Friday, October 24, 2014

Localization: Premise

Summary - To survive on this planet, we each must prepare for a persistent descent in overall resource availability. This emerging biophysical reality is inevitable. It is not altered by political debate or market forces, nor will denial or inattention make it disappear. What is not inevitable, however, is the nature of our individual and collective response. One plausible response, called localization, has unexpected and positive aspects that emerge from the efforts of behavioral entrepreneurs.

In popular discussion, a set of terms is emerging: locavore, adapting-in-place, slow foods, voluntary simplicity, BALLE (business alliance for local living economies), economic gardening, local currency, LOIS (local ownership and import substitution), ecovillages, transition towns and localism. At the same time, some things are reappearing: farmers markets, granges, community energy systems, backyard gardens and old skills taught to a new generation. Localization is a concept that gives these phenomena a context; it shows where they are coming from and why, as natural resource supplies tighten in the coming decades, they are important. Each notion below will be expanded upon in later papers.


How ever vast were the resources used to construct modern industrial society, they were never limitless. Climate disruption, an unanticipated consequence of their use, is intensifying; abundant and cheap energy is a gift soon gone, crude oil production will peak and then slowly decline; other resources will follow in descent later this century; and technological innovation, while easing our transition to a new normal, will not fundamentally change the outcome.

Only with difficulty are we coming to recognize and slowly accept the simple truth that we are extracting finite resources for which there are no adequate substitutions. Finite still bears the same definition it always has: it does not replenish itself. Society must turn from seeking new resources to crafting new patterns of living within the limits of renewable, and primarily local, ecosystem. Such a situation is not a collapse yet incorrectly naming it so seems commonplace.

We can accept that this transition is inevitable, but the form of our response is not preordained. Localization, with its focus on place-based living within the limits of nearby natural systems, is a plausible response with several unexpected aspects to recommend it.

Certainly, our clever avoidance of significant and long-lasting behavior change will end. We may struggle to radically simplify our lives but biophysical reality will allow no other choice. Dismal as this sounds, it makes many aspects of transition easier by unburdening practitioners. The details here are fascinating with reality and enlightened self-interest creating a self-motivating process. Nonetheless, there are ways to intervene that can hasten the goal of positive localization.

It is straightforward to understand that the good times we have enjoyed for over a century were based, in large part, on ever-increasing amounts of high-quality resources. If a significant percentage of those material and energy resources is removed from our complex industrial society then the future may not be prosperous in conventional terms. Localization frames this as a frank premise, although one not widely accepted:
  1.  Industrial society faces re-emerging biophysical limits, involving an inevitable decrease and, eventually, leveling of high-quality resource availability at the same time that the negative consequences of past consumption must be addressed. This reality will negatively affect essential services and institutions (e.g., food systems, water systems, health provision, education, mobility, banking) and will negatively impact those forms of psychological well-being based on economic growth and the consumption of material goods and energy. 
  2. These circumstances and ensuing effects are, like gravity, not negotiable. They are not altered by political debate or market forces, nor will denial or inattention make them disappear.
  3. Conventional tools (e.g., policy-change, pricing, markets, technological innovation) will be useful but likely not fully up to the task.
 These, then, are the key parts of the premise. But they can also be framed as a prospect:
  1. Without a plan or a process, society risks a rapid, chaotic descent into a hyper-local existence, what can be characterized as negative localization.
  2. Positive localization, in contrast, is a process for creating and implementing a response, a means of adapting institutions and behaviors to living within the limits of natural systems. Place-based localization includes institutions at the regional, national and international levels, and individual and group behaviors and expectations that are compatible with biophysical reality. 
  3. Localization is not a specific outcome or end state to pursue. Rather it is a way of organizing and focusing a process of transition. It is, arguably, a process already underway, but one that should be accelerated while options still exist.
Indeed, we face not a problem with the possibility of a complete solution but a circumstance demanding an ongoing, and growing, response. An honest appraisal of the consequences of past disruption to climate, soil, oceans and watersheds produces a similar conclusion; we must adapt to a reality that we cannot change.
Need for a Coherent Response

Society will experience a transition from the centrifugal forces of globalization (e.g., concentrated economic and political power, cheap and abundant raw materials and energy, intensive commercialization) toward the centripetal forces of localization: distributed authority and leadership, more sustainable use of natural resources, self-sufficiency, community cohesiveness, an emphasis on the local while retaining regional, national and international dimensions.

The premise is that the coming transition is inevitable. What is not inevitable, however, is the nature of our response. Localization is one plausible response, a process of social change pointing toward localities. Its primary concern is adaptations for living within the limits of nearby natural systems. It focuses on everyday behavior within place-based communities. Simultaneously, because localities are interdependent across scales, localization has regional, national and international dimensions.

Localization is not strictly about the local nor a narrowly-focused localism. Localization is not globalization in reverse. Rather, as overextended economies and resource extraction efforts spend themselves, modern societies will experience a shift from the centrifugal forces of globalization—cheap and abundant natural resources, intensive commercialization, displaced wastes and concentrated political power—to the centripetal forces of localization—limited ecological sources of energy and materials, an inability to displace true costs in time or space, personal proficiency, community self-reliance, and distributed leadership.

Overall, localization builds on a notion by Antonio Gramsci, a “pessimism of the intellect; optimism of the will.” While the energy and material descent is unalterable, localization is an affirmative response. There are fascinating, and sometimes unexpected, aspects to localization.

Behavioral Simplification

Unexpectedly, the premise of localization may unburden us from one difficult problem. To understand this outcome consider this recent claim that people will not simplify their lives.
We can’t get out of the box just by cutting back on our energy use. Yes, conservation is essential. But modern human societies are buzzing hives of technological and social complexity, and only huge inputs of high-quality energy can create and sustain this complexity. Most of us don’t want radically simpler lives, because they’d be poorer lives in countless ways. So we need energy, lots of it – and we need new carbon-free sources. (Homer-Dixon, The Globe and Mail, 18 March 2011)
In a previous business-as-usual period, people’s unwillingness to change would have presented a significant barrier. It would have forced us to either pursue Homer-Dixon’s task of finding new carbon-free energy sources and/or continue, with increased vigor our decades-long effort to get people to dramatically reduce their overall natural resource consumption. Unfortunately, neither approach has had much success.

However, while people may not choose to simplify their lives (although even this is highly debatable), the premise of localization is that soon there will be no other choice. They will consume less because there will be less to consume. Dismal though this might sound, it may make the transition easier. Educators, activists and researchers no longer will need to persuade people to change behavior. People no longer will have to judge what arguments are more convincing. Instead, the biophysical reality and required responses will be directly perceivable, palpable and tangible. The reasons for downshifting behavior will be blatantly obvious, with the motivation for such change provided, not by others or institutions, but by interaction of the new reality with human self-interest.

If events unfold as the premise suggests, particularly if the natural resource descent is somewhat rapid, then we will no longer need to struggle to get our fellow citizen’s attention. Indeed, the situation may be reversed with the public calling upon experts of all types to help them formulate a respond. And the local expertise that is present in all citizens will need to be leveraged creatively, and quickly. We may wish we had more time to prepare. Fortunately, we can pre-figure a response.


When discussing behavior change it is often claimed that people anchor to the status quo, seem immune to scientific evidence and allow emotion to have too powerful an effect on future choices. Conceivably these tendencies pose a dilemma for localization. After all, we will need to make far-reaching changes, away from the status quo, toward an unfamiliar life pattern and all in quick fashion. However, the issue here is not a status quo bias but a familiarity bias, an issue linked to our mental model of a situation. This provides hope since mental models can be altered.

A strategy to use here is pre-familiarization. Since people are conceptual animals, what they can become familiar with is, fortunately, not limited to what they have experienced in a direct and literal sense. We can incubate pre-familiarization through indirect experiences. Consider the powerful effect of stories, artistic creations, simulations and practice of various kinds (e.g., plays, games, apprenticeships) and observation of alternative living patterns (e.g., living museums, ecovillages). These all help people to build mental models of the not yet present. Direct experience is also effective with transition town workshops, farmers markets and CSAs providing exposure to elements of a localized community. Pre-familiarization can help people to feel at home in a place they have not yet inhabited.

Motivation from Embedded Benefits

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic is well known. But he also suggested the less appreciated conservation aesthetic. This aesthetic involves satisfaction derived from the hidden riches of responding to, and living within, biophysical limits. This form of motivation easily goes unnoticed, yet examples of innately fulfilling efforts at sustainable living, shared transportation, local food provisioning and cooperative housing are springing up all over.

To localize well demands that we change everyday behaviors. Many of us will need to develop new competencies, creatively solve natural resource problems and develop new ways of interacting. Fortunately, humans find the related pursuit of competence, frugality and participation to be intrinsically satisfying. This may be particularly true when we are tackling problems that are genuine and meaningful. Simply put, the creative efforts necessary for effective response to the emerging biophysical reality contain their own rewards.

But localization may offer an even deeper version of this motivation. One form of human greatness is living life-as-a-work-of-art. Transitioning to a less resource-intensive existence will require that we weave together new and old skills, behaviors, values and goals. As we do so, there will be opportunities for us to reflect at the end of day, or week, or month, on the beauty of our accomplishments. Localization may entail more ordinary days but extraordinary outcomes and reflections.

Raymond De Young
School for Environment and Sustainability
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Archived version: April 5, 2011 at: