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INSAM homepage until December 2012

Last modified January 02, 2013 12:20

INSAM homepage until December 2012.

Quite often I come across the expression that something is “a matter of scale”. But such cases vary a lot in the way this term is used; sometimes it is true but not always. And when it is true, this “matter of scale” may be positive (case 1 below) or negative (case 3 below) in its “upscaling”; while scale may not matter, for example as long as the local effects are positive and cumulatively remain so (case 2 below).

Although I love Europe, I spend only a few months a year in the Netherlands and holiday destinations in France, Portugal (where my youngest son works and lives with his family) or Spain. I therefore read with great interest what others write about Europe, and it is these days not always very positive. And so I was very interested in an Editorial Opinion in the International Herald Tribune of September 1 – 2 of this year (on my way to Iran) entitled ”Can Europe survive the rise of the rest?” by Timothy Garton Ash.

“Europeans should not forget their troubled past, but the need for scale is the key to their future. (……). And Europeans should not entirely abandon the hope (……) that their pioneering version of integration between previously warring states could point the way for better “global governance” in response to shared threats like climate change and to the tensions that inevitably arise between rising and declining powers. (……). At best, Europe could become not only just another giant; it could offer the example of a new kind of cooperative multinational giant”.

This brings scale into focus and here it is positively true. Yes indeed, European common climate change policies would improve the situation very much. But it is not always the large scale that really matters, even when we think so.

In his farewell lecture as a Professor of Land Degradation and Development (LDD) at Wageningen University, my former colleague Dr. Leo Stroosnijder last May dealt with “Myths in Land Degradation and Development” [Wageningen University, ISBN 978-94-6173-319-1]. He did away with such myths as

  • Land degradation threatens global food security. [He reports on quite some cases in which there is no evidence for this statement at all.]
  • There are proven rainfall changes due to climate change. [He and his co-workers disproved this for quite a number of countries in Africa.]
  • In African drylands, crop growth is limited by low rainfall. [Here he distinguishes “meteorological drought” and “desertification drought” and shows the latter to systematically occur, not the former. It is not lack of rainfall but lack of soil quality that make plants suffer systematically from “drought”.]

But he also shows that it is a myth that

- Measures against land degradation only work at the larger scale and small scale actions (at the farm level for instance) do not have a significant effect. [A great example, he says, is that climatologists claim that a small forest of 1 ha can have no effect on rainfall. But farmers in many countries know for sure: “vegetation attracts rain”, also on such a small scale.] See for example also earlier discussions on our website (e.g. Stigter and Meesters, 2009):

A "Forests as biotic pump” hypothesis discredited due to errors in basic atmospheric physics

So here small scale could work and large scale would be helpful but not necessary per se. Finally, I give you an example of the large scale spoiling the picture that the small scale gives. It comes again from the Herald Tribune under “Letters to the Editor” of 3 May of this year (on my way to Sudan).

It is a joint reaction, called “A troublesome subsidy”, from four distinguished colleagues, from the UK, Malawi and the USA (2), to an earlier View Point, in the same newspaper, of 20 April, by Prof. Jeffrey Sachs. The latter praised the policy of the Malawi government to import hybrid seeds and fertilizers for farmers in Malawi. The reaction goes:

“Malawi has little foreign exchange and can ill afford to spend close to 7% of its government budget to subsidize fertilizers. Alongside other economic problems, the subsidy has bankrupted Malawi (…..). Yet there are proven alternatives in Malawi that outperform the subsidy program. New farmer-led innovations combine agro-ecology and nutrition, using legumes such as pigeon peas and groundnuts as local sources of nitrogen and food. Diversified – crop and community – nutrition programmes have improved corn yields and child nutrition”.

The authors consider that Malawians themselves are developing far more robust ways of feeding themselves than the ideas that Prof. Sachs still glorifies. Scale was here the factor that was decisively negative as to the subsidies. But it would work clearly positively regarding the alternatives.

I use this opportunity to thank all members for their continuing feedback on my columns and other letters to you. We are now more than 1850, as members of INSAM, but we can always use more. Let’s see what it takes to reach the 2000 somewhere next year. Encourage your colleagues, your students, but also your lecturers and professors, to join INSAM and create discussions on our site.

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