Confessions of an eco sinner

Fred Pearce: Confessions of an eco sinner, Eden Project Books, 2008, £7.99, 390 pages, ISBN 978-1-905-8112-0.

Fred Pearce set out to find out where all his stuff came from, his food, his clothes, his energy use, his wedding ring, etc. He visited the places where it was produced and processed to find out what environmental, social and economic impact it had on both the local community and the wider world. He spoke to the producers, the workers and sometimes their bosses. It is a fantastic but also very thought provoking insight to the hidden world of the things we take for granted every day. There are things you do not want to buy once you have read the book!

Pearce travelled to more than twenty countries to research his book, from Alaska to Australia, Brazil to Bangladesh, China to Kenya, Siberia to South Africa and Mauritania. When you hear workers from the South talk about their living and working conditions you realise how unjust the whole globalised economy is. In order for us to be able to buy cheap stuff these workers are paid such low wages that they cannot afford to send their children to school, buy medicine, etc.

So should we reject buying goods from the South? If we did these countries, their factory workers and individual farmers would lose an income through trade. If we keep buying the quantaties we have been doing for years from the South it will increase the amount of greenhouses gases that come from aviation and shipping, plus deplete resources (metals, water, etc) for these countries to use for their own needs. Pearce's answer is that some of the Fairtrade products are worth buying and he gives the example of green beans from Kenya. Pearce acknowledge that each kilogram of green beens flown from Kenya to the UK consumes 1.9 litres of fuel, which releases 4.25 kilogram of CO2. He also acknowledges that green beans imported to the UK from Kenya soak up, by one estimate, almost 200 million cubic metres of water in a year, enough to provide 10 million Kenyans with daily household water.

As an alternative to cutting out Kenyan beans in the UK economy Pearce suggests that you "take the bus to the supermarket, buy a bit less processed food, do something that will hurt you" and not the farmers in Kenya. Pearce has therefore increased his purchasing of Kenyan beans as a way of supporting the farmers there. This is a surprising conclusion from someone who has written a book about global warming and regularly writes in New Scientist, the Guardian, Geographical, the Indepenent and the Ecologist. But it is the only big surprise in an otherwise well researched book.

If Pearce really thought we could solve climate change by taking the bus to the supermarket and buy less processed food then climate change would be a fairly easy problem to solve. Food worth one million pounds flies out of Kenya every night for Europe, mainly Britain. Apart from the fact that CO2 does a lot more damage when released by aeroplanes than if released at ground level, there is the issue of food security. We have just seen (April 2010) how the UK airspace was closed down for six days due to volcanic ash. Supermarkets began to run out of fresh food imported by planes. Also in April 2010 the Royal Academy of Engeneering produced a report on Global Water Security, which is avaliable on their website www.rang.org.uk/gws. The report points out that climate change creates water stresses for Kenya and many other countries. So we should really also monitor the water footprint as well as the CO2 footprint of the products we buy.

So I am afraid there is no alternative to producing as much food as possible as close to the consumer as possible, growing it organically and reducing meat consumption drastically if you want to cut your CO2 and water foodprint. At the same time we should not leave the Kenyan farmers - and all the other farmers in the South - high and dry. They should be supported to become independent of the multinational food coorperations who after all take about 90% of profit made of the food exported from the South to the North.

This little disagreement on Kenyan green beans should not be an argument for not reading the book. The rest is a real eye-opener!