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=Localisation as Alternative Globalisation

Project: From the Crisis of Capitalism to the Emergence of Peer to Peer Political Ecologies


Summary by Jose Ramos:

Localisation or re-localisation has become a powerful current of thought in the debate around alternatives to economic globalisation. Recent proponents of localisation include the International Forum on Globalisation (IFG) who, over the past 20 years, has published various texts in, and brought together dozens of leading thinkers of, this discourse (Cavanagh, 2003; Mander, 1996, 2005). In addition is the New Economics Foundation (NEF) (Boyle, 2003) which came out of the TOES summits (Schroyer, 1997). Hines gives the most elaborated argument for localisation (Hines, 2002).

The term ‘localisation’ or ‘re-localisation’ is only the most recent and popular version of an intellectual movement which goes back to the 1950’s, and which also draws upon ancient traditions for inspiration. Kohr’s (1957) The Breakdown of Nations is given as the first instance of such theory formation - an attack on the gigantism he experienced in the wake of WWII (Simms, 2003, p. 4). Schumacher is also cited as an important influence for Small is Beautiful (Simms, 2003, p. 3). Mumford’s (1964) The Myth of the Machine may also be seen to be an early example of the critique of gigantism as manifest in technology and urban planning. The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth questioned assumptions regarding the sustainability of economic growth in a world system. Daly linked key localisation concepts (i.e. subsidiarity) with a post growth, steady-state vision of a global economy (Daly, 1977; Daly, 1994). Illich is also credited as a contributor for Energy and Equity (Simms, 2003, pp. 5-6). Sale is significant as one of the pioneers of bio-regionalism (Sale, 1996). Goldsmith has been an important contributor to the field, in particular through his critiques of industrialisation and calls for de-industrialisation (Goldsmith, 1988). Shiva has linked localisation with cultural and ecological diversity (Shiva, 2000a, 2000b).

The foundational categories of localisation include scale, diversity and energy. Scale is foundational to localisation, its importance seen in a number of ways. Gigantism, or the domination of the global over the local, is seen as one of the primary causes of harm to the world; this can be through mega merger derived corporate monopolisation, to over sized development projects pushed by the WB, or the ‘over-application’ of a-contextual knowledge by ‘experts’ on ‘locals’.

Different scales express distinct properties; sensitivity to the scale at which decisions are to be made is central. From the point of view of governance, subsidiarity establishes a model of decision-making based on territorial size. Decisions should be left to the most local, smallest unit practical, and only ascending to a larger scale of governance when effective governance is no longer possible at smaller scales (Cavanagh, 2003, pp. 107-120).

Diversity is another fundamental category. Heterogeneity of plant and animal species, cultures and knowledges is seen as fundamental to a healthy world. In this view, the homogenisation of culture, knowledge, and species is aberrant, a violation of basic principles of sustainment. The principle of diversity can be contrasted with what Hawthorn considers ‘contextlessness’ knowledge (Hawthorne, 2002, pp. 30-31); the view that there is knowledge (universal), goods (standardised), norms (ethical principles of the good society) which stand above the particular and are applicable and preferable across many or all domains. By contrast, ‘context’ grounds different expressions of knowledge, biology, economy, community as time-and-place specific, and suitable and appropriate, adapted or generated from local and specific instances, which gives them coherence with(in) their environments (Hawthorne, 2002, p. 110). Development and governance should be ‘bio-regional’, proceeding within regions based on its distinctive eco-systemic and cultural characteristics (Sale, 1996).

Energy may also be considered a fundamental category, as localisation discourse is deeply concerned with the use and sustainability of energy. Daly, for example, has long argued for a steady-state economy. This economy does not need to constantly grow, does not rely on energy from non-renewable resources, and can sustain itself in-perpetuity from renewables (such as the energy from the sun) (Daly, 1977). A key problem, argues Daly, is the production of too much energy, which is then used to exploit and process resources, overwhelming the bio-sphere’s capacity to absorb such waste through ecological sinks (Daly, 1996).

The localisation discourse fundamentally challenges a belief in universal truths applicable in all places and times. The Western system of knowledge is seen as ‘a local tradition which has been spread world-wide through intellectual colonisation’ (Shiva 1993 p10, quoted in Hawthorne, 2002, p. 96). Knowledge is seen to be an expression of ‘systematic’ power (Hawthorne, 2002, p. 65) used for social control and influence. So where are we to find legitimate knowledge? Knowledge is seen to be that which works in many different contexts, for many different types of people, in a diversity of ways. Cultural diversity is seen as intrinsically good, a carrier of the diversity of knowledge systems, the dignity of people, and practically valuable (Hawthorne, 2002, pp. 106-107).

In addition to its locality, knowledge can also be ancient. Norberg-Hodge chronicles the life of the Ladakh of Tibet, showing how this culture has developed knowledge that has enabled them to sustain themselves in the face of a very harsh environment for hundreds and hundreds of years (Norberg-Hodge, 1992). Shiva documented how local Indian agricultural knowledge of seed varieties and farming have proved far better long term for farmers than industrial farming approaches introduced by the West (Shiva, 2000a). Localisation affirms the value of knowledge systems that have proven their worth over time, with particular deference to those sustainable cultures that know best how to live without the aid of energy intensive industries.

The Bretton Woods Agreement (that ushered in an era of US hegemony) is a foundational moment for localisation theorists in conceptualising history. The agreement, which created GATT, the IMF and WB, is viewed as the origin of the current global system. GATT would lead to the formation of the WTO, and the development of a global (and globalised) economic system. The WB would fund mega development projects across the world, and the IMF would push growth oriented policies (Cavanagh, 2003, p. 18). As Cavanagh argues, the offspring of Bretton Woods:

are bringing about the most fundamental redesign of the planet’s social, economic, and political arrangement since the Industrial revolution. They are engineering a powershift of stunning proportions, moving real economic and political power away from national, state and local governments and communities toward unprecedented centralisation of power for global corporations, bankers, and the global bureaucracies they helped create, at the expense of national sovereignty, community control, democracy, diversity and the natural world. (Cavanagh, 2003, p. 19)

Localisation proponents argue for establishing a global commons, that which should be the heritage of all people, what should not be bought and sold. Conceptually, it is that which all people depend on, and which all people cannot live without (Cavanagh, 2003, p. 63). As the IFG write: ‘some commons may be thought of as global, such as the atmosphere, the oceans, outer space…. Others may be thought of as community commons: public spaces, common lands, forests, the gene pool, local innovative knowledge with respect to medicinal plants, and seeds that communities have developed over centuries’ (Cavanagh, 2003, pp. 81-82). According to localisation advocates, these should be ‘off limits’- especially for corporations who threaten such commons through privatisation and patents. This position is not a new one. The UN Charter (in the 1960’s) developed the concept of a ‘common heritage of mankind’ which ‘exclude[d] a state of private right of appropriation over certain resources and permit[ted] the development of those resources, where appropriate, for the benefit of all, with due regard paid to environmental protection’ (Held, 1995, p. 86).

The localisation discourse also contains consideration of what futures are preferred. Much of the literature acknowledges that current rates of consumption are not sustainable, and ‘sustainable growth’ is considered an oxymoron (Daly, 1996). While authors such as Hamilton argue for a post-growth model, Daly has argued for a ‘steady state’ economy, and Goldsmith has advocated de-industrialisation (Daly, 1994; Goldsmith, 1988; Hamilton, 2003). The dual issues of peak oil and climate change are exemplary, as the era of cheap transport, industrial agriculture (with its high energy inputs), and cheap energy are seen to be almost over - the price of a carbon intensive global economy will become unsustainable. In addition, the future must be constructed through a ‘precautionary principle’ that limits the introduction of a ‘practice or product [that] raises potentially significant threats of harm to human health or the environment’ (Cavanagh, 2003, p. 76), which can be seen to have important correlates with Beck’s discussion of the production of technological ‘risk’ (Beck, 1999).

The localisation view is not antithetical to national governance, but its vision is to devolve governing powers to the smallest scale possible, so that people have maximum decision-making power within their local settings. Subsidiarity entails redistributing power based on scales of governance; it is an attack on the aggregation and concentration of power and wealth seen in the latter half of the 20th century. Corporate globalisation, through the work of global institutions such as IMF, WB and WTO, is seen to strip people of decision-making power, both politically and economically.

Citizen social movements opposing corporate globalisation are invoked by some (Cavanagh, 2003, pp. 13, 56-59; Korten, 1999) as examples of where to look for agency. The political ideal is active participation, taking back democracy through direct and engaged involvement in community and world. Agency can also mean community action or empowerment as an alternative to corporate globalisation, for example replacing WalMart type economic systems with farmers markets where foods are locally sourced (or through other cooperative systems). The personal dimension of agency entails becoming a local producer of a variety of possible things, foods, services, goods, skills, knowledge / education – replacement for dependence on global and industrial systems / processes. Behavioural changes (for example buying local, and riding a bike) are seen as ways of de-coupling oneself from an energy intensive global lifestyle. The mega scale global economy, made possible by our collective surrendering of productive energies and capacities, can be reclaimed through local community initiatives. Every small project and step adds up to a great movement toward re-localised cultural and ecological sustainment.

From [1]


Ramos, J. (2010) Alternative Futures of Globalisation: A Socio-Ecological Study of the World Social Forum Process, P.h.D. Thesis Dissertation, Queensland University of Technology

P2P Commentary

Michel Bauwens 1

The P2P perspective broadly agrees with the historical necessity for re-localisation, as a necessary corrective to the pathologies of capitalist globalization. Amongst those are the ecological devastation and waste through global transportation systems, the destruction of local diversity, the uprooting of the achievements of more local sovereignities and the like. Localisation is a valid critique of important aspects of the capitalist system. However, the big danger of the perspective is a romanticising of the local, a reliance of dwarfish forms which cannot outcooperate capitalist forms and ignoring the global conditions which are necessary for relocalisation to occur.

First of all, the recognition of the global commons is a very important aspect of contemporary relocalisation. This is part of the necessity to combine both 'smart' localisation and smart alternative globalisations. One of the latter is the generalisation of global and shared innovation commons and the end of artificial scarcities that impede global sharing in science and culture, but also joint global governance to deal with global problems that cannot be solved on any pure local level. We also need political and civil global coordination and governance mechanisms. Faced with a deterritorialized ruling class that has upended national sovereignities, there needs to be a glocal counterforce. An example of this are the global action networks described by Steve Waddell. In other words, mere localisation is never enough, and would be counterproductive as well as too weak to effect change, it's the reconfiguration of the local and global which is the key.

Last but not least is the necessity of global mutualist 'phyles', i.e. global material production cooperative entities that are the condition for localized open and distributed manufacturing. Phyles are the p2p answer to global corporations and are necessary coordinating mechanisms between local actors who need global cooperation. They are mission-oriented, community supportive entities responsible for the social reproduction of commons that cannot be conceived as purely local.

Peer to peer dynamics can and must operate on both local and global levels, and smart re-localisation must take that into account.

Jose Ramos

I agree with your analysis above. Relocalization can only be possible if the global forces and structures which disable it or challenge, and the global forces and structures that enable it are strengthened. I also like the very clear articulation of where global sharing in science technology and culture is necessary structural counter synergy to a vibrant localization process.

Where I am unclear is to what extent you accept some of the key assumptions within localization in regards to our future economy's capacity to sustain an industrial, not to mention a postindustrial, system. If the peak oil Cassandras are right, then are we looking at a situation in which our current use of computer technologies cannot simply be sustained? In such a scenario are we looking at a “eco-Technik” situation? To what extent might more decentralized inter-webs play a part in a hard-core energy crisis? Or will we just power our computers by jumping on a bicycle?

The other side to this coin is that computer technologies are among the most toxic, damaging and destructive technologies ever conceived and inflicted upon people and planet. Therefore, within re-localized political configurations that impose a neo-internalization of ecological costs, how does this impact peer-to-peer approaches that are currently enmeshed with industrial eco-externalization of costs?

Finally, on an epistemological note, re-localization is one of the discourses that is able to accommodate radical diversity. This is based, in part, on the discourses grounding in sustainability principles, within which diversity is considered one of the principal requisites for resilience. Diversity is intrinsically good, according to this view. My own analysis of the alternative globalization movement, process and theory has led me to the conclusion that diversity must be balanced by coherence building processes, as well as contained within structures that can protect constituents and extend power and influence. I would be curious to hear your view on the concept of diversity, which is also a principle within peer-to-peer literature, but used in different contexts.

Course on Re-Localization

"Biophysical limits and the effect of having disrupted ecosystems mean that we soon will consume far fewer resources and live much more simply. But rather than being dismal, this prospect contains embedded benefits. If done carefully, we can transition to a locally grounded, intrinsically satisfying life. - Raymond De Young"

A SYLLABUS is available for a course or reading group on the topic of re-localization. Additional readings are listed on that site in a bibliography and in documents from an older course on decentralism. A re-localization course has been offered twelve times between 2008 and 2019 at the University of Michigan and is constantly being modified.