Helena Norberg-Hodge outlines how localising economic activity could halt ecological breakdown.
Among environmental activists and ordinary citizens, climate change is seen as the most serious sign of ecological breakdown. But there are others: from species extinction and ocean ‘dead zones’ to topsoil loss, nuclear waste, and microplastics in the food chain, ecosystems are under assault from a deadly disease: economic globalisation.
The causes of this ailment run deep. Through a combination of aggressive subsidies, dysfunctional taxes and skewed regulations, governments around the world have spurred the growth of an international ‘free market’ that supports global corporations and banks at the expense of smaller, more rooted businesses. The costs of this process are heavy for people and the natural world.
The global food system provides many examples. Government handouts to the fossil fuel industry, for instance, facilitate long- distance transport –so food from the other side of the world can be cheaper than food from the farm next door. Worse is redundant trade: the simultaneous import and export of the same product. The UK, for example, imports and exports millions of litres of milk and thousands of tons of wheat and lamb every year, and the US does the same for beef, potatoes, sugar and other foods. Redundant trade wastes resources and is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions, but subsidies for fossil fuels make it profitable.
Propaganda from big agribusiness has convinced the public that the global food system – with its large-scale monocultural production and world-spanning trade – is the only way to feed the planet. But the ‘efficiency’ of monocultures is based solely on yield per unit of labour. Studies conducted all over the world have shown that, when the more relevant metric of yield per unit of land is measured, smaller-scale farms are typically eight to 20 times more productive than large-scale monocultures.
In fact, small farmers are feeding the world; although they control just 12% of the world’s farmland, they produce most of our food. Many of those farmers are in the Global South, where big agribusiness is relentlessly pushing the industrial farming model – leaving farmers increasingly dependent on costly chemical inputs and patented seeds, and loans to pay for it all. The result? Worsening rural poverty and farmer suicides by the hundreds of thousands – one of the most underreported tragedies of our time.
Meanwhile, agribusinesses continue to consolidate – witness the recent merger of agrochemical giant Bayer with GM seed titan Monsanto. This leaves the global food supply dangerously dependent upon a shrinking number of corporations and a dwindling diversity of food crops and seeds.
The increasing costs of globalised business are evident in other ways. Jeff Bezos’ online commerce giant, Amazon, has become an emblem of worker mistreatment and high street business closures. Nonetheless, cities across the US offered Amazon massive subsidies and tax breaks in the hope of becoming the site of the company’s second headquarters. Because the global growth imperative requires even the largest companies to grow still larger, Amazon is extending its reach to every corner of the world, including the remote Himalayan region of Ladakh, where I have worked for several decades. The undermining of Ladakh’s local economy and culture has already put its ecosystem at risk; this latest incursion will accelerate the breakdown.
Government support for globalisation benefits a handful of global businesses, but the ecological costs are borne by the planet as a whole. Most of the fossil fuels that have been burned in the past 150 years have been extracted by a select group of 90 entities, including private corporations such as Exxon-Mobil and state-controlled institutions such as Saudi Aramco. According to a 2013 study, these fuels were responsible for “nearly two-thirds of all the carbon that has been emitted into the atmosphere during the industrial era.”
What can we do to reverse the damage? Resisting corporate-backed politicians and the policies they enact is crucial, but it is only half of what is needed. We must create an economic model that can replace globalisation, so that people can feel inspired, rather than frightened, by the promise of systemic change.
This model is already being built at the grassroots, often with help from enlightened local governments. Those local governing bodies – more in tune with their citizens – are discovering that resilient localised economies need not depend on global flows of wealth and capital in order to function. This gives them the power to say ‘no’ to multinational corporations and banks.
“Rather than concentrating wealth in a handful of global monopolies, local economies disperse wealth equitably among the community”
The benefits of localising economic activity are manifold. Rather than concentrating wealth in a handful of global monopolies, local economies tend to disperse wealth more equitably among a wide swathe of the community. Local economies are also, by definition, rooted to a particular place, making the long-term health of the environment a shared concern for all. Corporate giants, on the other hand, can up sticks and move in search of higher profits elsewhere, leaving behind a despoiled environment and thousands of jobless residents.
Shrinking the distance between production and consumption also makes it easier to choose ethically: when we know the farmer who produces our food, it’s easy to know whether pesticides were used, or if farmworkers were treated unfairly. The distances involved in global trade, by contrast, make it impossible for people to know the impacts of their purchasing choices.
Across the world, communities are strengthening connections between local food producers, small businesses, local government, and other sectors, including healthcare, banking and energy. In Catalonia, the Catalan Integral Cooperative is aiming to create an ‘ecosystem’ of post-capitalist institutions, including a financial co-op, food pantry, open-access repair workshop and local currency. The French town of Mouans- Sartoux has a municipally-owned organic farm that grows vegetables for school meals, provides produce at a discount to low- income residents and donates surpluses to the local food bank. In Zimbabwe, the Chikukwa permaculture project has lifted villages out of food insecurity and environmental disaster through place-based education and training programmes. There are thousands of such initiatives worldwide – Local Futures’ series, Planet Local, highlights many of them.
Ecological breakdown is telling us that modern societies are on the wrong track. It is essential that we draw on the full range of human creativity to envision diverse alternative paths – each appropriate in a particular cultural and ecological context – rather than continuing down the road to a global monoculture. Coupled with widespread resistance to globalisation, these steps towards renewal provide a blueprint for a better world – a world that celebrates diversity not just in the biosphere, but among the human cultures that draw from it for their lives and livelihoods.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder of Local Futures