I’m not trained as an economist, but nevertheless I want to talk to you today about the economy— about the global economy in which approximately $1.3 trillion is gambled on the international currency markets every day. I shall not be speaking much about theory but instead about the financial casino that has come to dominate our lives and about the need to rebuild our communities and local economies. Over the past twenty-five years I’ve studied the impact of global economic growth on diverse cultures around the world: from pre-industrial Ladakh, Bhutan, and remote villages of Spain to Sweden, Austria, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. I have also worked with Norwegian and Danish groups who were trying to keep their countries out of the Common Market. So I have close grass-roots connections to many different cultures at different levels of industrialization.
I have been witness to the psychological and social as well as the environmental changes wrought by a highly globalized and centralized system. On the basis of this experience I believe that ordinary people need to concern themselves with the economy if we are to solve the growing list of crises that the morning newspaper brings us. This can seem an overwhelming task, but in fact the end result is usually one of empowerment. Once we understand some basic facts about the way economic growth is generated, many of the problems that have been attributed to human greed, overpopulation, or some sort of “evolutionary progress” are recognized as nothing other than the consequence of policy. When this becomes clear, it is easier to envision and implement change for a better world. It is encouraging to see that this is beginning to happen at the grass roots, and the results are astonishingly positive.
We need to work globally to counter globalization and we need to interact globally to bring about the many local endeavors that will sustain us. I don’t mean that we should all be working internationally—we can’t all do that—but I think a very important distinction is emerging that has to do with the intellectual framework for what we’re doing. Some people are turning localism into an ideology that precludes thinking globally, but as I see it, there is an urgent need for us to think globally in order to understand the global economy. We also need international efforts to counter further globalization. At the same time, in terms of learning how to live on this rich yet fragile planet of ours, it is crucial that we slow down and become intimately acquainted with the place where we live if we want to enable future generations to survive. We need to develop localized knowledge systems and economies that nurture as well as thrive on diversity.
I’ve become convinced that part of the reason why a highly interlinked and exploitative consumer culture is able to seduce people of all ages around the world is that it operates in such an international and global way whereas resistance to it—in the sense of a real rejection—tends to be localized. I think efforts in this regard are weakened by the fragmented nature of a local perspective.
Before I address these larger issues in greater depth, I want to tell those of you who are interested in the work of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC), of which I am the Director, that I have just come back from Ladakh, where I found something of a sea change. Ladakhis themselves are taking on a commitment to find an alternative to the conventional development model being foisted on them. There has been tremendous growth in awareness and activism among the Ladakhis, even to the extent that the Ecology Group, one of the nongovernmental organizations in Ladakh that I helped to set up, is now in effect running the new semi-autonomous government. Three of its four leading figures are former directors of the Ecology Group.
In addition, the Women’s Alliance we started about five years ago has grown stronger. It is gaining respect all over Ladakh, and there are now a couple of thousand women in that alliance; a couple of thousand in a region with a population of about a hundred thousand is a very powerful force. All of this, of course, is not to say that the process has been completely reversed. The tide of pressure from the consumer culture continues to affect Ladakhi communities along with virtually every other community around the world. In fact, we are on the verge of losing the opportunity to distinguish ever again between “culture” and “nature.” Because virtually all children on the planet are affected by media and advertising and monocultural education, it is impossible to know whether their behavior is a consequence of human nature or commercial pressures. As violence grows, we hear more and more about “genes” that lead to such behavior, but we don’t hear enough about the global monoculture that breeds insecurity and self-rejection and violence.
The global economy is highly centralized today the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization dictate economic policy to every government, with the result that the same economic forces are shaping technological choices and therefore cultural change in virtually every country worldwide. These changes take different forms because every culture is different, but behind it all lies a monolithic economy. A purely local perspective, however, prevents people from recognizing that many of the changes in their country are happening elsewhere too.
Political leaders of every persuasion are committed to so-called free trade, and they are signing on to international treaties like Maastricht, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). These agreements force countries to open up their economies and to subsidize international banks, speculators, and transnational corporations. Trade today is not free and it is not about an exchange of goods between countries; it is about a monopolistic corporate takeover that destroys smaller businesses, communities, and even large industrial towns by destroying the livelihoods on which the majority of the global population depends. This process is not taking place because the people who promote it are in any fundamental way different from those who oppose it; the driving force is systemic and institutional, not human.
At the heart of the system is the principle of comparative advantage, which holds that it is in a nation’s or region’s interest to specialize production for export rather than providing for its own needs. Originally, this was conceived of as a way of specializing in that which a region had a special advantage in. But governments have been blindly subsidizing, aiding, and abetting trade for more than a century. They continue to put our tax moneys into ever expanding infrastructures in order to facilitate trade and the creation of transport systems that this trade relies upon. If these policies made sense in the past, they certainly don’t today. In the light of climate change in particular, it seems madness to pursue policies that lead to a dramatic increase in the transport of goods that could be produced locally; tragically, however, such contradictions are not always apparent: the environment minister usually does not think about what the trade minister is up to and vice versa. Meanwhile, you and I have been taught that economists should think about the economy and that unless we are trained to do so, we can’t understand enough to have an opinion.
Rising unemployment, environmental breakdown, social disintegration—all are either caused by or exacerbated by an economic system that threatens to completely overwhelm democracy and spin out of control. We urgently need to step back and look at the connection between the world of global finance and our everyday lives. As the scale of the economy grows, it becomes more and more difficult to comprehend.
We usually shy away from the issue of globalization because it seems so complicated. As a consequence, almost no one has an overview or the tools with which to persuade others that instead of globalizing—that is, increasing trade and transport—we should be localizing. If the problems involved are viewed as separate and unconnected, solving all of them seems impossible. When they are seen holistically, on the other hand, the potential for solutions expands enormously. Such a holistic analysis reveals that the many disparate symptoms of breakdown stem from the same root cause: a massive and centralized system of production and distribution—one that transforms unique individuals into mass consumers, homogenizes diverse cultural traditions, and destroys wilderness and biodiversity, all in the name of growth and efficiency. In the process, it is separating us from one another and from the natural world on which we ultimately depend.
I want to address as my central focus the question of how we can strengthen the movement to counter globalization. What are the obstacles to localization? What is blocking it? Why isn’t Schumacher better known today? He is one of the greatest economists I know of, yet what has happened to his “small is beautiful?”
Paradoxically, one obstacle to the promotion of smaller-scale, local economies is a localist perspective that doesn’t benefit from the knowledge that virtually the same process of social and environmental breakdown is occurring across the world. Instead of identifying economic policy as the problem, people tend to blame individual politicians or political parties. This is mainly because the media don’t give us access to this information. Almost everywhere I go, I notice that from a local or national point of view people tend to blame the problems they face—whether they be unemployment or rising crime or deteriorating environment or the breakdown of community—on visible, near-at-hand enemies. Few are able to see the contours of the whole economic system or the global consumer culture.
People are generally unaware that transnational banks and corporations are pulling the strings behind the scenes. They tend to blame the government. This is true in all the countries I have studied. In Sweden, for example, socialism is blamed for the growing list of economic and social problems; in almost all the formerly communist countries, communism is blamed. Then I come to the United States, and I find that Ronald Reagan and Reaganomics are still being blamed. In England it’s still Margaret Thatcher and her economics. Because of their local perspective, people are not recognizing that the same economic system is affecting all these different cultures and that it makes little difference which political party is in power.
It is very difficult to convince people to concern themselves with the economic system. One of the blocks here is that they think they need to have read all of GATT, NAFTA, or the Maastricht Treaty in order to understand globalization. Well, that’s enough to keep everybody away from it! What the treaties essentially mean is that the signatory governments are deregulating their economies, which allows monopolistic corporations freedom to enter those markets. These documents are written by minds so specialized and so removed from the real world that they see only facts and statistics, not human beings or soil or water. It takes teams of specialists to decipher and interpret their contents. Therefore, it is not surprising if people shy away from the larger picture because they think that in order to oppose the ratification of these treaties they have to read them. They feel obliged to be well-informed about an issue that it is difficult to be well-informed about. In addition, most people don’t recognize that the treaties are actually promoting an escalation of the social and environmental breakdown we are witnessing today. Even if they have an inkling, they often think, “I don’t know enough about it to take a stand.”
Today in the United States and in England and in most of the countries I’ve referred to, you can talk about environmental breakdown; you can talk about the tragedy of the polluted seas; you can talk about the need for us to protect the environment; you can even question the Gross Domestic Product and how we measure it. All this you can do, but the one thing you can’t do is question “free trade.” You can’t question its connection to certain technologies like biotechnology, which attempts to split genes just as we split the atom. Perhaps the greatest threat to our welfare today is this link between the trade treaties and high technology, a link that propels the frenetic competitive race in which corporations do everything they can for the bottom line without regard for the disastrous impact on agriculture, on food, on our health, on our lives.
When I tried to raise these issues through the media, I found that it couldn’t be done. Then I started thinking: “Is this a conspiracy? Are the media consciously exercising censorship?” I talked to individual journalists who were my friends. I talked to people in corporations; I have family members who are in big multinational corporations and big international banks. I finally realized that what we’re up against is not a conscious conspiracy but a de facto conspiracy, a structural conspiracy consisting of interlinking institutions and technologies supported by ever more specialized and short-term vision. To a great extent this structural conspiracy thrives on ignorance.
You may have heard that Ralph Nader offered to give $10,000 to the charity of choice for the first member of Congress who had read and could pass a test on the contents of the Uruguay Round of GATT. Eventually Senator Brown of Colorado, who supported GATT, accepted the challenge, read the document, and passed the test. The result was that he became an opponent of GATT and worked against its passage. (He turned down his reward.)
We are in a situation where our political leaders do not see the consequences of what they are doing. They do not know what they are ratifying, and yet they often suppress real debate. In Denmark, for instance, the people voted against Maastricht, but they were told they had to vote again a year later. During that period, there was meant to be a public debate. Instead the mainstream media were full of support for the treaty. Many of those I interviewed said they had been told they would lose their jobs if they voted no because businesses would have to move out of Denmark. The second time around, the vote was yes. The suppression of democracy becomes clearer when in country after country one sees the same pattern.
At the same time corporate influence in the media, in research, and in the environmental movement itself has worked away at shaping public debate. The way the issues are framed has subtly shifted the assumptions underlying them away from questioning growth, particularly at the global level. Even in the environmental movement, people today tend to laugh at the notion that small is beautiful, arguing that big businesses are better than small ones because they give more money to the movement! This is an example of some very insidious ways in which the movement is being undermined by funding from the corporate world. An excellent book on this topic is Sharon Beder’s Global Spin.
As I see it, one of the biggest obstacles to localization and small scale has to do with the fact that many of us believe that the local and the small are associated with small-mindedness. There is widespread resistance in our highly urbanized industrial culture to the idea of small rural communities. People rightly associate big urban centers with a multitude of different cultures and a consequent tolerance for diversity. On the other hand, they think of small communities as isolated backwaters rampant with intolerance and prejudice. There is probably a lot of truth to this in our society today. In the heart of the urban centers—Manhattan, for instance—where one is constantly interacting with a whole range of different peoples, there may be a greater interest in diverse cultures and a greater tolerance of differences, whereas in small and more isolated communities there is often a distrust of outsiders that can translate into a sort of right-wing, nationalist attitude.
Yet my experience has taught me that when there are secure and strong local economies, people feel empowered and in control of their lives. They have a strong sense of identity through bonds of interdependence in the community, and this creates a supportive atmosphere so that children can grow up feeling at ease with who they are in cultures that are not dominated by the consumer monoculture. A sense of identity and self-esteem is a prerequisite for tolerance, a prerequisite for an acceptance of differences. But strong local economies that nurture a sense of security in children have unfortunately become a rarity. In Ladakh, for example, I saw how the invasion of a consumer culture separated people from their community, creating insecurity and breeding a need for the goods and gadgets promoted by that alien culture. When local communities become part of the global economy and culture, often the smaller, more rural communities become marginalized; they feel insecure, and yes, intolerance does grow. That is certainly what I’ve witnessed first hand in Ladakh, Bhutan, and Spain.
In terms of understanding where we are heading and what we want to work for, it is useful to think back to a time when we were not influenced by a highly globalized economy. It’s hard for us in the West to get an overview of the global consumer culture because we’re seeing it from the inside, as it were. We are entrenched within that culture—it has shaped our society over several generations. Again, this is where a localist mentality may actually work against us. Deep-level cultural exchange between the more urbanized and commercialized parts of the world and the rural, less monetarized communities can be very helpful for both groups. This is why my institute, ISEC, runs “reality tours” to facilitate this sort of exchange.
Our society’s dominant economic system has come to affect everything we do. That is not a natural state of affairs. In a healthy society you do not have the economy influencing identity, influencing values, influencing religion and spirituality; you do not have the economy making an impact on every aspect of life. In a healthy society the economy is subsumed under ethical and spiritual values. It is shaped by cultural identity and cultural values as well as by ecological imperatives: for example, it is essential that knowledge systems and economic models be based on an intimate understanding of diverse regions, each with its unique climate, soils, and resources.
Everything from mad cow disease to ozone depletion to rising crime to the fragmenting of families and communities is either caused or exacerbated by an economic system that is influencing our health and our society and our environment in a negative way. We must educate ourselves in order to understand the basic principles of this system.
Fortunately, many of us are beginning to oppose the global economy. All is not lost. It’s not hopeless. But there is not enough resistance yet. There is not enough awareness yet. Why not? With Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the environmental movement that grew out of it in the 1960s there emerged a thoroughly natural and spontaneous human response to what was happening. Carson was warning us of the dangers of pesticides and telling us that the harmful effects of what we do here spread to other parts of the world as well. As a consequence, university departments encouraging interdisciplinary research on such matters sprang up across the industrialized world. By now, however, most of these departments have been dismantled. Why? The answer can be found if we look at where university funding is coming from.
The 1970s brought Small Is Beautiful with its message of decentralism and The Limits to Growth, a book that received widespread publicity, which questioned our growth economy, saying we’ve got to change it because it is destroying us. In the West there was also an attempt to move toward renewable energy and toward real decentralization. But then the big corporations, already so powerful that they were influencing the media and influencing policy, realized they had to thwart these attempts in order to ensure that their model of economic growth could continue. In the early or mid-1970s I met the head of futures forecasting for Shell International, and he said that when The Limits to Growth came out, the executive board was very alarmed. He had to go back to the drawing board and devise another scenario that encouraged growth. What he came up with was an idea that has become more and more widespread: growth per se is not the problem; we need growth—we need money—to clean up the environment!
I am convinced that the individuals in the heart of the corporate, financial world are not conscious of what they are doing; they are not part of an evil conspiracy. In fact, I think that the higher up the ladder they go in the corporate world as well as in politics, the more distanced they become from the mess that’s occurring on the ground. They don’t have to face the unemployment and the pollution, the rising friction and frustration, and the breakdown of family and community, because all they see are statistics on a computer screen. They have been taught as part of their training that it’s the economy that feeds and clothes people and that they are responsible for insuring that it keeps growing so people have what they need, whereas “those Greenies who demonstrate against things and cause a lot of trouble are just ignorant and irresponsible.” We need to communicate better with those in power, maintaining our tolerance and compassion for them as individuals. At the same time we should not lose sight of the fact that the system must change!
The attitude of the establishment is particularly insidious in relation to myths about the less “developed” world. When it comes to the “Third World,” Westerners are being told that economic growth—particularly today’s globalization, which is taking jobs away from the industrialized countries and employing people in China and India and so on—is good for workers there, that it’s helping them out of their poverty. The myth perpetuates the idea that if poor countries don’t have economic growth, it’s because the inhabitants are illiterate and unhealthy, they die young, have lots of famines and floods, and don’t know how to do anything for themselves. Through development they will learn how to manage their lives better so that they will be as healthy and tall and intelligent and well educated as we are. In a similar vein, we are being told that these people cannot grow their own food. No, our tax moneys have to support research in biotechnology to help Monsanto to help the poor to feed themselves. The fact that our taxes are simultaneously funding farmers not to grow gets overlooked! The myths about the other side of the world are growing more and more entrenched, and they have an impact on what happens here and how we think about solutions.
The solution will not come from well-intentioned Westerners totally withdrawing from other countries. We need closer contact, we need to globalize the localist movement, linking hands across the world. We are told that global growth must continue in order to help the poor on the other side of the world, but if we have no direct experience of what the real situation is, it’s difficult to contradict such arguments. Once again, this is why a purely localist agenda is inadequate. It’s not even the case that local people in the Third World have the answers to their problems, because in most communities all over the world the relevant knowledge systems have disappeared. We’re in a very difficult situation, but there are certain steps Westerners can take on their own side of the world.
As I state in my book Ancient Futures, it is vital for us to understand that we are up against a unified economy, centrally managed by interconnected banks, corporations, and finance markets, whose influence is felt from Massachusetts to Ladakh to an Indian or Chinese village. And the most dangerous and least acknowledged influence is psychological. This psychological dimension of the global economy is something we should all be aware of. Again using Ladakh as an example: When I first arrived there, I was struck to find people who were mentally so healthy. I’d never come across people who seemed so at ease with who they were. There was a lightness and humor and joy about them. I know it sounds romantic and unbelievable, but if you’ve ever sat next to the Dalai Lama, you know what I’m talking about. It’s as though there were a hundred thousand Dalai Lamas when I first arrived. But then I saw how it all started unraveling, especially among the young, when from the outside a new culture entered their minds. That culture seemed so superior, so powerful, so amazing—with airplanes and cars and the power and the speed they created. The young men in particular suddenly felt that their own culture was something to be ashamed of because it was backward, primitive. It’s a fairly common problem, not only in many non-Western cultures but in Eastern Europe as well.
In many Western audiences I address, people say, “Well, it’s not that simple; it’s not black and white.” And yet in the non-Western world, many do see the commercial monoculture as being rather black. This is why Ancient Futures, which is about what happened in Ladakh, and the video based on it have appeared in twenty-seven languages. We have not in any way tried to promote them, but Navahos and people from Korea and Burma and Mongolia see Ancient Futures and ask if they can translate it. The whole message really hits home for them. They keep telling us, “The story of Ladakh is our story too.”
Although this sense of cultural inadequacy is felt particularly by the young, it of course affects older people as well. In Ladakh the ideal of beauty has changed because of the pressures imposed by a foreign culture. Now you’re thought to be more beautiful if you look more Western: if you have lighter skin, if you have a bigger nose, if you’re taller, if you have Western eyes. I was amazed to hear girls talk disparagingly about not having the little fold around their eyes that Westerners have. I’ve also heard that in China women who can afford it are now undergoing surgery in order to make their eyes look more Western. People with dark hair and dark skin are using harmful chemicals to bleach them. In Spain, in South America, and in Thailand blue contact lenses are being sold to disguise dark eyes.
Harmful chemicals, surgery—what we’re talking about is self-rejection bordering on self-hatred as a consequence of one standardized consumer monoculture appearing all over the world. Recently I heard that in Singapore, which is the most developed place in that part of the world, young girls of seven are beginning to have eating disorders. I find that even in my own country, Sweden—where most of us look very much like the desirable stereotype: blonde, blue eyed, the “right” eyes and nose—young women also feel inadequate to the point that they are sometimes willing to starve themselves to death. And in England a recent survey found that the majority of six and seven year old girls already hate their bodies and feel they aren’t the right size. In such cases it’s not that mothers are at fault for not treating their children right in terms of eating habits and behavior, although that obviously may play a role; when you see something like this on a global scale, there can be no doubt that there is a broader pattern of influence being exerted on all of us “consumers” through more advertising, more television, more Western films.
One of the icons of this consumer culture that is spreading everywhere is the Barbie doll. If the Barbie doll were life-size, she’d have a fourteen-inch waist! What we’re imposing on the minds of little girls are models that are impossible to emulate. So it doesn’t matter how thin you are or how blue eyed. This is a problem that is having an impact around the world. Then there is Rambo with his machine gun, and you see young boys starting to walk differently and trying to appear as macho as they can, wearing the right brand of running shoes and the vest and the other things they associate with the Rambo image. All this is producing insecurity and creating a competitive situation so that children going to school fear they won’t be accepted by their peers if they don’t have the right label, the right running shoes, the right clothes. This separates children from one another instead of allowing them to feel connected and part of a community.
This phenomenon is a fundamental part of the changes we’re seeing worldwide that threaten cultural diversity by imposing a highly wasteful, highly inefficient monoculture that is expensive and polluting. Yet government investments in infrastructure, etc. mean that people are being pulled out of their communities into the slums of Bombay and Calcutta and Mexico City almost overnight, with massive social and environmental upheaval as a consequence.
In addition to the psychological pressure there are very real structural changes: the globalization of economies is directly linked to the development and expansion of a transport infrastructure that is paid for with our tax money and that allows big corporations to produce centrally and then send their goods all over the world. Speeding up the transport of goods facilitates centralized production, with the result that in Europe, for example, some packages now have sixteen languages on them.
Marketing through the media and through the new electronic communications satellite system brings product names into the consciousness of every child. Companies go to great lengths to familiarize young people all over the world with their products through a bombardment of media and advertising images that present the Western consumer lifestyle as the ideal while implicitly denigrating indigenous traditions. As they broaden their markets, companies move to places where labor is cheaper. To remain competitive, they can’t afford to stay where labor costs more, taxes are higher, and there are strict environmental regulations. In an attempt to steer in a direction that doesn’t threaten their growth, corporations go where costs are lower and goods are easier to produce.
Corporations are controlling the debate. The Earth Summit held in Rio, Brazil, in 1992 was essentially managed by corporate interests. Monsanto, Ciba Geigy, and other big corporations were involved from the very beginning. At the conference they came up with Local Agenda 21 containing suggestions for what citizens could do. But there was no discussion of changing growth indicators or of local economies; there was no talk about protecting small businesses as one of the main ways to insure an economic system that will have a less damaging impact. No, they spoke of the importance of biodiversity. What the biodiversity treaties actually do is give corporations the right to buy and patent diverse species and knowledge systems from the less developed part of the world.
Vandana Shiva, the well-known Indian physicist and expert on biotech and biodiversity issues, spends her time alerting communities to the implications of GATT and the Biodiversity Convention signed in Rio. She is, however, often accused of being “colonialist” because she’s telling people what to do! In fact, she’s warning of the long-term impact of selling resources to big companies. Transnational corporations can buy very inexpensively in less developed areas. They can go to a remote community with just a few dollars in their hand to pay for what they want and rapidly destroy the local economy. In the short term it seems like a fantastic amount of money to the people there. They often abandon other economic activities that provide for their own needs, just to produce more of the product they can sell in the world market. Before they know what’s happened, they have to import their food, etc., and prices go up; they’re on a tread mill that often destroys them. The dogma of free trade has not only been promoted blindly by governments but has been more and more perverted to suit the needs of the big corporations. I think a lot of government leaders don’t understand this; they go on assuming that more trade is in everybody’s interest. So they keep on subsidizing and deregulating and regulating. The terrible thing is that many environmental measures have actually been introduced to destroy small businesses.
We know this. We even know that the hotel industry has lobbied for regulations that force bed and breakfasts to have fire doors and all sorts of things it knows will eliminate those tiny competitors. And we know that the food industry has destroyed small farmers by requiring them to comply with a range of regulations in the name of health and hygiene. Now, in France, farmers who have been selling goat cheese locally for generations are having to shut down because they are required to put tiles on their ceilings to make them sanitary. If they want to keep operating, they have to spend thousands to virtually rebuild their barns. Paradoxically, we have both deregulation and regulation operating at the same time to serve the needs of corporate expansion. While governments are removing any obstacles that prevent the transnationals from moving around from country to country, many national regulations are simultaneously being tightened in order to destroy smaller competitors.
Another example of global macrotrends and pressure from the media culture is the message that came from press coverage of the latest United Nations Conference on Habitat: in another few decades the whole world will be urbanized. Some documents coming out of the conference actually said this is the only way to solve our problems, because in urban centers we can provide people with what they need. Because of the enormous problem of overpopulation, for instance, it is crucial to bring down the birth rate by bringing women to the cities for a Western education that will give them jobs. In large part, however, the push for literacy is really about training women to produce for the global economy. In the cities we can deliver things to people more efficiently—this was the argument stated in a UN Development Program document. Other documents acknowledged that the slums in Calcutta, in Bombay, in Mexico City are a growing problem, but no one asked why. Why is urbanization happening? Not of its own accord. It’s happening as a direct consequence of the funding by essentially Western-dominated institutions for the less developed parts of the world.
Integral to the process of urbanization are heavy investments in the transport and energy infrastructures. Dams, for instance, are getting bigger and bigger. And everywhere I go, I find small local campaigns trying to stop these huge heavily funded dams. The dams, the roads, and the communications infrastructures hook people into the system and force small primary producers away from their little fishing villages, away from their small farms into urban centers in search of employment.
The education system can also contribute to urbanization: many well-intentioned people fund schools in Tibet or Ladakh, not realizing that those schools are training children for an urban lifestyle, not only providing them with a ticket to the city but also condemning them to the city, because when they finish with their schooling, they don’t have the skills to survive in a Bhutanese or Chinese or African village.
The combination of investment in the infrastructure and Western-style urbanizing education is taking people away from their villages. At the same time, the Barbie doll and Rambo images go with urbanization, equating what is attractive with the sexy, the powerful, the wealthy, the blonde, and the white. Those who lack these features are made to feel like animals. I know it sounds extreme, but I can tell you that when I go to visit remote villages in Ladakh, the nomads regularly describe themselves as animals. They say, “We’re so stupid. We’re so backward. We don’t speak The Language.” And by The Language they mean English. That is the tyranny of the monoculture, which is an urban monoculture.
To my mind, actively promoting urbanization as a solution to our global problems is the worst solution imaginable.
I said earlier that things are going really well in Ladakh; the reason is that in the more developed parts the leaders and even the Women’s Alliance, which is not entirely urban, are raising awareness of the destructive impact the foreign culture is having on their own culture. In many areas of the world, awareness of this impact is leading people to reject Westerners, even to the point of hatred, especially for Americans. At the same time local divisiveness is growing. As people feel their identities being rejected, as they find they are unable to get jobs when they rush to the cities, competition increases on a massive scale. And then, if there are any group differences, those differences become a cause for friction. Thus, ethnic and racial and fundamentalist violence is growing almost everywhere.
I find the same thing happening in Austria, in France, in England, and I think it’s happening here too. Over the past few years, when I come to the United States, I find more racist, particularly anti-black, attitudes than I ever noticed before. In virtually every country I go to, racism is on the rise in the mainstream culture.
The problems I’ve been describing, the psychological pressures, the environmental damage are disastrous. In certain ways they are getting worse, but in other ways the situation is better today than it was five or six years ago. At the same time as I see the mainstream culture continuing as before and the corporations cleverly manipulating and dominating that culture, I also see a marked rise in awareness, a much more sophisticated understanding of what’s really going on, and growing criticism of the corporations and of “free” trade. A country like Norway, for example, has been able to withstand the pressures from the mainstream economic system.
Gro Brundtland, Norway’s prime minister, globetrots with Maurice Strong and others who on the surface look Green. Strong is the one who organized the meeting in Rio. He is with the United Nations Environment Program, where he presents a Green image. I know him personally, and I believe his intentions are not bad, but he works very closely with corporations. This inevitably means that structurally the growth agenda is preeminent. Together with Strong, Gro Brundtland wrote a book called Our Common Future about sustainability and about the need to protect the environment. But in fact, although probably not consciously, they steer people away from the real issues and the real problems.
Brundtland tried to push Norway into the European Union, which is attempting to force national cultural identities to merge in order to facilitate more transport and trade and allow the big companies to move more freely across national borders. Just as in Denmark, influential industrial leaders and the media bullied the Norwegian people to accept joining the Union, using the same argument that was used in the United States for NAFTA: the world is changing and we’ve got to change with it; otherwise we’re going to be left behind and you’re going to lose your job. You’re going to lose your job—everybody was told that. In many cases workers were told that if they didn’t vote yes on the referendum to join the European Union, they would lose their jobs.
Nevertheless, in Norway the people managed to get sensible arguments into the media, maintain their sanity, and vote no. Yet the unemployment rate is half what it is in Sweden, which did enter the Union—but only by a hair. Sweden is more centralized; the powers that be were better able to control the debate. Opposition to the Union has since gone up to over 70 percent in Sweden; not only that, a year ago in Europe, in Britain especially, it was taken for granted that the movement toward centralization would continue and all of Europe would have a single currency. Now it’s no longer a fait accompli; it may not happen. In England, Sir James Goldsmith has started a Referendum Party. Because he has enormous wealth, he’s able to make use of the media, and he’s starting to raise the issues I’ve been talking about. So things are not just going to continue in one straight line. There are some changes taking place at a high level.
As you know, at the grass-roots level initiatives to rebuild the local economy and the local community are widespread. These efforts have been so successful because they are answering human needs. People are creating win-win strategies to solve the problems of social isolation, of identity, of unemployment, and of pollution all in one fell swoop.
But for these efforts to succeed, they need to be accompanied by policy changes at the national and international level. How, for example, can grass-roots participatory democracy be strengthened in the face of huge corporations’ political power? How can local support alone enable small producers and locally owned shops to flourish if corporate welfare and “free trade” policies heavily promote the interests of large-scale producers and marketers? How can we return to a local context in education if monocultural media images continue to bombard children in every corner of the planet? How can local efforts to promote the use of locally available renewable energy sources compete against massive subsidies for huge dams and for nuclear power plants? It is clear that local initiatives must go hand in hand with policy changes to counter the globalization process.
As people gain a more global understanding of the economy, they are beginning to expose all the hidden subsidies and regulatory measures that help the corporations to undermine small businesses and small producers. Then it becomes clear that going to the supermarket and buying apples from ten thousand miles away, which cost less than apples from two miles away, has absolutely nothing to do with efficiencies of scale. What it has to do with is the globalized economic system, which has been blindly wedded to the principle of comparative advantage—the notion that it is in everybody’s interest to specialize production for trade.
Richard Douthwaite is one of the few economists today who, like Schumacher, is taking localism seriously. I highly recommend his book, Short Circuit. It’s about the way people can build up and strengthen their local communities. Douthwaite went around the world to look at examples of local economies in action. He found one of the most successful examples of what can be done to revitalize community to be Malaney in Australia. He also praises the Schumacher Center for a New Economics as one of the best institutes of its kind in the world. It’s been working on these issues for many years, often with very little resources, with very little voice. But thank goodness its voice is now becoming heard. That’s a result of the change in thinking that is happening worldwide.
Douthwaite points out that he didn’t find any communities, not even Malaney, that have implemented as many of the various strategies and tools to boost their economy as they might have. There were many inspiring examples of one approach or another—such as co-operative banking, local currencies, community supported agriculture, “buy local” campaigns, barter systems, and community loan funds—but none has implemented all of them. He also talks in his book about the need to move away from local energy dependence on the main grid toward using renewable sources of energy, which will of course require a major shift. This is actually quite an exciting thought—when communities employ the whole range of strategies he recommends, we can expect to see some very impressive results. As I mentioned at the start, one thing that is preventing the shift to local scale is the erroneous idea that nationalism or even racism or fascism is somehow associated with local economics. But as I’ve tried to show, it’s the global economy that gives rise to the insecurity fueling these attitudes. Strong local economies do not lead to intolerance. On the contrary, because they provide security and community, they have the opposite effect.
Another obstacle is the way we are being manipulated from behind the scenes by often well-intentioned people who are convinced the economy should keep going in the direction of globalization. That’s the biggest hindrance of all, and we need to be very sophisticated to see through the manipulation.
A third obstacle has to do with the pressure we feel to walk our talk, to practice what we preach. I have come across many people who realize, for instance, that the car is a destructive element in their lives. They try to do without one, and they find it almost impossible. Then what do they do? They start defending the car. I say to my friends in Europe that if I should go to an average U. S. town and say, “If you cared about the environment, you’d stop driving your car,” it would be a bit like saying, “If you care about the environment, then cut off your legs.” Most of us today, even in Europe, are completely dependent on a system that is built on the car. So how do we go about making the transition? We need to begin a discussion in our communities and at the national level to see how we can change our priorities. Yet we are made to feel that we shouldn’t talk about reducing our dependence on the car if we ourselves use one. So if you were to go to the town hall to discuss ways of reducing car use, you would feel like a hypocrite because you drove the car there.
I’ve been privileged to live for most of the year in parts of the world where the local economy is so strong that I don’t have to depend on things from far away; I don’t have to use a car to do what I do. But I know that when I am in North America, it’s virtually impossible to do without one. We’re talking about economic localization, and yet for most of us it’s impossible to be completely pure. We don’t have access to the products we need from the local economy because for several generations we have been caught in a process that increasingly separates consumers and producers. It will take quite a while before any individual in the Western world can boast of being pure.
It comes down to being tolerant toward ourselves and above all toward others, realizing that we are part of a very complex system. We need to devote some thought to how we can start moving in another direction at a community level or at a more political level. I think we have to reassess the notion of walking our talk because we are so enmeshed, so trapped by the system. We need to work together to find ways to change that situation. And in the process we need to have more sympathy, more tolerance, and more love for ourselves and for others. I think I’ll end with that: we need to be more loving to ourselves and to others.