Local Economies for a Global Future

This is the best possible way forward.  Do any of our local leaders get it?

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by Jason F. McLennan

We are about to take a dramatic leap into the next era: the modern age of Heavy-Near, Ideas-Far. In a world where energy is increasingly scarce and expensive we simply won’t be able to transport goods and people over far distances. Yet we’ll prioritize energy use for technologies that bring us together virtually – that allow us to connect and share regardless of the distances between communities.  The world is about to get simultaneously bigger and smaller depending on the field of human activity concerned.  Imagine an America where people stick much closer to home. Where we aren’t defined by the open road, but by the quality and depth of our neighborhoods and communities. Where the majority of the things in our lives – our clothes, furniture, food and building materials come from close at hand rather than being globally sourced. We eat according to seasonal variations and see the reemergence of incredible regional diversity in architectural and cultural expressions.

At the same time it won’t be a return to provincialism and hierarchical society—an intensely localized economy will be punctuated by key global technologies that keep us connected, informed and up-to-date—with uniform access to information and ideas despite socio-economic, gender or racial backgrounds. The possibilities for environmental and social/cultural healing is immense.  Yet, this radical re-ordering won’t be easy for us and will at times be violently resisted by those rooted in the current paradigm. I believe that the riots we have been seeing around the world are natural permutations of this emerging paradigm—a world where the average person is super-connected with one another and informed—and frustrated with the status quo world power that refuses to change.

Here are some of the characteristics of the new re-ordering as I see it:

  • The ‘global economy’ as its now defined will shrink rapidly between 2012-2030, as energy scarcity will limit our ability to ship things all over the world. In a short span of time the cost of transporting human or material cargoes over any appreciable distance will simply be too high and the market will begin to correct itself. In its place will emerge strongly local ‘living economies’ with an emphasis on local materials, local knowledge, durability and craft.
  • Super-sized retailers and one-stop shops will all but disappear. If Wal Mart, Costco, Target and others like them survive, its because they will have learned to operate on a new business model based on locally produced goods globally managed through information management technologies (heavy near, light far).
  • As we focus again on food and goods that can be grown or made locally it will have the positive effect of reinvigorating local cultures and revealing regional variations. Artisanship will reemerge and quality will trump quantity. Food and drink will become intensely local—inspiring the re-emergence of creative cuisines and local flavors. Wine from France or Australia will once again be a true luxury here—but thankfully equally good vintages will be available close to home!
  • ‘Winning’ technologies (as defined by those technologies we’ll continue to invest in) will be those that require less energy to make and operate relative to the benefits they provide.  Web-enabled cell phones are a perfect present-day example, as they put a world of information in the hands of any user and draw very little energy in the process, which is why they already are ubiquitous in third world countries. Small solar panels will power hand-held electronics and tablets. Larger machines (cars, elevators, HVAC systems, etc.) will either be completely re-engineered to be super-efficient or will disappear. Larger utility infrastructure (regional energy grids and regional waste treatment plants etc.) will give way to a network of decentralized, distributed technologies.
  • The era of the automobile will finally end. Expect a rapid ‘de-autoization’ of our culture over the next twenty years- despite the introduction of better electric vehicles and hybrids. While some larger specialty vehicles will continue to be supported (I think we’ll keep trains and specialized automobiles for key tasks like ambulances and fire suppression) the original mechanical horse—the bicycle, will emerge as the world’s transportation tool of choice even here in the US (as it is already in many places). Electric assist will extend our ranges, but there is still nothing more efficient than a person on a bike.
  • As we become more globally connected via electronic information exchanges, we will become more physically disconnected beyond a small radius of travel. The costs of mechanized transport will limit our ability to travel overseas and relocate on a whim, but virtual communication we will expand our ability to share ideas with our across-the-world neighbors. So while you may increasingly talk and share ideas with people in other countries the chances of physically visiting them will diminish. The flip side is that we will know our own communities much more intimately while maintaining open dialog with our fellow global citizens. Information will become even more democratic and widely shared.
  • The ultra-rich will continue to be the exception to most of the rules. Wealthy individuals will pay— dearly—or the privilege of globetrotting and having heavy special goods shipped from afar. Yet in a world where the exploitation of the environment and other people’s is no longer tolerated, what it means to be ‘rich’ will begin to be redefined as well.
  • It goes without saying that the network of Certified Living Buildings around North America will only grow and become beacons of hope for the future of our homes, buildings and offices.

Making Global Lemonade

We delivered ourselves here on the very vehicles that we’re managing to make obsolete. So it’s up to us to plan for this next natural cycle of innovation so that we can embrace it mindfully. The path I’ve described is of course by no means certain. The future could spiral in many directions—some quite dire. But I am hopeful of the path that I think is quite possible. Heavy Near—Light Far.

Photo courtesy of Trim Tab

I believe we will return to an intensely local way of living, and one that is globally conscious. We will continue to innovate, and we will share our new ideas with friends we’ll never meet. We’ll eat and wear what’s available in our region, and we’ll create culturally rich communities as we do so. We’ll work with colleagues who live in various countries around the world, and we’ll embrace the beauty of our virtual collaborations. We’ll live in a world of relative scarcity compared to what we had in the 20th century, but we’ll be more connected and abundant from deeper connections to place and culture and a proper relationship with the natural world. We’ll rely on the human machine and ‘current solar income’ to propel us forward, and enjoy the vitality that follows. The transition likely won’t be easy, and we’ll weather many storms, but there is a chance, I believe, to find equilibrium on this planet again.

read the whole article here


This article by Jason F. McLennan was originally published in the Fall 2011 issue of Trim Tab, the International Living Future Institute’s magazine for transformational people and design. To see this and other issues of Trim Tab, go to https://ilbi.org/education/trim-tab.

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