A review of the Localization Reader

June 6, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image RemovedThe Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift[i], by Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen, aims at the work and struggle ahead for those who realize that the modern world is arrantly unsustainable. The book is scholarly yet accessible, practical and action oriented. It faces the nitty-gritty issues raised by natural resource depletion, and, overall, the sundry predicaments posed by ecological overshoot that the current social system cannot recognize, let alone address.

Also, it can be a much-needed complement to those fighting massive and growing economic inequality, lawlessness, militarism, corruption and injustice. Many struggling for social justice do not understand that these dilemmas are worsening because they represent recalcitrant, uninformed and wicked human reactions –within the current paradigm of growth and socioeconomic hierarchy at all costs- to ecological overshoot.

The author’s principal argument is consistent with analysis found in the Panarchy model of social and ecological phase changes outlined by Gunderson and Holling[ii] and William Catton’s classic Overshoot[iii] ; and it also parallels E.O. Wilson’s metaphor of The Bottleneck of environmental predicaments through which humanity will (now is) pass in the 21st century. De Young and Princen offer three premises –which are alien to the conventional wisdom of “money makes the world go round”- about how localization is unfolding:

1. In terms of ethics and morality, “It doesn’t plead,” attempt to shame, or coerce people. Instead, the authors surmise “that high consuming societies will be adapting whether they are environmentally enlightened or not. What is more, behavior change may precede any change in attitudes, values, or worldviews.”
2. In terms of politics and public policy, “It holds little faith in centralized approaches.” Such top-down “models do not draw on the extensive research that shows how to engage people in reasonable behavior.”
3. In terms of social organization and liberation, “It is affirming. Localization affirms self-organization, self-reliance, self-limitation, and self-rule.”

Given how much these premises diverge from the dominant paradigm of perpetual economic growth, it’s logical to ask to whom are the authors speaking. It certainly is not either presidential candidate, their parties or large corporations, most NGOs and foundations, governments, and, at present, most citizens in industrial nations (again, they posit that behavioral changes often are made of out necessity and precede value and attitudinal changes). De Young and Princen write:

“…our task in this book is to find new language that shines light on the localizing world. We recognize that the most powerful searchlight won’t alter the view of those active in globalization. Indeed, they are not our audience. Our audience includes people who see a looming cliff but also see a rare opportunity for meaningful change. Our audience sees no future in endless material growth on a finite planet. In fact, they see utter illogic in it. Our audience also includes people who value direct relations with others and nature, who find restraint and moderation satisfying, even uplifting. Our audience includes people who are doing localization already, or are contemplating doing it.”

The book is divided into five chapters:
I. “Drivers of localization.” This chapter focuses on energy decline and the dilemma of increasing complexity; and it includes classic selections from M. King Hubbert, Joseph Tainter, and Ivan Illich, as well as a contemporary analysis on the significance of net energy by Adam Dadeby.
II. “Localization in Practice” reviews various scenarios and models of human social organization under conditions of biophysical constraint.
III. The chapter on “Philosophies of Localization” presents reflections critical to localization by Wendell Barry, Kirkpatrick Sale, E.F. Schumacher, and even Josiah Royce.
IV. The fourth chapter, “Bringing Out the Best in People,” is a pivotal because it is easily misconstrued as how to cloak decline with Panglossian rhetoric. Instead the authors advise: ”Do not downplay the physical and social challenges of sustainable living,” or undervalue its potential rewards.
V. The final chapter covers, “Appropriate Governance.” Older readers should find it a sobering contrast to the sit back and let it happen “Consciousness III” model of change in the 1970 book, The Greening of America[iv]. They write,
“One might … [think] that because localization is inevitable in some form, appropriate forms of governance will spontaneously emerge. We don’t think so… If the task is left to the centralizers, those devoted to continuing business as usual for as long as possible, effective localized governance and positive localization are unlikely to develop.”

This past semester I used this book in my social problems class with excellent response from the students. I was able to contrast the ecological point of view in this reader with the standard one of social inequalities in the social problems textbook I used in the class, which implicitly assumes a growing economy can solve social problems. This social problems text was revised in 2010 but is in my view already out of date because it cannot explain in any convincing way how the world is operating and rapidly changing, whereas De Young and Princen’s reader can answer both of these questions. (Plus at $27.00 The Localization Reader is a bargain; most college textbooks are in the [extortive captive market] $140.00 range.)

One example is the students’ reaction to the first essay in the reader, M. King Hubbert’s “Exponential Growth as a Transient Phenomenon in Human History.” I saw on some of their faces as I discussed one graph in Hubbert’s essay with the classes that they were thinking, “Man, I never thought about the world this way…” The graph illustrates the divergent paths over time of three variables: Unlimited Exponential Growth, Renewable Resources, and Exhaustible Resources. This essay from Hubbert was accompanied with a showing of Charles Ferguson’s documentary about the 2008 Wall Street financial crash, “Inside Job,” so the students were able to understand and discuss the socioeconomic and ecological lunacy –unsustainability- of how the world of finance operates.

The Localization Reader enabled the students to grasp why pursuing growth both no longer works and has become harmful. Most importantly, however, this volume moves on from documenting the forces at work, such as peak oil, climate change, soil erosion, water scarcity, and so on, to the task of how to create a sustainable world.

i De Young, Raymond, and Thomas Princen. The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. Cambridge, Ma: MIT Press. 2012.
ii Gunderson, Lance H. and C.S. Holling, Panarchy: Understanding Transformations In Human And Natural Systems. Washington, D.C.: Island Press. 2002.
iii Catton, William R. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1982.
iv Reich, Charles A. The Greening of America. New York: Crown Trade Paperbacks. 1995 (originally published 1970).

Dan Bednarz

Since 2004 Dan Bednarz has been ruminating, lecturing, discussing and writing about what a viable health system can look like given the limits to growth, ecological overshoot and the obstacle of a political/economic system with vast socioeconomic inequities that appears wholly incapable of reform. He’s writing a book on this topic.  

Tags: Media & Communications, Overshoot