Challenging Authoritarianism: the prospect of localization

By Helena Norberg-Hodge

We urgently need widespread awareness of the big picture of economic deregulation and its impacts on our communities and personal lives. It is only ignorance about this system that enables the pseudo-solutions of Trump, Brexit, Duterte and others to gain strength, even as the global economic system marches onwards, unfettered. Despite the fact that these right-wing political forces are often branded as “anti-globalist”, they are actually serving to strengthen global monopolies.[16]

Any movement to address the woes of the disenfranchised must not only expose and diagnose the systemic illness of economic deregulation, but must also present a coherent alternative. I believe economic localization is the most strategic solution. The localized path would involve a 180-degree turn-around in economic policy, so that business and finance become place-based and accountable to democratic processes. This means re-regulation of global corporations and banks, as well as a shift in taxes and subsidies so that they no longer favor the big and the global but instead support small scale on a large scale. Rebuilding stronger, more diversified, self-reliant economies at the national, regional and local level is essential to restoring democracy and a real economy based on sustainable use of natural resources – an economy that serves essential human needs, lessens inequality and promotes social harmony.

The way to bring this change about is not to simply vote for a new candidate within the same compromised political structure. We instead need to build up diverse and united people’s movements to create a political force that can bring about systemic localization. It means raising awareness of the way that globalization has made a mockery of democracy, and making it clear that business needs to be place-based in order to be accountable and subject to the democratic process. We need to start talking politics with one another – with those concerned about social justice and peace, those focused on unemployment, environmental issues, or spiritual and ethical values. It means raising awareness of the common interest that unites single-issue campaigns and bridges left-right antagonism. Creating face-to-face local groups that then link up nation-wide and even internationally, can form a diverse movement – a critical mass – which can enter politics and remain strong in its pro-democracy/anti-corporate position, despite the systemic vested interests that it will inevitably have to challenge.

Although such a global movement has not yet arisen, in some countries we’ve seen glimpses of the widespread desire for fundamental change. In the last UK election, the Labour party manifesto included several progressive measures, such as re-nationalizing key sectors that have been taken over by private corporations. Although Labour did not win the election, it received a large proportion of the vote. In the US, the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders was another example of a politician responding to the growing chorus of voices critical of corporate control of the economy.

However, the issue is complex: the nation state remains the political entity best suited to putting limits on global business, but at the same time more decentralized economic structures are needed, particularly when it comes to meeting basic needs. These localized economies require an umbrella of environmental and social protection strengthened by national and even international regulation, but determined through local political engagement. This comes close to the platform of La Via Campesina, originally Latin American but now global in scope. Although it does not run candidates for political office, it has come to represent over 400 million small farmers worldwide in campaigning for food sovereignty and in opposition to corporate deregulation.

Localization is a solution-multiplier. It can restore democracy by reducing the influence of big business on politics and holding representatives accountable to people, not corporations. It can reverse the concentration of wealth by fostering the creation of more small businesses and keeping money circulating locally. It can minimize pollution and waste by providing for real human needs rather than desires manufactured by the consumer culture, and by shortening distances between producers and consumers.

Localization also enables people to see more clearly the impacts of their actions: in smaller-scale economies, for example, one readily knows whether food production is dependent on toxic chemicals, whether farm workers have been mistreated, and whether the land remains healthy. In this way, business becomes more accountable.[17]

By prioritizing diversified production for local needs over specialized production for export, localization redistributes economic and political power from global monopolies to millions of small producers, farmers and businesses. It thereby decentralizes political power and roots it in community, giving people more agency over the changes they wish to see in their own lives.

The exponential growth in localization initiatives – from food-based efforts like community gardens, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture schemes and urban agriculture, to local business alliances, decentralized renewable energy schemes, tool lending libraries and community-based education projects – attests to the fact that more and more people are arriving, in a largely common-sense way, at localization as a systemic solution to the problems they face.

Here is a brief sampling of some initiatives already underway:

  • In Fitzroy, Australia, people meet monthly at a local park to exchange produce, seeds, eggs, jam, chutney, flowers, recipes and gardening tips. There is no money involved and people are encouraged to take what they want. This self-described Urban Harvest not only helps people save money on food, it provides an opportunity for residents to get to know their neighbours and build community links.[18]
  • In the US state of Vermont, The Pine Island Community farm enables refugees, mostly from Africa and Asia, to continue the agrarian and culinary traditions they left behind when they were driven from their homes. Not only does the farm offer these immigrants the opportunity to grow and raise affordable, culturally relevant foods, it connects them with each other and with their new community.[19]
  • In Oxfordshire, UK, the Low Carbon Hub is working to create a locally-owned, decentralized renewable energy infrastructure, turning rooftops and brownfields into a micro-grid for local needs. The project is paid for through sales of community share offers.[20]
  • Even the financial system – the source of so much mischief and woe – is being localized with profound effects. In the slums of Fortaleza, Brazil, for example, a community bank, Las Palmas, was created and is governed by local residents with the aim of meeting local needs. Among other things, it issued its own currency, which circulates only within the community. When the project began, only 20% of purchases were made locally; today, that number is over 90%.[21]

These are just a handful of the literally thousands of creative grassroots initiatives that demonstrate both the viability of localization and its systemic benefits.

Unfortunately, localization is sometimes confused with isolationism and even right-wing nationalism. In fact, the opposite is true: localization requires international collaboration and solidarity in order to halt the corporate juggernaut; it is built upon a profound respect for cultural diversity, and therefore tolerance for differences.

The town of Preston in the UK is a good example of how localization expands collaboration. In 2011, the city and county councils set about localizing procurement in response to cuts in national government funding. By changing the spending focus of six regional institutions, including a police force, housing associations and colleges, they managed to increase the amount spent at local suppliers from 14% to 28% in two years. Concurrently, there was a growth in the number of local cooperative businesses.[22] Far from being isolationist, the Preston council is now collaborating with other cities across the EU, as part of the Europe-wide Procure Network, to explore how they can make similar changes in their local economies.

Other networks are growing at national and international levels. These include the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which unites hundreds of local business leaders from all over North America to share best practices. Likewise, the New Economy Coalition brings together NGOs, businesses and activists across North America to exchange strategies for localizing. The Transition Town network links together groups that are working to de-link as much as possible from the fossil fuel economy. My organization, Local Futures, has set up an International Alliance for Localization (IAL), which takes this exchange to a global level and currently includes organizations and individual members from more than 50 countries. True localization means small scale on a large scale, and that takes collaboration at all levels.

A major challenge to the acceptance of a localist agenda among progressives has been the impression that local and natural are ‘elitist’ and affordable only to those of comfortable means. Corporate think tanks have been effective in disseminating this message, but the relatively higher cost of healthy alternatives – whether organic food, local natural building materials and fibers, or alternative medicine – is largely a product of externalized costs and government subsidies for export-oriented corporate production. Strip away all that artificial support and the cost of globalized products would be out of reach for most.

A related ‘elitism’ charge is that the Northerners working to localize their economies are turning their backs on the impoverished people of the global South, who need Northern markets to pull themselves out of poverty. The truth is that many years of export-oriented ‘development’ (with its roots in colonialism and slavery) have left most countries of the South deeply in debt – most of it incurred to build up the infrastructure needed for global trade. Today, the lion’s share of the wealth created on the backs of Southern workers goes to finance this debt, not to meet local needs. Promoting localization means encouraging people in both North and South to diversify their economic activity and become more self-reliant. For Northerners, this would mean getting off the backs of people on the other side of the world, whose impoverishment is a direct consequence of having been forced into producing for export rather than for their own needs. Reversing dependency on both sides would not involve some sort of overnight boycott; instead it would be a careful economic process that includes close North-South grassroots collaboration.

In light of our global crises – environmental, social and economic – governments would do well to fundamentally shift direction. Rather than continuing to deregulate and subsidize big, global banks and businesses, they should focus instead on supporting local trade and small producers. Since food is something that everyone, everywhere, needs every day, a key focus should be on rebuilding the local food economy. Doing so strengthens the entire economy, rebuilds community, and helps heal the environment. It also contributes to resiliency in the face of climate change: diverse localized production systems in an interdependent network, rather than dependence for our basic needs on far-off sources, will better equip communities to withstand the upheavals to come.

Needless to say, the PR departments of global corporations are working hard to counter this message – telling us that whatever the costs of the global food system we have no choice but to double-down on chemical- and energy-intensive monocultures, genetic engineering and global trade if we are to feed the world’s growing population.[23] What they simply ignore is that studies conducted all over the world reveal that smaller farms are more productive per unit of land, water, and energy than large-scale monocultures.[24] Industrial agriculture is only efficient when measured in output per unit of labor: monocultures are great if the goal is profit for the few at the expense of millions of farm jobs, but not if the goal is to sustainably produce as much food as possible with the earth’s limited supply of arable land, fresh water and energy.

Those who live in the global North – where the industrialization of agriculture has been underway for many generations – can easily lose sight of the fact that most of the food consumed in the world today is produced by small farmers on holdings of fewer than 5 acres.[25] To replace those smallholdings with industrial monocultures means destroying the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people, and pushing them into real poverty in urban slums. We should not be surprised when a sizeable fraction of those millions become frustrated, angry, and susceptible to extremist views.

The global food system is inefficient in other ways, especially when one considers ‘redundant trade’. In a typical year, Britain exports over 100,000 tons each of milk, bread, and pork, while importing nearly identical amounts. The same is true in the US, which exports and imports nearly 1 million tons of beef, and hundreds of thousands of tons of potatoes, sugar, and coffee.[26] In some cases, it is literally the same product that is both exported and imported: for example, prawns from Scotland are routinely shipped to China to be shelled by hand, then shipped back to Scotland where they are breaded, packaged and sold.[27] This may pad the bottom lines of the agribusinesses involved, but it can hardly be called efficient.

As it is, the trade-based food system is incapable of feeding the current global population sustainably. With food more tightly controlled by corporations than ever before, some 870 million people are undernourished[28] – even though more than enough food is produced to adequately feed everyone on the planet. In the US, for example, long supply chains and the corporate elimination of cosmetically blemished produce means that over 40 percent of the food grown for human consumption is eventually discarded.[29] The amount of food thrown away globally is four times what would be necessary to feed all the malnourished people in the world.[30]

To support the local food movement, subsidies could be redirected towards strengthening local infrastructures, including distribution lines that connect local producers with local consumers, and even giving financial support to small-scale, diversified farms themselves. Such policy changes would see local, job-rich, community-based, ecological economic systems become the mainstream remarkably quickly, thereby enabling even low-income wage earners around the world to benefit from their local economy. Similarly, reducing subsidies for fossil fuels and increasing taxes on more polluting industries would internalize many of the hidden costs of resource-intensive economic systems, bringing market prices more in line with actual resource and pollution costs. These shifts would have the effect of making local products the cheaper, more accessible option for the wider population.

The rise of authoritarianism is just one of many interrelated impacts of economic globalization. Today’s global economy heightens economic insecurity, fractures communities, and undermines individual and cultural identity – thereby creating conditions that are ripe for the rise of authoritarian leaders. If globalization’s environmental costs – climate change, desertification, flooding – are allowed to rise, we can expect ever larger waves of refugees that will further destabilize nation-states while straining their willingness, as well as their ability, to act humanely.

The most strategic way to address all of these crises is to immediately begin scaling down and decentralizing economic activity, giving communities and local economies the ability to meet as many of their own needs as possible, including the human need for connection.

The movement for economic localization will require many facets of strategic change-making: the spread of awareness, dynamic political campaigning, enlightened grassroots action and international collaboration. This may seem inadequate to the scale of the crises we face, but the banner of localization has the potential to engage huge numbers of people from both sides of the traditional political spectrum, and to bring together hundreds of single-issue campaigns. It enables us to move past the “blame game” and the antagonistic divisions caused by confusion and fear-mongering, instead uniting us in a common cause underpinned by big picture understanding of the common roots of our many crises. In this way, systemic, collaborative localization is ultimately the most effective antidote to authoritarianism.

NOTES

[16] Hart-Landsberg, M. (2016) ‘Confronting Capitalist Globalization’, Reports from the Economic Front , 16 December (https://economicfront.wordpress.com/2016/12/16/confronting-capitalist-globalization/)

[17] Dorninger, C., Abson, D.J., Fischer, J., and von Wehrden, H. (2017) ‘Assessing sustainable biophysical human–nature connectedness at regional scales’, Environmental Research Letters 12, 24 April.

[18] Local Futures, Planet Local: “Food Swapping and the Fitzroy Urban Harvest,” (http://www.localfutures.org/programs/global-to-local/planet-local/food-farming-fisheries/australia-food-swapping-fitzroy-urban-harvest/)

[19] Local Futures, Planet Local: “Refugees Put Down Roots through Community Farming,” (https://medium.com/planet-local/refugees-put-down-roots-through-community-farming-8396934e2fe9)

[20] Local Futures, Planet Local: “Low Carbon Hub,” (http://www.localfutures.org/programs/global-to-local/planet-local/local-energy/uk-low-carbon-hub/)

[21] Local Futures, Planet Local: “Banco Palmas,” (http://www.localfutures.org/programs/global-to-local/planet-local/local-business-finance/brazil-banco-palmas)

[22] https://thenextsystem.org/the-preston-model

[23] see for example: Oosthuizen, E., “Collaboration is Helping to Feed the World”, Monsanto, May 10, 2017. https://monsanto.com/company/commitments/food-security/articles/collaboration-helping-feed-world/

[24] GRAIN (2014) “Hungry for land: small farmers feed the world with less than a quarter of all land,” http://www.grain.org/article/entries/4929-hungry-for-land-small-farmers-feed-the-world-with-less-than-a-quarter-of-all-farmland.

[25] Estimated from FAO, “Family Farming Knowledge Platform,” accessed December 16, 2015, http://www.fao.org/family-farming/background/en/.

[26] FAOSTAT, Food and Agriculture Organization, http://www.fao.org/faostat/en/?. Also see: Ten Veen, R. (2011) ‘Global Food Swap’, Greening the North, Wuppertal Institute; Lucas, C. (2001) ‘Stopping the Great Food Swap: Re-localising Europe’s Food Supply’, The Greens/European Free Alliance/ European Parliament; Norberg- Hodge, H., Merrifeld, T., and Gorelick, S., (2002) Bringing the Food Economy Home, London, Zed Books, p. 18.

[27] Ungoed-Thomas, J. and Meyer, M.R. (2007) ‘British Prawns Go To China To Be Shelled’, The Sunday Times, May 20, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/british-prawns-go-to-china-to-be-shelled-8b7zrs7nzpg. Also see: Scotsman Editors (2006) ‘Jobs lost as Scottish scampi sent on round trip to China’, The Scotsman, September 25, http://www.scotsman.com/news/scotland/top-stories/jobs-lost-as-scottish-scampi-sent-on-round-trip-to-china-1-1141935

[28] FAO (2012) ‘Globally Almost 870 Million Chronically Undernourished – New Hunger Report’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, October 9, http://www.fao.org/news/story/en/item/161819/icode/

[29] Dana Gunders, Wasted: How America Is Losing Up to 40% of Its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill (Washington, DC: Natural Resources Defense Council, 2012), https://www.nrdc.org/sites/default/files/wasted-food-IP.pdf

[30] “Global food waste: the numbers behind the problem”, https://insinkerator.co.uk/uk/page/global-food-waste-stats

Full article: http://longreads.tni.org/localisation-solution-authoritarianism/