Politics & Society
From Sea Shanties to Sustainable Commerce
Using Trade as a Force for Good
A sea shanty revived from the 1800s has gone viral this year, garnering millions of views worldwide and catapulting a young Scot to international stardom. The Wellerman tells a tale of men on a long and treacherous sea journey. The story follows a whaling vessel that has speared — but not killed — a whale. Wary of capitulating to the animal, the captain refuses to cut the line, and the ship and wounded whale are caught in a battle of nature versus humankind in which any victory would be Pyrrhic.
It’s an allegory that underscores a long-standing dichotomy at the core of human beings’ relationship with nature: We must dominate it and extract what we can, and yet we cannot survive without a healthy world.
For such a winsome ditty, the shocking scene at its heart reminds us that not long ago, Europe and the United States traded goods that would horrify us today, including humans and endangered species. In the 20th century, Europe and the United States pursued ambitious plans to prohibit or heavily regulate trade of certain goods within international frameworks, such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) or the UN protocol against human trafficking. These global agreements demonstrate that countries can design, implement, and, to varying degrees, enforce trade mechanisms that protect the environment. These frameworks require a general consensus that something is “bad” to trade and ample political will to do something about it.
As we look into the next decade, which is likely our last window to combat climate change, citizens, governments, and companies must reconcile the fight for the future with the catastrophic environmental cost of the current global trade and economic system. We once relied on ambergris to power lights, and in 1850 whaling was the United States’ fifth-largest industry. But then we developed better technology and just 50 years later, whaling itself was essentially extinct. The world now has another chance to pivot away from trading harmful commerce that destroys the bioeconomy and toward a more sustainable future that doesn’t pit trade and the environment against each other.
As we look into the next decade, which is likely our last window to combat climate change, citizens, governments, and companies must reconcile the fight for the future with the catastrophic environmental cost of the current global trade and economic system.
The core environmental problems of trade are twofold: goods traded are often carbon-intensive, as are the methods of transporting them. Whaling has always been an environmentally and morally problematic industry, but the cattle industry, for example, is also problematic. A dairy farm of 2,500 cows generates as much waste as a city with a population of more than 400,000. Moving these goods is also carbon-intensive. Worldwide shipping vessels use 87 billion gallons of petroleum fuels annually. In short, efforts to make trade more sustainable must deal with every stage of the supply chain. Consumer demand must shift away from environmentally harmful goods, and private companies and governments must work to decarbonize the transport of those goods.
Yet governments continue to pursue policies that lead to unnecessarily carbon-intensive supply chains. In his last days as president, Donald Trump opened the Alaskan tundra to oil drilling. Rainforest destruction in the Amazon has skyrocketed since Jair Bolsonaro became president of Brazil. Palm oil plantations threaten rich habitats in Indonesia that function as the Earth’s reserve set of lungs after the Amazon. Furthermore, half of agricultural subsidies are used to support market prices. This often results in environmentally and economically unsustainable monocropping, which hurts the bioeconomy in the long-run and reduces environmental resiliency. European and American demand for these products directly implicates transatlantic trade in environmental harm.
First, the EU and United States can combat climate change by reducing the consumption of carbon-intensive goods, like beef, palm oil, and petroleum products. This reduction would help both the EU and United States reach their climate targets. Additionally, governments should adjust subsidies to support land diversification, alternative protein research, and renewable energy expansion. For example, it would be relatively easy for governments to incentivize replacing single-use plastics with bioengineered mushroom material. Diverting subsidies would bolster the bioeconomy while decarbonizing the commodities trade.
Second, in addition to reducing the trade of carbon-intensive goods, companies and governments should work to decarbonize trade itself. They can achieve green targets by retrofitting ships, buying carbon offsets, supporting renewably powered electrical grids, and investing in new technology, such as solar-powered planes.
Third, industry should work with governments to finance projects to accelerate the use of existing technologies that make production and trade more sustainable while boosting economic growth. Unlocking financing for green technology will help the global economy ditch the proverbial ambergris for a much kinder supply chain.
At the domestic level, European and American governments could redirect subsidies to protect the bioeconomy while working with citizens and businesses to deploy innovative technology that has already demonstrated progress in fighting climate change.
There is already a gargantuan movement afoot to deploy green electric vehicles, build new solar fields, and connect IoT devices to renewable energy sources, which policymakers can bolster. At the domestic level, European and American governments could redirect subsidies to protect the bioeconomy while working with citizens and businesses to deploy innovative technology that has already demonstrated progress in fighting climate change.
At the international level, the EU and United States are uniquely positioned to lead the fight for more sustainable trade within existing frameworks. President Joe Biden has indicated a reticence to sign major trade deals until the domestic economy recovers from pandemic fallout and has instead turned toward climate policy to bolster the economy. But trade and climate action are not mutually exclusive. The coming years will likely demonstrate that globalization will be necessary in the fight against climate change since building a more resilient future will take a global effort. After all, climate health affects every country.
Addressing climate change sometimes seems like a Sisyphean task, where new technologies demand new regulations. Policymakers, though, already have many of the tools required for building back better. Far from reimagining the global economy, transatlantic leadership can nudge carbon-intensive industries while bolstering support for green goods and services. With enough pressure from people, private industries, and governments, we can encourage green technology and sustainable supply chains and do to carbon-intensive industries what we once did to the whaling industry.