books globalisation sustainability transition towns

Book review: The case against the global economy, and for a turn towards localization

I haven’t posted a book review for a few weeks, as I’ve been ploughing my way through this rather large reader, The case against the global economy, and for a turn towards the local, a collection of essays edited by Jerry Mander and Edward Goldsmith. It was published in 1996, as anti-globalization sentiment was really beginning to rise. But, where much of that fizzled out in futile protests outside Disney stores and hating on Nike, Mander and Goldsmith turned to the people with a genuine vision for something different: localization.

Contributors here include Wendell Berry, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Herman Daly, writers who were advocating a human-scale way of life before the anti-Starbucks brigade were even born. And if they were right in the 1970s, they’re even more right now. In a nutshell, the process of globalization has brought a healthy exchange of cultures, opened up the world and created a new awareness of ourselves as a global community. At the same time, it has overruled local cultures and fragmented communities,undermined democracy. The climate has been destabilized, the environment degraded, and power is concentrating into ever fewer corporate hands. The global market has naturally shifted the most burdensome labour to the poorest and least protected, while destroying jobs in parts of the world where workers enjoy more rights. There may be good sides to globalization, but the driving force is a zeal for free markets and economic growth – making money and sweeping aside anything that slows it down. To call a spade a spade, we’ve created a global culture in the service of greed.

The natural place to look for solutions then, is in the opposite direction: localisation. That doesn’t need to mean parochialism or a shrinking of our world views. Neither does it mean an end to travel or trade. What it does mean is a return to the right scale. Do we need an international network of factories, shipping companies and industrial farms to put breakfast on the table? Surely it would be simpler, cheaper, and more sustainable to have a local network of farms, dairies, millers, bakers? It’s about recovering the optimum scale for everything, the healthy medium between the village economy and the global economy. Coffee can only be traded internationally, for example. We can’t grow it in Britain, so we need to import it. We could continue to do so in a localized economy, although we’d need to drink less of it (alas!) if the price were honest. However, wheat grows in the UK. It can be stored and transported easirly, so we could have a national wheat market. Meat and dairy products are better fresh, so that suits a more regional network. And fruit and vegetables are most local of all, out of small farms, gardens and allotments. “The goal of localization would not be to eliminate all trade,” writes Elena Norberg-Hodge, “but to reduce unnecessary transport while encouraging changes that would strengthen and diversify economies at both the community and national levels.”

There are as many ways to re-localize as there to globalize – it’s a philosophy and a direction, rather than a programme or a set of policies. So agricultural subsidies need to favour small scale farmers, markets need to be promoted and encouraged instead of supermarkets. Small local clinics will be better than regional hospitals. Banking will need to return to a smaller scale, with local banks and building societies. We need to slow the drive to urbanize, and value smaller towns again. Developing countries should diversify their economies and try to meet more of their own needs rather than orienting everything towards exports. Wendell Berry argues that there has been an “economic prejudice against the small” and requires a cultural shift. Satish Kumar explores Gandhi’s vision of a world of ‘village republics’, David Imhoff celebrates community supported agriculture – “farming with a face”.

Ultimately, say the editors, “today’s problems will eventually be solved by recognising that local production for local consumption – using local resources, under the guidance and control of local communities, and reflecting local and regional cultures and traditions within the limits of nature – is a far more successful direction than the currently promoted, clearly utopian, globally centralized, expansionist model”

What’s nice to see is the wealth of wisdom that lies behind more recent initiatives such as transition towns, and I would recommend the book to anyone involved. There aren’t many books on re-localization, and the later chapters here are very useful.

3 comments

  1. This definitely seems like a great book in the sense that it promotes a rational/moderate approach to profit motivation, which is the core theme of capitalism. Your review reminds me of a concept we learned about back in high school – Food Mountains. Cash crop farms in developed countries were only concerned with economies of scale and ended up cultivating piles of wheat that exceeded market demand. This ‘food mountain’ simply went to waste because exporting it to poor countries (where people died of starvation) was too costly.

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