From Global to Local.

The last few decades have been characterized by economic globalization resulting in an ever greater expansion of worldwide trade. But lately we have witnessed world’s biggest economies tackling recessionary trends and debt crisis. We have seen rising fuel price and the ever increasing dependence on imported resources thanks to more choice from abroad- of food, raw materials and manufactured products. Free flow of capital and outsourcing of jobs are common practice and have come to be loathed and feared in many countries as globalized capital has no sense of loyalty to any particular nation.  Hence, today, as we are heading ever closer to peak oil, the primary fuel of globalization, are we also heading ever closer to peak globalization?

For some forty years, alternative economists such as E.F. Schumacher, Manfred Max-Neef and Hermann Daly have been emphasizing the importance of local production for local consumption, and the impossibility of infinite growth in a finite world. They also emphasize the need to limit the use of fossil fuels in the long-distance transport of people and goods. But, by and large, these views have been falling on deaf ears, and economic decision making by governments and companies has changed little in recent decades. Lately the need for strengthening local economies is becoming stronger as increasing global dependencies are leading to increasing uncertainties which are accentuated by globalization of our fossil-fuel-based energy system. Our massive degree of dependency on oil consumption is thus, also our degree of vulnerability.

The ‘localization’ movement originated in the mid-1970s partly in response to the oil crisis and the subsequent increases in fuel prices but in later years it was of fairly marginal significance as a glut in oil and a sense of prosperity in the wealthier countries encouraged people to consume more and more, regardless of the consequences. However now, the combined effects of rising fuel prices, growing financial insecurity and concern about climate change have brought localization back as an option to be considered seriously.

Local food, anyone?

A move towards local food is at the heart of the localization movement. In the US, food typically travels between 1500 and 2500 miles from farm to plate- 25% further now than it did in 1980. Even food grown locally can rack up a lot of ‘food miles’ (the distance food is transported from the sources of its production to where it is consumed). This helps in assessing the environmental impact of food. Processed food ingredients and packaging materials travel around from farm to factory to markets at enormous energy cost. With growing concern about long-term fossil-fuel availability and about climate change, such long distance food trade is coming under increasing scrutiny. The energy dependence built into our current global food system is of astonishing proportions. Agriculture contributes about 20% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The issue of local food is one of the most commonly and enthusiastically embraced of all the issues around localization. From British allotment gardening, to community supported agriculture, to Cuban urban agriculture, to Japanese rooftop gardens- there are more and more examples of intra-urban and peri-urban areas being transformed into productive food-growing land. However food grown locally does not always imply that it’s better as it could have been grown with high inputs of fertilizers and by the use of large tractors. Thus, the issue of trying to reduce the emissions produced by food is bedevilled by complexity.

Localized power generation

At a time of fluctuating fossil-fuel prices, global instability and enormous uncertainty in the financial sector, the need for local renewable energy along with local food has also been identified currently. This micro-generation of renewable energy has accelerated in Germany, Denmark and few other European countries by feed-in tariffs (a policy mechanism designed to accelerate investment in renewable energy technologies by offering cost-based compensation to renewable energy producers, providing the price certainty and long-term contracts that help finance renewable energy investments) and it is a perfect example for India to emulate too on a large scale. Also local renewable energy can enable many of the ‘power-less’ Indian villages to become self-sufficient in energy, saving money and making excellent use of organic by-products.

The way forward…

Many people involved in the burgeoning localization movement start by pointing out the social benefits like a better sense of community spirit, of empowerment, of meaningful relationships, of neighbourhoods that have become safer and more interesting places in which to live. A major priority is the urge to reduce the daily, routine dependence on fossil fuels but certainly not by creating a hermetically-sealed neighbourhood cut off from the rest of the world. It will require significant policy initiatives from government and active support from business to develop a historic momentum. It is not about the ‘what’ so much as the ‘how’, and ‘how much’. It is difficult to deliberately reduce the massive reliance on external trade for the benefit of local resilience as expansion (rather than reduction) of trade, after all, is a powerful engine that drives most developed economies, and that gives developing countries much needed foreign income.

Thus, for global sustainable living at the local level, we need to combine energy, transport, materials use, food and biodiversity conservation into one comprehensive package. We need to reduce our ecological footprint by making a conscious effort of living better on less. Localization has an important role to play in the climate and energy-constrained world in which we now live. Rather than focusing on the constraints it’s time to acknowledge the new opportunities that are available for making better use of resources in a globally connected world. The concept of ‘Global Village’ should be applied more to the trade of ideas for achieving sustainable, resilient local economies that assure that a substantial proportion of local consumption is met by local production. Making this transition a socially and economically attractive proposition poses a challenge. It is essential that macroeconomic policies for local sustainable development (including renewable energy) are implemented in order to empower local communities to build these resilient local economies. This transition therefore requires an extraordinary level of co-ordination, community spirit, creativity and determination; and it is inevitable now that we join this localization movement.



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