We urgently need widespread awareness of the big picture of economic deregulation and its impacts on our communities and personal lives. It is only ignorance about this system that enables the pseudo-solutions of Trump, Brexit, Duterte and others to gain strength, even as the global economic system marches onwards, unfettered. Despite the fact that these right-wing political forces are often branded as ‘anti-globalist’, they are actually serving to strengthen global monopolies.
Any movement to address the woes of the disenfranchised must expose and diagnose the systemic illness of economic deregulation, and also present a coherent alternative.
I believe economic localisation is the most strategic solution.
The localised path would involve a 180-degree turn-around in economic policy, so that business and finance become place-based and accountable to democratic processes. This means reregulation of global corporations and banks, as well as a shift in taxes and subsidies so that they no longer favour the big and the global but instead support small scale on a large scale.
Rebuilding stronger, more diversified, self-reliant economies at the national, regional and local level is essential to restoring democracy and a real economy based on sustainable use of natural resources.
To bring this change about we need to build up diverse and united people’s movements to create a political force that can bring about systemic localisation.
It means making it clear that business needs to be place based in order to be accountable and subject to the democratic process. We need to start talking politics with one another – with those concerned about social justice and peace, those focused on unemployment, environmental issues, or spiritual and ethical values.
In some countries we’ve seen glimpses of the widespread desire for fundamental change. In the last UK election, the Labour Party manifesto included several measures, such as renationalising key sectors that have been taken over by private corporations. In the US, the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders was another example of a politician responding to the growing chorus of voices critical of corporate control of the economy.
However, the issue is complex: the nation state remains the political entity best suited to putting limits on global business, but at the same time more decentralised economic structures are needed, particularly when it comes to meeting basic needs.
These localised economies require an umbrella of environmental and social protection strengthened by national and even international regulation, but determined through local political engagement.
Localisation is a solution-multiplier. It can restore democracy by reducing the influence of big business on politics and holding representatives accountable to people, not corporations. It can reverse the concentration of wealth by fostering the creation of more small businesses and keeping money circulating locally.
Localisation enables people to see the impacts of their actions: in smaller-scale economies, one readily knows if food production is dependent on toxic chemicals, if farm workers have been mistreated, and if the land remains healthy; therefore business becomes more accountable.
By prioritising diversified production for local needs over specialised production for export, localisation redistributes economic and political power from global monopolies to millions of small producers, farmers and businesses. It thereby decentralises political power and roots it in community, giving people more agency over the changes they wish to see in their own lives.
The exponential growth in localisation initiatives— from food-based efforts like community gardens, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture schemes and urban agriculture, to local business alliances, decentralised renewable-energy schemes, tool-lending libraries and community-based education projects–attests to the fact that more and more people are arriving, in a largely commonsense way, at localisation as a solution to the problems they face.
A major challenge to the acceptance of a localist agenda has been the impression that local and natural are ‘elitist’ and affordable only to those of comfortable means.
Corporate think tanks have been effective in disseminating this message, but the relatively higher cost of healthy alternatives–whether organic food, local natural building materials and fibres, or alternative medicine–is largely a product of externalised costs and government subsidies for export-oriented corporate production. Strip away the artificial support and the cost of globalised products would be out of reach for most.
Food is something that everyone, everywhere, needs every day, so a key focus should be on rebuilding the local food economy. This strengthens the entire economy, rebuilds community, and helps heal the environment. It also contributes to resiliencey in the face of climate change.
The global food system is inefficient, especially with ‘redundant trade’. In a typical year, Britain exports over 100,000 tonnes each of milk, bread, and pork, while importing nearly identical amounts. The same is true in the US, which exports and imports nearly 1 million tonnes of beef, and hundreds of thousands of tons of potatoes, sugar, and coffee.
As it is, the trade-based food system is incapable of feeding the current global population sustainably. With food more tightly controlled by corporations than ever before, some 870 million people are undernourished – even though there is enough food to feed everyone on the planet.
To support the local food movement, subsidies could be redirected towards strengthening local infrastructures, including distribution lines that connect local producers with local consumers, and even giving financial support to small-scale, diversified farms themselves. Such policy changes would see local, job-rich, community-based, ecological economic systems become the mainstream remarkably quickly.
Similarly, reducing subsidies for fossil fuels and increasing taxes on polluting industries would internalise many of the hidden costs of resource-intensive economic systems, bringing market prices more in line with actual resource and pollution costs. These shifts would have the effect of making local products the cheaper, more accessible option.
The rise of authoritarianism is just one of many interrelated impacts of economic globalisation. Today’s global economy heightens economic insecurity, fractures communities, and undermines individual and cultural identity – thereby creating conditions that are ripe for the rise of authoritarian leaders.
If globalisation’s environmental costs – climate change, desertification, flooding – are allowed to rise, we can expect ever larger waves of refugees that will further destabilise nation-states while straining their willingness, as well as their ability, to act humanely.
The most strategic way to address all of these crises is to immediately begin scaling down and decentralising economic activity, giving communities and local economies the ability to meet as many of their own needs as possible, including the human need for connection.
♦ Helena Norberg-Hodge is a pioneer of the new economy movement and recipient of the Alternative Nobel prize, the Goi Peace Prize and the Arthur Morgan Award. Helena is the founder and director of Local Futures and The International Alliance for Localisation.