News from next door
Going local really is the answer to a world gone global, argues Helena Norberg-Hodge.

Around the world recognition of the destructive effects of economic globalization is growing. From soaring unemployment and an erosion of democracy to environmental and social breakdown, the disastrous impact of increased trade and transport is becoming obvious. However, conviction that the solutions lie with localizing economic activity is far less widespread. Many people seem to find it difficult even to imagine a shift towards a more local economy. ‘Time has moved on,’ one hears. ‘We live in a globalized world.’

On the surface, this is a perfectly reasonable point of view. How, after all, can we expect to tackle today’s global crises except at a global level? But it’s not that simple. In particular, I think we need to distinguish between efforts to counter further globalization and efforts that can bring real solutions. Undoubtedly, efforts to rein in the runaway global economy need to be global – linking social and environmental movements from North and South to pressure governments into renegotiating the trade treaties. But this would not in itself restore health to economies and communities: long-term solutions require a range of small, local initiatives that are as diverse as the cultures and environments in which they take place. When seen as going hand-in-hand with policy shifts away from globalization, these small-scale efforts would take on a different significance. Most importantly, it is helpful to think of institutions that will promote small scale on a large scale.

Some people will interpret financial incentives for more localized production as ‘subsidies’. However, they should be seen in the context of current subsidies and government investments that favour transnational trade. In the US, for example, $80 billion has been earmarked for highways for the next few years; in New Guinea $48 million was spent on 23 miles of roads that allow timber interests to harvest and bring logs to the export market. Shifting this support towards a range of transport options that favor smaller, more local enterprises would have enormous benefits – from the creation of jobs, to a healthier environment, to a more equitable distribution of resources.

Phasing out subsidies for large-scale energy installations would make real resources available for renewable energy supplies, lower pollution levels, reduced pressure on wilderness areas and oceans. Agricultural subsidies favour large-scale industrial agro-businesses: shifting these expenditures towards smaller-scale, diversified agriculture would help family farmers and rural economies while promoting biodiversity, healthier soils and fresher food. Investments in healthcare favor huge, centralized hospitals meant to serve urban populations; spending the same money instead on a greater number of smaller clinics – relying less on high technology and more on health practitioners – would bring healthcare to more people and give a boost to their local economies.

Ancient wisdom makes modern sense: a local market in Burkina Faso.

Governments are forced into competition with one another for the favors of corporate vagabonds and try to lure them with low labor costs, lax environmental regulations and substantial subsidies. Instead of ‘free trade’, a careful policy of using tariffs to regulate the import of goods which could be produced locally would be in the best interests of the majority. Such ‘protectionism’ is not aimed at fellow citizens in other countries; rather, it is a way of safeguarding local culture, jobs and resources against the excessive power of the corporations.

Across the US, Canada and Europe organizations have sprung up in response to the intrusion of huge corporate marketing chains into rural and small-town economies. Polish activists succeeded in blocking the construction of a McDonald’s in an old section of Cracow, and activists in India are working to keep McDonald’s from entering that market. In Massachusetts, ‘Deli-Dollars’ were created to help a local sandwich shop finance a move to a larger location after it had been turned down for a bank loan. Customers who bought Deli-Dollars (redeemable in the future for sandwiches) raised enough capital to finance the store’s relocation. Local Exchange Trading (LETS) schemes have sprung up in Britain, Ireland, Canada, France, Argentina, the US, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. Around the world people are recognizing the multitude of benefits of linking farmers and consumers more directly – from fresher, healthier food to a reduction in packaging and transport, and therefore less pollution and increased biodiversity as local marketing leads to pressures on farmers to diversify.

In many countries people are building ‘eco-villages’ that attempt to get away from the waste and pollution, competition and violence of contemporary city life. Some communities are starting their own schools: rather than educating the young for ever-greater specialization in a competitive, ‘jobless growth’ economy, they seek to equip their children with the knowledge and skills for a diversified economy which depends primarily – though not exclusively – on local resources. This does not mean that information about the rest of the world is excluded. On the contrary, knowledge about other cultures is an important part of the educational process.

Such economic changes require shifts at a personal level as well. These involve rediscovering the deep psychological benefits – the joy – of being connected to community and place. The globalization of culture and information has led to a way of life in which the nearby is treated with contempt. We get news from China but not next door: our immediate surroundings seem dull and uninteresting by comparison. A sense of place means helping ourselves and our children to see the living environment around us: reconnecting with the sources of our food, learning to recognize the cycles of the seasons, the characteristics of the flora and fauna. Ultimately, we are talking about a spiritual awakening that comes from making a connection to others and to nature. This requires us to see the world within us; to experience more consciously the great, interdependent web of life – of which we ourselves are among the strands.

Helena Norberg-Hodge is Director of Policy, International Forum on Globalization, and founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, 21 Victoria Square, Bristol BS8 4ES.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996

New Internationalist issue 282 magazine cover This article is from the August 1996 issue of New Internationalist.
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