Sustainability: Globalization

The elephant in the room is a global economy that’s too big NOT to fail. It’s about to go rogue and make localization a cutting-edge survival skill, says contemporary issues writer Ellen LaConte. We must start living more locally…before it’s too late.


No doubt you’ve heard the great news. Globalization is going to save the world. Sure, things are (really) bad right now, but as more nations join the global economy, their economies will become more integrated, and their interests and goals will become more aligned. As the economic playing field levels, perceived inequalities between ethnicities and belief systems will be ironed out. We’ll all work together to combat problems like global warming. And, ultimately, we’ll all be borne forward on a tide of economic prosperity until we reach the shores of a big, happy, peaceful, unified world.

It all sounds very progressive and promising. Too bad it’s just a collective pipe dream—and a very dangerous one.

While there have been some voices of dissent, they’ve largely been drowned out by the assurances of those getting rich from the global economy. The prevailing attitude seems to be that globalism is good—or will be as soon as the bugs get worked out.

What most people can’t seem to grasp, or perhaps more accurately don’t want to believe, is the exact opposite of what we should be doing. It’s a system that’s doomed and for a simple reason; it goes against the laws of life itself. Life evolved local and regional economies that couldn’t burn and churn through Earth’s finite supplies of resources. It put global economies that could out of business. Simply put, the global economy is too big NOT to fail.

The global economy is like an elephant. Its trainers (policy-makers and global leaders) think that they have the beast under their control. For a while, the elephant did its masters’ heavy lifting and delivered them most of the goods. Now, though, it’s starting to go rogue—disobeying commands and acting unpredictably.

Before long, the elephant will turn on its handlers. It will tear up our ‘global village,’ creating chaos, crushing crops, huts, innocent villagers, and other living things, while its masters dither with budgets, birth certificates, dead terrorists, and taxes.

The scary truth is that the economic, environmental, social, and political crises we’re facing are red flags warning us that the system we’re all counting on is headed for collapse. Global leaders are approaching these crises as though they were distinct and unrelated, when in reality, the problem is globalization itself.

To those who still believe in “the myth of perpetual growth and universal prosperity,” here is a hard truth:

Life rules; we don’t
Economies of every kind and size are dependent on the largest economy—the largest supplier of goods and services—of which they are a part. For us—contrary to what you may assume—the largest economy is not the global monetary economy, it’s the biosphere—life itself. Life manages Earth’s accounts sustainably, which is how it has managed to last for four billion years. The global economy does not manage Earth’s accounts sustainably. Under its influence we are living beyond Earth’s means.

If we continue to degrade and spend down Earth’s trust accounts of good soils, fresh water, and oceanic carbon sinks, for example, it doesn’t matter how much money is floating around in the econosphere or who has it. We can’t restore depleted resources and degraded natural systems overnight the way the Fed can print more money or raise a debt ceiling. That’s why the bottom line is that “life rules; we don’t.”

Once our global economy has exhausted the natural resources and ecosystem services that are our true and common wealth, it can’t get any bigger. We’re almost to that tipping point now. And the leaders and systems that have caused and perpetuated this crisis can’t and won’t solve it for us. As Einstein said, you can’t solve a problem with the same kind of consciousness—the same worldview—that created it. The blind can’t lead the blind out of this mess.

So what should Americans do before the global economy stops delivering the goods reliably or at all? We should learn from the most successful economic system on the planet.

Life teaches us how long-lasting, sustainable economies work. These economies are local, not global. Think about it this way: The Earth doesn’t have one ecosystem or climate, but many as different from each other as oranges are from apples. Diversity is the way Life guaranteed some living things and systems would have the skills to survive almost any cataclysm. This means that we can diversify. We can relocalize or, in more realistic terms, re-regionalize economically, fit ourselves into these smart living systems and work with them. To do that, we need to figure out what natural and human resources we still have to work with closer to home and how to use them sustainably to provide the necessities and maybe some niceties for ourselves and each other.”

The end of cheap-easy
What makes me think that now’s the time to relocalize? The increasing number of resources essential to our present way of living that were once cheap and abundant—what I call “cheap-easy”—but no longer are. Here are five examples:

1. Oil and other fossil fuels. We’re quickly depleting the worldwide supply of oil, and there are no new cheap-easy fields. We don’t want to admit it, but abundant, inexpensive oil is history. What difference does that make? For one thing, there’s no replacement that can do all that oil has done as cheaply and universally as oil has done it.

Nearly all the goods and services the global economy provides are in one way or another oil-dependent. When oil’s too expensive or gone, so are they. Plus, energy analysts predict that we can add to the end of cheap-easy oil the imminent end to cheap-easy coal and natural gas. And if there are no cheap-easy fossil fuels, there is no global economy.

2. Good weather. Only dyed-in-the-wool deniers still believe the climate isn’t changing. The world is becoming warmer overall, but the weather is also more unpredictable and violent. Cheap-easy weather is on the way out.

The familiar species and ecosystems with which humans have cohabited for time immemorial are caput if the familiar, congenial climate is no more. Already, weather-related emergencies and disasters, crop and business losses, and species and human migrations alone have made the world’s new weather costly in lives and money. Plus, these events have served to further destabilize the economy.

3. Water. Frighteningly, worldwide demand for water will exceed supply by 50 percent as soon as 2025. Water-intensive globalized agri-business and livestock operations, global industrialization and pollution, growing population, and wasteful distribution processes have contributed to the shortfall in freshwater supplies around the world. With rising prices and rationing, we’ll soon be saying ‘so long’ to cheap-easy water.

4. Food. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the end of cheap-easy oil, water, and weather signals the end of cheap-easy food. Arable land is already at a premium everywhere in the world, and what there is of it is being depleted and degraded by fossil-fueled farming techniques.

Of the world’s seven billion people, a third are well fed, at least for now, a third are underfed, and a third—a couple of billion people!—hover between malnutrition and starvation. If we’re not careful, that number will only grow.

5. Prosperity. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know what a roller coaster ride the global economy has taken most Americans on. You’ve probably felt the recession’s effects yourself.

No matter what they promise, politicians can’t conjure prosperity out of thin air, and in an economy facing this many pending scarcities, the goods and services on which it makes its money will be adversely affected. Credit, cash, capital—the keys to conventional definitions of prosperity—will, like the other items in this list, cease to be either cheap or easy to get.

Go local
Thoughts of bringing economies closer to home flourish whenever a prevailing economy fails to deliver the goods people expect from it, or when it seems to deliver more harm than good. And unless you’re among the top 10 percent of Americans, you’re already experiencing some of that harm.

Though the drift toward globalization is 400 years old, the fully globalized economy is only about 60 years old. Meanwhile, we modern humans have been innovating solutions to the challenge of providing for ourselves for 100,000 years. Surely we can relearn how to live without globalization, and go back to more localized economies.

The teachings, teachers, tools, and techniques for doing this already exist. All we need is the will. Relocalization is the way.

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Ellen LaConte is author of the book Life Rules: Why so much is going wrong everywhere at once and how Life teaches us to fix it. A memoirist, magazine and book editor, freelance writer, and editor of the bi-monthly online newsletter Starting Point, she has been published in numerous magazines and trade journals on subjects ranging from organic gardening, the environment and alternative technologies to the evolution of consciousness, democracy theory, and complex living systems.

Look out for our next issue in which she describes in detail how to go about relocalization.