Helena Norberg-Hodge (International Society for Ecology and Culture)

Globalising Localisation


Today, the planet is on fire with terrorism and global warming, toxic pollution and radioactivity, fundamentalism and fear. Perhaps most disturbing of all is the breakdown of any semblance of democracy or governance. If we try to deal with these crises individually, we won’t get very far. However, if we stand back and look at the bigger picture we will see that all these crises are connected to the globalised economy. Although it may initially be difficult to perceive, the economic system underpins almost every aspect of our lives today—from our jobs to the food we eat, the state of the environment to the state of education, politics to health and on and on. 


We have spent enough time trying to treat the symptoms of this damaging system. Today, we need activism that addresses the root cause. This involves a period of rethinking and reflection so we, as activists, can answer the question: How can we change an economic system that is so large, so powerful?


The first step is to educate ourselves and others more fully to see that the globalising economy is truly the cause of most of our crises. In the study group program created by my organization, the International Society for Ecology and Culture, we call this “education for action.” Informing oneself is as essential to effective activism as getting out there and doing something. Joining with other people makes it a participatory and more enjoyable process. 


Although it is generally believed that the infamous era of conquest and colonialism is behind us, today’s ‘development’, ‘structural adjustment’ and ‘free trade’ are simply new forms of the same exploitative process. In its present phase — economic globalisation — policymakers are pushing the western industrial system into the farthest corners of the planet, attempting to absorb every local, regional and national economy into a single centrally managed world economy based on ever-increasing trade.


Our system of education, scientific research and the development of new technologies have all been shaped by this energy and capital-intensive global economic model. Economic globalisation, with its massive, centralised system of production and distribution, is transforming unique individuals into mass consumers, and homogenising diverse cultural traditions around the world. It is destroying wilderness and biodiversity, and creating an expanding stream of waste that the biosphere simply cannot absorb. It is widening the gap between rich and poor worldwide, and leading to increased levels of crime and violence. In the name of ‘growth’ and ‘efficiency’, it is dividing us from each other and from the natural world on which we ultimately depend. 

Despite the apparent enormity of the task of making changes to our economic system, isolating this root cause can actually be very empowering. Rather than confront an overwhelming list of seemingly isolated symptoms, we can begin to discern the disease itself. Just as important, the outline of a cure also starts to take shape. 


The second step in changing our economic system is to actively inform others about the effects and workings of the global economy. This involves outlining the measures needed to decentralise or localise economic activity. Simultaneously, we can take steps to localize — revitalising local knowledge, culture and economy.

Theaters, comic books, songs, books, radio, films and conferences are just a few of the avenues available for informing others. Localisation initiatives also take many forms. There are those most obviously connected to economic activity: local food systems that link farmers and consumers, local exchange and bartering, setting up local funds or credit unions, consumer/business alliances to keep local businesses alive, supporting local crafts and skills. There are others that help to reweave the fabric of community and culture: learning about the living environment around us, rediscovering the joys of gardening and cooking, rebuilding the relationships between old and young, turning off the television and getting involved in local culture, including participatory songs and dance.


Many of these projects are considered “new” and “progressive” in the West. However, in actual fact, they are a rediscovery of ancient wisdom and practice that still exist in many nature-based communities. We don’t have to “go back in time” and give up all comforts of modern life as some may fear, but we can look to these cultures for inspiration of how to live in relative harmony with others and the natural world.


The third step in changing the global economy means implementing structural and policy change at an international level. Already, many individuals and organisations are working from the grassroots to strengthen their communities and local economies, creating many of the positive ‘micro-trends’ mentioned earlier. Already now in the US there are something on the order of 4000 farmers markets and several thousand other local food initiatives. In Berkeley, California alone the local government is now financially supporting school gardens. There are also around 100 peak oil / relocalization groups that are working more broadly to reduce the dependence on oil and rebuild local economy. Another interesting development is the BALLE alliance with 42 business networks comprising 12.000 business members (http://www.livingeconomies.org). 


Yet for these efforts to succeed and grow in the long term, they need to be accompanied by policy changes at the national and international level. How, for example, can participatory democracy be strengthened if corporations are allowed to direct government policy and manipulate public opinion? How can small farmers and locally owned shops flourish if governments continue to champion ‘free trade’ and subsidise global TNCs? How can cultural diversity be nurtured if monocultural media images continue to bombard children in every corner of the planet? How can small-scale renewable energy projects compete against massive subsidies for huge dams and nuclear power plants? 


Clearly, local initiatives must go hand in hand with policy changes if the globalisation process is to be reversed. Rather than just thinking in terms of isolated, scattered grassroots efforts, it is necessary to encourage government policies that would promote small scale on a large scale, allowing space for more community-based economies to flourish and spread.


When there is a large enough critical mass of people who have woken up to the need for a fundamental shift away from globalisation to localization, our representatives will begin to negotiate international treaties to protect both the local and the global commons. Today this can sound implausible, but already now there are political initiatives at the local and regional level in this direction. Some of the early beginnings of this shift can be seen most clearly once again in the US where local political leaders are rejecting policies at the national level. Nine north-eastern states and 194 mayors from US towns and cities have pledged to adopt Kyoto-style legal limits on greenhouse gas emissions. And in Latin America, five countries announced at the World Water Forum, held from 16-22 March in Mexico City, that they were forming a “common front” against the inclusion of water-related commitments in the WTO.


For over two decades I have been advocating localisation as a positive and realistic alternative to economic globalisation. Along with many others, I believe it is the only way to ensure a sustainable future, where we are not threatened at every moment with massive ecological collapse, economic instability, war and terrorism and even the possibility of human extinction. I have experienced first-hand, in Ladakh, Bhutan and also in rural Spain, the strength, richness and sustainability of localised economies. Localised economic activity provides the solid foundation for an interdependent cooperative community, where every individual’s basic needs are fulfilled, each has meaningful work and, equally importantly, a sense of belonging. Because governance is brought back to the local level, people are empowered, rather than disgruntled with inefficient and destructive policy decisions made in some far off bureaucracy. People are in charge of their economic future, enabling them to provide amply and sustainability for themselves. Multi-national corporations, driven by short-term profit until they move off to exploit another community, can offer no such assurance for long-term stability. 


Economic globalisation leads us along with false promises and myths. There is nothing ‘inevitable’ or ‘evolutionary’ about it. Rather than easing violence, it exacerbates social tension and, in some cases, actually creates it. The trade system is kept afloat through subsidies paid for by our taxes. We then have to pay again for the environmental fall-out and health impacts of global trade. This is not efficiency. While some disruption would inevitably accompany a shift toward the local, it would be far less than is already resulting from the current rush towards globalisation wherein vast stretches of the planet and entire economies are being remade to conform to the needs of global growth, just as people around the world are being encouraged to abandon their languages, their foods, and their architectural styles for a standardised monoculture.


Unlike economic globalisation which requires most of us to play the part of unthinking workers and passive, greedy consumers, localisation entails the active participation of every individual in rebuilding our communities and human-scale economies. Shopping for food, for instance, becomes a form of positive activism, rather than an activity which contributes to global warming, poverty in the developing world and rural depopulation.


Activism can no longer be about addressing isolated problems. Localisation is the solution that links so many issues together; through rebuilding local economies we can work together and solve numerous problems simultaneously. Ultimately, this involves an awakening that comes from making a connection with others, and with nature. It requires us to see the world within us — to experience more consciously the great interdependent web of life, of which we ourselves are part.