Local Economies for a Global Future
This article is about a simple, singular idea, yet the significance of the idea to modern society is profound and far-reaching. Here it is: In the near future anything heavy will become intensely local while at the same time the limits to things that are ‘light’, ideas, philosophies, information will travel even further than today—literally and figuratively. This is a new paradigm for humanity and it has huge implications for the complete reordering of society.
Environmentalists, economists, and sociologists agree: we are in an incredible state of flux, and this is simply the beginning. The planet is undergoing massive change and critical resources are diminishing, conditions to which the human race must respond. Population growth, resource scarcity and climate change will propel us, whether we like it or not, toward a new energy, food and resource paradigm. The world’s economies, based on cheap plentiful energy and the exploitation of people and the environment are starting to crumble. We are beginning an era in which the cozy assumptions of the last half-century are turned upside down, a time when the institutions and technologies that run our civilization are re-engineered. To understand how radical this new paradigm will be, let’s explore similar re-orderings in the past.
Thousands of Years of Human History – A Heavy-Near, Light-Near Paradigm
For most of human history, everything in a person’s life was intensely local. People all over the earth had a deep understanding of their place and the world that they could literally see, touch and feel. Moving things that were physically heavy was difficult and limited first to what people could carry, then the limits of domesticated animals. Culture too was intensely local—with peoples only a short distance away who they couldn’t understand due to differences in language and customs. These cultural differences emerged in relation to climate, the range of species and other place-based distinctions. Oral cultures, by necessity, stayed close to home, keeping beliefs and ideology very local – sometimes as local as a family group or small village. The world had hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects and even more foundational stories, creation myths and ways of looking at the world. Most of human existence has operated under this paradigm of ‘Heavy Near and Light near’.
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There were intermittent exceptions of course—moments when bursts of innovation launched our species on great journey’s (almost like punctuated equilibrium) the great Polynesian migrations and Viking explorers come to mind, but even they after finding new islands for habitation typically settled back into intensely local realities.
Population during this massive era of our species history was relatively stable, our impact on the planet largely within the carrying capacity of each place we lived. But as inventions of our intellect compounded, the paradigm was someday destined to end.
Heavy-‘Nearish’, Light-Somewhat Far
Slowly as new inventions arose and were refined, our species began to move some physical objects (heavy) and ideas and beliefs (light) across the globe. The emergence of agriculture, the domestication of animals and the written word made change inevitable. During the rise of the first great civilizations, resources like gold, jewels, salt and spices were transported through caravan, sailing vessel and on the back of slaves. With them traveled early ideas including the migration of all the world’s great religions. The circumference of travel – both ‘heavy and light’ grew in proportion to the size and influence of the empire behind it. Yet energy during this era was still a precious commodity and because of the extreme costs to move goods and even people, it was only the most valuable things that really traveled far—and only the richest and most powerful members of the society that benefited. For most of humanity this second age was still intensely local with but mere glimpses of world’s beyond their own.
By the middle Ages, some ideas (particularly religious beliefs) began to spread more widely. Exploration or conquest began to transcend language barriers. But religious and political leaders held many of the most important ideas closely, limiting the general public’s access to them in order to control their populations and to keep ‘divine information’ in the hands of the ‘anointed’.
So even widely traveled belief systems like Christianity and Islam were localized in a different way, carefully released and controlled by the intellectual elite. Priests, monks and royals were the typical gatekeepers.
With the rise of empire based on the success of agriculture, population quickly grew—sometimes outstripping local ecological carrying capacity as happened in the middle east and parts of the Mediterranean, but for the most part the planet did not feel too many ill effects from our species societies under this overarching paradigm—there were simply too few of us and our technologies not yet transformative to planetary health.
Most of the history we now study is centered on the huge changes that have occurred globally in the span of just a few hundred years. From the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution to today, ideas, technologies and inventions have allowed us to radically remake the world. The beginning of this age often saw violent clashes between civilizations still operating in earlier paradigms and the civilizations that had rushed ahead (the old paradigms always lost). The ‘civilized’ speech of empires eclipsed tribal languages and beliefs the world over, which weakened and in most cases disappeared. Large-scale manufacturing models called for inexpensive human labor and the scourge of human slavery spread.
Gutenberg paved the way for many modern inventions when he introduced the printing press in the mid-15th century, allowing language and ideas to be distributed widely for the first time in human history. The Industrial Revolution enabled the most dramatic change in our ability to move the fruits of our labor, first with the steam engine and eventually with the combustion engine. Advances in weaponry—gunpowder in particular changed the rules forever. Suddenly, anything we made or conceived of could reach people in the farthest corners of the planet simply by shipping it overland or overseas. The United States and Canada as new nations were some of the first products of this new paradigm and the cultural mythologies that exist with us today (and are so hard for us to shake) are a result of this timing.
After thousands of years in the first paradigm, then a couple thousand years in the second, we fully transformed to this third paradigm in the span of just a few hundred years—with exponential acceleration happening in the last one hundred years—matched graphically with the huge explosion in human population. Each decade the world became smaller and smaller—and the human toll on the environment suddenly tipped beyond what was sustainable. All of this was made possible through the availability of cheap, plentiful energy—borrowing on the stored carbon of millions of years of dead organisms partnered with human ingenuity and invention that did not see nor believed in limits. Moving heavy objects like stone, concrete, furniture and even people require enormous inputs of energy. Coal and petroleum met the need and easily satisfied the demand. Ideas—just like goods, traveled the globe; first through printed publications—but then through even more powerful mediums—the radio, the phone, the television and finally the computer. In the last century ideas finally began to move not only across physical boundaries—but across socio-economic, racial and gender boundaries as well, with the average person in modern society having access to information and ideas from anywhere on the planet.
By the 1980s and 1990s, we could—and did—ship anything anywhere. We could and did share ideas and stories with others across the globe. There was no limit placed on the distribution of anything—indeed our society completely re-ordered itself around this reality within the span of a single lifetime—seemingly completely oblivious to the long-term disruptions it would cause.
Gradually, in the midst of this “success,” people questioned the sanity of the paradigm—and the modern environmental movement was born only 30 years ago. And here we are—a world with 7 billion people, rapidly closing on 8 billion. A world where the era of cheap energy is quickly disappearing and the economic house of cards built on it as well.
Heavy Near – Light Far – the Responsible Paradigm
We are about to take a dramatic leap into the next era: the modern age of Heavy-Near, Ideas-Far. In a world where energy is increasingly scarce and expensive we simply won’t be able to transport goods and people over far distances. Yet we’ll prioritize energy use for technologies that bring us together virtually – that allow us to connect and share regardless of the distances between communities. The world is about to get simultaneously bigger and smaller depending on the field of human activity concerned. Imagine an America where people stick much closer to home. Where we aren’t defined by the open road, but by the quality and depth of our neighborhoods and communities. Where the majority of the things in our lives – our clothes, furniture, food and building materials come from close at hand rather than being globally sourced. We eat according to seasonal variations and see the reemergence of incredible regional diversity in architectural and cultural expressions.
At the same time it won’t be a return to provincialism and hierarchical society—an intensely localized economy will be punctuated by key global technologies that keep us connected, informed and up-to-date—with uniform access to information and ideas despite socio-economic, gender or racial backgrounds. The possibilities for environmental and social/cultural healing is immense. Yet, this radical re-ordering won’t be easy for us and will at times be violently resisted by those rooted in the current paradigm. I believe that the riots we have been seeing around the world are natural permutations of this emerging paradigm—a world where the average person is super-connected with one another and informed—and frustrated with the status quo world power that refuses to change.
Here are some of the characteristics of the new re-ordering as I see it:
- The ‘global economy’ as its now defined will shrink rapidly between 2012-2030, as energy scarcity will limit our ability to ship things all over the world. In a short span of time the cost of transporting human or material cargoes over any appreciable distance will simply be too high and the market will begin to correct itself. In its place will emerge strongly local ‘living economies’ with an emphasis on local materials, local knowledge, durability and craft.
- Super-sized retailers and one-stop shops will all but disappear. If Wal Mart, Costco, Target and others like them survive, its because they will have learned to operate on a new business model based on locally produced goods globally managed through information management technologies (heavy near, light far).
- As we focus again on food and goods that can be grown or made locally it will have the positive effect of reinvigorating local cultures and revealing regional variations. Artisanship will reemerge and quality will trump quantity. Food and drink will become intensely local—inspiring the re-emergence of creative cuisines and local flavors. Wine from France or Australia will once again be a true luxury here—but thankfully equally good vintages will be available close to home!
- ‘Winning’ technologies (as defined by those technologies we’ll continue to invest in) will be those that require less energy to make and operate relative to the benefits they provide. Web-enabled cell phones are a perfect present-day example, as they put a world of information in the hands of any user and draw very little energy in the process, which is why they already are ubiquitous in third world countries. Small solar panels will power hand-held electronics and tablets. Larger machines (cars, elevators, HVAC systems, etc.) will either be completely re-engineered to be super-efficient or will disappear. Larger utility infrastructure (regional energy grids and regional waste treatment plants etc.) will give way to a network of decentralized, distributed technologies.
- The era of the automobile will finally end. Expect a rapid ‘de-autoization’ of our culture over the next twenty years- despite the introduction of better electric vehicles and hybrids. While some larger specialty vehicles will continue to be supported (I think we’ll keep trains and specialized automobiles for key tasks like ambulances and fire suppression) the original mechanical horse—the bicycle, will emerge as the world’s transportation tool of choice even here in the US (as it is already in many places). Electric assist will extend our ranges, but there is still nothing more efficient than a person on a bike.
- As we become more globally connected via electronic information exchanges, we will become more physically disconnected beyond a small radius of travel. The costs of mechanized transport will limit our ability to travel overseas and relocate on a whim, but virtual communication we will expand our ability to share ideas with our across-the-world neighbors. So while you may increasingly talk and share ideas with people in other countries the chances of physically visiting them will diminish. The flip side is that we will know our own communities much more intimately while maintaining open dialog with our fellow global citizens. Information will become even more democratic and widely shared.
- The ultra-rich will continue to be the exception to most of the rules. Wealthy individuals will pay— dearly—or the privilege of globetrotting and having heavy special goods shipped from afar. Yet in a world where the exploitation of the environment and other people’s is no longer tolerated, what it means to be ‘rich’ will begin to be redefined as well.
- It goes without saying that the network of Certified Living Buildings around North America will only grow and become beacons of hope for the future of our homes, buildings and offices.
Making Global Lemonade
We delivered ourselves here on the very vehicles that we’re managing to make obsolete. So it’s up to us to plan for this next natural cycle of innovation so that we can embrace it mindfully. The path I’ve described is of course by no means certain. The future could spiral in many directions—some quite dire. But I am hopeful of the path that I think is quite possible. Heavy Near—Light Far.
I believe we will return to an intensely local way of living, and one that is globally conscious. We will continue to innovate, and we will share our new ideas with friends we’ll never meet. We’ll eat and wear what’s available in our region, and we’ll create culturally rich communities as we do so. We’ll work with colleagues who live in various countries around the world, and we’ll embrace the beauty of our virtual collaborations. We’ll live in a world of relative scarcity compared to what we had in the 20th century, but we’ll be more connected and abundant from deeper connections to place and culture and a proper relationship with the natural world. We’ll rely on the human machine and ‘current solar income’ to propel us forward, and enjoy the vitality that follows. The transition likely won’t be easy, and we’ll weather many storms, but there is a chance, I believe, to find equilibrium on this planet again.
This article by Jason F. McLennan was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Trim Tab, the International Living Future Institute's magazine for transformational people and design. To see this and other issues of Trim Tab, go to https://ilbi.org/education/trim-tab.
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