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Deep Economy: Localism, Innovation and Knowing What's What
Alex Steffen, 22 Mar 07
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Yesterday, after Al Gore went to the Hill to rally an unprecedented level of support for action on climate change in Congress and the Vernal Equinox cast its gray mists over Seattle, I went to spend the evening with Bill McKibben.

Bill began the evening by talking about his action campaign, StepItUp. Congress, Bill says, has so far mounted "a superbly successful bipartisan effort to do absolutely nothing," while the only part of the climate change movement that is lacking was "the movement part." Therefore, the StepItUp folks are trying to show that popular support for strong government action -- the reduction of climate emissions by 80% by the year 2050 -- is widespread by loosely over a thousand actions, from posters-n-puppets protests to a dive to spotlight the dangers to coral reefs and a skiing action to draw attention to the world's dwindling snow pack. It's a worthwhile cause.

What he was in town to speak about, though, was his book Deep Economy.

The book, Bill said, sprang from a central question: "Does our prevailing mental model of the world really work?" Does the basic presumption that more is better actually serve us in building a better society.

The answer, I'm sure you won't be surprised to learn, is no, that our materialism is not serving us well, and is leading us towards a disastrous collision with ecological reality: "It's as if the laws of economic reality seemed to us more real than the laws of physics and chemistry," and the peril we have placed our society is extreme -- scientists who once moderated their tones are now ringing alarm bells in "a barely submerged panic."

James Hansen, for instance, insists that (Bill says) "we have ten years" to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere or we will live on a completely different planet." Climate change already presents us with a series of miserable choices, but without strong and immediate action, we will progress from misery to complete catastrophe.

In short, he says, our economy as we've currently structured it, is dramatically unsustainable: "Plan A seems unlikely to work very well for very much longer."

Less obviously, it's not clear that our materialism is making us much happier, and this is particularly true of Americans. Americans use more resources and energy than almost anyone else in the world, but many people are happier than we are, and by quite a few reported measurements -- rates of depression, substance abuse, stress and the dwindling number of close friends -- Americans are some of the least happy people in the developed world, whatever our vision of ourselves as a nation ("we still think we live in little house on the prairie when in fact we live in big house on the cul-de-sac").

The answer, Bill says, is to reinvigorate local economies, bring back farmers' markets and creating distributed energy systems. Local, tight-knit communities, using the Net to keep in touch with one another, needn't be parochial, he insists: just because they're not trading ingredients doesn't mean they can't trade recipes.

And here's where Bill and I part company. We agree on the problems, more or less, but we interpret them very differently, and thus come to wildly different solutions.

I have no faith that people in the United States or elsewhere will voluntarily reduce their standards of living: indeed, outside of a few statistical outliers, like the Amish, I know of no evidence that anyone ever has, at least for very long. The way forward is not by going back to some earlier model of living which we believe to have less impact on the Earth, because people won't accept it, and we need mass popular support for dramatic change if we are to avert catastrophe.

So, we must ask ourselves, How can we deliver the prosperity billions of people expect, while reducing the ecological footprint it exacts?

If increases in prosperity were tied purely and simply to growth in use of material resources and energy, we couldn't. We couldn't even keep up the lifestyle we've got. But they're not. We know that, in fact, our existing systems for delivering material prosperity are abysmally inefficient, rotten with corruption and historical accidents and irrationality and bad design. As Bill McDonough says, the major product of our systems is waste.

We also know that it is within our capabilities to reduce that wastage, not only through more efficient products (the Japanese live almost as prosperously as North Americans, but they use a fraction of the resources to do it), but through redesigning the systems themselves.

Sure, we can invest massively in green energy and clean tech, but we do a lot more than that. We can reveal flows, build better cities, create user communities for product-services, dematerialize certain products altogether. The list goes on, as regular Worldchanging readers will know.

Nor do these things need to remove us from community and health: indeed, they can reknit and heal. Many of the best new solutions have the wonderful advantage not only of making our lives greener, more resilient and more economical (at least if there's anything like true-cost accounting) but making them more healthy and comfortable and connected as well. Whether we're talking the health benefits of smart growth , the cleaner air in a green building, or the friends you make at the tool library, in this model life gets better when it gets more sustainable.

Conversely, it's not always clear that all forms of localism and retreat from the global economy are good. There are reasonable arguments to be made even about whether food globalization is bad, and it may be that we need a more sophisticated approach to the issue that global = bad. Similarly, many advocates for the version of green localism most often voiced have a strong anti-urban bias, seeing their exurban lifestyles (which can be among the most destructive around) through rural-colored glasses, while conveniently ignoring both their own participation in global systems and national infrastructures and the gigantic sustainability advantages compact and well-designed cities have to offer. When you run the numbers, urban life beats exurban life every day of the week.

The point is that I believe the time has come to stop talking about a retreat from prosperity and the urban as a path towards sustainability. Indeed, we need to stop talking about any model of sustainability for which we're unwilling to run the numbers. The steps Bill outlined last night -- local food and local energy -- are generally good ones, but they alone are not going to get us anywhere close to one planet living. For that, we need truly radical change, delivered through widespread innovation and systemic redesign, and going far beyond the sorts of impacts we can create though individual consumer actions.

In the absence of plans for hacking the huge systems in which we find ourselves enmeshed, most prescriptions for localism seem to me to be scarecrows stuffed with good intentions. There are, of course, some serious folks out there working on truly bold plans for hacking the energy system and transforming communities from the infrastructure up, so I'm not saying it can't be done, but overall we need to rapidly towards a movement with measures what it does, knows what it wants to achieve and is merciless in rooting out answers that don't get us there. So when talking about local efforts, show me the handprint, and I'll believe.

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"I have no faith that people in the United States or elsewhere will voluntarily reduce their standards of living: indeed, outside of a few statistical outliers, like the Amish, I know of no evidence that anyone ever has, at least for very long."

This turns out not to be the case.

My wife and I have three advanced degrees between us. We decided that we would no longer work at high paying jobs that require commuting long distances to work. I quit a job as Curator at a major University Museum and we moved into an 800 square foot mobile home. We now each work at part-time jobs within walking distance of home. We walk and bicycle to farmers markets, the library and the local pub. We do have a car, a 1972 VW Bug that we drive less than ten miles a week, and which I keep in good repair. I maintain our bicycles that we use for trips more than two miles from home.

This is the way we will live for the rest of our lives. It is ultimately satisfying and completely fulfilling. We chose this lifestyle deliberately to counter the consumption-driven society in which we live.

This is not to say that everyone will want to live this way, though we know many people who have seen how happy we are in our simple life and have changed their way of life as well. Some day, we will all live this way, or not at all.

Michael A. Lewis
Santa Cruz, California

Posted by: Michael A. Lewis on 22 Mar 07

Alex, I'm with you. I think McKibben is way off base and has been since he wrote "Enough!" He has become a neo-puritan, and he will never gain support through telling people they've got to "cut back."

I agree with approaches which use market principles, and price-in externalities. After all, if products and services were produced and priced in a sustainable way, we could all use as much as we wanted or could afford. If things continue to be made in an unsustainable way, no amount of cutting back will be enough. This is the basic flaw in McKibben's work.

People who just want to "live off the land" for personal reasons are free to do so. But the vast majority of the world will not. The world can only support about 1 billion people with pre-industrial methods. So 'solutions' which don't address the need for change for all 6.5 billion of us, and the re-engineering of the large-scale systems on which we will continue to depend, are not solutions at all.

Posted by: BlackSun on 23 Mar 07

There's a difference between "growth" and "development." Physical laws teach us that there has to be a Quantity called "Enough" - but there doesn't have to be a Quality called "Good Enough." I've written that like a slogan, but I think it's a vital distinction.

We also tend to make declarations about how people are, what they'll always do or want, as if those were immutable laws - yet many among us are convinced that physics are negotiable, that we'll achieve perpetual motion, infinite physical growth, large-scale colonization of space or other fantasies. It's strange.

Posted by: David Foley on 23 Mar 07

I agree with you, Alex, that history is short on examples of humans voluntarily decreasing their consumption levels. A small and growing minority of us, both within urban centers and outside of them, are dedicated to voluntary simplicity, but the idea isn't likely to gain mass acceptance any time soon.
On the other hand, where's the historical precedent for a technology that didn't have unintended side effects? Or a society free from corruption? It might be naive to think that we'll all scale back our consumption out of pure conscience, but it's equally so to assume that today's (or tomorrow's) technological solutions won't cause their own problems farther down the road.
In the end, I don't think your vision is actually that far off from McKibben's; they just emphasize different approaches. Most of the solutions you list can be applied at the small scale, and as you point out, can help build community as well. While it is possible (indeed, imperative) to raise the standards of living of the Global South through closing loops, dematerializing, and systems thinking, no amount of LEED points can justify the exorbitant lifestyles that those of us in the states demand. In short, a middle ground must be found.

Posted by: Adam Brock on 23 Mar 07

Thanks for posting this Alex. I'm curious, did you have a conversation with Mr. McKibben, or was this a talk that you attended? If it was a conversation I'd be interested to hear how he responded to your perspective, and if not, how he might respond.

I know one response that jumps out is that localization advocates are most often not "back-to-the-landers" or "exurban." The fact that we need to build more resilient and durable systems to withstand unavoidable ecological and economic shock is just as applicable to large cities as it is to rural homesteads, and many localization advocates thrive in cities. The point is that people need to build more durable and localized communities from the ground up, wherever they are.

A second response is your representation of Mr. McKibben's message, which you interpret as calling for reduced standards of living and prosperity. You know as well as I that current measures of prosperity are biased in favor of gross economic activity, as opposed to quality of life. How should we define standards of living or prosperity if not in terms of our level of satisfaction? While localization practice would likely result in reduced GDPs, Mr. McKibben's argument is that our quality of life would not necessarily decrease, and could very well improve.

When you say that no one will ever voluntarily reduce their standard of living, I think I know what you mean. No one wants to live in poverty. But most folks these days define their standard of living based on relative income, material possessions, the size of their yard, the square footage of their house and the number of cars in the garage. Are you suggesting that we should not try to get people out of their cars, out of their big leaky homes, and into the compact and efficient cities that you so artfully describe, because they wouldn't voluntarily give them up?

I don't think you are. The whole point of this website is to convince people that there are better, more satisfying ways to live. And Mr. McKibben's point, along with those of many localization advocates, is that going local is a better, more satisying, and more sustainable way to live than depending on a degrading and increasingly ineffective global growth economy for our well-being.

Sustainability is a cultural issue as well as a technical one. While I identify with many of the worldchanging perspectives, I am convinced that cultural and behavioral change is not only a necessary part of sustainability, but ultimately a very attractive and desirable part as well.

I would encourage you to investigate more thoroughly how localization may fit into the Worldchanging philosophy.

Brian Holland

Posted by: Brian Holland on 23 Mar 07


Perhaps I should make my position clearer.

I am not *against* localization at all. I think that on aesthetic grounds alone it makes sense in a number of contexts (I'd rather not shop at chain stores, for instance), and in certain other contexts it mostly makes sense (for instance, food). We've covered local solutions before, and we will continue to do so -- heck we've even launched a series of local blogs!

But not all localization efforts make ecological and social sense. Some may have unintended consequences, as Ethan points out in regards to the food miles debate. Others are terrific but woefully insufficient: putting solar panels on your home, but changing nothing else about the way you live or drive, or, worse yet, doing an energy rebound ( ) because now you feel like you're off the hook for your energy use [this is why, for instance, recycling rates have gone up across most of North American over the last 20 years, but solid waste has grown even more in most places].

The point is, we can't afford self-deception. Too often, small local individual steps are presented as *substitutes* for larger (even global) systemic steps, when in fact they are no such thing.

It is next to impossible for the vast majority of North Americans to create "one planet" lives through personal action without enormous sacrifice. Even dramatic efforts like living a 100 mile diet and going off the grid only shave off a minority portion of our total impact. To make matters worse, we all share the burden of our share of a pretty enormous footprint created by the public goods we share (like road systems) and the actions of our governmental agencies (like military deployments).

So, what we need are plans that will actually get us from here (five planets'-worth of resources for most North Americans, ranging up to ten or even fifteen for upper-middle class Americans) to there (one planet, at future just distribution levels). Many very smart people suggest that we're talking at least an 80% reduction in overall impacts by 2050, and probably closer to a 95% reduction -- and that needs to count every aspect of our lives, including the ones which are hidden to our view because they are created not by us, but for us or in our names.

I simply do not believe that any amount of "small steps" can get us there. Small steps are fine, but they are woefully insufficient, and when done with a sense of moral superiority or practical adequacy, they actually set us back, I think. Many small steps do not in fact lead to systemic change. We don't need more recycling, we need a completely different system of closed-loop manufacturing, and no matter how many cans I crush, my personal actions AT THE CONSUMER LEVEL are of very little importance in getting us there. Even millions more eco-consumers will not get us what we need.

What we need instead, it seems to me, is a global movement of smart people who understand the systems in which we're embedded, are actively pursuing better models which ould replace them and are clever as heck about communicating visions for doing so to their fellow citizens.

So, by all means, let's explore local alternatives, but let's do that with the ultimate measure of sustainability in mind, and let's be ruthless about admitting when a small step, however positive, is simply not anywhere near good enough.

We need to be clear-headed and tough about this. We don't have time to do anything else.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 23 Mar 07

Alex, thanks for your clarification. I think we're in agreement about much but coming from different angles.

I'm just not sure about your characterization of localization as a "small step," or something that will not make a systemic contribution toward sustainability.

"Deep" localism is much more than individual choices about consumption. It means that we reorient our entire economies -- production, transportation, natural resources -- closer to home. For this to happen would require massive systemic change, involving all sectors at all scales, and would have correspondingly massive impacts. The closed-loop manufacturing you mentioned as an alternative is a perfect example of this type of localization. The benefits extend far beyond the environmental -- like many localization strategies, it mitigates our detrimental impact on social and environmental conditions in the developing world, and provides our communities with economic development opportunities and with a level of resilience that is completely absent today.

I agree with you about the need for global, systemic change. But we should be very wary of relying on the same neoliberal global growth economy that got us into this mess to also get us out of it.

Posted by: Brian Holland on 24 Mar 07

I'm less upbeat than what others here are saying. All the localization and technologies we develop are valuable, but we need massive adoption of all of it, and all of it now. Some of it will be very socially or economically expensive. I don't believe this will change until humanity is forced into it, not by the evidence of science, but by the evidence of catastrophe. Until people experience the problems they won't pay the price. This is going to be a difficult transition, and the planet will be ecologically quite different from today.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't do the work we are doing. The more we do now, the less catastrophic the transition will be, and the less loss of planetary ecological systems. I just don't see a way to avert catastrophe - only ways to impact how bad the catastrophe is.

Posted by: Hank O. on 24 Mar 07

There are empirical tests for the "global" versus "local" approaches. One is the calculation of "Ecological Footprint." You can use a search engine to find an "Ecological Footprint Quiz" that you can take. You can take the quiz several times, testing different lifestyle choices, to see how those choices would affect your results. Evidence might temper assertions, especially if you accept that your own footprint matters as much as anyone else's.

We're good at arguing false dichotomies: markets versus government, individual versus collective, local versus global. It's as if we're arguing that all we need to build a house is a hammer - no, all you need is a saw. Hammer! Saw! Perhaps it's because we're more focused on objects than relationships. We rarely ask what's the proper role for, and relationship between, hammer and saw, market and government, local and global. But an ecology arises more from resilient relationships than individual entities, and that's surely true of a sustainable human ecology too.

Posted by: David Foley on 25 Mar 07

I suspect the emergent proposals to decentralize farming, markets, and economic structures might have a lot to do with some type of intuition that humanity has that some of our larger structures - global markets, corporate agriculture, etc. - are not only harming the planet and living creatures on it, including ourselves, but that a return to a decentralized and more localized lifestyle is actually a more resilient model for sustaining human cultures. I agree with David Foley's comment about looking beyond the false Cartesian dualism imposed by Western/modern thought into a truly holistic and geocentric model of living in harmony with all life.

Posted by: James Lovette-Black on 25 Mar 07

if i can say something really goofy -- i think the catastrophe, from the human perspective, would be losing contact with each other after we fought through so many misunderstandings and periods of exploitation. i feel like we can't really picture what's in store, but we can say with certainty that, as with a nuclear confrontation, no country will emerge from the rough period with a gratifying victory over its current rivals.

the systems and components that need revision, replacement, retiring, those are things we inherited from a period of tremendous competitive spirit, and what we need is a cooperative period quite unlike any other, because our plan now, instead of losing our population to an ice age, is to avert such a change, and stay alive in the process. that's not a tribal effort or a clan effort.

it'll stretch every institution we have but i think we have more than enough of the kit we'll need. the worst thing we have to work out now, it seems like, is learning how to play on the same team, for real.

Posted by: hibiscus on 25 Mar 07

i don't think i've seen here a suggestion for a hybrid approach, either. some systems may need to be taken down before they have a replacement. if people understand that there's a period where something non-essential will be unavailable or limited, they can live with that.

i don't think it's good that people be afraid to unplug something because there's no immediate fix around, and i don't think people would expect to leave an unattended fire burning in fire season just because there weren't any more matches in the box right at that moment. "under construction" worked for the web; it can work for industrial civilization.

Posted by: hibiscus on 25 Mar 07

So what everyone is saying, essentially, is an upheaval of the current global and local economies, which I believe is truly the only solution as well. The only roadblock might be the obvious argument: "Isn't that anarchy?" That those who disagree with or refuse to accept these principles upon which new systems should be built, it will seem like it. Personally, I am less concerned with our physical ability to change how we get to work than I am with persuading people's personal philosophies to change, getting people to change how they measure personal success and growth. Because, in the end, I believe that our own philosophies and unwillingness -- not inability -- to change will be what destroys us.

Posted by: Astrid on 2 Apr 07

At base it depends on what you think motivates us?

Are we instrinsically self-serving? Are we greedy?

I dont think this is so and what Alex's argument lacks is any analysis of power in society. Our decisions about how and what to change about our lives is not wholly our own. To present it as such is wildly naive and ahistorical.

Of course McKibben is also quite right that we have to all fundamentally change our lives our societies and our economies. This shouldnt be seen in such apocalyptic terms though, many of what we are lacking is free - time being the most obvious candidate.

'Bright Green' can be great but only if its infused with some consciousness of political forces and not if it remains a technocratic end-pipe indulgence.

Posted by: Gus Abraham on 3 Apr 07

Small point.

We Americans tend to split our thinkng in one of two directions- either individual consumer action tied to business, or public action regulated by the state.

We don't think in terms of larger embedded social actors, collectivities of people focused upon tasks.

The allure of a decentralist approach lies in its potential to animate an entire populace in action tailored to myriad particular situations, hitting all the economy at once utilizing situate knowledge.

I'd suggest that instead of focusing on individual consumer action or (individualistic) electoral action, environmentalists focus on "embedded" groups of social actors. I.e., wworkplace organizations devoted to greening every site of production and every service and product, forcing this beyond the profit calculations of managements and the political calculations of bureaucracies.

The only way to achieve the breadth of change necessary is immediate transformation of the economy at all the points in which it is actually created and offered up to the marketplace. Consumer appeals can go far, but consumer organizations networked directly with employee organizations would move like lightning (relatively speaking).

Posted by: donald on 5 Apr 07



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