Global or Local? Two Paths to the Future

For our species to have a future, it must be local. 

The good news is that the path to such a future is already being forged. Away from the screens of the mainstream media, the crude ‘bigger is better’ narrative that has dominated economic thinking for centuries is being challenged by a much gentler, more ‘feminine’, inclusive perspective that places human and ecological well-being front and center. People are coming to recognize that connection, both to others and to Nature herself, is the wellspring of human happiness. And every day new, inspiring initiatives are springing up that offer the potential for genuine prosperity.

At the same time there is a growing awareness – from the grassroots to academia – that the real economy is the natural world, on which we ultimately depend for all of our needs. Only when we embrace a structural shift in the current economy – away from dependence on a corporate-run global marketplace, towards diversified local systems – will we be able to live in a way that reflects this understanding.

Tragically, our political and business leaders remain blind to these and other realities. They are taking us down a different path, one where biotechnology will feed the world, the internet will enable global cooperation, robots will free people from the drudgery of physical and mental effort, and the wealth of an even richer 1% will somehow ‘trickle down’ to benefit the poor. 

What does this future look like? Google’s Ray Kurzweil informs us that our food will come from “AI-controlled vertical buildings” and include “in-vitro cloned meat”. According to Tesla’s Elon Musk, building a city on Mars is “the critical thing for maximizing the life of humanity”, while “30 layers of tunnels” will relieve congestion in Earth’s high-density cities. Goldman Sachs explains that the digitization of everyday objects will “establish networks between machines, humans, and the internet,” to “enable higher productivity, better energy efficiency, and higher profitability”.

These ideas are lauded as visionary and bold, but what they promise is simply the escalation of dominant trends – neo-colonial expansion, urbanization and commodification – turbo-charged with fancy gadgets. What they don’t tell us is that, at every level, the system is dumping the most abundant natural resource of all – human energy and labor – on the waste heap. At the same time, our taxes are subsidizing a dramatic increase in the use of energy and scarce natural resources. We have a system that is simultaneously creating mass unemployment, poverty and pollution.

But at the grassroots on every continent, people are rejecting this vision of the future.  They yearn for the deep bonds of community and connection to nature. Theirs is not a vision built upon a few billionaires’ fetish for high-tech gimmicks and knack for money-accumulation: instead it emerges from a deep experience of what it means to be human.

Through thousands of initiatives, people are actively forging a different path forward. They are building prosperous local economies and intergenerational communities that provide meaningful, productive work. From community gardens to farmers markets, from alternative learning spaces to local business alliances and co-ops – what all these have in common is a renewal of place-based relationships that reflect an innately human desire for love and connection. 

These initiatives emphatically demonstrate that human nature is not the problem – on the contrary, it is the inhuman scale of a techno-economic monoculture that has manipulated our desires and our needs. This understanding is reinforced by observing what happens when people come back into contact with human-scale structures; I have seen prisoners transformed, delinquent teenagers given meaning and purpose, depression healed, and social, ethnic and intergenerational rifts bridged. 

In many cases, these efforts stem more from common sense than any intention to ‘change the world’. But together they nevertheless present a powerful challenge to the corporate order. 

This emerging movement transcends the conventional left-right dichotomy. It is about enabling diverse human values and dreams to flourish, while simultaneously re-embedding culture in nature. It means societies can move towards withdrawing their dependence on distant, unaccountable monopolies, in favor of local and artisanal production for local needs. The emphasis here is on real needs, not the artificial wants created by advertisers in an effort to stoke the furnaces of consumerism. 

Localization means getting out of the highly unstable and exploitative bubbles of speculation and debt, and back to the real economy – our interface with other people and the natural world. Rather than demanding countless tons of perfectly straight carrots and discarding the ones that do not fit the bill (as supermarket chains do), local markets require a diversity of products, and therefore create incentives for more diversified and ecological production. This means more food with far less machinery and chemicals, more hands on the land and therefore more meaningful employment. It means dramatically reduced CO2 emissions, no need for plastic packaging, more space for wild biodiversity, more circulation of wealth within local communities, more face-to-face conversations between producers and consumers, and more flourishing cultures founded on genuine interdependence. 

When we strengthen the human-scale economy, decision-making itself is transformed. Not only do we create systems that are small enough for us to influence, but we also embed ourselves within a web of relationships that informs our actions and perspectives at a deep level. The increased visibility of our impacts on community and local ecosystems leads to experiential awareness, enabling us to become both more empowered to make change and more humbled by the complexity of life around us. The two paths before us lead in radically different directions. One takes us relentlessly towards fast-paced, large-scale, monocultural techno-development. It’s a path that separates us from each other and the natural world, and accelerates our downward social and ecological decline. The other path is about slowing down, scaling back and fostering deep connection, in order to restore the social and economic structures essential for meeting our needs in ways that nurture the only planet we have.

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Author and filmmaker Helena Norberg-Hodge is the founder and director of Local Futures. A pioneer of the ‘new economy’ movement, she has been promoting an economics of personal, social and ecological well-being for more than thirty years. She is the producer and co-director of the award-winning documentary The Economics of Happiness, as well as the author of Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh - described as “an inspirational classic” - and her latest book Local is Our Future. She has given public lectures in seven languages, and has appeared in broadcast, print, and online media worldwide, including MSNBC, The London Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, and The Guardian. She was honored with the Right Livelihood Award (or ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’) for her groundbreaking work in Ladakh, and received the 2012 Goi Peace Prize for contributing to “the revitalization of cultural and biological diversity, and the strengthening of local communities and economies worldwide.”
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