This article was written in November 2019, and published in the Netherlands and in Belgium on various websites. The content has become even more important after our experiences with the global trade effects from COVID-19.
On the way to a meeting in Eindhoven (the Netherlands) I got off the bus in an industrial area. It was around 3 pm. Everywhere big trucks around me, moving and parked. A lot of noise and bad air. And walking to my destination I saw even more trucks with trailers, apparently driving to and from the airport …
Once again I realized how insane our current economy is now, with the massive national and global shipping of all kinds of goods. We sell flowers from Kenya to Japan through the auction in Aalsmeer (the Netherlands), without fly shame. It continues day and night, including large cargo planes and millions of containers on ships and trains. And we see the all the high stacked container mountains here and there, to be stuffed again and again. A logistical silly mill, partly because the fuel of ships and aircraft is still not subject to tax, and all kinds of environmental and health damage are not included in the prices.
From your own region
For many years already in response to this out-of-control globalization, regionalization has been advocated. In 1978 the 8 points for ecological food from eco center De Kleine Aarde (The Small Earth) already stated: More from their own region. At the time, Ernst Schumacher also advocated this development with his book “Keep it small”. A famous or notorious doctoral research in this regard is by Stefanie Boge of the Wuppertal Institute in Germany. Around 2005, she looked at all the distances covered for a simple dessert: a jar of strawberry yogurt with a label and lid. It came to over 8,000 km. In retrospect, however, she appeared to have forgotten 24,000 km, namely for soy for the cows and bauxite for the aluminum lid, both imported from Brazil. So the total came to over 32,000 km! And with a few bites the jar is empty again …
Now, despite repeated global warnings since 1962 and even earlier, we have been dealing with so many serious issues such as the alarming decline in biodiversity, the deadly climate change, the health-threatening (ultra) particulate matter, the nitrogen crisis and the plastic pollution far into the oceans and even in our bodies. Because of these issues, radical regionalization may be an attractive alternative. It is a good example of an integrated approach, because you can largely solve various problems at the same time! Food in particular can largely come from our own region. There are already many projects with short distances between producer and consumer in the Netherlands. The approximately 400 neighborhood orchards, the ‘Herenboeren project’ in Boxtel, and of course all the gardening allotments are good examples of this. In 1984 De Kleine Aarde started with the local Organic Farmers Markets, partly in order to eliminate foodmiles.
With new techniques, much more has now become possible regionally. A well-known example is of course energy. In addition to significant energy savings, we can also provide regional energy to homes and businesses with regional wind energy, solar boilers, solar panels and heat pumps.
Clothing and local mining
Clothing is also important for regionalization, because with the combination of “old” and new basic raw materials such as flax (linen), wool, mohair, wood, nettles, hemp and other fibers and new techniques, regional production has become possible again. It is even more important to continue to use all clothing that is already present in the region as much as possible. Second hand shops already play a crucial role in this, and for much more than clothing. It is a form of local mining: making the most of all the stuff and raw materials that are already in use locally, from construction materials and metals to paper and textiles. Repair will become much more important, partly because repair will become much better possible thanks to Eco-design. After repair and reuse, recycling can also take place regionally. And consider as well the unprecedented possibilities of 3D printing all kinds of (consumer) objects (provided they can be recycled again!), even bridges. Last year, a beautiful printed bridge could be admired and walked during the Dutch Design Week.
So there are many arguments for a much more regionally oriented economy. Here the most important in 12 points.
- Energy and climate. Reduction of the large amount of transport, and therefore less transport, infrastructure, accidents, noise, nitrogen and CO2 emissions, and therefore less dangerous climate disruption.
- Packaging. This can be much less for short distances. More fresh products on the market. This also means an extra reduction of energy and raw materials. Plastic can be largely banned.
- Supply and food security. If fossil energy, food, clothing and the like come from distant regions, such as the contraceptive pill that now comes from China, there is a chance of calamities that can stagnate or stop the supply. Regionalization gives us more control over planning and production, which increases our resilience in the uncertain times ahead. Moreover, now exporting countries will more often need their agricultural land and products themselves.
- Social contact. It offers much more feedback options between producers and consumers. And of course much more social contacts.
- Circular economy. A short cycle is an absolute precondition for a sustainable circular economy. Otherwise, we will also have to go global with the waste flows. That is not so efficient. Circular agriculture is certainly not possible without the cycle of minerals/nutrients.
- Greater variation. There will be a much greater variety of companies and crops, and the latter will also create a more attractive landscape, for the residents and also for tourism. Just think of blue flax fields and undulating wheat fields.
- More diversity. More grains, fruit and vegetables, legumes and raw materials on land are also creating a stronger basis for greater biodiversity, together with climate our greatest urgent challenge.
- Health. Due to less traffic and therefore less use of fossil energy, there will be fewer emissions of various harmful substances, such as the carcinogenic (ultra) particulate matter. Positive earnings effects can also be expected in terms of mental health,
- Human rights. With the reduction of our Global Footprint, in particular through points 1, 2 and 5, we are also reducing the large differences in the claims on the limited global ecospace, and we are working on fair sharing, globally.
- Strengthening the regional economy. Money will circulate much more in our own region, with benefits for regional companies, and therefore also more varied employment, more often within cycling distance, so fewer cars are needed. For many, this is perhaps the most important point. Because now a large part of our payments “disappear” to, for example, distant energy companies and their shareholders, to food importers, and not to forget the webshops.
- Better income. Farmers and market gardeners in particular can receive better prices for their products through regional sales. Because then they are no longer dependent on cut-throat global competition and therefore far too low world market prices! Regional prices can be fairer, including social and environmental costs. Everyone benefits from that.
- Strengthening local democracy. By focusing more on the region (province, municipality, water board), the importance of actively following and participating in political decision-making in local democracy becomes greater and more interesting. Consider, for example, zoning plans, nature policy, social issues, the environmental law and the energy transition.
Circles of self-sufficiency
For regionalization, not everything has to be done on a small scale or regionally. It is a search for the optimal scale in terms of transport, energy use, production options, mineral cycle and many other aspects. A baker in a village is smarter than everyone to bake bread themselves. And not every municipality has to build an iron factory. For a sustainable economy, we can think in circles of self-sufficiency, where each product and service will have a different optimal circle. For example, the (relatively) heavy vegetables and potatoes are best grown in the immediate vicinity. But spices like cinnamon and nutmeg do not grow here, are light, we use relatively few of them, and can be transported by ship. The question is also how much agricultural land we claim elsewhere (a fair Earth share for everyone) and whether there is sustainable production, without the use of chemicals and other damage.
In view of the advantages of regionalization, we can say that this is a quite attractive perspective in many respects. The ideas are not new, but the aforementioned crises make it imperative to do even more. So what are we waiting for? And how can we start this? A radical development towards this regionalization will also require national, provincial and local policy. An important topic here is that regional products need protection against unfair pricing of production realized elsewhere. In other words, selective protection is needed. Local and regional authorities will also have to give priority to their spending on local and regional activities, despite the applicable European guidelines in the field of procurement. So we have to work at all those levels, but we are not going to wait for it.
We can give the process an effective and striking start by making local inventories of what is already being produced in our own municipality and surrounding places, and whether these products are also available to consumers and institutions. Publishing about this and calling on people to think and shop locally can raise awareness. And that may draw the attention of local and regional politics. The most important thing is of course that the regional products are mainly bought in their own region. Joint marketing can be the next step and, to begin with, weekly regional markets. Hopefully, the movement will continue to grow into daily markets in attractive buildings, which are so popular in southern European countries.
More information and benefits
In May 2007 an expert meeting was held in Utrecht, The Netherlands, about regionalization, organized by the NGO “Before the Change”. At that time I was also able to contribute from “De Kleine Aarde” (The Small Earth), especially about the many advantages of regionalization and the ‘circles of self-sufficiency’. In the spring of 2008 “Before the Change” subsequently released this publication: “Regionalization as an alternative to neoliberal globalization – Policy and practice”, by Guus Geurts in collaboration with André Jonkers and Lou Keune. In that publication you can find much more information and even more benefits. See (in Dutch): https://platformdse.org/wpcontent/uploads/2019/11/Geurts_2008_Regionalisatie.pdf
The NGO “Before the Change” no longer exists, but several members became active in the Platform Fair and Green Economy (www.PlatformDSE.org ), which was founded in 2006. That platform started the campaign “The Great Transition” in 2015 with 10 spearheads. And point 3 is also about regionalization. See the site www.degrotetransitie.nl , which is now being continued together with the new organization “Our New Economy” (www.ourneweconomy.nl ). Regionalization is clearly an extremely important objective for our new economy.
Thanks to John Huige, Lou Keune and Gerrit Stegehuis of the Platform FGE for their contributions to this article.
Teaser photo courtesy of the author.