Local alternatives to global corporate control lead to stronger communities, economies and democracy, says Local Futures founder Helena Norberg-Hodge
The Brexiters are being blamed for pulling Britain in a racist, right-wing and economically unstable direction. But that is simplistic. Xenophobia is increasing in most countries inside the EU and out of it, and economic stability depends on more than EU membership. With Brexit unfolding whether we like it or not, we need to identify effective, everyday and local solutions that can provide Britain with a viable way forward.
To understand why people voted to leave, it is important to recognise how economic policies affect Britain’s culture and economy. One of the biggest influences is globalisation. My work in a wide range of countries has made clear to me how the global economy causes many of the problems we face. The same policies that generate wealth for the ‘one per cent’ are also responsible for fostering fear, racism and insecure livelihoods for everyone else, along with economic instability and environmental breakdown.
An outdated system
The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade was one of a number of institutions created following the second world war, designed to help restore financial order. At the time, promoting global trade was not unreasonably considered a way of integrating diverse national economies and interests. Many leaders believed this was the only way to avoid another global depression and world war.
But, like most idealised solutions, globalisation’s reality has diverged from the original plan. Through it, multinational corporations and banks have gained so much power that they are effectively able to hold nation states to ransom. The investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) clauses, which give corporations the right to sue governments that do anything to impede not just actual profits but potential ones too, are just the latest manifestation of this.
Sadly, political leaders of both sides of the political fence are continuing to sign up to these agreements, hampering them, us and whole countries as they do so.
This leads to corporate control of employment, and the flow-on effect is that job security has been rendered obsolete for large sections of the population, including the middle class. This instability fosters personal insecurity, social fragmentation and, ultimately, the deepening intolerance, fundamentalism and violence we are witnessing worldwide.
But viable, accessible alternatives to corporation-led globalisation are being developed at the grassroots, where the pain of trade and globalisation policies have been most deeply felt. While diverse and not immediately obviously linked, these alternative models have one key element in common: they favour localisation over globalisation.
One benefit of localisation is that it reverses the economic mantra of ‘comparative advantage’ – the idea that communities should specialise in just one or two products to export. By diversifying and localising our economic activities, we add strength and resilience to our ecologies and economies.
Localisation doesn’t, despite post-Brexit fears, mean pulling up the drawbridges and retreating into isolationism. Nor does it mean an end to trade. But it does mean a fundamental shift away from dependence – even for our basic needs – on a global market controlled by unaccountable corporations.
But the benefits of localisation go beyond economics and the environment. Among other things, localisation allows us to live more ethically as citizens and consumers. When the economy operates on a smaller scale, everything is necessarily more transparent. We can see if the apples from the neighbouring farm are being sprayed with pesticides; we can see if workers are being unfairly exploited.
The push for localisation is already underway. Millions of initiatives are springing up across the world, often in isolation one from another, but all sharing the same underlying philosophies. While they range from energy and housing to finance, the most important of these initiatives relate to food, the only product humans create that each one of us requires every day. Indeed, from farmers’ markets to community-supported agriculture (CSA), and from ‘edible schoolyards’ to permaculture, a local food movement is sweeping the planet.
For example, the Real Food Store in Exeter, UK has forged strong relationships with nearby farmers and producers, creating a supply chain that reduces the distance between farm and table. Across the Atlantic, Pine Island Community Farm in Vermont, US supports refugees and migrants to farm and raise livestock in the traditional ways of their homelands. Meanwhile in Vancouver, Canada, Skipper Otto’s Community Supported Fishery is applying the CSA model to an unlikely contender: the seafood industry, promoting age-old fishing practices that ensure fair wages for its workers, while protecting the environment.
Because localisation initiatives such as these rely more on labour than on energy and technology, they foster local economies and help ensure greater job security; countering globalisation’s effects and supporting people’s physical and mental health.
Ultimately, in addition to shrinking our ecological footprints, localisation renews our connections to one another and to the world around us.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is founder and director of Local Futures, a non-profit organisation dedicated to revitalising cultural and biological diversity and strengthening local communities and economies.
Photo: John Page