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Say Yes to Local Self Reliance But No to Localism

4/15/2014 9:31:00 AM

Tags: local food, globalization, Kansas, Stan Cox

flower gardenGrowing some of one's own food, conserving and generating the home energy supply, being part of a thriving local economy, and other moves toward self-reliance are all important, laudable goals with, as far as I can see, no ill side effects. However, in North America and Europe, there is now a strong trend among progressive thinkers and activists toward dependence on localism as the means of reversing the global ecological crisis and achieving global economic justice. That's just not going to happen.

Recently, on Al Jazeera's opinion page, I attempted to make that case: that as important as it is to improve life locally, such efforts will not work their way up through the world's economy to solve our biggest problems. I argued that retreating into a romanticized vision of the local life means latching onto one of capitalism's symptoms — the eclipsing of local economies and governments by more powerful transnational forces — and treating it as if it's the disease itself.

I cited the 2012 book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won't Change the World by Greg Sharzer, which goes into deep detail on the disconnect between local solutions and global problems. In it, Sharzer writes, “The problem with localism is not its anti-corporate politics, but that these politics don't go far enough. It sees the effects of unbridled competition but not the cause.”

Efforts to localize have tackled issues such as promotion of hometown businesses, alternative currencies or barter systems, community-based energy generation, greener transportation, and most prominently, local food systems. The more highly visible, and shallower, forms of localism have concentrated on consumption without acknowledging that it's not in the checkout line but in the workplace that the great chasm opens up between families who live paycheck to paycheck and the more affluent, more powerful business owners who today control the fate of communities.

It's not that local owners are exceptionally greedy or heartless. As Sharzer shows, they simply have no choice but to play by the rules of the regional, national, and global market. Even the most well-intentioned local owners know that if they don't squeeze the greatest productivity out of the smallest payroll, there are plenty of other, more efficient businesses ready to take their place.

Even leaders of the localist movement acknowledge that so far it has had only a very limited sociopolitical reach. Australian Ted Trainer, a leading advocate of economic de-growth, observes, “At this stage, most of these [voluntary local movements] are only implementing reforms within consumer-capitalist society.” (His view is supported by research on one such initiative, the Transition Town movement that originated in Britain and has spread worldwide.)

Less radical efforts have had even more limited impact; the more business-friendly localism advocate and Vanderbilt University sociology professor David Hess admits, “The 'buy local' movement is, at least at present, mostly an alliance of small businesspeople and middle-class shoppers. It is not a poor people's movement.”

If movements to date have faltered in their efforts to resolve local problems, it is hard to imagine how they would address crises in the wider world. Some localists are counting on a mega-disaster—most likely, they say, in the form of oil depletion or runaway climate disruption—to deliver a mortal blow to global capitalism, at which point communities that have become more self-sufficient can show the way to the rest of the world, into a grim future.

A more hopeful vision comes from Greg Sharzer and others who urge local movements to stop avoiding political struggle and trying to create idealized communities; instead, they need to “confront global institutions of capitalist power in local spaces.”

Needless to say, taking that course will be anything but easy. But it's our only way out, and at least it has a lot more appeal than hunkering down and waiting for global catastrophe to hit.



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Post a comment below.

 

JT
4/23/2014 7:40:24 PM
It is interesting to me that there are people who assume that just because I grow my own food, conserve water, and try to purchase locally the very little that I do purchase, etc., that this equates with 1. Trying to solve the problems of the whole world. 2. That Capitalism is a Great Evil. Rather, I believe that being good steward of the earth and its resources, being independent and providing for myself, and taking my time to teach others to do the same helps society by being self-responsible and encouraging and empowering others to be responsible for their own life choices too- that they can live a better life in practicing those skills if they choose to do so. They might even sell some of their garden produce and become *gasp* Capitalists! The author of this Leftist Love Fest overlooks one important factor in his thought re: global communities- our God given right of human self-determination, to make our own lives, to have freedom, and to pursue happiness. As long as life endures, there will be people who resist the ideals of the likes of Gregory Albo- who seemingly believes that Salvation comes from the Left and idealizes the socialist manipulation of people in carefully planned communities that have "liberated spaces" "red zones" and "worker's councils". The strategic manipulations he describes as part of the solution is as anathema to me as the strategic manipulation that the politicians have been playing for decades. It is not the job of government to manipulate our lives- it is to set a basic framework for society where we are free to make our own decisions, live our own lives without infringing on the rights of others- or having our own rights trampled on. I see no need to make this a political thing. "Powerful business owners who control the fate of their communities"? I don't buy into that. Nobody controls my fate- people make their own choices and live with the consequences- or they should. Exchanging goods and services for other goods and services or for money is not evil. My success and happiness is not determined by business owners or political figures or even their Leftist- or Rightist policies. I very much enjoy the information about self reliant living that Mother publishes, but if Mother ascribes to the thoughts in this article about Capitalism, then perhaps I should mend my Capitalist ways and stop spending money on a subscription to Mother Earth News.

12AngryWomen
4/23/2014 1:21:15 PM
I wholeheartedly reject the premise of this article that suggests that by focusing on local abundance that people are neglecting some responsibility to global causes. It is this anti-capitalist rhetoric that drives a wedge between real economic principles that save the environment and people trying to tear down the rich to build up the weak. Localism is not meant to solve world crisis. In fact, it is a response to the chaotic world by communal peoples looking to make a difference starting within their natural sphere of influence. The most profound concept to come from Smith's "Wealth of Nations" is the idea that those acting in their own self-interest actually benefit society as a whole while those trying to directly aid society cause the most damage. This is proven true over and over again. People should start with themselves, then family, friends, community. Examples of success are duplicated and the prosperity allows them to reach out to lift others and their environment. There are many in the self-reliant & localism movement that also see a disaster coming. Not to clear away capitalism, but as a result of corporatism and crony capitalism which have been fed by an overreaching federal government. We see the self-reliance as a necessary preparation for this collapse, as well as a means to local prosperity regardless of global climate. The article suggests that since the effects of such programs on the global scene cannot be measured that they are not worth the efforts, while simultaneously acknowledging that there have been measurable positive effects within the communities, which is the intended goal of said programs. The outrageous logic the author uses to claim that "if you are not fixing the world, why bother" is defeatist and frankly, none of his business.

emmer
4/23/2014 12:29:39 PM
how, exactly, might the author "confront global institutions of capitalist power in local spaces"? i vote, i talk, i boycott, i write letters. i draw the line personally at earth-first type actions. a lifetime of this has done little visible good. but making community connections, learning and teaching skills, putting "my money where my mouth is", and being a resource has improved resilience a bit in my community.

Jolli
4/23/2014 9:35:04 AM
Don't think of it as a retreat, but more of a reset. Scale down to scale back up. Everything on this planet, I mean Everything, is subject to an ebb and flow. With a reset(eco-localism), we could attempt to at least inject some conscience into our capitalism on the way back up. Hopefully resulting in less drastic disconnects between our economy, society and ecology. Don't kill the authors of Capitalism or Communism, just the adulterators of. I'll take eco-localism any day. We are all part of a whole. If the parts are dysfunctional then so shall the whole be. Eco-localism defines our parts and attributes/weaknesses to the whole.

Jjohn
4/23/2014 9:10:05 AM
Act locally, think globally...I agree to a point, but if the locals take care of their watershed, the world becomes sustainable....The collapse of capitalism is a necessity, and the corporate community will fail at that point. On the other hand, global networks are necessary for communication...and tin cans and string won't solve the problem. The issues are immense, and, in reality, we're probably looking at collapse and a slow rebuild...maintaining the written word is paramount!

Ellen
4/23/2014 7:34:39 AM
Many of us, Boomers, have been on this roller-coaster for a long time. We have been through political movements, back to the land movements and around again. Living locally, growing your own food, storing rain water, reducing consumption produces a mindset, a clarity of thinking, that allows you to remember your priorities and how your community might work together productively. This mindset will not change the world but it does impact on how you view the world, politics and global issues. Thinking in terms of co-operation and collaboration then allows individuals to look out at the broad and often unfortunate array of politicians and seek out candidates and issues which seem to have the same world view, the same purpose and strategy that has allowed you to think and act locally. So instead of impulsively supporting candidates and political movements that more or less occasionally seem to support what you think are possible answers to global problems, you may learn to move more cautiously and discriminate more clearly which candidate may actually speak with your voice if there is one and which cause, movement or piece of legislation will truly help. It's sort of like picking your best tomato. Take your time and choose wisely.

Ellen
4/23/2014 7:32:52 AM
Many of us, Boomers, have been on this roller-coaster for a long time. We have been through political movements, back to the land movements and around again. Living locally, growing your own food, storing rain water, reducing consumption produces a mindset, a clarity of thinking, that allows you to remember your priorities and how your community might work together productively. This mindset will not change the world but it does impact on how you view the world, politics and global issues. Thinking in terms of co-operation and collaboration then allows individuals to look out at the broad and often unfortunate array of politicians and seek out candidates and issues which seem to have the same world view, the same purpose and strategy that has allowed you to think and act locally. So instead of impulsively supporting candidates and political movements that more or less occasionally seem to support what you think are possible answers to global problems, you may learn to move more cautiously and discriminate more clearly which candidate may actually speak with your voice if there is one and which cause, movement or piece of legislation will truly help. It's sort of like picking your best tomato. Take your time and choose wisely.

Ellen
4/23/2014 7:32:21 AM
Many of us, Boomers, have been on this roller-coaster for a long time. We have been through political movements, back to the land movements and around again. Living locally, growing your own food, storing rain water, reducing consumption produces a mindset, a clarity of thinking, that allows you to remember your priorities and how your community might work together productively. This mindset will not change the world but it does impact on how you view the world, politics and global issues. Thinking in terms of co-operation and collaboration then allows individuals to look out at the broad and often unfortunate array of politicians and seek out candidates and issues which seem to have the same world view, the same purpose and strategy that has allowed you to think and act locally. So instead of impulsively supporting candidates and political movements that more or less occasionally seem to support what you think are possible answers to global problems, you may learn to move more cautiously and discriminate more clearly which candidate may actually speak with your voice if there is one and which cause, movement or piece of legislation will truly help. It's sort of like picking your best tomato. Take your time and choose wisely.










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