The crude ‘bigger is better’ narrative has dominated economic thinking for centuries, but it is finally being challenged by a much gentler, more inclusive perspective that places human and ecological well-being front and centre.
People are coming to recognise that connection, both to others and to Nature, is the wellspring of human happiness. New, inspiring initiatives are springing up that offer the potential for genuine prosperity.
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 where the wealth of an even richer 1 percent 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 maximising the life of humanity”, while “30 layers of tunnels” will relieve congestion in Earth’s high-density cities.
Goldman Sachs explains that the digitisation of everyday objects will “establish networks between machines, humans, and the internet, leading to the creation of new ecosystems that 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, urbanisation 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 labour – on the waste heap. At the same time, our taxes are subsidising 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 in their diverse cultures are rejecting this vision of the future. They yearn for the deep bonds of community and connection to nature that we evolved with for most of our existence. 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.
People are actively forging a different path – one that allows us to reweave the social fabric and to reconnect with the Earth and its ecosystems. They are building prosperous local economies and intergenerational communities that provide more 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 enduring and innately human desire for love and connection.
These localisation steps emphatically demonstrate that human nature is not the problem – on the contrary, it is the inhuman scale of a techno-economic monoculture that has infiltrated and 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 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, and articulate a very different vision of the future.
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 that societies can move towards withdrawing their dependence on distant, unaccountable monopolies that produce our basic needs in high-input, mechanised monocultural systems on the other side of the world, in favour of local and artisanal production for local needs.
The emphasis here is on real needs, not the artificial wants created by marketers and advertisers in an effort to stoke the furnaces of consumerism and endless growth.
Localisation 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.
Diversity and meaning
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 CO2emissions, 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.
Localisation lends us the intimacy and pace required to feel this fullness, and to feel the joy of being an integral part of a living web of relationships.
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 material and deeper human needs in ways that nurture the only planet we have.
Helena Norberg-Hodge is the author of Ancient Futures and producer of the award-winning documentary, The Economics of Happiness. Her new book Local is Our Future: Steps to an Economics of Happiness, just published, reveals the root causes of our current global breakdown and describes how simple steps towards the local can lead to a sustainable and fulfilling future for people and planet.