No doubt you’ve heard the great news: Globalization is going to save the world. Sure, things are (really) bad right now, but as more nations join the global economy, their economies will become more integrated, and their interests and goals will become more aligned. As the economic playing field levels, perceived inequalities between ethnicities and belief systems will be ironed out. We’ll all work together to combat problems like global warming. And, ultimately, we’ll all be borne forward on a tide of economic prosperity until we reach the shores of a big, happy, peaceful, unified world.
It all sounds very progressive and promising, says Ellen LaConte. Too bad it’s just a collective pipe dream—and a very dangerous one.
“While there have been some voices of dissent, they’ve been largely drowned out by the assurances of those getting rich from the global economy,” says LaConte, author of Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it (Green Horizon, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4502-5918-7, $21.95, www.ellenlaconte.com). “The prevailing attitude seems to be that globalism is good—or will be as soon as the bugs get worked out.
“What most people can’t seem to grasp, or perhaps more accurately don’t want to believe, is that globalization not only ain’t all that, it’s the exact opposite of what we should be doing,” she adds. “It’s a system that’s doomed and for a simple reason: It goes against the laws of Life itself. Life evolved local and regional economies that couldn’t burn and churn through Earth’s finite supplies of resources. It put global economies that could out of business. Simply put, the global economy is too big NOT to fail.”
LaConte likens the global economy to an elephant: Its trainers (policy-makers and global leaders) think that they have the beast under their control. For awhile, the elephant did its masters’ heavy lifting and delivered them most of the goods. Now, though, it’s starting to go rogue—disobeying commands and acting unpredictably.
“Before long,” she warns, “the elephant will turn on its handlers. It’ll tear up our ‘global village,’ creating chaos, crushing crops, huts, innocent villagers, and other living things, while its masters dither with budgets, birth certificates, dead terrorists, and taxes.”
The scary truth is that the economic, environmental, social, and political crises we’re facing are red flags warning us that the system we’re all counting on is headed for collapse, says LaConte. Global leaders are approaching these crises as though they were distinct and unrelated, when in reality, the problem is globalization itself.
To those who still believe in “the myth of perpetual growth and universal prosperity,” LaConte offers a hard truth:
Life rules; we don’t.
Economies of every kind and size are dependent on the largest economy—the largest supplier of goods and services—of which they are a part.
“For us—contrary to what you may assume—the largest economy is not the global monetary economy,” LaConte explains. “It’s the biosphere—Life itself. You see, Life manages Earth’s accounts sustainably, which is how it has managed to last for four billion years. The global economy does not manage Earth’s accounts sustainably. Under its influence we are living beyond Earth’s means.”
LaConte explains that if we continue to degrade and spend down Earth’s trust accounts of good soils, fresh water, and oceanic carbon sinks, for example, it doesn’t matter how much money is floating around in the econosphere or who has it. We can’t restore depleted resources and degraded natural systems overnight the way the Fed can print more money or raise a debt ceiling. That’s why LaConte’s bottom line is that “life rules; we don’t.”
“Once our global economy has exhausted the natural resources and ecosystem services that are our true and common wealth, it can’t get any bigger,” she says. “We’re almost to that tipping point now. And the leaders and systems that have caused and perpetuated this crisis can’t and won’t solve it for us. Like Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of consciousness—the same worldview—that created it. The blind can’t lead the blind out of this mess.”
So what should Americans do before the global economy stops delivering the goods reliably or at all? LaConte suggests we learn from the most successful economic system on the planet.
“Life teaches us how long-lasting, sustainable economies work,” she says. “These economies are local, not global. Think about it this way: The Earth doesn’t have one ecosystem or climate, but many as different from each other as oranges are from apples. Diversity is the way Life guaranteed some living things and systems would have the skills to survive almost any cataclysm. This means that we can diversify. We can relocalize or, in more realistic terms, re-regionalize economically, fit ourselves into these smart living systems and work with them. To do that, we need to figure out what natural and human resources we still have to work with closer to home and how to use them sustainably to provide the necessities and maybe some niceties for ourselves and each other.” [Editor: See attached possible sidebar: “Six D-grees of Separation from the Global Economy.”]
The end of cheap-easy.
What makes LaConte think now’s the time to relocalize? The increasing number of resources essential to our present way of living that were once cheap and abundant—what she calls “cheap-easy”—but no longer are. She cites five:
1) Oil and other fossil fuels. We’re quickly depleting the worldwide supply of oil, and there are no new cheap-easy fields. We don’t want to admit it, but abundant, inexpensive oil is history. What difference does that make? For one thing, there’s no replacement that can do all that oil has done as cheaply and universally as oil has done it.
“Nearly all the goods and services the global economy provides are in one way or another oil-dependent,” LaConte points out. “When oil’s too expensive or gone, so are they. Plus, energy analysts predict that we can add to the end of cheap-easy oil the imminent end to cheap-easy coal and natural gas. And if there are no cheap-easy fossil fuels, there is no global economy.”
2) Good weather. Only dyed-in-the-wool deniers still believe the climate isn’t changing. The world is becoming warmer overall, but the weather is also more unpredictable and violent. Cheap-easy weather is on the way out.
“The familiar species and ecosystems with which humans have cohabited for time immemorial are caput if the familiar, congenial climate is no more,” promises LaConte. “Already, weather-related emergencies and disasters, crop and business losses, and species and human migrations alone have made the world’s new weather costly in lives and money. Plus, these events have served to further destabilize the economy.”
3) Water. Frighteningly, worldwide demand for water will exceed supply by 50 percent as soon as 2025. Water-intensive globalized agri-business and livestock operations, global industrialization and pollution, growing population, and wasteful distribution processes have contributed to the shortfall in freshwater supplies around the world.
“With rising prices and rationing, we’ll soon be saying ‘so long’ to cheap-easy water,” LaConte predicts.
4) Food. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the end of cheap-easy oil, water, and weather signals the end of cheap-easy food. Arable land is already at a premium everywhere in the world, and what there is of it is being depleted and degraded by fossil-fueled farming techniques.
“Of the world’s seven billion people,” points out LaConte, “a third are well fed, at least for now, a third are underfed, and a third—a couple billion people!—hover between malnutrition and starvation. If we’re not careful, that number will only grow.”
5) Prosperity. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know what a roller coaster ride the global economy has taken most Americans on. You’ve probably felt the recession’s effects yourself.
“No matter what they promise, politicians can’t conjure prosperity out of thin air,” LaConte says. “And in an economy facing this many pending scarcities, the goods and services on which it makes its money will be adversely affected. Credit, cash, capital—the keys to conventional definitions of prosperity—will, like the other items in this list, cease to be either cheap or easy to get.”
No global? Go local.
Thoughts of bringing economies closer to home flourish whenever a prevailing economy fails to deliver the goods people expect from it, or when it seems to deliver more harm than good. And unless you’re among the top 10 percent of Americans, you’re already experiencing some of that harm.
“Though the drift toward globalization is 400 years old, the fully globalized economy is only about 60 years old,” LaConte points out. “Meanwhile, we modern humans have been innovating solutions to the challenge of providing for ourselves for 100,000 years. Surely we can relearn how to live without globalization, and go back to more localized economies.
“The teachings, teachers, tools, and techniques for doing this already exist,” she adds. “All we need is the will. Relocalization is the way.”
# # #
Six D-grees of Separation from the Global Economy:
Triggers for Thinking and Acting Locally
1. Drop out or drop back, money-wise. We can pull a good deal of our financial and political support from present ineffective systems. We can also create community associations that localize and regionalize food, fiber, energy and jobs production, and education and transportation systems, for example. How? By creating alternative currencies and regional monetary systems that operate as complements to existing systems. Examples abound of communities that have begun this process.
2. Downsize. Natural economies are locally and regionally self-reliant. They are community-based. If we consolidated the 100,000 years of modern humans into a 24-hour day, we’ve depended on the global economy for just the last minute of that day. Surely we can learn how not to depend on it, how to bring the scale of our economic activities into harmony with the scale of Life’s economies.
3. Diversify. Investment counselors tell us to do this with our money. We should be doing it with our economies, too. The kinds of things we make and consume need to be as unique and diverse as the places in which those economies are located and the resources available in each place.
4. De-carbonize. Life is a carbon-based energy economy, but the carbons it’s based on are renewable. Renewable energies include solar, wind, tidal, geothermal, and human and animal muscle. We can increase efficiency and conservation, create systems that use less energy, and prioritize the use of the last fossil fuels so we don’t have to go cold turkey without heat, electricity, plastics, and medicines, for example. De-carbonizing would tend to detoxify most of what we produce, too.
5. De-materialize. Use less of everything. We need to recycle, reuse, and/or repurpose as much as we can. We also need to produce fewer goods that can’t be eaten or used for the good of humans or some other living thing or process. If we take fossil fuels out of the equation, we won’t be making a lot of stuff that isn’t good for us and other living things. Rely on renewables and things that can be restored in biologic time.
6. Democratize. Life built relationships, behaviors, and shapes and methods of organization that are more democratic than we’ve yet imagined into its operating system because they permitted species to live—together—within Earth’s means. Democracy in natural economies is not an option, and it’s not about having a higher quantity of material goods; it’s organic and it’s about practicing a higher quality of common good. Democracy in natural communities is a first-order survival technique.
# # #
The Close-to-Home Economy: Seven Tips to Help Communities “Relocalize” Their Resources, Goods, and Services
Tips from Ellen LaConte, author of Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it
(Green Horizon, 2010, ISBN: 978-1-4502-5918-7, $21.95, www.ellenlaconte.com)
Okay, let’s say we’ve all accepted the harsh truth: Our global, fossil-fueled economy is headed for collapse, and we need to “go local” to save our own lives. Question is, what now? How can we 21st century Americans—a nation of people frighteningly dependent on the global economy to meet our basic needs—start transitioning away from the system that’s hurting us?
“First of all, don’t panic!” says Ellen LaConte, author of Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it. “While it’s true that most of us are ill-equipped to provide for ourselves on a local level, we can change that reality. There are plenty of things we as communities and also as individuals can do to bring sustainability closer to home.”
LaConte offers the following tips to help you get started:
Wrap Your Mind Around Local vs. Global: Once you (and hopefully your family, friends, and community) are convinced that practicing sustainability at the local and regional level is a priority, you’ll want to begin by practicing subtraction. Simply put, when you identify what you will no longer be able to purchase cheaply or at all from a larger economy, you’ll know what you’ll need to provide for yourselves. LaConte offers a mental exercise in deglobalization, “The ABCs of Peak Oil,” at www.ellenlaconte.com/practicing-subtraction.
Create a Game Plan: Practicing subtraction can, quite honestly, be pretty depressing. Good thing there’s a cure for those low spirits: practicing replacement. The fact is, all but the most hard-scrabble locations possess a literal wealth of natural and human assets. You can get worship centers, schools, and more involved in discovering them—make the task into a competition or game!
On the lists of what you’d lose in a post-global, local economy, mark the things that are a) vital to physical survival, and b) vital to social, emotional, and psychological well-being (in other words, happiness). Then brainstorm which ones can be replaced regionally and sustainably. You can use SimCity game platforms or computer models of human and natural communities to test-drive your ideas and to turn global dependents into proudly “local yokels.”
Set Up a Shadow Government (Don’t worry; it’s perfectly legal!): If established governments don’t seem eager to work toward local self-sufficiency and sustainability, you can work around them and under their radar, unofficially. (In Recreating Democracy, LaConte’s mentor, community democracy guru Lloyd Wells, and his colleague Larry Lemmel lay out the steps and even offer sample legal boilerplates for establishing community associations that organize and empower relocalizers.)
“If you have a group of committed ‘local yokels,’ you can create systems that pick up the post-global economic, social, and environmental balls that existing governments are dropping,” notes LaConte. “No laws prevent communities from creating local currencies, locally owned banks, businesses, and factories, or from incentivizing local energy and production systems and job creation. Start by crafting locally generated ten-, twenty-, or even hundred-year plans for sustainability.”
Create a Local Currency: “Funny money” is LaConte’s term for immaterial currency and transactions such as credit cards, derivatives, investment vehicles, and so forth that are backed by the idea and expectation of value instead of by material goods. Since this faith-based “faux money” is inherently unstable, and since millions of un- and under-employed Americans lack legal access to enough of it anyway, communities can do what they did during the Great Depression: create their own money systems and currencies.
“A Google search will turn up how-tos for creating local money,” notes LaConte. “The why-to is simple: It gets a local economy moving.”
Rezone for Home-Grown: Locally grown food tops the list of “must-dos” in a post-global age. With the exception of regions with harsh climates and geography, the only thing standing between the locally minded and locally grown food is outdated suburban and urban zoning regulations. Learn what your own zoning laws do and don’t allow, and if necessary, press your government to change zoning laws and to allow residential, neighborhood, public, and non-profit food production, small-scale animal husbandry, and composting. And after your proposals are (hopefully) enacted, suggest ways to get even more widespread support for relocalization of food production.
Here are five suggestions to get you started:
- “Make food safety regulations appropriate to the scale of production and distribution; require local institutions, businesses, and agencies to purchase a certain percentage of the food they serve within 100 miles of their location; retrofit waste management systems to use local food scraps to produce compost, biogas, and animal feed,” write Richard Heinberg and Michael Bomford in The Food & Farming Transition.
- Establish local and regional systems of inspection and accreditation for residential, neighborhood, community, and regional food producers and composting systems to be carried out by trained volunteers, including students.
- Encourage seasonal celebrations of local sustainable agro-culture: For example, hold a competition for Best Food Yard, Best Bee, Bird & Butterfly Yard, or Best Farm Practices.
- Coordinate yard- and equipment-sharing systems that connect potential gardeners with others who are willing to share yard space, garden tools, and farming equipment.
- Craft provisions allowing easements and rights-of-way in residential property deeds so that cooperatively managed food production systems can cross boundaries.
Save and Collect Water: For obvious reasons, economies of any size need water for things ranging from local manufacturing and food production to the maintenance of sanitary conditions. And since no region can guarantee consistent, year-round precipitation, optimization of what water is available will be key to the success of sustainable local economies. Individuals, businesses, and institutions can install water-saving devices and greywater recycling systems (greywater is water that has been used for purposes other than flushing toilets) in order to get the most bang for their public water utility buck and most use out of regional fresh water supplies.
Households and businesses can also install downspout collection systems and on-site cisterns with pumps to store water against dry spells, as well as composting toilets. These commodes get around the problem of wasted “brown water” (water that can’t be recycled and reused at the household, business, or institutional level).
Relocate and Relocalize (It’s something to think about, anyway.): It’s something we all hope won’t happen, but it’s possible that the failing global economy will leave many Americans stranded someplace that’s ill-suited to providing even the basics—food, water, shelter, survivable weather, and clothing—let alone any of the niceties.
“The fact is, fossil fuels allow us to live in places humans never could before, or at least not very many humans, but those fossil fuels won’t be readily available forever,” LaConte points out. “In anticipation of downsizing to a more local economy through sheer necessity, some are choosing to relocate where weather, soils, water, jobs, and other resources are supportive.”
Before you make any hard-and-fast decisions yourself, consider the following:
- Go where family, friends, or colleagues who share your concern for economic relocalization and sustainability form the core of a functional community. Economic localization is a team sport.
- Go rural if rugged self-reliance and the agrarian version of the American dream suit you. In fact, many states and towns in the middle of the country have lost populations due to increased urbanization and low employment. When we are producing jobs and provisions for ourselves, employment in a global economy will no longer be an issue, and many rural areas can be restored to their historic self-reliant status.
- Go urban if you’re a people person and want to work with a variety of relocalization groups. If possible, choose a city where existing laws and leadership favor sustainability, green, local, and post-carbon initiatives. See, for example,Resilient Cities: Responding to Peak Oil and Climate Change.
“As we move toward more regional and local economies, we will learn that we really don’t need a lot of what we think we do to be happy,” concludes LaConte. “Enough is enough, and more may be fatal to us and other living things. Our most important needs are for things of the spirit, mind, and heart that we never could purchase, anyway. And those things are eminently localizable. They are the highest reward we receive when we meet our material needs up close and personal—sustainably and together.”