Modern economics says that global trading can often create additional value for all involved. A country’s economy will function more efficiently if it produces an excess of goods that are easier for it to make and trades these for other goods; that’s a basic extension of the concept of division of labor. The obvious negative impacts of global trading are transportation costs, both financial and ecological; but if we can develop cleaner modes of transportation, surely the positive economic effects outweigh the ecological costs?
I had thought as much, until Professor Ben Linder of Olin College of Engineering made me rethink my assumptions. In a sustainability workshop that I’ll be chewing on for a while, Ben said that global trade’s real threat to sustainability has to do not with transportation costs, but with carrying capacities.
First, a brief ecology lesson. Picture a world of three tribes: the Sumerians, Babylonians and Phoenicians. For simplicity, these ancient people need only three things to survive: stones (for building houses), barley, and fruit, say one unit per person. Each tribe practices an internal division of labor and produces some of each resource.
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Author: Asheen Phansey, President of Quaking Aspen, LLC and Adjunct Professor, Babson College. Read Asheen’s Blog. Follow Asheen on Twitter. Asheen is presenting “Working With Biomimicry as an Innovation Framework” at the Sustainable Brands’10 Conference.