The fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989 and the eventual disintegration of the Soviet Union almost two years later heralded an end to the Cold War and ushered in a new era of globalization, which shaped the market economy. modern.

But in the 21st century, various crises have tested this interconnected world.

The 2008 financial meltdown, which started on Wall Street, rippled around the world, leading some to question the advantages of economic interdependence.

New political figures such as Donald Trump, in the United States, and Narendra Modri, in India, managed to promote the idea of prioritize 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 a autarchy: 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 highlighted 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.

food self-sufficiency

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 occurred in the early days. of 2021.

«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 have to radically change our diet,» replied Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverside Organic and twice BBC Radio 4 Farmer of the Year.

«People 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’ll 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 has 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 warned that attempts to achieve food self-sufficiency in the past have had serious consequences.

Perhaps two of the best known cases are those of China under Mao Zedong, who with his «Great Leap Forward» used one of the greatest famines in history, which killed millions of people in the late 1950s.

And that of North Korea, which due to its closed economy had periods of extreme food shortages in the 1990s that starved some two million people.

Ceyla Pazarbasioglu, director of strategy at the International Monetary Fund (IMF), believes that countries need to diversify and strengthen their food supply chains.

But he warns that attempts at autarky in richer countries may have «tragic consequences» for less developed nations.

«After the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have seen about 30 countries impose export restrictions,» he said. «This has had implications for many and especially for the most vulnerable because their food intake is so much higher in terms of their overall consumption.»

energy self-sufficiency

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 that 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.

Businessman Greg Jackson, CEO of Octopus Energy, a generator of both traditional and renewable energy, assured that the country could depend mainly on energies such as wind and solar, something that other experts in that sector agree on.

However, this would require creating giant fields replete with wind turbines and solar panels, something many in rural areas oppose, saying it would ruin the landscape.

Josh Stratton of JM Stratton & Co, which has solar panel farms, acknowledges that you have to be very careful where you place them.

«In the 1950s and 1960s the big pylons were erected, and to this day they are seen as a visible scar,» he said. «We have to be very careful where we put them because they won’t just be there for five or 10 years, or while we have an energy crisis.»

So will countries like the UK be prepared to pay the ‘visual price’ required to become energy self-sufficient?

For Greg Jackson, many will see it in a better light when they realize that living near these renewable energy sources would surely lower their energy costs.

«The more people start to feel these benefits, the more there will be a snowball effect towards that world of cleaner and cheaper energy.»

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 generate conflicts between countries, which would put at risk not only their security but also their economic prosperity.

In other words, although 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 it will be difficult to solve 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.»

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BBC-NEWS-SRC: IMPORT DATE: 2023-01-22 05:00:09