Thomas Aquinas on self-sufficiency and trade

Thomas Aquinas

Thomas Aquinas (1225? – 1274) says in “De Regno, Ad Regem Cypri” (“On Kingship, to the King of Cyprus”)* in Book Two, Chapter VII: “That the city should have an abundant supply of food”:

[135] Now there are two ways in which an abundance of foodstuffs can be brought to the city. The first we have already mentioned, where the soil is so fertile that it amply provides for all the necessities of human life. The second is by trade, through which the necessities of life are brought to the town in sufficient quantity from different places.

[136] It is quite clear that the first means is better. The more dignified a thing is, the more self-sufficient it is, since whatever needs another’s help is by that fact proven to be deficient. […..]

[137] It seems that self-sufficiency is also safer, for the import of supplies and the access of merchants can easily be prevented whether owing to wars or to the many hazards of the sea, and thus the city may be overcome through a lack of food.

[139] If the citizens themselves devote their life to matters of trade, the way will be opened to many vices. Since the foremost tendency of tradesmen is to make money, greed is awakened in the hearts of the citizens through the pursuit of trade. […] Thus, in such a city, civic life will necessarily be corrupted.

(Thomas Aquinas 1982, 74-77)

European and global energy policy are dominated by the idea of absolute necessity of (ever increasing) energy trade, whether trade in hydrocarbons, electricity or — recently — biofuels.

I think that this is on of the fundamental misconceptions of the age of globalisation (and probably the whole industrial age): in order to preserve life, we need to produce the energy we need as close as possible to our homes (in the literal sense). Energy is not our food, but still necessary to survive. Self-sufficiency instead of dependency. Energy supply as an ethical question instead of an instrument to make money.

The almost generally accepted credo is that energy supply has to be “market-based”, even renewable energy, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas reduction can only flourish if they come to terms with the interest of market actors. What a fatal error.

April 2008

* Thomas Aquinas, Saint. 1982. On Kingship, To the King of Cyprus. Ponitifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies.