Localisation and post growth thinking - new economic models?
My Fair London activist Tom McDonough reports from 'Towards a localised future', a Saturday conference held at Friends Meeting House on 17th September, organised by Local Futures and Green House.
"One of the burdens of being a critic of neoliberalism and its concomitant inequality is the paucity of well-established alternative models for how our economies and societies should be organised. Over and again I hear people, including left-leaning people, lament the absence of viable substitutes for a consumption-driven, capitalist system. “It’s a rotten system but the only one we have” or “Well we tried communism and that didn’t work so what else is there?” are well worn lines of argument.
Post-Growth Localisation (PGL), the subject of a discussion held on 17th September at Friend’s House in Euston, offers one vision for how societies and economies could be run differently. Simplifying greatly, PGL posits that we need to end our obsession with economic growth and shift power from corporations to local communities. Its exponents do not believe that merely tinkering with our neoliberal framework by, for example, redistributing income and curbing individual energy consumption will ever resolve our social or economic woes.
Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures, told attendees that ‘Localisation’ entailed encouraging diversified production for domestic needs instead of specialised production for export. This shift would not eliminate international trade nor require a return to insular village life, but it would mean moving power from transnational corporations to nation states and democratically robust local communities.
The scale and pace of economic activity would diminish as workers focused their energies on producing goods and services that people really needed rather than on churning out adverts and status-symbol goods that fuel a vicious cycle of insecurity, consumption and separation. Thus reorganised, people would have more face-to-face relationships, a closer connection with nature and an increased sense of personal and cultural identity. At the same time the reduced distances between producers and consumers would allow for a reduction in resource use and pollution while a bigger need for human labour would boost employment and lessen our reliance on energy-hungry technology. The model may sound utopian but it is in fact being implemented by communities and organisations all over the world, with the local food movement being at its heart. Besides food, localisation initiatives are focussing on small business networks, local banking and the ecovillage movement. In North America, for example, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, is bringing together small businesses to resist the pressures exerted by giant corporate giants.
‘Post growthism’ is arguably better known than ‘Localisation’ and would certainly be familiar to readers of Richard Wilkinson’s and Kate Pickett’s book ‘The Spirit Level’, which argues that wealthy developed nations no longer gain benefits from economic growth and need to concentrate on reducing inequality if their citizens are to enjoy improved health and wellbeing. This analysis is entirely harmonious with Post Growthism. At the 17 September event Rupert Read, a member of the Green House think tank and a prominent Green Party politician, argued that the economics of happiness cannot be achieved as long as nations remained enslaved to the un-argued, un-analysed growth argument. According to Read, our obsessive quest for economic growth is destroying our eco-system, shredding communities through competitive consumerism and feeding inequality by enriching only the wealthiest. Growthism allows Governments to generate more acceptance for inequality by creating the illusion that all people, from the richest to the poorest, can continue to enjoy improvements in living standards, provided that overall the economic cake keeps growing.
I liked the PGL concept, not least for its focus on soft outcomes like re-connecting with nature, being happy, forging stronger relationships with community members, being more active and reversing our tendency to lead ever more sedentary, desk-based, screen-lives. But is it the alternative model to neoliberal capitalism that we so badly need? While its radical proposals would certainly be regarded with scepticism by many, they could also be appealing to the increasing numbers of disenfranchised people, even including Brexiters and Trumpists. PGL is by no means xenophobic or nationalist, but it could offer positive solutions to those of us who are enraged by inequality, environmental destruction, corporate dominance and a sense of powerlessness. However the PGL movement, like other alternatives to the neoliberal economic model, will never achieve success as long as it is known only to isolated groups of academics and activists. The real challenge is to increase awareness among the public, both of the fatal flaws in the current economic system and of the alternatives that exist, no easy task given that the mainstream media is controlled by corporations and the myth of meritocracy holds sway in the minds of many. If there is to be any hope of change we need information campaigns, alternative media organisations and education programmes that stop perpetuating the idea that our economic and social status quo is the only option."
There is more information about Local Futures here.