The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift
Edited by Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen
346 pp. The MIT Press – Feb. 2012. $27.00.
For decades now, automobile driving has been one of our chief metaphors for progress, as if mastering great distances somehow made for greatness of character. But the evidence is mounting that, far from moving us along a path of progress, cars are most assuredly sealing our doom. It is their alarming accession over the past century that is primarily responsible for the peril in which we find our planet, and if their reign were to continue much longer, it could spell the end of life as know it. However, it can’t continue much longer, since the fuels on which it depends are rapidly depleting. In short, our society faces an imminent, unprecedented “downshift.”
That’s the term that Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen use to describe our inevitable transition from the present global industrial complex to a steady-state, localized way of life. De Young and Princen are professors at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources, and they’ve edited a newly released book titled The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. It includes writings on energy, ecological sustainability, healthier living, alternative economics and other relevant subjects from leading thinkers like Wendell Berry, Joseph Tainter, Warren A. Johnson and the late M. King Hubbert. For general audiences and experts alike, this is an engaging, accessible reader that takes an affirmative social change approach to localization.
“Our audience includes people who see a looming cliff but also see a rare opportunity for meaningful change,” write the editors in their introduction. Indeed, one of their core tenets is that while a transition to localized communities is unavoidable, much of the disorder and hardship that would result from a poorly planned transition can be avoided. However, De Young and Princen emphasize that in order for that to happen, we must begin the shift now while surpluses of energy and other resources still exist. We also must recognize that it’s a waste of time to appeal to national governments and other large bodies, since they’re the antitheses of the local solutions we need. Rather, our efforts should be focused at the community level.
Localized communities come in a diversity of forms and functions, a few of the better known ones being ecovillages, Transition Towns and Post Carbon Cities. These and countless other initiatives are actively being pursued by innovators around the world—albeit mostly under the radar—as mitigation measures against climate change, oil depletion and other ecological threats. They’re all grounded in a recognition that communities must begin to relocalize their food production, transportation, energy and other vital systems as quickly as possible. No single one of these movements holds the key to a successful transition to sustainability. Rather, as with the so-called replacements for oil, each is simply a piece of the bigger puzzle. And we need as many pieces as we can find.
There is a widespread misconception that localization is merely globalization in reverse, says De Young, who sees this as far too limited an ideal. True localization, he explains, is a systematic, intentional process of adaptation to our changing biophysical reality. It doesn’t completely eschew the non-local. A localized community need not be totally self-sufficient, producing all that it needs and doing no trade whatsoever with other communities. It just needs to be self-reliant, or to exercise as much control over its own economy as is practicable. De Young sees the ultimate goals of localization as “increasing the long-term psychological well-being of people and societies while sustaining, even improving, the integrity and coherence of natural systems, especially those that directly provision our communities.”
Another myth that The Localization Reader refutes is the equation of “technology” with gadgets and global communications. Technology encompasses so much more than that. The late E.F. Schumacher, in his seminal 1973 book Small is Beautiful, broadened its definition to include what he called “intermediate technology.” This is technology that is scaled to the community level, is heedful of each community’s resource limitations and is compatible with the human need for meaningful work. Now also referred to as “appropriate technology,” this concept has gained a big following; and The Localization Reader includes a short entry by Schumacher in which he further elaborates on it. Unlike the dominant forms of technology today, Schumacher’s technologies take after natural systems in being “self-balancing, self-adjusting, [and] self-cleansing.” Schumacher points to chemical-free agriculture as a prime example, noting that it obtains excellent yields without damaging soil fertility and health.
Environmentally conscious people find themselves in a tough dilemma, striving toward a life of lower material consumption in a society that not only encourages, but compels, ever-greater consumption. De Young speaks to the resulting cognitive dissonance in a chapter titled “Motives for Living Lightly.” He also explores the types of appeals that tend to be most successful at motivating people to make ecologically friendly choices and reject the societal pressure to do the opposite. Drawing on a survey study that he conducted, he concludes, surprisingly, that people are not as averse to conservation and sacrifice as has been commonly assumed. Thus, it may be that the emphasis long placed on the themes of duty and necessity by environmentalists has been somewhat misplaced. The intrinsic benefits of a reduced-consumption lifestyle may not be as lost on the general population as people tend to think.
Many of the authors in this volume have firsthand experience with localized community building, and the book profits greatly from their expertise. Rob Hopkins, a UK permaculture instructor and founder of the Transition movement, is one of these experts. He describes how we can prepare for an arc of possible scenarios through a process of deliberate relocalization that he calls “planfull shrinkage.” Another fascinating perspective comes by way of landscape architect and scholar Robert Thayer. Thayer’s research has turned up the unexpected finding that, even in this halcyon age of cities, a trend has begun that focuses on bioregions inhabited by small bands of people.
The classic 1972 report The Limits to Growth receives a well-deserved revisiting in this book. Its authors, MIT scientists Donella H. Meadows, Dennis L. Meadows and Jorgen Randers, build on their original work with an examination of five tools to help us through the transition. Described as “essential characteristics for any society that hopes to survive over the long term,” these tools are visioning, networking, truth-telling, learning and loving. The authors’ thoughts on truth-telling seem especially salient in this era of rampant denialism about environmental crises. “The more you can counter misinformation,” they write, “the more manageable our society will become.”
Environmental psychologists Rachel and Stephen Kaplan contribute another compelling chapter. The Kaplans are renowned for coming up with the Attention Restoration Theory (ART), which says that time spent in nature or looking at scenes of nature improves one’s ability to mentally concentrate. Here they propose that the apathy among the general public over humankind’s crisis is due to a “lack of adequate mental models.” The conflicting, highly technical reports on environmental issues aired by the news media seem like mere abstractions to many people, with no connection to everyday life. The Kaplans urge involvement in meaningful environmental activism that puts one close to nature, as well as further research into whether such involvement improves one’s general outlook.
The one part of the book that doesn’t quite jell for me is its parting chapter, written by De Young and Princen. In spite of having spent a significant portion of the book describing all the forces at work in this predicament that are beyond human control, here they insist that “we can choose our path, we can decide to make it peaceful, democratic, just, and resilient, or not.” I beg to differ in favor of Richard Heinberg’s assessment in The Party’s Over. Heinberg argues that it’s probably too late to avoid a painful discontinuity, but that it will never be too late for efforts that “make the future better than it would otherwise be.”*
* Richard Heinberg, The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies (Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers, 2005).