply chains) and having a higher proportion of countries that produce certain goods, but at the same time having some level of domestic production,” he advises.
The official also warns about the risks of leaving globalization and international cooperation behind in a world in which many of the threats -such as climate change or pandemics- are shared.
“It will mean that there will be a world that is less resilient, more prone to shocks, and that there will be difficulties in solving some of the global challenges that we all face.”
The economic consequences of an autarchic world would also be negative, he says.
“We would have much lower productivity, lower economic growth and lower living standards… the exact opposite of what we have gained in the past thanks to globalization.”