The new geography of trade: globalization’s decline may stimulate local recovery
Original article:

Patterns of adaptation will differ from place to place. Initially, there will be heavy and unpredictable impacts on many developing nations that currently depend on foreign cash earned for commodity exports, or that import much of their food. Yet every country is different.

Even large urban complexes can provide a surprising quantity of their own food. In China, concerns over rising food prices (and food safety) have caused a boom in online sales of vegetable seeds.45 Shanghai now produces much of its own vegetables within its urban limits, as do cities in sub-Saharan Africa.46

If a developing country imports many goods and services, it has to pay for them, probably in part with money earned from commodity exports. When those exports are reduced by high shipping costs, some countries will have the capacity to rapidly increase local production of essentials for local consumption. Others, less fortunate, will take longer.

It is now critical for economic planners, laypersons, and governments to recognize that long-term energy and climate realities will impose limits on the global movement of goods. Trade pacts, like the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and business models, like Walmart with its transoceanic supply chains, will make less sense as the foundations of global trade are undermined. This is not the result of either ideology or policy. Only when we accept these realities can we design and rebuild less vulnerable patterns of production and trade throughout the world. Nearly every country has existing examples of sound, regional development that can be used as models.

Global trade will not disappear, but as it wanes and as supply chains shorten, the importance of regional and local economies will increase. Manufacturing and food production for domestic consumption in the United States and other developed nations (and regions within nations) will regain an importance not seen since the first half of the twentieth century. Security strategies will be adjusted to reflect the increased role of domestic production in national affairs. We should plan now for these inevitable changes. Crises bring more than trouble—they bring opportunities.


We thank Anne-Marie Slaughter for her encouragement and helpful suggestions.


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Fred Curtis is Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, where he has been a member of the faculty since 1979. His work focuses on the economics of climate change and peak oil (global oil depletion). In particular, he examines their combined impact on the global economy (long distance trade and global supply chains) and various economic responses to peak oil, particularly relocalization.

David Ehrenfeld is professor II of biology at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, where he teaches conservation and field ecology. In 2011, he was named Teacher of the Year in Rutgers' School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. His seven books include the pioneering textbook Biological Conservation and, most recently, Becoming Good Ancestors: How We Balance Nature, Community, and Technology (2009). A pioneer of the field of conservation biology, he was the founding editor of the international scientific journal Conservation Biology, where he remains a consulting editor.