Using less, cutting back, saving resources, conserving energy, reducing impact—such actions, though vital responses to our planetary peril, conjure up images of a strictly proscribed and rather austere future.
When our only goal is minimizing consumption, it’s easy to imagine the imposition of draconian government measures—ones where every energy-consuming action is monitored, controlled and limited. For some, this approach is tolerable as long as it forestalls dangerous climate changes. For others, a centralized, authoritarian “dictatorship of sustainability” is a worse fate yet.
If a singular focus on cutting carbon dioxide is mistaken, what then, is the environmental movement to do? Thankfully we can save the planet while strengthening autonomy of our communities by re-localizing vital goods and services.
By meeting our most essential needs closer to home our communities will be more resilient in the face of global economic and ecological shocks. Being more self-sufficient means we will be less dependent upon centralized, energy-intensive industrial infrastructure and energy-devouring long-distance transport.
In this way, individuals and communities will also be more sustainable and more in control of their destiny, and less at the mercy of manipulated global commodity prices, corrupt CEOs, inept politicians and marauding Wall Street bankers.
But how exactly do we re-localize our economies after several decades of fast-growing economic globalization fueled by cheap energy, easy credit and mushrooming debt? According to economist and author Michael Shuman, it is by creating more locally owned, import-substituting businesses in our towns.
At a workshop in my community of Yellow Springs, Ohio last year, we designed a host of new business opportunities, including a local delivery company, small business loan fund, venture capital fund, energy services company, local farm and garden cooperative, business incubator and wellness center. These local businesses would help to keep money circulating within the community, instead of flowing from it.
While all import-substituting businesses reduce the transportation energy used to deliver goods and services, some more specifically cut energy consumption, like a renewable energy cooperative. In the Austrian town of Gussing, a council decision ordering all public buildings to stop using fossil fuels led to the development of 50 new renewable energy businesses, now employing more than 1,000 people while dramatically cutting its carbon dioxide generation by 90 percent.
In the midst of a global financial crisis, calls to re-localize finance are gaining ground. One recent example is the “Move Your Money” campaign, which is aimed at encouraging those banking at those too-big-to-fail Wall Street banks to move their accounts to community banks and credit unions.
According to its website (www.moveyourmoney.info), “Community banks are typically more conservative about how they manage their money, they’re more closely connected to the people and businesses who live near them, and they’re more inclined to make loans they know will get paid back.”
So instead of investing in the global economic growth system which is undermining its own ability to continue by devastating the natural environment on which we depend, we could be investing locally in the people, businesses and technologies that directly sustain us and will sustain generations to come through import-substituting businesses.
Re-localization has another benefit as well. Instead of a restricted and hapless low-consumption future, we can have a happier healthier existence as we fill our lives with valued relationships instead of valued possessions.
In fact, the last few decades focus on wealth accumulation has come at the expense of close, fulfilling relationships. Today we have less intimacy with our friends in addition to having fewer friends. A study done in the U.S. and published in the American Sociological Review showed that from 1980 to 2004 the number of “close confidants” people had had dropped from three to two and the number of people without any close confidants has more than doubled.
Re-localization is about finding a more sustainable way to provide for our needs as a global industrial system based upon diminishing finite fossil fuels crumbles in the 21st Century. It’s about building community so that “when things get hard,” as deep ecologist Joanna Macy has said, “we won’t, in fear, turn on each other.”
Apocalyptic scenarios of either a devastated planet or an authoritarian world government both disintegrate in the face of neighbors growing food for one another.