Free Trade, Fair Trade, Tariffs, Trade Wars, and all such matters reflect a complex of political-economic issues that will soon become mostly irrelevant. Yet pundits persistently pontificate on their putative principles and pitfalls – within the bubble of business-as-usual.
The problem is that all the parties disputing matters of international trade envision the future as an ideal version of the already fading present. They wallow in utopian dreams of a world that cannot be. They argue over the arrangement of secular deck chairs on the Titanic of endless-growth economics, ignoring the iceberg of Earth-systems transformation just ahead.
Utopian dreams continue in an increasingly dystopian world. “Increase our speed! The Titanic must make headlines when we reach port.” Headlines indeed! There is no port in the emerging geological era of the Anthropocene for grand-scale corporate international trade or today’s global industrial consumerism
International trade is a very complex system of exchange founded in conditions that no longer exist and assumptions that conflict with the new reality so widely denied or ignored. Corporate utopian dreams promote never-ending economic expansion of the global industrial-consumer economy in a finite world.
We have already exceeded natural limits. Yet economists and politicians continue to routinely deny or ignore them. They try to hold onto the only system they have ever known, as it continues to destabilize the living Earth systems from which it draws its power.
Earth Systems Transformed
The current global system of neo-liberal economic growth at any cost must grow, but it cannot. Like a cancer, it grows until it kills its host, and then must die itself. Neither the dwindling supply of raw materials nor the growing instability of climate and ecological systems can sustain the technosphere much longer. ALL forms of life on the planet, including global political-economic elites, depend on living Earth systems for survival. Yet, we have destroyed the stability of these systems. They remained constant for most of the 11,000 years of the Holocene, allowing humans to “inherit the Earth.” Yet the global industrial system has broken Earth-system stability. The Holocene is over. The Great Acceleration since World War II has rapidly destabilized the entire Earth System.
From the perspective of mainstream (neoliberal) economics, Trump’s arbitrary imposition of tariffs on European allies and Chinese trading partners is rather stupid. It may very well stifle growth and foment a full on global trade war. International capital has begun to run scared. That makes sense from within the assumptions of that system, but that system becomes increasingly unstable as its foundations crumble. So, the establishment critics are right within their bubble, but wrong in the context of global, or I should say, planetary conditions. The very system within which the argument rages is unsustainable.
Trump is wrong to say that starting and winning a trade war is easy. Well, it’s not hard to start if you ignore allies and “competitors” alike. But win or lose, if international trade continues to contribute massive amounts of carbon into the already destabilizing biosphere, then neither trade alliances nor trade wars will matter.
Clive Hamilton put it clearly in his book, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene. The continuation of the global consumer-industrial system beyond natural limits led humanity to cause a deep rupture in the geological evolution of the entire Earth System. Our actions have now propelled the planet into a new geologic era, the Anthropocene, which has already transformed Earth’s living systems and its climate in ways that will intensify for centuries, and likely persist for thousands of years.
Going forward, life on planet Earth will change radically, regardless of the human response to human-caused Earth’s destabilization. We cannot stop the planetary forces we have set in motion. However, we can mitigate the effects of continuing down the path of destruction so many still deny.
To reduce superfluous international trade – even by Trumpist blundering into trade wars that constrict imports and exports – would significantly reduce total planetary carbon emissions. International trade is a major contributor to global warming. Only by transforming the ways humanity relates to living Earth systems – by radically reducing the disruption of ecosystems and climate – can we minimize the damage and perhaps find ways to adapt to the new harsh conditions we now face in the Anthropocene. Doing all the right things, especially for all the right reasons, will be very difficult to achieve.