By Matthew Slater (Community Forge & Deep Adaptation Forum) and Jem Bendell (University of Cumbria & Deep Adaptation Forum).
Deep Adaptation is firstly and mainly about coming to terms with the end of our way of life, and finding in ourselves and each other loving responses in place of fear and blame. Many people, having dwelled in that space for a while, then seek various forms of meaningful action, usually around living more fully and trying to reduce future harm. Increasingly, people are putting energy into re-localising their societies and economies. The rationale for such action is often quite personal. In our experience of engaging with people who are seeking to localise their lives as part of their deep adaptation, the following ideas often come up:
- there are many links between globalised neoliberal economics and the drivers of the climate crisis
- there is a long tradition of alternative economics promoting localisation for environmental benefit that goes back to EF Schumacher
- most people express little to no political agency at the national level, whereas local politics appears much more accessible
- many people find working face-to-face with neighbours easier and more enjoyable than sporadic collaborations at national levels
- they consider they are more likely to benefit from results of their own local improvements.
It is not that all globalisation is all bad, but that there has been a huge imbalance in power at the global level, with the interests of corporations and banks shaping the agendas. Progressive internationalists can point to many benefits. For instance, global technical standards make the internet available to everyone, our electronic devices (somewhat) compatible, and other infrastructure like GPS means no-one (carrying a phone) gets lost any more. Global law like the human rights charter is a fantastic political achievement despite many countries’ neglect of it. Intergovernmental cooperation is also essential for both cutting and drawing down carbon emissions, as well as adapting to the effects of extreme weather on our societies. So it is important to clarify which aspects of life most need to be local, and indeed, regional and national.
There is one really important reason why we need to rebuild local life, which has been hollowed out by the needs of the economic machine in recent decades, and indeed centuries: that reason is resilience.
There are growing debates about how society will respond, breakdown or collapse through the impact of global heating. Probably the most referenced theory of previous societal collapses is Joseph Tainter’s theory of complex societies. He alleges that when the base conditions change, the layer and layers of governance, bureaucracy built up during long periods of stability come crashing down. That means that our means of global governance, global infrastructure, and global trade, are at the greatest risk – ironically the very things our prevailing ideologies have been driving us towards, in the name of efficiency.
Of course Tainter’s collapse is an interpretation of history, not necessarily a prediction of the future, but it gives grounds for thought. It suggests that if say food, or fuel were to become generally scarce, flows of resources towards the most abstract, and complex organs of society would wither. From that theory, perhaps the Bretton Woods institutions, complex trade agreements, international law, the most complex financial instruments, airlines, computer hardware and social networks, could be amongst the first things to fail?
This could be a matter of ‘falling back’, but it could be worse if we have come to depend on those things. For example much food is imported by air, interest rates in all mortgages are globally linked to high risk finance, and we may struggle to imagine life without mobile phones and social networks. If national infrastructure should start to crumble, life could become very difficult.
A great explanation for all this vulnerability can be found in a biology / economics study which shows that efficiency and resilience lie at opposite ends of a spectrum. Generally, more diverse systems encourage more redundancy and more linkages between components, and more uses for each component. Imagine running across a tightrope – you can go pretty fast unless you fall off! Running across the safety net is less efficient but you are less likely to die. The authors stressed that this principle applied in economics as in other fields. “Economics seems in pursuit of monistic goals and all too willing to sacrifice everything for the betterment of market efficiency… Preoccupation with efficiency could propel into disaster.” Capitalism has always been about building greater efficiency (maximising GDP for a given population), and within that the regular financial mishaps have been regarded as mere abberations. The theoretical cost of super-efficiency is the risk of super-accidents, which implies that economic globalisation is setting us up for the mother of all collapses.
There are several formulations of resilience in general terms. Key amongst them is the need avoid single points of failure, by distributing the work and the processing throughout the system. A related goal for resilience is that the same functions should be fulfilled by different mechanisms so that when conditions change in unforseeable ways, some mechanisms are likely still to work. Localisation is desirable for many reasons, but it is systemically important for these reasons, so after that somewhat long introduction to the topic of localisation for deep adaptation, in the remainder of this blog we will look closer at what it could involve. If you would like to engage on this topic, we recommend joining the Community Action discussion group of the Deep Adaptation Forum.
The most prominent localisation movement in UK at the moment is the Transition Town network, which grew out of the systemic thinking of permaculture. That movement has thoroughly explored what localisation entails in the modern context, and piloted many projects. Ecovillages also play an important role in pioneering deeply different ways of life, which many of them can do, as intentional communities.
So let’s take a closer look. The Transition movement emphasises several areas of life in need of localisation, which we will now expound upon, sometimes using examples from other movements:
Food is usually the highest priority because humans require lots of it, every day, and it requires months of preparation and often lots of organisation to produce and prepare it. The industrialised food system depends on massive inputs of fossil fuels, both to power machinery and for fertiliser, and results in high waste, pollution and often poor nutrition. And yet by growing food in gardens, allotments or on public land, families and communities can dramatically reduce dependence on imports and industry. In most countries there is a large informal food scene, consisting of farmers’ markets and part-time, self-sufficient growers alongside people drying, preserving, baking and occasionally serving labour intensive foods – and those who wish to pay the price. Those who want to support local growers and eat organic food with the seasons can find more and more veggie box schemes, formally known as Community Supported Agriculture.
Energy prices are increasing over the long term, and our supplies in the West have depended on militarised subjugation of people in other countries. Much energy generated in power stations is lost in transit. The imperative to reduce or stop fossil fuel consumption can involve four approaches: reducing energy consumption and changing usage patterns, nuclear power to which many object forcefully, massive solar and wind farms, and small scale renewable energy, owned by individuals or local communities.
In these kinds of matters, the hand of government is everywhere from creating minimum standards, to reporting requirements, and market influence through taxes, grants, and subsidies. Governments, especially local governments are under enormous pressure to cut costs and sell assets, and this creates an environment, not accidentally, favourable to enterprises led by large corporations with better access to credit, lobbying power, cheap labour etc. Many elected representatives and civil servants don’t really understand the full extent of this process, or if they do, they don’t or can’t organise, stick their necks out, and change it. A recent phenomenon in UK, dubbed flatpack democracy has seen citizens organise, get themselves elected, and accomplish useful things at the local level.
Modern capitalism favours large institutions which can spread risk and maximise profit for shareholders, which means that small and local businesses find it very hard to get loans. Other non-commercial community institutions, including government struggle for viability, especially after a decade of austerity. Philanthropic funding increasing comes with demands that revenue streams be developed. UK has a law called ‘community right to bid’ which allows local groups to purchase local assets and amenities like post offices, village shops or community pubs. The Plukett foundation helps communities to organise themselves, and the UK government helps them to issue shares for such purposes. We are watching another initiative which aims to create local care cooperatives as an alternative to crumbling state care system. All of this is a far cry from reversing the centralising effect of the last forty years of capitalism.
The difficulty of all of these things points towards deeper drivers. A number of local money projects in UK were spawned from Transition Towns initiatives, which helped to show the public that money is not the simple/neutral tool it may appear to be to the casual user, but could be designed differently. But the low traction of these projects also showed just how intractable money and assumptions about it are. We critiqued these projects elsewhere. Other initiatives like LETS and timebanking reimagine non-monetary currencies, supporting value-flows and exchange within communities, without banks, debt or government behind the accounting unit. In a forthcoming blog, we will offer two new ideas for local monetary innovation which build on these efforts, while focusing particularly on currency and payment systems that would survive an economic (and banking) collapse.
In an era of fuel scarcity we shall have to re-learn how to holiday and play closer to home. In the UK, hardworking people often escape to the sunshine, but a more resilient attitude might be to focus on building quality relationships and having fun with other people, sometimes called ‘staycationing’. Cultivating musical talent, group activities and festivals, form another thread in the transition culture.
For the Transition movement, “inner transition” is the mental, psychological and spiritual processes that accompany the social, economic and political transition to a post-peak oil world. It can be a personal or collective process and bears a lot in common with Deep Adaptation. These practices and ideas can be more intense in intentional communities, where living more closely together requires a higher degree of knowledge of self and trust of others.
Learning from the Limits of Localisation Past
There’s one more reason the localisation agenda chimes with Deep Adaptation. We don’t know how meaningful any of our efforts will be on trajectory of climate or the global response of humanity. Perhaps the future will disagree with Tainter and our society will collapse from the bottom up! So what is important to us about the localisation agenda and the practical things people are doing in relation to it, is that it is about a more vibrant way of living right now. Localisation points towards a more grounded, more connected, more human way of life in contrast with the ‘alienation’ many people feel from their work, families and neighbours. Helena Norberg Hodge promotes it for this reason, calling it “The Economics of Happiness”.
In Western countries, these efforts at environmentally-friendly localisation have been around for decades. So as we reflect on the implications for Deep Adaptation, it is useful to consider the limitations of current and past initiatives. Many of them have failed to spread to economically disadvantaged communities. The accusation then heard from some critics is that movements like Transition are elitist and excluding. While the limited extent or diversity of any movement can seem like an unfair criticism of hard-working, well-meaning volunteers, it is nevertheless a central issue for an agenda as all-encompassing as Deep Adaptation. Therefore, a key question for people interested in localisation to promote resilience for unfolding societal breakdowns and likely collapse is to learn from those limitations.
We can learn from situations in other countries where resilience has been improved in the past. In Cuba, for instance, where the past trade embargo led to self-reliant organic agriculture across the whole country. Or in Kenya, where people living on only a few dollars (equivalent) a day in informal settlements have reduced poverty without foreign aid money by issuing their own currencies. We do not know for certain the reasons for these successes, but the answers might be found in:
a) Community leaders convening those local people with the capacity to explore issues, prioritise actions and implement them in ways that reduce dependence on support from outside.
b) Focusing those initial actions on acknowledging and mobilising existing community assets, in order to collaboratively meet immediate needs.
Unfortunately, when funders get involved, they often start by bringing a deficit mindset, characterising communities by what is lacking. External funders’ agendas and mechanisms then privilege a few people in a community who are best able to look outside the community for answers and, once funded, begin to think on behalf of the funder as much as the community. It is why one of us has argued previously for a more solidarity-based approach from grant makers in the face of climate-induced collapse.
For more on this subject, see this Poetry of Predicament podcast.
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