“Localization” Can Help Free the Planet From Neoliberal Globalization

Is there an alternative to the globalization-related economic, political, and environmental problems? How about “localization”? Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director at Local Futures. Her organization focuses on creating a movement for environmental sustainability and improving local economies. Norberg-Hodge is a pioneer in the new economy movement that has now spread to all continents and the convener. World Localization DayThe Dalai Lama and Noam Chomsky endorsed the book, titled. Norberg-Hodge is an author of many books and the producer of the award winning documentary. The Economics of Happiness.

Norberg-Hodge discusses why localization is a strategic alternative for globalization and a way to get out of the climate conundrum. She also discusses the ways in which localization challenges authoritarianism and what a post-pandemic future might look like.

C.J. Polychroniou: The global neoliberal project, under way since the early 1980s following the so-called “free-market revolution” launched by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher in the U.S. and U.K., respectively, has proven to be an unmitigated disaster on all fronts. How can we make the shift to economic localization, which you initiated on every continent, a better strategic alternative to the existing socioeconomic system?

Helena Norberg-HodgeGlobalization is a result governments using taxes, regulations and subsidies to support global monopolies at expense of regional and local businesses and banks. Although this has been done in the name of encouraging growth through free trading, it has actually made the majority poorer and forced them to work harder just to stay put. The trillions of dollars that are circulating in the hands transnational corporations and global financial institutions have made it more difficult for nation states to survive. This has systematically corrupted nearly every avenue for knowledge, from schools and universities to science and the media.

As a consequence, instead of questioning the role of the economic system in causing our multiple crises, people are led to blame themselves for not managing their lives well enough, for not being efficient enough, for not spending enough time with family and friends, etc., etc… In addition to feeling guilty, we often end up feeling isolated because the ever more fleeting and shallow nature of our social encounters with others fuels a show-off culture in which love and affirmation are sought through such superficial means as plastic surgery, designer clothes and Facebook likes. These are not good substitutes for real connection and can only increase feelings of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.

A shift towards economic localization is a powerful strategy alternative to neoliberal internationalization. First, global supply chains and outsourcing that are becoming more common to corporate globalization are making every region less secure. This is something that was evident during the COVID crises. It also enables ecological and labor exploitation cost shifts. This means that feedback loops that could promote transparency and responsibility are cut. A recent study showed that one-fifth of global carbon emissions come from multinational corporations’ supply chains. Localization means getting out of the highly unstable and exploitative bubbles of speculation and debt, and back to the real economy — our interface with other people and the natural world. Local markets demand a variety of products and encourage more ecological and diversified production. This means that food production is more diverse and uses less chemicals and machinery, which results in more hands on the ground and more meaningful employment. This means a dramatic reduction in CO2 emissions, less plastic packaging, more wild biodiversity, greater wealth circulation within local communities, more face to face conversations between producers, consumers, and more flourishing cultures based on genuine interdependence.

This is what I call the “solution-multiplier” effect of localization, and the pattern extends beyond our food systems. In the global monoculture system, which is disconnected and over-specialized, I have seen housing developments constructed with imported steel, concrete, and plastic, while oak trees are razed and made into woodchips. Contrarily, the shorter distances structurally mean more eyes per square acre and more innovative uses of available resources.

It is entirely reasonable to envisage a world without unemployment; as is true of every price-tag on a supermarket shelf, unemployment is a political decision that, at the moment, is being made according to the mantra of “efficiency” in centralized profit-making. As both political left and right have bought into the dogma of “bigger is better,” citizens have been left with no real alternative.

Decision-making itself can be transformed when we increase the human-scale economy. We not only create systems that we can influence but also embed ourselves in a network of relationships that influences our actions and perspectives on a deeper level. We become more aware of the impact we have on our communities and local ecosystems, which allows us to be more empowered to make changes and humbled by the complexity around us.

What’s the difference between economic localization and “delinking” (an alternative development approach associated with the work of the late Marxist sociologist Samir Amin)? Is localization part the degrowth strategic plan that has emerged in the age global warming?

Instead of understanding ecological limits, delinking was conceptualized within the framework industrialism. Localization, as it has been described over the years by me, requires a more radical disconnection from the onerous and oppressive relationships of economic and politically dependent, as well from the worldviews that are based in industrialization and the so-called “progress and development”.

There is a lot of overlap in the relationship between localizations and degrowth. Both reject capitalism’s growthism. However, from my point of view, many degrowth advocates don’t focus enough on the role of global corporations and free trade treaties, nor do they emphasize enough the need for a systemic shift in direction toward localization or decentralization. As with delinking I believe this is due to ignoring many of its ecological and spiritual consequences.

Localization is often interpreted as right-wing or nationalistic. I want to stress that this is not about an inward-looking withdrawal of the national arena. We encourage cultural exchange and international cooperation to address our global social- and environmental crises.

People are coming together to create their own economies from the shells of the old, creating a diverse and creative movement that is growing all over the globe. In a sense, not only is another world possible, it’s already here in this global localization movement. Other closely related and overlapping movements include degrowth; new economies, solidarity economy and cooperative economies; food sovereignty, simplicity and sufficiency economies; and so on.

This florescence is a collection of initiatives and movements from all over the globe that, in addition to being a source for great inspiration, disprove capitalism and neoclassical economics by their very existence and point the way back to the abyss.

Over the past two decades, the political pendulum has been swinging in favor of some very reactionary parties. What is the reason for the return of the dangerous and ugly face of political authoritarianism as a 21st century phenomenon? How can the advancement of the localized path be used to challenge authoritarianism

Globalization has made it more difficult for people to make a living. This is because of increased competition and a lack of job security. Globalization is threatening identity as cultural diversity is being replaced by a single culture. Under these conditions, it’s not surprising that people become increasingly insecure. Insecurity makes people more vulnerable to being exploited, as advertisers have learned from nearly a century’s worth of experience. But people today are targeted by more than just marketing campaigns for deodorants and tooth polish: insecurity leaves them highly vulnerable to propaganda that encourages them to blame the cultural “other” for their plight. Economic globalization has many interrelated effects. One of these is the rise of authoritarianism. Because today’s global economy heightens economic insecurity, fractures communities, and undermines individual and cultural identity — it is creating conditions that are ripe for the rise of authoritarian leaders.

Many people are becoming increasingly disillusioned and angry with the current political system. They feel more distant from the institutions that make the decisions that affect them and less secure about their economic futures. The internet has disempowered most democratic systems around the globe. de factoPeople blame the government for deregulating banks and corporations. Because they don’t see the bigger picture, increasing numbers of people support laissez faire economics, wanting government red tape out of the way, to allow new authoritarian leaders to grow the economy for them, to make their country “great again.”

Localization allows for a 180-degree turnaround in economic policy. This will allow business and finance to be place-based and accountable to democratic processes. This will require a re-regulation in global banks and corporations, as also a shift in taxes to support small-scale, local businesses. 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 — an economy that serves essential human needs, lessens inequality and promotes social harmony.

It is not enough to vote for a different candidate within the same corrupt political structure to bring about this change. We instead need to build up diverse and united people’s movements to create a political force that can bring about systemic localization. It is about raising awareness about how globalization has made a mockery out of democracy and making clear that business must be placed-based to be accountable and subject the democratic process.

It is important to recognize that this issue is complex. While the nation state plays a key role in pushing globalization forward, it remains the most political entity best suited for limiting global business. However, more decentralized economic structures are required, especially when it comes down to meeting basic needs. These place-based economies need a broad umbrella of social and environmental protection that is strengthened by national and important, International Regulation, but determined by local political engagement.

Localization can be a solution-multiplier. It can restore democracy through reducing the influence global business and finance have on politics, and by holding representatives accountable to people and not corporations. It can reverse the concentration in wealth by encouraging the creation and maintenance of small businesses. It can reduce waste and pollution by addressing real human needs, rather than the corporate-led consumer culture.

Localization helps to shift economic and political power away from global monopolies by prioritizing local production over export-oriented production. It gives people more control over the changes that they desire in their lives by decentralizing political power and establishing it in communities.

The exponential growth in localization initiatives — from food-based efforts like community gardens, farmers’ markets, community-supported agriculture schemes and urban agriculture, to local business alliances, decentralized 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 common-sense way, at localization as a systemic solution to the problems they face.

(I have tackled this question in great detail in my article, “Localization: a Strategic Alternative to Global Authoritarianism.”)

The COVID-19 epidemic, which is evidently a result economic globalization, continues its haunting us. No one can predict when the world will return back to normalcy. In your view, is going back to “normal” even possible? What, if not?

First, I believe it is important to ask whether it is desirable or possible to return back to the old norm. Pre-COVID-19, the so-called “normal” was the rapidly expanding global consumer culture, growing waste volumes, global ecological collapse, species extinction, and ballooning inequality. The pandemic has sadly exacerbated these trends, but it is obvious to me that pre-pandemic “normalcy” was itself already a disaster, thus nothing we should wish to return to. Indeed, as has been pointed out by many observers, the radical rift in the status quo operations of globalization, especially apparent during the early worldwide hard lockdown phase, illustrated like nothing else in our lifetimes just how quickly the system can change, how spurious were the narratives of globalization’s inevitability all along. It also exposed — and continues to do so in many ways — the perilous fragility, brittleness and dependencies of globalized supply chains that have increasingly risen to dominance as more and more places have been de-localized during the past few decades of manic globalization. Wherever one looked, it was the still relatively more localized, often rural communities — the very ones that conventional development has long denigrated and advocated transcending — that proved more resilient and secure in the face of the crisisThis led to a lot of reverse migration from the cities to many villages. The response of grassroots movements around the globe to the pandemic, no matter how terrible the circumstances, has been inspiring. It has shown in real-time the truth behind the activist slogan “The Truth is the Best.” other worlds are possible.

The possibility of returning to the old destructive normal is possible despite the drop in global emissions and pollution levels during the pandemic. Despite the beautiful flowering and support of local solidarity initiatives and mutual assistance, the dramatic rebounding of pollution from all sources, now exceeding prepandemic levels, as well as the obscene worsening and concentration of power by transnational corporations, and the devastation of small local businesses prove that it is possible to go back into the old destructive normal. This shows that we cannot hope for some external force to “impose” localization and rein in corporate globalization, such as was often placed on peak oil or other forms of resource collapse. There are no shortcuts around the need to politically struggle against the dominant system and create the local alternatives, to create a post-pandemic normal that isn’t a pre-pandemic political-economy on steroids. After the pandemic, the imperative for economic localization should not be forgotten. It is only in emergencies that it makes sense to strengthen local resilience and localized production. This is the post-pandemic norm I believe we should strive for, due to the multi-benefits of localization.