Single poppy in wheat field

Bringing it back home

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

Over the last eleven years, Australians have been encouraged to believe in the all-pervading importance of our export-orientated economy. By contrast, in many places, especially newer ‘McMansion’ suburbs, the once-familiar concept of ‘community’ has eroded, leaving a collection of private individuals sharing the same locality.

During the same period, Australia has also seen an accelerating shift towards greater extremes of wealth and poverty, also known as ‘income polarisation’. If current trends persist, and there is a greater financial squeeze, low-income earners could compete with others for low-paid jobs (win-lose), or work together for a collective benefit (win-win). The second option requires mutual trust and a shared belief in a society of cooperatively minded people.The global economy reaches LadakhHelena Norberg-Hodge arrived in Ladakh in 1975, accompanied by a German documentary team. Previously cut off from the outside world, this remote mountainous region of India, also known as ‘Little Tibet’, had just been opened up to tourism. She was privileged to experience Ladakh both before and after the impact of globalisation.

Up to this point, the population had been healthy and happy, living in extended family groups with a high level of self-sufficiency. There was no crime, and money was tangential to their existence. Although well adapted to survival in a tough climate, the Ladakhis were no match for the global juggernaut. As the province switched over to a cash economy, people were forced to leave their land and move to Leh, the swelling regional capital. Absurdities multiplied when imported flour became cheaper than flour grown in the nearest village, and eventually it became uneconomic for Ladakhi farmers to continue earning a living.

In her influential book Ancient Futures, which details the cultural unravelling in Ladakh, Norberg-Hodge emphasises that similar changes have been taking place throughout the world. Searching for solutions, she has become a key formative figure in the ‘relocalisation’ movement that aims to reverse globalisation with an emphasis on local production, particularly in the key area of food.Over the last eleven years, Australians have been encouraged to believe in the all-pervading importance of our export-orientated economy. By contrast, in many places, especially newer ‘McMansion’ suburbs, the once-familiar concept of ‘community’ has eroded, leaving a collection of private individuals sharing the same locality.

During the same period, Australia has also seen an accelerating shift towards greater extremes of wealth and poverty, also known as ‘income polarisation’. If current trends persist, and there is a greater financial squeeze, low-income earners could compete with others for low-paid jobs (win-lose), or work together for a collective benefit (win-win). The second option requires mutual trust and a shared belief in a society of cooperatively minded people.

Why relocalisation?

Traditionally, when things were a little less topsy-turvy, town and cities were largely self-sufficient, and would trade to obtain commodities that they were unable to produce locally.

Under the prevailing ‘neoliberal’ view championed by governments and big business since the 1970’s, regions and even nations are supposedly better off specialising in a few key exports and importing the rest from elsewhere. In many places, aided by government policies, local production of necessities has largely died off, and the modern global economy now treats communities as ready markets.

In a quest for sanity, relocalisation groups linked to the Canada-based Post Carbon Institute have recently started to spring up in various parts of Australia, including the Northern Rivers of NSW and Kuranda, Maleny, and the Burnett region in Queensland. They are part of a fast-growing international network.

The urgency of their mission is spurred by the prospect of the world’s oil supply peaking within a few years, which, together with climate change, will probably force radical changes to future agricultural practices and trade patterns. Much farming and food distribution in industrialised countries has become heavily dependent on oil – for fertilisers, pesticides, tractors, packaging, and transportation. Without a shift towards local ‘low carbon’ alternatives, the world’s food supply graph will closely follow any downward trend in oil production.

To many people, Irish economist Richard Douthwaite’s 1996 book Short Circuit is still the relocalisation bible. He takes the sobering view that, as a consequence of free trade and deregulated capital movements, residents of Western countries can no longer depend on continuous access to food and energy imported into their local area from a distance.

In Douthwaite’s view, the only way to ensure continuation of supply is to build an independent local economy. He lists four key areas: implementing local agriculture; designing a decentralised energy network; creating a complementary local currency; and setting up a local banking system.

Over the last eleven years, Australians have been encouraged to believe in the all-pervading importance of our export-orientated economy. By contrast, in many places, especially newer ‘McMansion’ suburbs, the once-familiar concept of ‘community’ has eroded, leaving a collection of private individuals sharing the same locality.

During the same period, Australia has also seen an accelerating shift towards greater extremes of wealth and poverty, also known as ‘income polarisation’. If current trends persist, and there is a greater financial squeeze, low-income earners could compete with others for low-paid jobs (win-lose), or work together for a collective benefit (win-win). The second option requires mutual trust and a shared belief in a society of cooperatively minded people.

Relocalisation of our food

One of the fastest-growing sources of planetary greenhouse emissions is trade-related transportation. Much of this to-ing and fro-ing involves the long-distance movement of food, with the result that the oil industry, shipping companies and middlemen take the lion’s share while the farmer often loses out. The inefficiencies of this system are highlighted by Norberg-Hodge, who gives an example of the UK and France exporting to one another roughly equal tonnages of butter.

Government policies tend to create an uneven playing field between large and small food producers, with agricultural subsidies generally going to the big players to facilitate exports. As conditions for agribusiness grow increasingly deregulated, in some countries small growers and artisan manufacturers are becoming increasingly over-regulated, particularly in the area of hygiene.

Some imported produce such as American grapes and Mexican garlic is appearing in Australian supermarkets. To support domestic growers, consumers need to remain informed via country of origin labelling, and may have to pay extra – assuming that the Australian-grown option remains available.

Another solution is to buy local or grow your own. Various options include backyard vegetable patches, community gardens, and fruit trees in cities. Other initiatives that actively connect consumers with growers are farmers’ markets and Community Supported Agriculture ‘box schemes’.

In the UK, America and Canada, the number of farmers’ markets has mushroomed in recent decades. This movement was non-existent in Australia until the mid-1990’s, but today dozens of markets are running in cities and rural areas.

Among the many advantages are far greater returns to the grower. While a farmer selling to a supermarket might expect to be paid 5-20% of the retail price, selling direct at a farmers’ market provides a far higher 40-80% return, helping to make some smaller acreages financially viable.

Environmentally speaking, buying from local farmers helps curb climate change by cutting down on embodied fossil fuels. Food is more likely to be organic or chemical-free, packaging is minimal, and eating in season enhances freshness while reducing the need for energy-hungry refrigeration. Tests have shown that supermarket produce may be anywhere up to a year old.

A growing number of people in North America, where the average item of food travels thousands of kilometres from farm to plate, are starting to revolt by restricting their diet to what is grown or processed within a hundred miles (about 160 kilometres) of where they live. This ‘100 Mile Diet’ experiment was pioneered by Alisa Smith and James McKinnon in the Canadian city of Vancouver.

Some ‘locavores’ have quickly learned that eating exclusively local means a restricted choice. Often participants have lost weight, while others have ditched veganism to include meat in their diet. Sometimes the diet has uncovered a wealth of nearby artisan food makers whose existence participants had earlier been unaware of.

Over the last eleven years, Australians have been encouraged to believe in the all-pervading importance of our export-orientated economy. By contrast, in many places, especially newer ‘McMansion’ suburbs, the once-familiar concept of ‘community’ has eroded, leaving a collection of private individuals sharing the same locality.

During the same period, Australia has also seen an accelerating shift towards greater extremes of wealth and poverty, also known as ‘income polarisation’. If current trends persist, and there is a greater financial squeeze, low-income earners could compete with others for low-paid jobs (win-lose), or work together for a collective benefit (win-win). The second option requires mutual trust and a shared belief in a society of cooperatively minded people.

Energy solutions

Bearing out Douthwaite’s warning, in South Australia and Victoria where the power sector has been privatised, higher prices and periodic power cuts have become a feature of life. Across the Tasman, Auckland was closed down for several weeks in 1998 following a blackout caused by a slow infrastructure upgrade by the city’s utility. Could such problems be solved at a local level?

A few Greens such as Caroline Lucas, a UK representative in the European Parliament, advocate the radical step of dismantling the national power grid. Besides dramatically cutting carbon emissions, this would require a major shift towards smaller scale renewable energy such as wind, solar and tidal power. Even in cooler countries, financial hurdles permitting, each building could become a miniature solar power station.

Europe has also seen some discussion about ‘microgrid’ systems that can circulate electricity or heat within a community. Such a set-up could service the needs of dozens of households through one large wind turbine, or perhaps a small-scale biomass heat plant using coppiced tree plantations as a feedstock.

Over the last eleven years, Australians have been encouraged to believe in the all-pervading importance of our export-orientated economy. By contrast, in many places, especially newer ‘McMansion’ suburbs, the once-familiar concept of ‘community’ has eroded, leaving a collection of private individuals sharing the same locality.

During the same period, Australia has also seen an accelerating shift towards greater extremes of wealth and poverty, also known as ‘income polarisation’. If current trends persist, and there is a greater financial squeeze, low-income earners could compete with others for low-paid jobs (win-lose), or work together for a collective benefit (win-win). The second option requires mutual trust and a shared belief in a society of cooperatively minded people.

Fugitive dollars

Every day, trillions of dollars float around the financial markets, in search of profit through speculative currency trades, or via investment in a range of morally questionable activities. From a relocalisation standpoint, the key question is whether the supply of money within a community continues to circulate locally, generating prosperity, or whether it quickly disappears elsewhere.

Keeping dollars within the local economy may be more reliable than the preferred strategy of Australian councils – attempting to lure investment dollars from outside. In practical terms, often this comes down to the choice between shopping at supermarkets and large chains, or at smaller independent stores. A recent study by the New Economics Foundation in the UK has found that every dollar spent at a locally owned outlet circulates to generate nearly twice as much income for the local economy as the same dollar spent at a supermarket.

Of all countries, in Australia the supermarket sector is concentrated in the smallest number of corporate hands, with Woolworths and Coles controlling about eighty per cent. Supermarket openings are often followed by a wave of local stores shutting down, as they find themselves unable to compete on price. Unless we support independent retailers, they will inevitably disappear.

Maleny is an alternative town in Queensland’s Sunshine Coast hinterland that is home to Australia’s greatest concentration of cooperatives – 21 at the last count. In 2004, a large percentage of the community united, ultimately without success, behind a campaign to stop a Woolworths development. This was widely seen as a ‘Ladakh-style’ incursion by an element of the global economy into a town that is pioneering democratic economic ownership.

Over the last eleven years, Australians have been encouraged to believe in the all-pervading importance of our export-orientated economy. By contrast, in many places, especially newer ‘McMansion’ suburbs, the once-familiar concept of ‘community’ has eroded, leaving a collection of private individuals sharing the same locality.

During the same period, Australia has also seen an accelerating shift towards greater extremes of wealth and poverty, also known as ‘income polarisation’. If current trends persist, and there is a greater financial squeeze, low-income earners could compete with others for low-paid jobs (win-lose), or work together for a collective benefit (win-win). The second option requires mutual trust and a shared belief in a society of cooperatively minded people.

Local finance alternatives

To aid local spending, complimentary local currency can play an important role. This includes LETS (Local Energy Trading Systems), Time Dollars, and a variety of note-based currencies. All are transacted in a similar manner to regular cash or cheques, except that being tied to the local area they can be harnessed to strengthen relocalisation efforts.

LETS, which has made the greatest inroads in Australia, plays a useful role in stimulating trade among individuals. At the same time, its reliance on paper cheques and accounting using negative and positive balances have generally failed to excite the business community.

In the upstate New York city of Ithaca, a remarkable individual called Paul Glover was responsible for the introduction of the Ithaca Hour. This US $10–equivalent note and its various denominations have been an incredible success, attracting around 300 participating businesses, and encouraging replication across America and further afield.

Not content with this achievement, Glover went on to found the Ithaca Health Alliance, a health insurance cooperative open to all New York State residents. In an arena dominated by corporate giants, he is a believer in what he terms ‘Health Democracy’ and is working to set up a similar cooperative in Philadelphia.

Back in the years when neither Centrelink nor Medicare existed, a group of Australian workers banded together to create a vital safety net. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, members of friendly societies would pay a weekly premium in exchange for a guarantee of support in the event of illness or hardship.

One of Australia’s few remaining friendly societies, Foresters ANA, has been helping to establish and support local lending circles in its home city of Brisbane and elsewhere in Queensland. These small groups issue zero-interest loans on a similar principle to the original friendly societies, and owe their low default rate to group cohesion and mutual trust.

Over the last eleven years, Australians have been encouraged to believe in the all-pervading importance of our export-orientated economy. By contrast, in many places, especially newer ‘McMansion’ suburbs, the once-familiar concept of ‘community’ has eroded, leaving a collection of private individuals sharing the same locality.

During the same period, Australia has also seen an accelerating shift towards greater extremes of wealth and poverty, also known as ‘income polarisation’. If current trends persist, and there is a greater financial squeeze, low-income earners could compete with others for low-paid jobs (win-lose), or work together for a collective benefit (win-win). The second option requires mutual trust and a shared belief in a society of cooperatively minded people.

Towards autonomy

Communities, unlike isolated individuals, can come together to decide what is best for the local area, rather than for profit-hungry outside interests. If they are ambitious, this may involve taking the first steps towards an independent local economy.

As in the mainstream arena, access to finance is a high priority. While much charitable giving and philanthropy directs funds to charities involved in downstream ‘problem management’ activities, a shift of emphasis towards proactive local initiatives can facilitate upstream solutions.

If no government money is accepted, the resulting feeling of autonomy can generate substantial energy, and long-term resilience against the vagaries of government funding is assured. Control of land is another important factor. Rather than planning to continue running a group project such as a community garden on land leased from the local council at a peppercorn rent, a community buy-out of the site protects against the unpleasant surprises experienced by some garden projects.

In the same way that friendly societies evolved from nothing to establish hospitals and pharmacies, there is no reason why a community group should not become an umbrella for a network of mutually supporting cooperatives, creating local well-paid employment.

Garth Kindred of the Autonomous Regions Coalition (ARC) in Northern NSW believes that the region has been starved of funding by a Sydney-centric state government. Instead of lobbying for more money, the ARC has opted for a more creative approach involving relocalisation and community-level democracy. He hopes that more regions throughout the country will start looking at autonomy.

Following a Y2K-style data event, a natural disaster, or an oil supply squeeze, relocalised communities will be more resilient to disruption. In the same way that Cuba survived a substantial cut in its oil imports by decentralising the food supply chain, individualist Australia could perhaps benefit from transcending personal concerns to think holistically about the future.

 

Resources

Relocalisation initiatives
www.relocalize.net

Agriculture and food
www.farmersmarkets.org.au Australian Farmers Markets Association
www.communitygarden.org.au Australian City Farms and Community Gardens Network
www.isec.org.uk
International Society for Ecology and Culture

Finance
www.lets.org.au LETS in Australia
www.ithacahours.com Ithaca Hours
www.mecu.com.au mecu Intelligent Banking

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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