Why local? No, seriously- why local?

“Local” has become a highly prevalent buzzword in sustainability and environmentalist discussions today.  Local food, local businesses, local government, local action, you name it.  Entire movements- most notably Transition Towns and Resilience – have sprung up around the idea of local is better.  Grist recently had a month of localist themed content.  Food miles entered the popular lexicon, although research subsequently showed it wasn’t perhaps the best metric.   Gus Speth spoke about it profusely in America the Possible.  Naomi Klein has discussed it extensively as well.  David Korten rarely talks about anything else, it seems, and has tirelessly supported such ventures via groups such as the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.  Bill McKibben argued in Eaarth that a return to the local is about the only thing that will save us from economic and environmental calamity (incorrectly, in my opinion, but I’ll get to that in due time). Among the movers and shakers of the environmental movement, there is a strong sense that we ought to return to a more local community oriented paradigm.

In part, I think this is probably due to overlap of dark green environmentalism (to use Alex Steffen’s term) with the anti-globalization movement, which frequently touts a return to the local as an alternative to economic globalization.  In any case, as I have been doing a lot of reading on these topics, I’ve seen localism (as well as its wonkier sibling, social capital) come up repeatedly throughout many works.  However, the curious thing I discovered was that, surprisingly frequently, being local was assumed a priori to be a good thing- there was often little justification or background given for why a local approach to a particular problem should be favored.

This isn’t to say there aren’t ever explanations presented.  David Korten points out that having business owners live in the same communities that their businesses operate means the owners will have to live with the consequences of their business decision- and presumably they won’t pick up and leave as soon as operating costs get cheaper somewhere else, either.   Bill McKibben in Deep Economy makes a pitch for local community based, in part, on research into psychology that suggests we as humans are happier in tight-knit communities- which isn’t too surprising, given we are ultimately social creatures, after all.  Juliet Schor’s Plenitude relies on the same research, and, much more intriguingly, suggests that advances in technology (basically, internet+open-source design+digital fabricators/3d printing/desktop manufacturing) may make small-scale, decentralized production more efficient than centralized mass production at some point in the near future.  And plenty of arguments have been made by various authors based around the idea that local-based power is more amenable to democratic and participatory control.

But to me, even all these justifications never seemed to really match the deep-seated and almost visceral adoration and focus that was given to the local.  I struggled to see why there was such a big deal about it.  After all, aren’t we dealing with inherently global problems that will need global solutions?

The Banana Split Theory of Alienation

The epiphany that revealed the allure of the local occurred to me in an unexpected place, as epiphanies are wont to do.   I was at a chain restaurant- I can’t remember now which one it was in particular.  Regardless, I happened to glance behind the counter, and noticed that there was a stack of peculiar disposable plastic containers.  They looked like elongated bowls, with two parallel troughs within the bowl.  It took me a few seconds to figure out what they were.

They were bowls made specifically for the serving of banana splits.

I’m not sure why, but in the instant of that realization, I suddenly understood what all the fuss about localism is about.

It’s not about sticking it to global corporations, or being more sustainable (though it can do all of those things, as well).

It’s about alienation.

Localism appeals to activists because they perceive themselves being a world where just about everything has been commoditized to an inch of its life, and then turned around and marketed incessantly at them.  It’s a world where most daily transactions in life have been homogenized and impersonalized, and so has the cultural and social landscape.  It’s a world where, consequently, most places have lost many of their defining characteristics, and the sense of community and place has subsequently suffered.  It’s a world where even a restaurant’s banana split has become so standardized, it even has its own special container.

The reason, then, that many of the activist writers speak about social rootlessness, the loss of local community, the need for a more place-based orientation and an end to “pointless mobility” is that they themselves feel unrooted, without community, disoriented, and without a defined place for themselves.   They have become aware of their own atomization  in modern society, and in turn, they are aware of a desperate need for a structured community to overcome that atomization.


This alienation plays a profound role in shaping the thoughts and philosophy of the anti-globalization movement, and through cultural osmosis, a large portion of the environmentalism movement as well.  It explains a number of themes that emerge in activist thought.

As one example, the focus on farming and rural life that pervades much of the writings on concerning these topics is, at least in part, a reaction to this alienation.  Local food from local farms has been the spearhead of the localism dynamic within sustainability, and arguably its most successful effort to date.  There is also great emphasis about the plight of urban migration “hollowing out” farming communities.  A lot this, I believe, ultimately stems from the fact that rural farming communities tend to be more tightly-knit than suburban ones, and therefore are considered, at least on a visceral level, to be superior.  However, having grown up on a farm, I can speak from experience that this isn’t due to some inherent advantage to the farming lifestyle, but is merely a survival tactic- we needed to know our neighbors, and know we could depend on them, because if our horses ever got out, they would be most likely the first ones to find them.  Or if we needed our driveway plowed, or needed to borrow some sugar, or whatever.

Another example is the fascination with indigenous peoples and those in the developing world.  While it’s true that the indigenous have probably suffered the most as the result of globalization, and frequently possess practices or traditions that are unique or may be of interest to other cultures, I don’t think that’s the sole reason they are often held up a shining example of sustainability and the local.  Rather, a lot of has to do with the fact that indigenous groups also tend to have very strong senses of community (again, more out of a need for survival than anything else), and, additionally, have a strong identification with an ethnicity or cultural history- something that activists in the developed world, who perceive themselves without roots or group identity, long for.

I also think this might be why many activists and ideologues have a tendency to wax lyrically about the spiritual aspects of their struggles, and for the need for people to find a more spiritually-oriented way of life.  In the absence of a community to provide them structure and a sense of belonging, they have instead turned to the transcendent to give them something to hold on to (although this sometimes has an unfortunate tendency to degenerate into New Age navel-gazing and a disdain for science for being too “reductionist” (i.e., suggesting whatever spiritual ethos they’ve picked up is probably not based in physical reality)).

Lastly, this feeling of alienation also may explain the preference towards the smaller-scale, as well.  Large-scale things, whether they be corporations, projects, even ideas, easily become impersonalized and, to many, hard to understand.  I plan to expand on the idea of scales in sustainability in a later essay, but for now, I will just say that I’m beginning to think that E.F. Schumacher didn’t quite get it right- it’s not so much that small is beautiful, but that big is terrifying (or, at the very least, bewildering).

The strange part about all of this is, while it makes a certain amount of sense, and has been discussed from time to time (heck, Erich Fromm argued that this kind of alienation, along with the existential angst of having control over one’s destiny, can be intense enough to drive people to fascism), this concern about alienation is rarely mentioned in the literature of either sustainability or anti-globalization.  Edward Goldsmith mentioned it in the ’70s, but only as evidence that humanity was “intended” to live in tribal small groups and communities (unfortunately for him this assertion was based on ecological theory that we now know to be almost completely wrong).  Similarly, E.F. Schumacher acknowledged it as well, but only as part of a long litany of social ills caused by “bigness.”

It wasn’t until I tracked down The Case Against the Global Economy: And Toward a Turn for the Local, a massive, obscure, 16-year-old collection of essays from various leading lights of the anti-globalization and environmentalism movement, that I even saw authors explicitly make the connection about alienation and the outlook of these social movements. Even then, it was usually in the context of fighting the homogenization that comes with globalization, for fear that all will be subsumed into a global “monoculture.”  This makes sense- a perfectly uniform landscape (even a cultural one) has no landmarks, and no way to tell where you are, and is inherently disorienting.  However, only two of the essays in the book- one by Canadian First Nations activist Jeannette Armstrong, and the final, closing essay by editor Edward Goldsmith [1] went into any detail about perceptions of alienation and rootlessness.

Why might this be the case? One explanation is that most of these writers assume that you’re already familiar with the literature- a rather poor assumption to make if you’re trying to reach out to new people.  More likely, I think, is that many of them feel this so strongly that to them, it’s self-evident.  They assume there’s no need to explain the underpinnings of the push towards the local, because surely everyone must feel this way, too?  It is in this assumption that some of the biases of the local-centric approach are exposed.

Biases of Localism

Clearly, not everyone feels the way the activists do, or otherwise people like me wouldn’t be confused (well, maybe I’m just special and unusually easily perplexed, but I don’t like to give myself that much credit 🙂 ). A lot of this has to do, I think, with the common background that many of these activist, thinkers, and writers have.

First and foremost, as I did more research on this topic, it became a game for me to try to guess where the author grew up.  I was able to do so with a high degree of accuracy- not because of intuition or because of keen observational skills, but because virtually all of the come from New England- Vermont or New York, in particular.  Bill McKibben, Jerry Mander, David Korten, Juliet Schor, Susan Meeker-Lowry, James Howard Kunstler, Kirkpatrick Sale, the list goes on.  The rest mostly come from Canada, England, or Scandinavia, with Wendell Berry being the only major Southerner of the bunch.

This isn’t all that surprising.  New England is famed for its history of town hall meetings, direct democracy, and relatively egalitarian (if homogeneous) society.  From that point of view, what’s not to like about the local?  It’s worked for centuries here, so why not promote more of it?

The paucity of star Southern localism activists and thinkers, however, is quite telling, I think.  Given the South’s long and dark history of parochialism, xenophobia, institutionalized racism and classism, and general hierarchical social structure, I’m not surprised no one is agitating for more power at the local level- especially when “state’s right” was repeatedly used as a justification for continuing institutionalized segregation.

Another, more subtle bias that I’ve perceived in localism is one towards extraversion.  Granted, this bias is much more a matter of personal preference, and isn’t anywhere near as a big a deal as the geographical bias I mentioned above, but it is present.  While at first  blush, the idea of living in a small, tight-knit community would be an ideal environment for an introvert- especially compared to city life- the strong emphasis of having a social bond with seemingly everyone in the community would be wearing to most introverts.  Or, to put it another way: while Giles Slade would no doubt point out automated checkout lines as just another way technology is making things less impersonal and more alienating, to me they are a minor blessing, as they allow me to get my shopping done without having to spend my precious social energy on making forced awkward small talk with the cashier (yes, I do kind of feel like a terrible person for admitting that my social convenience is more important than some poor schulb having a potential job as a cashier, but for better or worse, it’s the truth).

My girlfriend has also pointed out that there is a major theme of privilege within a lot of these works- it seems a lot of these writers came from backgrounds of relative wealth and higher social status.   If you to suggest some of these ideas to people of lower status and less privilege, they might not be too keen on the idea, particularly given that for them, they are already frequently working as hard as they can, and their standards of living haven’t much improved from the “olden days” of alleged stronger social cohesion.  Steubenville is, apparently, quite a local-focused and cohesive community (why else would so much of the community rise up to defend the rapists on their football team?), but no one would argue that it’s a community to emulate (granted, globalization may have made these communities worse, but I doubt they were terrific to begin with).

Of course, the other half of this my own biases.  In addition to the introversion mentioned above, I suspect the reason that, up until now, I’ve never really understood the focus on localism, is that I’ve never really felt that alienated by modern society.  A quick examination of my life reveals why- my job is fascinating and deals with things I’m passionate about (even if it doesn’t pay well, or, sometimes, at all), I’m not much of a consumerist (or, for that matter, a materialist (at least in the colloquial sense)), I grew up on a farm, and I still have a sense of connection to my family roots (I can trace my ancestry on my mother’s side to before the Norman Conquest of Britain, and for the last 200 years, that side has had strong ties to where I grew up, as well) [2]. If I were a 20-something middle manager from the suburbs, I might feel differently.

The Dark Side of Local

Having suggested some of the biases and motivations of the localist sentiment with in the environmental movement, I feel it’s important to point out when this ideology could potentially lead to harm.

First and foremost, as I mentioned earlier, it is easy to imagine many communities, having embraced a more local focus, could easily slide back (or, alternatively, intensify) their parochialism, which is the exact opposite of what we need now.  Bill McKibben, to his credit, anticipates this problem,  and goes on to suggest that the internet might mitigate this effect; Gus Speth also acknowledges it, but just kind of handwaves that it won’t be a problem because in the future, Americans will perceive themselves as being part of a global community.  Helena Norgberg-Hodge, on the other hand, blames this small-mindness on globalization itself, writing in The Case Against the Global Economy that

“the idea of localization runs counter to the belief that fast-paced urban areas are the locus of ‘real’ culture and diversity, while small, local communities are invariably isolated backwaters where small-mindness and prejudice are the norm.  It isn’t strange that this should seem so.  The whole industrialization process has systematically removed political and economic power from rural areas and engendered a concomitant loss of self-respect in rural populations.” (pg. 395)

The idea that rural, “local” populations wouldn’t be prejudiced if it weren’t for the fact they’ve been marginalized by the global economy, of course, is almost certainly poppycock- the South was racist as hell long before industrialization got on the scene, and the horribly oppressive caste system in India dates back thousands of years.  Also, it neglects that, at least here in the U.S., rural farming areas actually wield tremendous power (at least as a voting block) in the national political process.  In any case, my point is that sometimes cosmopolitanism isn’t a bad thing, and some local cultures do deserve to be overwhelmed and extinguished by globalization.

On a similar note, there’s also a risk that urban communities will be ignored in preference of rural ones, since rural and farming communities are perceived as less alienating. This isn’t good from a sustainability perspective. Alex Steffen has argued quite persuasively that cities- if properly designed- can be highly sustainable, perhaps even more so than rural towns[3].  Furthermore, this bias is the result of flawed reasoning- there’s absolutely no reason cities can’t have as much social cohesion as small towns; as I mentioned previously, there’s nothing inherently special about rural communities in this regard.

Lastly, reading the literature, there seems to be an implicit assumption that social capital is something that existed purely in the past, and to regain it, we must go back to past ways of living. While social capital and community cohesion has certainly declined over the last 50 years, there’s no reason to assume that past cultures were inherently endowed in stronger communities for reasons other than simple survival (similar to the perception of rural communities).

In particular, this outlook can be detrimental – it can all too easily turn into a romanticism and idealization of the past, as a “simpler, more authentic time”, when men were real men, communities were strong, people worked hard but it was meaningful, etc, etc [4].  In the worst cases, the longing for social rootedness can turn into a twisted, almost pathological nostalgia, with those afflicted all but actively hoping that some sort of calamity will force us to return to conditions similar to whatever time period they idealize [5].


Upon examination, it becomes clear that social alienation drives a significant part of localism and localization.  This is not to say either of these things are necessarily bad- they aren’t, and in most cases, stronger communities certainly aren’t a bad thing, either.  But proponents would do well to recognize their own biases and motivations, and to remember that not everyone will automatically share them.  Most importantly, they should remember that community is not something that exists only in the past, or only in certain locations or cultures.  It can exist anywhere there is a desire to create it, and localists would be well served by focusing on the community and social capital we can have now, rather than the community and social capital we had then.

Lastly, perhaps the greatest challenge is thinking beyond the local.  As Lester Brown has argued compellingly, any effort to address the environmental crises we’re facing that is not truly global in scale will not succeed.  “Think globally, act locally”, “glocalization“, and alter-globalization are all excellent starting points, but the challenge for localists in the 21st century will be marrying the concerns of the local with the efforts of the global.  If you are successful in that, you will do more good for the world than any amount of local shopping can.


[1] Incidentally, it was in this essay that Goldsmith earned the second place price for Most Noble Savage in The Case Against the Global Economy, when he wrote that

“These problems [of social abberation] are most conspicuous by their absence in societies that have not been fully atomized; that is, where individuals have not been cut adrift from their family and community.  Even today, for instance, one can walk in total safety through the poorest slums of Calcutta, where large numbers of people are homeless and sleep on the pavement.  This is so because people do not suffer the terrible social deprivation of an atomized society.  They may be very poor and hungry, but the life they lead is still within their family groups,m and it has meaning to them- which is ever less the case of the lives led by most people in the industrial world.” (pg. 505)

Yup, according to Goldsmith, you can totally walk through the ghettos of Calcutta and not worry about a thing.  Because community.

(The whole essay is like this).

In case you’re wondering who earned the first place prize, that goes to Jerry Mander, who wrote

“As for Native societies, which celebrate an utterly nonmaterial relationship to life, the planet and the spirit, and whose lifestyles are completely antithetical to corporate ideology, they are regarded as inferior and unenlightened.” (pg. 321, emphasis mine)

Apparently in Mr. Mander’s world, indigenous people walk so lightly on the Earth that they’re actually not even corporeal entities.

[2]  I’m also ADHD and almost certainly have the explorer’s gene .  Gus Speth noted in America the Possible, after laying out the plans for a localist vision of future America, that “To most, life depicted here will seem like a corner of Paradise. Others may fine the local focus a bit confining.”(pg. 86) After reading this passage, I realized that 1)I would almost be certainly in the latter category, and 2) “a bit confining” would be a major understatement.

[3] Which makes a lot of sense, when you think about it.  I could easily live in Seattle without a car, and UW’s campus features a year-round farmer’s market. Collaborative consumption would be much more feasible as well.  Where I am right now, a college town surrounded by agricultural fields, living without a car would doable but difficult, and collaborative consumption isn’t really an option (believe me, I’ve tried).  Both would be impossible on the farm where I grew up.

[4] Curiously, these sorts of views rarely seem to take in account the incredibly high rate of  death during childbirth, horrid systemic oppression, stifling social hierarchies, etc.  Though I guess for some people, an oppressively hierarchical community is better than none at all.

[5] James Howard Kunstler, I’m looking in your direction.


About tessarion

Astrobiologist, environmentalist, trans lesbian, and would-be writer.
This entry was posted in Environmentalism, local, Sustainability. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Why local? No, seriously- why local?

  1. Pingback: What Transition gets Right- and What it Gets Wrong | Planetary Habitability Starts at Home

  2. Pingback: The future ain’t what it used to be | Planetary Habitability Starts at Home

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