Expect the Unexpected

I read a news article today that made me stop and think. It seems that when economic factors play out in one part of the world, they have consequences in many other parts at the same time. This is nothing new; we have all heard about the "butterfly effect” which illustrates the idea that a butterfly moving its wings in South America can eventually have the effect of a windstorm elsewhere. Or the idea that dropping a pebble in a pool will cause ripples to touch the shore at various places and times. We can see examples of this all over, if we look.

It’s the most interesting examples, though, that are really unanticipated. Maybe it is because they are unanticipated that they interest me so much. This news item outlined the problems that pulse farmers (growing peas, lentils, and chickpeas) are having shipping their products, which are usually shipped in those huge steel containers seen in stacks on trains and huge ocean going freight carriers. The vast array of consumer goods which are now manufactured in China normally come to North America in these containers, which are returned to China for another load. In order to keep from sending them empty, the shipping companies fill them with products grown here, especially in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The Canadian farmers got a good deal on the shipping, and there were happy customers for our food products all over Asia. (Did you know that Canada is now the world’s biggest exporter of lentils and peas? They’re a high demand protein in many countries.)

Here comes the interesting bit: the recent mortgage and financial downturn in the USA is being reflected in a drop in the consumption of all those manufactured goodies. Families are cutting back on their spending for new barbecues, televisions, plastic toys, and other discretionary items just to have enough money for food and shelter. Hence, fewer containers are coming in this direction, and fewer available to ship our lentils, peas, and chickpeas the other way. Since these are crops, which are harvested when they are ready, not on a convenient shipping schedule, therein lies the conundrum. The farmers and the shipping companies are currently working hard on solving this problem, and I trust that some new and creative solutions will emerge.

A side issue to this whole situation is the obvious dependency on fossil fuels to transport this stuff in any direction. Those who have tried the 100 Mile Diet will understand how far those things we take for granted need to be transported from their origins. This idea could be expanded to include other things besides food. Are we ready to shear our own sheep, spin and weave? How about making our own paper, pottery, tools and bicycle tires? Except for that last example, humanity still perpetuates these handicrafts. Returning to a totally self-made economy is a bit radical, but small changes in our consumption patterns can have interesting and perhaps unexpected results.

Our global community is carefully balanced between the need for an efficient ebb and flow of goods around the world, and the need for its inhabitants to nurture self-sufficiency. As we learn to operate with this understanding, we can implement changes in our own lives that reflect the world we already envision.