“As empires rise and fall and powerful nations grow and then contract, the farmers, the yeomen, the small landholders, the shopkeepers, and the local manufacturers keep on going. […] as often as not, they are sources of technological and cultural innovation and, from a sustainability perspective, they innovate largely in direct connection with the land and with each other.” (The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift)
In The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift, editors Raymond de Young and Thomas Princen take classic critiques of industrial society, such as those of E.F. Schumacher and Ivan Illich, and place them together with contemporary writings on the emerging reality of resource constraints, Peak Oil, and climate change. Overall, the book succeeds in delivering a powerful argument that humanity will be forced into – and, crucially, benefit from – a move to a more locally-based and less societally complex way of living. Moreover, by including an historical perspective (with essays by Joseph Tainter and Kirkpatrick Sale, for instance), it shows that what we are facing has precedents in our collective past: people have repeatedly adapted to crisis, often proactively choosing less complex societal arrangements.
De Young and Princen foresee energy and resource depletion resulting in a weakening of the centralisation of power, and instead “widely distributed authority and leadership, more sustainable use of natural energy sources and materials, personal proficiency, and community self-reliance”. Such ‘positive localization’ is contrasted with a parochial-minded turning away from the outside world. Localization, they insist, is highly engaged with other local societies, the wider region, and the international world. While it takes as its central premise that the challenges we face are inescapable, the book is resolutely positive, in its belief in the power of human beings to organise themselves constructively. Rather than having solutions imposed from above, they see communities as having the capacity to identify problems and construct appropriate responses. In an online audio interview discussing the book, de Young says of the transition: “It’s going to bring out the best in people, because people do well when they’re challenged [..], when their choices, their behaviours matter. It’s an absolutely great opportunity for the human mind, because it’s well adapted to this kind of problem-solving. “
Divided into six parts, the book starts by looking at what is driving localisation, including fossil fuel constraints and the limitations of complexity for societies. A 1976 essay by M. King Hubbert is a compelling explanation both of the inevitability of hydrocarbon decline and the impossibility of exponential growth on a finite planet. Clear and accessible, the essay concludes on this upbeat note: if we respond in time to the challenges facing us, he says, “we could be on the threshold of achieving one of the greatest intellectual and cultural advances in human history”. (Whether Hubbert would be similarly encouraging today is another matter). The same section includes a key chapter of Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book The Collapse of Complex Societies. Again, much more positive than might be expected, it outlines why and how societies in the past have shifted from more to less complex societal arrangements: far from automatically being a disaster, Tainter says that for past societies, it is “a rational, economizing process that may well benefit much of the population”.
The second part looks at localisation in practice, including a lively exploration by Michael H. Shuman of the role of local businesses in the United States. According to Shuman’s calculations, at least three-quarters all economic activity in the US is ‘place based’. He makes a clear argument for the value of locally owned businesses, stressing the durable nature of local economic activity, and its ability to generate wealth over the longer term.
In the third part, the ideas of some of the most notable philosophers and philosopher-practitioners of localisation are explored, such as E.F. Schumacher and Wendell Berry. In particular, an illuminating look at European and US history (“The Decentralist Tradition”, by Kirkpatrick Sale) stacks up the historical evidence for human beings’ capacity to organise themselves constructively in the face of crisis. One of the most revealing and encouraging readings in the book, it demonstrates that today’s first steps towards a rational bottom-up response to the crises of industrial civilisation are part of a human tradition that has proven itself repeatedly to be able to meet collective needs democratically – in some cases, over the span of centuries.
The fourth part, a largely academic investigation of human motivation, is balanced by an impassioned essay from farmer and writer Sharon Astyk, which starkly sets out the moral choice between inaction and involvement facing each one of us, and places climate change and resource depletion firmly as issues of social justice. By way of encouragement she cites the example of Cuba, which had an energy descent forced upon it by the collapse of its patron, the Soviet Union. In response, Cuba threw itself behind improved social welfare programmes – for instance, opening new schools and clinics in areas that had become inaccessible due to transport constrictions. In contrast to the slash-and-burn approach to austerity being undertaken in the US (and Europe), Astyk concludes: “that’s a choice we can make too – if we want to”.
Governance of a localising world in addressed in the fifth part; it includes an essay by David J. Hess (“‘Global Problems, Localist Solutions”), which traces the emerging “political orientation of local independent ownership – building an alternative economy distinct from the world of the large, publicly traded corporation”. The sixth and final part looks at psychological, social and emotional methods for facilitating the enormous changes required. Here Raymond de Young and Thomas Princen argue for ‘adaptive muddling’ – local experiments that get feedback from their results of actions and take corrective action. Such an approach allows a number of ideas to be tested simultaneously on a small scale, and so enable faster learning at a societal level. Crucially, it depends on the participation of ordinary people, dealing on a scale that it is possible for an individual person to comprehend and to exert effective action on. In the same section, three of the original Limits to Growth team deal with the social, psychological and – one might say – spiritual tools required to facilitate the move to what they call the ‘Sustainability Revolution’, the third great global human transformation after the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions (also available online). And Lester W. Milbrath, in “Promoting a Partnership Society”, writes that archaeological, anthropological, and historical evidence shows us that domination, hierarchy, competitive aggression and sexual inequality is not an inevitable feature of the human social condition. Instead, he sees signs of a resurrection of the model of the ‘partnership societies’ that existed in the distant past – in large measure because of the entry of women (and feminine social values) into public life.
The first three parts in particular are the liveliest, and the strongest, written by impassioned writers who connect with the reader emotionally and morally. Unfortunately, the overly academic tone that dogs some of the latter half of the book blunts the book’s impact. For instance, a survey-based essay by Raymond de Young presupposes an extensive familiarity with the language of statistical analysis. While its reported results are intriguing – that people may prefer a lifestyle that is materially simpler – its presentation is such as to likely turn away the non-academic reader; another essay, by John Dryzek on “Ecological Democracy” borders at times on the impenetrable, despite having some interesting ideas that only yield themselves up after a second, concentrated, reading. The capacity of academic writing to – at times – disguise its own meaning is considerable. However, in a time of crisis that demands clarity, directness and accessibility of communication, is such a luxury affordable? And, while the book is fascinating and important, newcomers to the ideas might have difficulty in identifying what they look like in practice. The project could benefit by being complemented by a range of case studies that show what people are doing in practice to create sustainable initiatives rooted in one place.
Whatever shortcomings I may perceive it to have, however, a book such as this – a ‘reader’ – is of enormous value. De Young and Princen have done an enormous amount of work on the reader’s behalf. The selection of essays, their contextualisation, the comparison and juxtaposition of perspectives and arguments saves the reader from having to dig semi-blindly through the intellectual capital of the last decades. Moreover, it also encourages the reader to undertake that journey back to the source writings and ideas from a more informed starting point. Of course, being a selection of essays, written by more than twenty different sets of authors, it’s likely that the average reader will take what interests them – which could well be most of this book – and leave the rest. However, it would also make an excellent starting point for discussion in a study group of people who want to learn more about the intellectual underpinnings of our emerging new culture.
The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift, is published by MIT Press.
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Aidan McKeown is an editor and writer, living in the Netherlands, with a particular interest in issues concerning sustainability. He can be contacted at aidanmckeown [AT] gmail.com.