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Local is Our Future

Farm, Fort Klamath, Oregon. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

For our species to have a future, it must be local.

The good news is that the path to such a future is already being forged. Away from the screens of the mainstream media, the crude ‘bigger is better’ narrative that has dominated economic thinking for centuries is being challenged by a much gentler, more ‘feminine’, inclusive perspective that places human and ecological well-being front and center. People are coming to recognize that connection, both to others and to Nature herself, is the wellspring of human happiness. And every day new, inspiring initiatives are springing up that offer the potential for genuine prosperity.

At the same time there is a growing awareness – from the grassroots to academia – that the real economy is the natural world, on which we ultimately depend for all of our needs. Only when we embrace a structural shift in the current economy – away from dependence on a corporate-run global marketplace, towards diversified local systems – will we be able to live in a way that reflects this understanding.

Tragically, our political and business leaders remain blind to these and other realities. They are taking us down a different path, one where biotechnology will feed the world, the internet will enable global cooperation, robots will free people from the drudgery of physical and mental effort, and that the wealth of an ever richer 1% will somehow ‘trickle down’ to benefit the poor.

What does this future look like? Google’s Ray Kurzweil informs us that our food will come from “AI-controlled vertical buildings” and include “in-vitro cloned meat”. According to Tesla’s Elon Musk, building a city on Mars is “the critical thing for maximizing the life of humanity”, while “30 layers of tunnels” will relieve congestion in Earth’s high-density cities. Goldman Sachs explains that the digitization of everyday objects will “establish networks between machines, humans, and the internet, leading to the creation of new ecosystems that enable higher productivity, better energy efficiency, and higher profitability”.

These ideas are lauded as visionary and bold, but what they promise is simply the escalation of dominant trends – neo-colonial expansion, urbanization and commodification – turbo-charged with fancy gadgets. What they don’t tell us is that, at every level, the system is dumping the most abundant natural resource of all – human energy and labor – on the waste heap. At the same time, our taxes are subsidizing a dramatic increase in the use of energy and scarce natural resources. We have a system that is simultaneously creating mass unemployment, poverty and pollution.

This system is not the expression of the will of the majority: on the contrary, we have been actively excluded from having a say. But I do not believe that a ‘good guys vs. bad guys’ narrative is accurate either. It is true that the people consciously pushing corporate monoculture represent only a tiny fraction of the global population – perhaps less than 10,000 individuals worldwide – but even they are so mesmerized by abstract economic models and indicators that they are often blind to the real-world effects of their decisions.

In a sense, the system has entrapped us all. Even the CEOs of large corporations and banks are driven by speculative markets to meet short-term profit and growth targets – they are under intense pressure to stay on top for fear of losing their own jobs and letting down their shareholders. So it is the system itself that must be called to account and changed – not the interchangeable individuals who wield power within it.

But as I said at the outset, this is not the only direction in which the world is being taken. People around the globe are yearning for the deep bonds of community and connection to nature that we evolved with for most of our existence. And from the bottom up they are pushing for a fundamental shift in direction. Theirs is not a vision built upon a few billionaires’ fetish for high-tech gimmicks and knack for money-accumulation: instead it emerges from a deep experience of what it means to be human.

At the grassroots on every continent, people in their diverse cultures are coming together to reweave the social fabric and to reconnect with the Earth and her ecosystems. They are building prosperous local economies and intergenerational communities that provide more meaningful, productive work. From community gardens to farmers markets, from alternative learning spaces to local business alliances and co-ops – what all these have in common is a renewal of place-based relationships that reflect an enduring and innately human desire for love and connection.

These localization initiatives emphatically demonstrate that human nature is not the problem – on the contrary, it is the inhuman scale of a techno-economic monoculture that has infiltrated and manipulated our desires and our needs. This understanding is reinforced by observing what happens when people come back into contact with human-scale structures; I have seen prisoners transformed, delinquent teenagers given meaning and purpose, depression healed, and social, ethnic and intergenerational rifts bridged.

In many cases, these initiatives stem more from common sense than any intention to ‘change the world’. But together they nevertheless present a powerful challenge to the corporate order, and articulate a very different vision of the future.

This emerging movement transcends the conventional left-right dichotomy. It is about enabling diverse human values and dreams to flourish, while simultaneously re-embedding culture in nature. It means societies can move towards withdrawing their dependence on distant, unaccountable monopolies that produce our basic needs in high-input, mechanized monocultural systems on the other side of the world, in favor of local and artisanal production for local needs. The emphasis here is on real needs, not the artificial wants created by marketers and advertisers in an effort to stoke the furnaces of consumerism and endless growth.

Localization means getting out of the highly unstable and exploitative bubbles of speculation and debt, and back to the real economy – our interface with other people and the natural world. Rather than demanding countless tons of perfectly straight carrots and discarding the ones that do not fit the bill (as supermarket chains do), local markets require a diversity of products, and therefore create incentives for more diversified and ecological production. This means more food with far less machinery and chemicals, more hands on the land and therefore more meaningful employment. It means dramatically reduced CO2emissions, no need for plastic packaging, more space for wild biodiversity, more circulation of wealth within local communities, more face-to-face conversations between producers and consumers and more flourishing cultures founded on genuine interdependence.

This is what I call the ‘solution-multiplier’ effect of localization, and the pattern extends beyond our food systems. In the blind, disconnected and over-specialized system of global monoculture, I have seen housing developments built with imported steel, plastic and concrete while the oak trees on-site are razed and turned into woodchips. In contrast, the shortening of distances structurally means more eyes per acre and more innovative use of available resources. It may sound utopian, but as we withdraw dependence on highly centralized, automated systems in fields like healthcare and education, we can rebalance the ratios between doctor and patient, between teacher and student, and thereby make space for individual needs and capabilities.

It is entirely reasonable to envisage a world without unemployment; as is true of every price-tag on a supermarket shelf, unemployment is a political decision that, at the moment, is being made according to the mantra of ‘efficiency’ in centralized profit-making. As both political left and right have bought into the dogma of ‘bigger is better’, citizens have been left with no real alternative.

When we strengthen the human-scale economy, decision-making itself is transformed. Not only do we create systems that are small enough for us to influence, but we also embed ourselves within a web of relationships that informs our actions and perspectives at a deep level. The increased visibility of our impacts on community and local ecosystems leads to experiential awareness, enabling us to become both more empowered to make change and more humbled by the complexity of life around us.

At a fundamental level, localization allows us to appreciate the constantly evolving, changing nature of the universe. Instead of living by labels – seeing the world through words, fixed concepts and numbers – we become aware that every person, animal and plant is unique and changing from moment to moment. Localization lends us the intimacy and pace required to feel this fullness, and to feel the joy of being an integral part of a living web of relationships.

We face a stark choice between two radically divergent paths. One leads us relentlessly towards fast-paced, large-scale, monocultural, techno-development. It’s a path that separates us from each other and the natural world, and accelerates our downward social and ecological decline. The other path is about slowing down, scaling back and fostering deep connection, in order to restore the social and economic structures essential for meeting our material and deeper human needs in ways that nurture the only planet we have.

This essay is excerpted from the first chapter of Helena Norberg-Hodge’s new book Local is Our Future: Steps to an Economics of Happiness, published by Local Futures in July 2019. Paperback copies of Local is Our Future are available to order from Local Futures’ website.

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