The Case for Localization

The logical alternative to globalization


Across the world, deregulation is leading to a breakdown of local enterprise and ever-greater dependence on long-distance trade and transport. This in turn means ever-increasing consumption of fossil fuels. So globalization is directly and inextricably linked to climate change.

If we want to avoid the havoc and hardship that further climate change will inevitably bring, we must begin to make a U-turn: away from globalization and toward the strengthening of local and national economies. Since globalization goes hand-in-hand with urbanization, this means actively working to protect and strengthen rural life.

Localization is about shortening the distance between producers and consumers. It is not about eliminating all trade, but rather about reducing to an absolute minimum the exorbitant waste now caused by having everything from butter to raw logs crisscrossing the globe.

Localization needs to happen simultaneously in both the North and the South. As things stand today, roughly 50 percent of the world’s population is still rurally based - the majority of them are in the South. It is vital that everything is done to prevent this proportion from declining.

A common assumption, even among environmentalists, is that the nations of the South need a little more time to catch up with the North (in other words, more access to global markets) before they can be expected to reduce their fossil fuel consumption and begin to localize. But such thinking flies in the face of reality. Contrary to the propaganda, the global economy cannot possibly enable villagers in rural China or Bangladesh to live the life of middle-class Westerners. For the vast majority, it cannot even provide the most basic needs of housing, education, clothing, health care, nutrition and employment. As recent experience has shown, what globalization does do is increase the gap between rich and poor, pulling vast numbers of people away from the land into squalid urban slums.

If, like the North, the South had colonies to exploit, the situation might be different. But they don’t - and simple arithmetic tells us that it’s impossible for everyone to emulate a model that allows people to use vastly more than their fair share of the Earth’s resources.

In the rural villages of the South, life can be undeniably hard. But villagers can at least grow a few vegetables, maybe keep some chickens or even a cow, and they can rely on friends and family for help with agricultural work. In the slums of the big cities, by contrast, they suddenly become dependent on hard cash for all their basic needs. What’s more, every single thing they consume has to be brought in from outside, increasing CO2 emissions and placing a further burden on the environment. The major beneficiaries are the large transnational employers for whom the migrants represent a source of cheap and compliant labor.

Preventing further urbanization in the South requires programs that actively support the rural economy. In this regard, renewable energy technologies can play a vital role. Many parts of the South are blessed with abundant sunshine, which could be tapped for a range of both domestic and commercial uses. Other areas have wind, water or geothermal potential. Renewable energy technologies hold out the possibility of truly sustainable development. They are non-polluting and can be adapted to different cultural and ecological environments. They would cost a fraction of the sums of money currently being poured into huge dams, greenhouse gas-emitting, coal-fired plants and nuclear power.

Such changes cannot come about without a major shift of emphasis in the economies of the North. For decades, northern-based corporations have used the South as both larder and dumping ground - stripping whole countries of their natural resources. This process is now accelerating as corporations comb the globe for ever-cheaper resources and labor.

Clearly, the North needs to localize and that means producing vastly more of the goods it consumes closer to home so that no more of the best farm land in Kenya is turned over to growing cut flowers for the Netherlands, no more Brazilian rainforest is cut down to produce grain to feed the animals that will furnish Americans with hamburgers.

The consequences of allowing globalization to continue uncontrolled are hard to predict but would certainly include massive and irreversible damage to the Earth’s climate. We have no choice but to promote a decentralized development model that would both strengthen local economies and reduce pollution. Neither the North nor the South can afford to wait. We all need to localize now.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is a director of the International Society of Ecology and Culture. Reprinted from The Ecologist [].

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.