A central theme of green politics has always been the importance of the local, captured in the familiar slogan ‘think globally, act locally’. Advocates of relocalisation see “the local production of food, energy and goods and the local development of currency, governance, and culture” as the way to “strengthen local communities, improve environmental conditions and social equity.” With its focus on coping with peak oil and climate change, the Transition Towns project has a similar objective.
Greg Albo (2007) describes how these ‘eco-localist’ ideas emphasise
a host of approaches that … rest on some mix of community and cooperative economics, semi-autarchic trade, local currency systems and direct democracy in enterprises and local government. … In this vision, ecological balance is restored within decentralized communities by the need to find local solutions. (p.344)
From this perspective, the green critique of modern society is fundamentally about the abuse of scale and
the existing resource-intensive, pollution-extensive system of industrialization … The industrial drive for scale without limits – whether in terms of capital equipment, consumption, trade or corporate and political governance – is seen as an assault on the limits of nature. (p.345)
Having characterised this eco-localist worldview – which seems fairly representative of the outlook of many greens – Albo considers what he calls the limits to eco-localism. His criticisms come under a number of headings but I’ll just pick up on a couple.
The attachment to the ‘magic’ of the market. The critique of the abuse of scale carries no inherent criticism of market systems. Thus, many greens and environmental NGOs find it perfectly consistent to embrace market environmentalism alongside their eco-localism, and advocate for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, and the conservation of water resources and the protection other environmental ‘services’ through the imposition of market prices. And indeed, being decentralised operations by their very nature, markets could be seen as the epitome of ‘thinking globally, acting locally’ as
prices are transmitted across space to equilibrate all markets, information flowing from local markets to aggregate markets and back again. … With all commodities marketized and all costs of production including externalities factored in, market prices would compel individuals and firms to adjust ecologically irresponsible behaviour and regulate scarcity. (p.342)
This idea of ‘natural capitalism’ suggests that the environment in all its aspects is a commodity that, ultimately, should be “priced, traded and taxed to yield its greatest value (i.e. its preservation)” (p.343). It has to be said that many greens seem only dimly aware of these implications of their attachment to ‘natural capitalism.’
Furthermore, in the context of eco-localism each locality and its associated local market “is necessarily subordinate to the logic of capitalism as a whole and can do nothing to alter the anti-ecological drive towards increased accumulation of value and money” (p.346). Global capital would find it easy to play one locality off against another.
So, while eco-localism is undoubtedly a strong response to corporate globalisation, the tragedies of 30 years of neoliberalism, climate change, peak oil and perhaps even the excesses of consumer capitalism, it does not seem willing or able to make the leap to anti-capitalism.
Albo’s next point maybe explains why.
The lack of strategic vision. Albo asks, how will the transition to the localist economy be achieved? He is not thinking of the creation of a single community in isolation, but an entire society formed from many localities adhering to the principles outlined above. This, presumably, is what eco-localists are aiming for. If so, how will the obstacles of actually existing global capitalism and state power be surmounted by such a society? How does eco-localism propose to suppress powerful local (class and bureaucratic) interests? How will the localist economy balance social needs, ecological costs and the preferred local scale of production? Can prices alone internalise all these relations?
Albo correctly points out that all these and many other questions remain unanswered. And he makes his own view plain:
Attempting to reduce the scale of production and ecological processes along community development and bioregional lines …, and to reduce the scale of democracy in support of mutualism …, as eco-localism does, is to completely misrepresent capitalist power structures and the necessary challenges of democratization. (p.352)
In other words, ecologically sustainable localities cannot exist in a bubble outside of politics and beyond the influence of those who wield power; effective institutions and an effective politics at the national level are needed to open up the necessary context within which eco-localism can grow. Currently, the social ecologists, bioregionalists and transition town activists do not even begin to consider how to handle the crushing power of capital operating at national and global scales.
Maybe we can just cross our fingers and put our trust in an eco-localist revolution-from-below building the road as it travels, but really that is just an intellectual cop-out. When it comes to ‘thinking globally, acting locally,’ we actually need some thinking to go with the acting. Greg Albo’s reality check indicates some of the key areas where the deep strategic thinking is needed.
Nevertheless, despite the fact that eco-localism (and much else about the dreamed-of ‘green society’) remains massively under-theorised, that in itself is not fatal to eco-localism. Reorganising the scale at which our economic and social activity occurs is critical to creating and successfully maintaining a ‘green society’, as Albo indicates with this splendid quote from philosopher Henri Lefebvre’s The Production of Space:
[a] revolution that does not produce a new space has not realized its full potential; indeed, it has failed in that it has not changed life itself, but has merely changed ideological superstructures, institutions or political apparatuses. (p.354)
Greg Albo (2007) The limits of eco-localism: scale, strategy, socialism. In: Leo Panitch & Colin Leys, Coming to terms with nature: Socialist Register 2007 (pp. 337-363). London: Merlin Press.
*Note: Founded in 1964 by luminaries of the British New Left, including Ralph Miliband and EP Thompson, the Socialist Register is an annual collection of essays around themes such as American imperialism (The empire reloaded, 2005) and the chronic degeneration of political discourse (Telling the truth, 2006). The 2007 edition takes on “what may well be the most important issue facing socialists in our life-time,” namely the ecological crisis. Coming to terms with nature presents 17 contributions to ecosocialism, covering theoretical issues (eg, “The ecological question: Can capitalism prevail?” by Daniel Buck) and regional investigations (eg, “China: hyper-development and environmental crisis” by Dale Wen and Minqi Li). The Socialist Register website has open access to a number of articles from recent editions, including 2009, and a full archive of older editions.