Growing some of one’s own food, conserving and generating the home energy supply, being part of a thriving local economy, and other moves toward self-sufficiency are all important, laudable goals with, as far as I can see, no ill side effects. However, in North America and Europe, there is now a strong trend among progressive thinkers and activists toward dependence on localism as the means of reversing the global ecological crisis and achieving global economic justice. That’s just not going to happen.
Recently, on Al Jazeera’s opinion page, I attempted to make that case: that as important as it is to improve life locally, such efforts will not work their way up and out through the world’s economy to solve our biggest problems. I argued that retreating into a romanticized vision of the local life means latching onto one of capitalism’s symptoms—the eclipsing of local economies and governments by more powerful transnational forces—and treating it as if it’s the disease itself. I cited the 2012 book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World by Greg Sharzer, which goes into deep detail on the disconnect between local solutions and global problems. In it, Sharzer writes, “The problem with localism is not its anti-corporate politics, but that these politics don’t go far enough. It sees the effects of unbridled competition but not the cause.”
Efforts to localize have tackled issues such as promotion of hometown businesses, alternative currencies or barter systems, community-based energy generation, greener transportation, and most prominently, local food systems. The more highly visible, and shallower, forms of localism have concentrated on consumption without acknowledging that it’s not in the checkout line but in the workplace that the great chasm opens up between families who live paycheck to paycheck and the more affluent, more powerful business owners who today control the fate of communities.
It’s not that local owners are exceptionally greedy or heartless. As Sharzer shows, they simply have no choice but to play by the rules of the regional, national, and global market. Even the most well-intentioned local owners know that if they don’t squeeze the greatest productivity out of the smallest payroll, there are plenty of other, more efficient businesses ready to take their place.
In the US, the number of local farmers’ markets tripled between 1998 and 2013. That growth, however, has been mirrored by growth in corporate control elsewhere in the food and agricultural industries. Even as local consumption was blossoming across the country, the US’ food-processing sector became even more tightly concentrated in a handful of giant corporations, while the four largest grocery chains increased their share of the retail market from a disturbing 22 percent in 1998 to an alarming 53 percent in 2010.
Even leaders of the localist movement acknowledge that so far it has had only a very limited sociopolitical reach. Australian Ted Trainer, a leading advocate of economic de-growth, observes, “At this stage, most of these [voluntary local movements] are only implementing reforms within consumer-capitalist society.” (His view is supported by research on one such initiative, the Transition Town movement that originated in Britain and has spread worldwide.)
Less radical efforts have had even more limited impact; the more business-friendly localism advocate and Vanderbilt University sociology professor David Hess admits, “The ‘buy local’ movement is, at least at present, mostly an alliance of small businesspeople and middle-class shoppers. It is not a poor people’s movement.”
If movements to date have faltered in their efforts to resolve local problems, it is hard to imagine how they would address crises in the wider world. Some localists are counting on a mega-disaster—most likely, they say, in the form of oil depletion or runaway climate disruption—to deliver a mortal blow to global capitalism, at which point communities that have become more self-sufficient can show the way to the rest of the world, into a harsh future.
A more hopeful vision comes from Greg Sharzer and others who urge local movements to stop avoiding political struggle and trying to create idealized communities; instead, they need to “confront global institutions of capitalist power in local spaces.”
Needless to say, taking that course will be anything but easy. But it’s our only way out, and at least it has a lot more appeal than hunkering down and waiting for global catastrophe to hit.