27 February 2008

My Vineyard has been Turned into a Shopping Centre

One of the most beautiful things encountered in Lisbon during my recent trip was the of range citrus trees growing right in the heart of the city. Making cities productive - what is sometimes referred to as 'edible estates' or, in a more rural setting, 'edible landscapes' - will be key to our survival once peak oil begins to bite. Much as happened in Havana when food imports became too expensive we will be growing vegetables on verges and waste-ground.

As part of the Transition Towns initiative activists in Totnes have been planting nut-trees on spare ground, and Stroud's mayor has agreed that in future urban tree-planting will focus on fruit-bearing trees. Sweet chestnut is a particular favourite, since it is leafy and gorgeous, produces useful tasty food, and its wood is durable and excellent for a variety of uses.

Sadly, elsewhere Lisbon is not so friendly to urban production. Campo Pequeno and Campo Grande are areas of the city that were once wine-growing fields, small and large, and are now concrete oases and tube stations. My hotel was near Campo Pequeno, where I began to notice eerie echoes of an earlier post. Not only does it have a bull-ring (in this case the genuine article) but underneath it is another shopping centre. In contrast to Birmingham, the shoppers are underground, the sports' fans in the fresh air.

I also began to understand the true meaning of the theory of comparative advantage, a bogus economic justification for free trade that was originally outlined by David Ricardo in terms of trade between the UK and Portugal - we make woollen cloth and export it in exchange for Portuguese wine. Our climate favours one and theirs the other. Since the theory is about justifying trade in goods when one country is always more efficient it isn't really a very good example.

Except that I discovered from my guidebook that the reason there was free trade between these two countries is that it was bought some 50 years early at the barrel of a gun, or rather to allow Portugal to avoid the barrels of Spain's guns. Britain offered military protection under the Methuen Treaty but in exchange Portugal had to agree to let UK cloth in cheap, undercutting domestic production and putting thousands of textile workers out of jobs.

It is astonishing in how many corners of the world you encounter examples of our brazen, pro-capitalist, tread-on-your-face mentality in operation. No wonder my daughter says 'We are bastards aren't we mum?' Except that it wasn't the impoverished factory workers of Lancashire who benefited from this. But it does make us slightly more responsible for sorting the mess out.

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