Back to the Future: How Localization provides a Pathway to Sustainability

Note: This is an abnormal post due to its length, as it is simply a publishing of an essay I wrote a few months ago. It is as much a thought experiment as it is a suggestion for our future, but to achieve global sustainability dramatic changes must be undertaken. But without further adieu:

     What do you want to be when you grow up? Where do you see yourself in ten years? Twenty? Have you started planning your retirement? Your funeral? These are questions that reappear every few years throughout our entire lives. From the first report card where you have to define your ‘goals’ to the last decision you have to make on where you want to be laid to rest, you are hounded by these questions. Plan, plan, plan, they scream. It’s a crime in our society to be without a plan, it implies a lazy or lackadaisical approach to life that is to be shunned. But what is shunned for the individual, is violently protected for a society. Every day environmentalists shout, what does humanity want to be when it grows up? Humanity sits atop of the world, we are the proverbial twenty something. We have a plethora of resources, and the luxury of using them on our toys and gadgets. But this cannot last forever. We must begin to think of our future, our children, and our retirement, when the resources are no longer available and all we have left is the nest egg that we’ve built up in the years prior. Humanity has realized that individuals are short sighted, and have created a society that pushes back against it. But once again, what is wrong for the individual is widely accepted for the collective.

     This is a realization that is slowly dawning on the world, but without a goal to strive for, humanity falters.  Therefore, she who creates and popularizes the goal creates the world of tomorrow. In the past years waves upon waves of sustainable plans have crashed along humanity’s shoreline. Each changing the landscape before receding back into the ocean of ‘theory’. But many of these solutions prove that the short sightedness of humanity is not limited to the future, but the past as well. With five thousand years of societal history to draw upon, we act as if it can teach us nothing. Humanity has trained itself to see ourselves as on an ever improving incline, that new is synonymous with better. This is truly a tragedy. For we are entering one of humanity’s toughest tests, and to meet the challenge will require the total sum of our knowledge. Today’s megacities have forgotten the lessons learned by those first communities built around newly discovered agriculture and by examining the dichotomy between the two one can begin to see the path that exists for humanity’s escape. It is narrow, but it is there: localization, the pathway back to the future.

Human population has just passed 7 billion and it is expected to hit at least 10 billion before it begins to level out. Density allows humanity to decrease its ecological footprint and therefore metropolises represent our best hope for sustainability, but they cannot look like they do today. Our current society has created urban centres that are unsustainable and dramatically dependent on the world around them. Our cities rely on the lifeline of cheap transportation to provide us with not only the basic necessities of life, but almost absolutely everything we consume. Think for a second, what would you do if all imports to your city stopped for a week? What would you eat? What about two weeks? A year? The early communities could produce their own food, create their own clothing, and build their own houses. Our cities cannot do any of this. Globalization of production has robbed us of all adaptability in the quest for slightly cheaper goods, but it is only a symptom of the greater cause.

Within the past sixty years a distinct change has come over our society, the dominance of truly multinational corporations, the acceptance and push of planned obsolescence, and centralization and specialization of everything has created a system where we as individuals have no choice but to be completely reliant on the system itself. But the entire extravagance is built on rotting foundations, and sooner or later it will not be able to hold us. As an aside, let us not pretend that we have the option of simply abandoning our society en masse, for entertaining this idea will only delay the true solution.

The system as it exists today is a testament to humanity, it is as ingenious as it is absurd, it is simultaneously self aware and yet entirely blind, it is irrationality constructed through hyper rationality. Its ingenuity rests in the fact that it is doing exactly what it was created to do. In the mid 1950’s planned obsolescence created a system where new was always better and old broke quickly. Businesses created increasingly cheap products by externalizing costs, including labour, and mass outsourcing began to bring prices down. Companies became increasingly multinational, Western nations’ GDP rose, the businesses profited, and the average consumer could now buy more things! In all economic understandings of the world it was a massive success, such a success that it would require a substantial and collective effort to undo much of what has been done. So why bother? The system has created such wealth and prosperity, why should we change it?

The answer brings us back to the beginning of the article. We are the twenty something who has a well paying job, but we are running up credit card debt, buying unnecessary things, and refusing to live within our means because we are convinced what we are doing is what we need to do to be happy. But that twenty something has society’s social safety net to fall back on, if things get too bad they can declare bankruptcy and try to start again. Humanity doesn’t have that option. All of our current prosperity has put ourselves in an increasingly vulnerable position. What we need to do is push back against the idea that buying power is equal to prosperity and, to continue the metaphor, move back home. This is meant in two ways, we must aim to have our cities as self sufficient as we would our own home, but secondly we need a return to the understanding of the importance and value of social and environmental capital that was commonplace within communities for a majority of human history.

The movement has already begun. The push for localization has been slowly gaining traction within environmentalism for decades and people have proudly proclaimed that they “Buy American” since before the Second World War. But this is not a call for blind nationalism, nor is it a attack on all globalization. This is a call for the localization of production, but a globalization of people, ideas and innovations, for such dramatic change will require the best humanity has to offer, but the work will be worth it.

To show this, let us examine the world of localized production through the eyes of what could be, the futuristic city. The first, and most obvious impact of localized production is the dramatic decrease in mass produced goods and therefore increased prices. The return of production to western nations increases the cost of labour and therefore you can no longer buy a printer for less than its ink costs. But this has an additional impact, since people must now pay more for their goods they expect a higher quality of product. Without being able to externalize costs by exporting labour to developing nations companies must begin to change their business models. This increase in prices breathes life into a near dead industry, revitalizers spring up for almost all products. Gone are the days that the twenty-dollar tennis shoe is replaced in six months because the sole has worn out. Gone are the days where an old desk is simply thrown out due to lack of use. Cobblers, carpenters, and artisans of all sorts rise up to regain their past prominence to offset the costs of primary production.

But the rise of the repair industry is only one change. Localized production will redefine the consumer supplier relationship, increased prices will decrease the power of major corporations to dominate markets and leave them open to smaller creators. This along with the increased necessity of urban farms, backyard gardening, and decentralized power production, will mean we will no longer be a society of consumers with a supplying elite, but rather we shall all be at least small scale suppliers. All of this will mean that we will be interacting with our neighbours and communities more, but with traditional stores and malls less. You could not sell your extra few apples into a centralized system, but could certainly trade it with a neighbour for their excess sugar, or perhaps an old chair. Our system is biased against informal economies such as this as they are difficult to control and tax; however, its power is too great to be ignored.

The creation of these informal economies will demand an increase of social capital amongst neighbours and communities. There will be distinct advantages to knowing one’s neighbour. Our current system fights so strongly to protect individualism, but that feeling is precisely one of the reasons we are in the predicament we’re in. We have allowed our society to become so antisocial that we have created a system where one can replace all the benefits of social capital with economic capital. But in doing so we’ve become inherently wasteful. If one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, than why don’t we let it be? That localization will raise the costs of production is not in doubt; however, this is only an issue within our current world. For currently everything is seen as single use, we live in a buy, use, trash society, with very few exceptions. In the world of localized production, costs would be kept low through a system of buy, use, resell or refurbish. Our current society has trained us to understand that if we can buy less, than we will have less, but this is far from a necessary truth.

None of this is to say that this transformation will be fast and easy. Far from it, but the movement has already begun and it will only get stronger with a push from economics and environmentalists. A price on carbon is not yet a reality, but many believe it’s coming soon. A carbon economy combined with the increasing price of oil will make long distance transportation significantly more costly. A strong push by environmentalists and a pinch of good marketing make local products the must haves. And step-by-step our pathway back to a sustainable future is laid out.

     Localization of production will not solve all environmental problems that we face today. It is not a miracle cure, but in pure sustainability terms it would be a dramatic step forward. It would also change some of the most important attitudes that currently stand in the way of many environmental initiatives and can be done without extensive changes to either our government or current form of resource management. It will help to bring a more equitable world by creating decentralizing suppliers. It will reduce waste by increasing the cost of production and demanding the rise of the repair industry. It will help to reaffirm the balance of social, environmental and economic capital and will create adaptable self-sufficient cities. Humanity must realize that the future sustainable world is not an unattainable pipe dream. We cannot afford to put off actions that would get us one step closer to sustainability by arguing that it will not solve all of our problems. You don’t tell the man or woman who at twenty-five is in debt with a job that doesn’t pay the bills to keep doing what their doing and hope something will come up, but you don’t tell them to give up either. No, if you are a realist you tell them to plan, if you are an optimist you tell them to dream, but whoever you are you tell them to act. So why aren’t we?

By: Stefan Hostetter