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A question of scale

Are the organizations which fight for a more sustainable society properly scaled? This is a vexing question for those who are involved with nonprofits working on sustainability issues. In general sustainability experts agree that the more local the approach, the more sustainable the outcome.

The global scale of industrial operations and logistics is heavily dependent of finite fossil fuels. And, the current system has become an engine for successively destroying the sustainability of each locale as that system draws needed resources--water, food, fuel, minerals--from places that still have them to places that have depleted them or have more need of them than they can supply locally or even nationally.

So it follows that the way back to sustainability is to break the stranglehold of the globalized economy on our local economies. Herein lies the problem of scale for organizations seeking to act as midwives in this process. In the United States and probably many other countries serious regulatory and legal obstacles can get in the way of any relocalization project. State and federal rules may frustrate and even prevent wise sustainability practices and rules.

In my state the genetically engineered seed companies quietly pushed through a law prohibiting local ordinances concerning genetically modified crops. The organic food and farming group on whose board I sit was practically powerless to oppose it though many valiant efforts were made to talk with legislators and the governor's office. The legislature also passed a law that exempted concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) from local regulation, essentially leaving them unregulated until the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in to challenge the water runoff management from such sites as contrary to EPA regulations.

To attempt to block, influence or even comment on such regulation and legislation implies a level of organization that is capable of engaging state and federal legislatures and regulatory agencies. But those groups most devoted to relocalization are by their very structure not prepared to do this. In fact, organizing to pressure legislators and government agencies at the state and federal level may be contrary to the very essence of organizing for local sustainability.

There are reasons to fear that such high-level lobbying efforts would sidetrack local sustainability work by focusing effort on a system that often requires professional lobbying expertise and great sums of money for success. It is also a system premised on continued economic expansion and resource drawdown. How could cavorting with people caught in such a system be a good use of time for someone committed to transformation at the local level?

There is no quick answer to this question. In part the answer depends on whether one believes that the rapid decline of central government authority is imminent due to world peak oil production or perhaps even a catastrophic financial breakdown in the world economy. Author and peak oil Jeremiah, James Howard Kunstler, is fond of telling his audiences that he doesn't fear "Big Brother" because "the Federal government will be lucky if they can answer the phones five years from now, let alone regulate anybody's life."

Under Kunstler's scenario it would pointless to worry about any federal or state regulation because the likelihood of it being enforced would over time become vanishingly small. The imperative would be for local preparedness; the correct attitude would be more or less, "Let them try to stop us. We don't think they [the federal and state governments] will be able to do anything."

But if you believe a major crisis is 10 or 15 years away or that the decline, whenever it comes, will be gradual, then it might be worthwhile to organize and engage higher levels of government in the meantime on carefully selected issues that impinge most on local sustainability.

This strategy presents a difficult balancing act. For many it will not seem worthwhile. But the relocalization efforts of sustainability-oriented groups could easily be put in great peril by corporate interests seeking to squeeze out the last possible profits before the inevitable decline. The misanthropy of such corporate blackguards could do much to stall the urgently needed transition to a sustainable society.

For that reason, none of us who care about a sustainable future can afford to ignore them and their power in the higher circles of government.

Editorial Notes: A great quote on the subject from pioneer ecologist Eugene P. Odum (brother of energy ecology thinker, H.T. Odum):
Q: You've talked about the need for affluent people to consume less, but you've resisted the allure of ideas like "small is beautiful." E.P. Odum: Well, "small is beautiful," but big is powerful. As long as big is powerful, "small is beautiful" won't work. As my father [sociologist Howard Odum] said, "Scientists think they can solve problems by being scientific and rational, but not if people don't want to go along with it."
Beginning of interview. -BA

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