Localism and Democracy

Georgeann Johnson
Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Globalism has been the giant in the foreground, growing by leaps and bounds and capital flows. For the most part this is a giant on steroids that leaves a lot of environmental destruction in its path. Localism is a healthy antidote to the reckless giant.

The size and degree of an interconnected world has possibly reached the point where this size and degree is increasing instability. Then there are the nation states within the global picture with varying kinds of government. On the personal level there can be a sense of disconnect within the larger nation-state. I will venture that the size of a nation-state matters. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, are all examples of functioning nation states where Democracy is strong.  These are all small countries. There is a tipping point where the sense of place and the sense of connection get wobbly. On the human level this speaks to a need for localism and the decentralization of systems.

I would like to speak to the issue of Bigness. For the individual, Localism has the siren call of not being too big, to having a place, to Belonging; this is true in both urban and rural settings. In thinking of this I recalled an article by Christopher Ketcham called The Curse of Bigness. I actually found the article in my files and I will refer to it as it speaks to the nature of Bigness in a very complete way.

In Nature each species has its Optimum Size. It's not too big, nor too small, for its own environment. It is called: The Right Size. When applied to Nation states, it is obvious that the US suffers from its own kind of giantism. Our cultural albatross is the axiom that when something is big it is automatically better. Ketcham says "Size was our birthright, our conditioning, the justification for our exceptionalism, Bigness is our manifest destiny. Big Macs and Whoppers, big cars and sprawling cities, big armies with big reach, and big governments that spend big money running up big debt." Then there are big corporations that gobble up each other and grow to outrageous size, and this is another Curse of Bigness.

In fact the original "Curse of Bigness", was written by Louis Brandeis, a lawyer in the early 20th century, and famously a Supreme Court Justice. If ever there was a Supreme Court justice known for busting up bigness it was Brandeis. He took on the great Robber Baron trusts...oil, rubber, steel, tobacco, sugar, and railroads..and many of these trusts were shattered by antitrust mechanisms that Brandeis helped put into motion. These legal actions helped break up monopolies, but 100 years later we find Bigness manifesting in the mergers and acquisitions of giant corporations. Aided and abetted by a Supreme Court that determines that Corporations have the Rights of Persons.

I will venture to say that the inherent Nature of "Optimum Size" also applies to our social constructs, our habitats, and our economies. I will say Bigness has run amuck in the 20th century and it is due for a course correction. The appeal of Localism is a manner of bringing home, economy, and community into an Optimum size. Localism is a natural response to this imbalance. In reaction to Bigness, Localism is both desirable now, and inevitable, at some point. Inevitable because globalization and urbanization are reaching natural limits and will start to reverse; desirable because of the lengthy 300,000 years of human evolution.

Humans evolved living in small groups and function better when they know someone face-to-face. Social stability and power equality align with the scale of social organization. Scale and size are relevant to community whether urban or rural.

Helena Norberg Hodge has spent many years in Tibet, and she has created a non-profit called Local Futures. In a conversation with farmer/poet Wendell Berry she expressed these thoughts: "The real problem is not human nature, but what i think of as an inhuman system. One of the biggest problems we are facing is that the system has become so big that we can't see what we are doing and what we're contributing to. Our economic system is of such an inhuman scale that it has become a giant machine...a global juggernaut that's pushing us all into fear and scarcity. ....In order for us to see the limits, we need a more human scale, localized economy." Wendell answers. "We can go from there to the community economy; and from there to the principle of community; meaning the sense of ‘what we all have in common’ and an obligation to take care of it." They go on to discuss the importance of big-picture activism that supports a shift from global to local. This means linking together locally to resist the advances of top-down monoculture in all its destructive forms. It means linking up groups around the country, indeed the world, to push for the people to have a choice.

And speaking of community, how does a community protect itself within the larger framework of state laws and corporate power? I would like to share the story of a non-profit called CELDF, Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. This was started by a lawyer in PA, named Thom Linzey. It started in rural PA when some farmers started accepting money from companies to let them dump their toxic sludge on their fields. Which seemed OK until two teenage boys died after walking across the fields to a woods.

This tragedy started to alert locals to these dangers of toxic sludge. But a state law did not allow the community to sue for damages. This was the beginning of CELDF devoting its efforts to protect community rights. As part of this legal framework CELDF has embraced the concept of "Rights of Nature" as a partner to community rights.

CELDF says: we recognized that whether communities were facing fracking, injection wells, factory farms, pipelines, GMOs, water extraction, or a wide range of other threats, the barriers they faced to stopping these projects – and in their place establishing sustainable energy, water, agriculture, and other systems – were the same. To date CELDF has helped over 200 communities to protect their natural habitat.

It is a good thing to know about CELDF. Because it is one thing to build and enrich a community, but it is another thing to establish the legal framework to protect it against corporate greed and power. This raises the issue where the democracy inherent in a community of active citizens is safe in the larger framework. It is where a smaller entity, the community, needs to have the legal power to withstand the power of the Bigness of a Big corporation.

The value of Localism is that it enables a community to have deliberative democracy. In a large nation state the system is representational democracy; Of, by, and for the people gets mired in a system stuck in the wheels of distance, lobbying, and the Bigness of Corporations.

So Localism and Democracy are more relational partners than a large nation-state with representational Democracy. In looking for a close-up view of Localism, I read a report in the Atlantic from James Fallows. He and his wife took a prop plane and flew to a variety of towns and cities in the U.S. Across the country they found rising faith in local governance. Gallup polls have found that 70% of people trusted their local government to do "the right thing", while only 25% of Americans say that about national government. They found this to be true even in cities with great racial and economic diversity. All in all, they found hope in the realities of cities and towns revitalizing themselves and of more citizens engaging on the local level.

If such is the case, then there is certainly the case for the national government to aide and abet Public Banking and Revitalizing agriculture, not to mention localizing the building of solar panels and wind turbines. To have the Bigness of the Nation State underwrite the sustainability of the Local would be reinvigorating to Democracy.