21st Century Localism: It's All Good... But

Peter Weisberg
Thursday, February 20, 2020

We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy.

The longer we pretend this dystopian world is not imminent, the more unprepared and disempowered we will be. The ruling elites’ goal is to keep us entertained, frightened and passive while they build draconian structures of oppression grounded in this dark reality. It is up to us to pit power against power. Ours against theirs. Even if we cannot alter the larger culture, we can at least create self-sustaining enclaves where we can approximate freedom. We can keep alive the embers of a world based on mutual aid rather than mutual exploitation. And this, given what lies in front of us, will be a victory.” Chris Hedges

In some scenarios, the idea of local progressive enclaves, although appealing, seems naive. The longevity of these communities in the face of climate change, the breakdown of social order, militaristic rightwing enclaves seems fragile, and yet, they might be the model for hope.

“The most significant characteristic of modern civilization is the sacrifice of the future for the present,” philosopher and psychologist William James wrote, “and all the power of science has been prostituted to this purpose”. We are entering this final phase of civilization, one in which we are slashing the budgets of the very agencies that are vital to prepare for the devastation ahead—

To get out of the mess we're in, we need a new story that explains the present and guides the future, says author George Monbiot. Drawing on findings from psychology, neuroscience and evolutionary biology, he offers a new vision for society built around our fundamental capacity for altruism and cooperation, rethinking the possibilities for our shared future. The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical collective action to save us, and it might already be too late to save many of us.

Starting small with patience and an understanding of the necessity for a cooperative spirit would seem to hold a higher likelihood of success, albeit a limited one. The practices we establish in these communities might not have much of an impact on a global scale now, but they can improve and enrich the lives of its participants. And if the human race does survive itself, these modes of living, in greater harmony with the web of life we are woven into, will be essential.

Localism means that public services are more likely to reflect the needs and preferences of communities as local citizens have the opportunity to directly set priorities and the nature of local services.  They also have a greater ability to hold their local decision-makers to account.

Through building horizontal alliances, these local democracies build Resilience, which in an ecological context, involves diversity. The same is true when it comes to governing societies.  Reminding us of the old maxim of “not having all your eggs in the same basket”, resilient networks or systems are characterized by the ability to keep operating even when part of the system suffers catastrophic failure.  Sharing decision-making across a range of governing bodies reduces the impact of policy failure by any single institution and increases the opportunity for innovation and policy learning. Consequently, small self-contained systems are more likely to withstand shocks than large networked ones.

Ultimately resilience will depend upon the capacity of citizens and community organizations to manage for themselves in times of crisis.  This requires governing models that enable citizens to develop the skills and capability of self-government. 

As towns and cities address local issues and problems, they will have the opportunity to experiment and “try things out” learning from the experience of each in a way that central governments cannot. Processes that encourage innovation and building a capacity for dealing with the unexpected will be essential.  In this sense sub-national government can be considered a type of laboratory for an ever-evolving democracy. And rather than waiting for change to happen from above, communities must take it upon themselves to solve problems, focusing on their unique local assets to collaborate and reach consensus on what needs to be done.

Networks with other communities experimenting with localism enable local experiments to grow into national movements. And at a time of rapid simultaneous experimentation, cities and their innovative ecosystems have a higher likelihood of success when connected, learning from peers, sharing what works (and what doesn’t), and recognizing new patterns of sustainable development.

Despite the apparent enormity of the task of making changes to our neoliberal economic system, isolating this root cause can be very empowering. Rather than confront an overwhelming list of seemingly isolated symptoms, we can begin to discern the disease itself. Just as important, the outline of a cure, arrived at through the collective experiences, values and visions of the associated enclaves, starts to take shape as well. The enormity of the current and future task can cannot be overstated and can be the source of despair. Visible progress in the face of the big picture is rare. To the extent that localism reshapes our priorities, builds community and tackles local issues, it can act as a healthy energizing force in our lives, adding to our own resilience and sustaining us as we move beyond the local toward the global. It is the global instabilities that will determine the course of humanity. It can be the local that establishes the groundwork for how we live in harmony on the planet. But a word of caution…other than a momentary fist pump, we cannot rest on our laurels with local successes. The climate catastrophe is global and its already upon us.