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Searching for Justice in Our Consumption of Global Goods

A caravan of milk containers led by camel herders. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
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Have you eaten avocado recently? Have you drunk milk or had a pizza made with mozzarella cheese? Driven or rode in a car fueled by gasoline? Played a guitar?

Then you could be personally implicated in some of the stories told in this season of "Earth Focus," which pulls on revealing threads in our changing global economy to expose our moral economy to thoughtful scrutiny.

Spoiler alert: our moral economy has a lot of catching up to do.

That avocado you ate? There is a decent chance it came from Chile. And if it came from Chile, it may well have come from Petorca, an arid province where vast avocado plantations use precious water to grow avocados for export and local people go without clean water to drink. Activists are advocating for a human right to water in Chile, which is written into law in California, by the way, even though here, too, close to a million people do not have regular access to clean, safe drinking water.

What is to be done? You might think the solution would be to not eat Chilean avocados. But that’s not what the Chileans advocate. Instead, they hope that international attention and concern will pressure the Chilean government to invest in water infrastructure that adequately provides for avocado farmers and people, too.

Avocados from Chile | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Avocados from Chile | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

California advocates are calling for much the same kind of solution: government investment in the public good where the market’s invisible hand of supply and demand fails to deliver the public good. This is in many ways what Adam Smith — the “father of modern capitalism” and author of “The Wealth of Nations” — wrote about in his other, less well-known book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments.” It is the moral economy that should rightly guide the economy of production, trade, and consumption.

So what about that pizza with mozzarella on it? There is a good chance that mozzarella was made from milk produced on dairy farms in California’s Central Valley. Now, in addition to producing milk, those cows and dairies produce a lot of methane, a potent greenhouse gas. The bacteria in a cow’s gut, which help it digest feed, also produce methane as a byproduct of their good work for the cow, and they continue to do so in cow manure. Methane is up to 86 times more effective than carbon dioxide at warming our planet.

Dairy in California | Photo by Artifact for Earth Focus
Cattle at a California dairy farm featured on "Earth Focus" episode "Rethinking Milk: Dairy Alternatives in California and Kenya."

On the other side of the world, in Kenya, camel milk is becoming increasingly popular. Camels aren’t as susceptible to warmer temperatures as cattle, and "Earth Focus" tells this charming story of a local adaptation to changing supply and demand on a warming planet. There is some poetic justice in that story of an old economy and ecology of supply and demand possibly proving better suited to the future than an imposed colonial food system.

But camels are probably not going to be a solution for the California dairy industry that is, in part, driving climate change that is, in turn, affecting places as far away as Kenya. So what is to be done here? Should we shut down these dairies and give up on milk, cheese, pizza? We may not have to. Fortunately, there is a technological solution that is fairly simple in concept, if complex and industrial in reality. It turns out that farmers can capture the methane gas from their cow manure piles, and pipe this “biogas” to a power plant, essentially bolting an industrial gas facility on to the side of what are already factory farms.

Three camels in Kenya | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
Three camels in Kenya | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

The problem is that this is an expensive solution, too expensive for most farmers. So we, the taxpayers of California, subsidize them to hook their dairies up to these expanding biogas systems, to the tune of close to $1 million for each dairy farm that makes the transition.

Some call this part of a “just transition” — helping people involved in economic activities that we no longer morally or ethically support because of our changing values to make an economic transition that we think needs to happen, even if it is uneconomic, so to speak, that is to say, even if we have to subsidize it, even if we have to pay them to do it. Because we value an end to global warming enough to intervene in the milk market — with millions of public dollars — to stop methane from getting into our atmosphere.

This is part of making choices in a moral economy. And it could logically be extended to paying coal miners to leave coal in the ground and train for other jobs. Or oil producers to stop producing oil. "Earth Focus" puts two stories of oil-producing communities side by side to examine the future of those who are supplying the demand for a product that many say cannot continue to be produced and consumed for much longer if our planet is to remain inhabitable.

One of these communities is an Indigenous Inupiat community on the north slope of Alaska, that wants to expand its oil fields into the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. And why shouldn’t they? They are already suffering some of the worst consequences of global warming. Shouldn’t they be able to turn as much of that oil as they can into other forms of capital to ensure their own future before the oil economy collapses under the weight of climate change? In fact, they are already doing that. While the Inupiat corporations talk about the need to expand oil production, they are investing in the human and social capital of their communities in schools, hospitals, churches, and community centers, as well as diversifying the portfolio of their financial investments. That’s a smart just transition, driven by Indigenous leaders themselves.

A polar bear swimming in front of a tourist boat in Alaska. | Still from Earth Focus
A polar bear swimming in front of a tourist boat in Alaska. | Still from Earth Focus

In the California town of Taft, ground zero for oil production in the state, officials seem more inclined to stick their heads in the sand, insisting that oil production will always be with us because there is a current demand, and continuing to encourage high school students to pursue jobs in a local industry that may not last long into their adult lives. By contrast, in nearby Arvin, leaders are trying to keep oil drilling away from residences because of the air pollution and adverse health effects oil wells produce. Instead, they’re investing in solar. A tale of two towns, two diverging approaches to the future, in California’s Central Valley.

Meanwhile in Los Angeles, the state of California and local nonprofits are working to install free solar panels on the houses of low-income families to hasten our energy transition, and make sure that the benefits are distributed widely, because that transition won’t work if it is not widespread. This is a win-win-win situation: low-income families get free electricity, California’s carbon emissions go down, and we’re one step closer to curbing climate change. This is possible because voters and the leaders we’ve elected have made a moral choice: stopping climate change is more important than the free market of supply and demand. We’re willing to put our thumbs on the scale, and we believe the benefits should be shared when we do.

Such win-win solutions are also gaining traction in other parts of the world: "Earth Focus" tells the story of women in Zanzibar who are being trained to install solar in villages that don’t have electricity, bringing light to dark nights, and empowering women at the same time. 

A group of women in Zanzibar sits at a table full of electric eqiupment. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation
A group of women sits at a table full of electric eqiupment. | Nicky Milne/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Not all of our market failures, mismatches between supply and demand, on one hand, and our changing values, on the other hand, can be solved with market tweaks or public investments or just transitions. Sometimes, more basic justice is needed. This is the case with lumber poaching for wood that sometimes ends up on the face of beautiful guitars. "Earth Focus" shows how scientists and citizen scientists in the United States are working to figure out the forensics of illegal logging, to identify poached lumber, and prosecute illegal loggers and importers. Meanwhile, in Brazil, a rougher justice is required. In the absence of an effective government presence in the Amazon, Indigenous communities are organizing their own vigilante “forest guardian” patrols, putting their lives on the line to save remaining patches of their home forests.

Here in California, in a final "Earth Focus" episode of the season, scientists, citizen scientists, and entrepreneurs are trying to revive an endangered species — abalone — driven to the brink of extinction by the triple whammy of overharvesting, ecological changes in the ocean food web, and ecosystems unraveling with climate change. This is another kind of just transition, call it a multispecies just transition, that, if successful, could restore not only a local economy, but also our relationship with our coast and ocean.

Crate of abalone shells | Earth Focus
Crate of abalone shells | Earth Focus

Consumption, it turns out, is never just consumption. That avocado, pizza and car ride? It ties us to a moral economy as well as a global economy of supply and demand. And as we follow the threads of stories about a world in transition, we are forced to think about how to make just choices.

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