Towards an Economics of Happiness – Part II

Originally published in the Summer 2012 RSF Quarterly


Click here for Part I


By Helena Norberg-Hodge

Localization for community and the environment

At its core, localization is about shortening the distances between production and consumption, while also encouraging smaller scale and more diversified production – particularly in food, farming, forestry, and fisheries.  All forms of primary production are expressions of a society’s environmental stewardship or lack thereof.  Yet, it is the way we produce food that provides an ideal example of the differences between global and local economies.

The global food system is extremely energy-intensive and inefficient, wasting precious fossil fuels to needlessly ship identical products around the globe.  It has systematically driven people from the land, increasing both unemployment and urbanization in North and South alike. With the absurd distribution of food, we see starvation in one part of the world and obesity in another. Because the global food system is homogenizing diets and food production worldwide, biodiversity is under assault and food security is increasingly at risk.

The continued expansion of the global economy means that local food rarely accounts for more than 10 percent of total consumption.  This is a dangerous position to be in: it is estimated that with any major breakdown in infrastructure or supplies of transport fuel, people in most parts of the world will be scrambling for food within three days. For environmental, economic, and survival reasons, we should be aiming to meet 60-90 percent of our food needs locally or regionally, depending, of course, on the agricultural capacities of the local area. This shift won’t happen overnight, but the localization movement is putting even big cities on the right track.

As we argued in our 1999 report (‘Bringing the Food Economy Home’), the local food movement demonstrates that shortening the distance between farmers and consumers provides huge benefits for both communities and the environment.  A more recent report co-authored by Michael Shuman, an economist with the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), looked at examples of locally-owned food initiatives around the world. Community food enterprises not only helped build local skills and economic networks, but provided tastier, fresher food and cheaper delivery costs.  As just one example, the study found that a $470 share from a Community Supported Agriculture scheme provided the equivalent of $700 of produce bought at a store.  Further benefits of these projects included a closer relationship between producer and consumer, and incentives for the farmer to diversify production to meet consumer demands.

Diversified systems help to sustain the numerous crop varieties that ensure long-term food security.  They also lend themselves better to organic methods, which translates into greater biological diversity on the farm and in the surrounding environment. They provide more job opportunities, with people power replacing the use of chemicals and gas-guzzling machinery. Finally, small, diversified farms can actually produce more food per acre and unit of water and energy than large, industrialized monocultures.  Thus it is clear that local food is one of the most vital links between healthy communities and ecological stewardship.

Going local

There is a heartening movement now of young people choosing to grow food.  They are debunking the myth that farming is drudgery and non-stop, backbreaking labor. When farms are smaller scale and more diversified, the work can be far more rewarding, healthy, and enjoyable than sitting at a computer all day.

There are numerous other examples of localization in action: local business alliances, local investment and finance strategies, Local Exchange Trading Systems (LETS), co-operatives, locally-run farmers markets, credit unions, and municipal bonds. However, many widespread assumptions – often cultivated by vested interests – continue to undermine the localization movement. They include charges of isolationism, elitism, and NIMBYism. There is a great need to counter these reactionary ideas and to debunk a pervasive myth that undermines localization in both North and South: that poverty in developing countries will be reduced through ever more global trade.

After years of colonialism and debt enslavement, it would make more sense to allow people to use their labor and precious natural resources to provide for their own needs as a first priority. To pretend otherwise merely serves the interests of those who stand to profit from exploiting the cheap labor and resources of the global South. Communities that embrace localisation are not turning their backs on the poor; rather, they are giving themselves and others the opportunity to become community-reliant rather than dependent on distant bureaucracies and corporations.

Throughout the cities of the western world, the movement to go local is gaining momentum. People are beginning to realize that it’s possible to increase the number of jobs and productivity on the land while reducing pollution and waste.  It’s becoming clear that there is no fundamental trade off between ecological and human needs.

Once we acknowledge what we lost when we abandoned community life and more diversified economies, it’s easier to see how to redesign our societies, to create a more human scale and human pace of life. This is not about going backwards, it’s about embracing our ecological roots and our common humanity to move toward a lasting economics of happiness.

Author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture. She is a pioneer of the “new economy” movement, and has been promoting an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being for more than thirty years. Trained in linguistics, she has given public lectures in seven languages, and has appeared on broadcast, print, and online media worldwide, including MSNBC, The London Times, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Guardian. Her ground-breaking work in Ladakh, or “Little Tibet”, earned her the Right Livelihood Award, or “Alternative Nobel Prize” and her book, Ancient Futures, along with a film of the same title, has been translated into more than 40 languages.

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