What is the background to the formation of the Alliance?

For almost four decades now, my organisation, Local Futures, has been promoting a shift from global to local as a strategic solution to our social, ecological and spiritual crises. This work has involved a range of grass-roots initiatives in both the global North and South, including many hands-on projects – introducing village-based renewable energy technologies in Ladakh, Bhutan and Nepal, for example, and establishing farmers’ markets in Europe, the US and Australia. However, most of our activities have to do with what I call ‘education as activism’: books, films, conferences, workshops, public lectures, study groups – even comic books – that can catalyse effective action from the grass roots in many different parts of the world.

This work is grounded in a conviction that we need to rebuild our spiritual connections with other people and Nature while rethinking basic assumptions about ‘development’, ‘growth’ and ‘progress’. I have witnessed how the global economy destroys people’s fundamental relationships with one another and the Earth by breaking down interdependent local economies. To counter this, I believe that we need community and political engagement in the form of resistance and renewal – resistance to further globalisation, along with the renewal of localised systems in food, energy, finance and other sectors of the economy. I’m convinced that this is the most strategic path towards genuine sustainability.

Over the years, we have established an informal network of groups and individuals who are working on issues that fall under the broad umbrella of this global-to-local shift. The International Alliance for Localisation (IAL) was originally conceived as a way to formalise and expand this network. The hope is that the IAL can help catalyse a powerful global movement for localisation.

Why do you think the Alliance is needed, and what is it going to attempt to do?

It has become increasingly clear that governments and big businesses are promoting a global techno-economic monoculture that threatens ecological and human wellbeing worldwide. But at the same time, an ever-increasing number of inspiring initiatives are demonstrating the multiple benefits of rebuilding local ecological and community relationships that, at a fundamental level, restore both biological and cultural diversity. However, the general public and even most local groups themselves are often unaware that they are, in fact, part of a rapidly growing worldwide localisation movement. We believe that linking together these groups that are currently operating in isolation can greatly strengthen them all.

So the mission of the IAL is two-fold: first, to facilitate dialogue and collaboration among the multitude of groups and individuals who are engaged in grass-roots localisation initiatives; and second, to enable this diverse localisation movement to speak with a more unified voice in resistance to further globalisation – one loud and powerful enough to break through the ‘noise’ of corporate-dominated political and economic discourse.

To begin with, we are engaging in dialogue with those who already have a clear recognition of the need to shift from global to local. Out of these discussions, we are beginning to create a platform that focuses on the multiple benefits of reweaving the fabric of life in more localised, human-scale ways, while simultaneously rethinking the basic assumptions that underpin today’s global economy. In other words, we are casting light on the top-down, global economic system through a spiritual, ecological and cultural lens.

Who are some of the individuals and organisations coming together in the Alliance?

We have not yet created formal structures for the IAL, but these are some of the key individuals who have been part of the consensus-building process: Michael Shuman, one of the first economists to promote localisation; Camila Moreno, a Brazilian trade and agriculture activist; Bayo Akomolafe, a Nigerian writer, researcher and storyteller; Manish Jain, an ‘unlearning’ advocate and co-founder of India’s Swaraj University; Carlo Sibilia, a member of Italy’s 5 Star Movement; Keibo Oiwa, a leader of Japan’s ‘Slow Life’ movement; Yoji Kamata, founder of the Ancient Futures Association of Japan; Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics and The Ascent of Humanity; Judy Wicks, co-founder of BALLE (Business Alliance for Local Living Economies); Carol Black, director and editor of the film Schooling the World; Richard Heinberg, ‘peak oil’ expert and author; Ross Jackson, founder of the Global Ecovillage Network; and Stacy Mitchell, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Can you give some examples of the kind of problems you believe the Alliance can help address – and the kind of solutions you are advocating?

One of the things we urgently need today is better information-sharing across borders, and this will be a key focus of the IAL. Working internationally for 40 years, I have seen how a lack of understanding between North and South allows damaging assumptions to persist. In the North, the media narrative of poverty, unemployment and ‘underdevelopment’ in what was once called the Third World supports the widespread notion that those countries need Western-style education, Northern markets for their products, and the right to emit increased amounts of CO2 to enable economic growth. At the same time, people in the South are being bombarded by romanticised media images of urban consumer culture, blinding them to the downside of life in industrialised countries – the inequality, competition, stress and social isolation.

Even between countries like Norway and Sweden, or Canada and the US, valuable information often fails to cross borders. So environmentalists may succeed – after much hard work and expense – in getting their message into their own national media, but the news does not reach their neighbours. Because so much communication today is mediated by corporate-controlled media, even activists can labour under misconceptions about what is happening elsewhere, or end up trying to reinvent the wheel in their own work.

Another information gap that the IAL hopes to bridge lies between the multitude of single-issue social and environmental campaigns. Whether it’s climate change, genetically modified organisms, species extinction, poverty, ethnic conflict or the epidemic of depression, most of these issues are either caused or exacerbated by the continued commercialisation of life that the global economy drives. This fact provides a means to unite people and groups who are currently engaged in isolated, seemingly contradictory battles. For example, the widespread belief that jobs depend on economic growth has created a gulf between social justice advocates and environmentalists. But when it’s understood that localisation simultaneously reduces unemployment and pollution, these groups can be united in an alliance that strengthens both their causes, without requiring them to abandon their individual identities or principles. In recent years, several coalitions and networks have sought to bring together such groups, but they have primarily focused on the concerns of a particular country or region of the world. We see great potential for the IAL to connect groups on an international scale.

The IAL’s alternative, global perspective can also serve to counter the myths and misinformation that often paralyse and confuse people with contradictory ideas: on the one hand the evening news regularly asks whether consumer spending is adequate to keep the world going; on the other hand we’re told that consumer greed is destroying the world. But individual greed did not create this economic system. None of us voted to put in place an economy that uses subsidies, regulations and our taxes to work against personal and planetary wellbeing. Until recently, the broad perspective needed to deconstruct the global economic system has been marginalised, with the field left to narrowly focused market fundamentalists. As a result, it appeared that the only viable option was to head towards ever larger and more inhuman economic scale, with wealth and power concentrated in ever fewer hands. The IAL will get the message out that another way is possible.

This message can have immediate, practical applications. Today, for example, most ‘solutions’ to climate change focus on market-based steps like carbon trading, offsets, and incentives to shift the behaviour of individual consumers. Our broader analysis points out how corporations are bombarding us with advertising to spur endless increases in consumption, while governments are using our taxes to support ever more energy-intensive practices – including massively increased redundant global trade in water, perishable foods, building materials, and even waste. This understanding can lead people towards more effective action such as pressuring for a halt to ‘free trade’ treaties, or joining community initiatives to strengthen local economies, build up decentralised renewable energy structures, and so on.

Climate change, in fact, is an area where facilitating communication between groups in North and South is crucially important. Climate negotiations have often broken down over the question of whether the ‘poor’ countries of the South should be asked to reduce emissions as quickly as the ‘rich’ countries in the North. After all, the North had its chance to industrialise, so why shouldn’t the South? But a deeper analysis reveals the corporate agenda behind this seemingly noble impulse. Enabled by ‘free’ trade treaties, global corporations have shifted their production to regions where the price of labour is lowest, and where environmental restrictions are lax. So it is of course useful to those corporations if they can continue their operations without regard for the resulting CO2 emissions.

Allowing the corporations who have invaded the South to continue polluting the planet is in no one’s best interest. It cannot even be said that this process is bringing material prosperity to the majority, even though it has created a handful of billionaires in China, India and elsewhere. Overall, it is contributing to poverty and unemployment as millions of people leave rural livelihoods to seek jobs in the exploding megacities. Meanwhile, this rapid urbanisation is further exacerbating resource shortages and CO2 emissions. For this message to really reach Northern audiences, however, it will require the combined voices of activists and thinkers from all over the South.

Another divide the IAL can help bridge is between those who focus on the inner-spiritual dimension, and those who focus on the outer-political dimension. The New Age movement has done tremendous good in encouraging millions of people to listen to their hearts and to the wisdom of ancient Indigenous cultures. This deeper consciousness creates a yearning to turn away from the competition and consumerism of the global economy and build more loving relationships with others and the Earth. Until recently, however, there has been a tendency in the New Age to focus almost exclusively on the inner dimension, on ‘thinking positively’, and on personal change. Among those who focused on this inner world, many tended to look down on activists who seemed fixated on the outer world.

In the activist community, meanwhile, many have ignored their personal, inner needs, while emphasising ‘outer’, practical, and political change. Even though their work is usually born of altruism, ignoring the inner dimension has often hampered their efforts. Neglecting peace of mind and inner reflection and focusing on the negative can lead to self-righteousness and helpless anger. Burnout, conflict and alienation have often been the consequence. But the problems we face today have both an inner and an outer dimension, and solving them requires working on both levels. For this reason, we have sought to include in the IAL people who represent both sides of this divide.

I believe the time is right for voices from every side of these many divides to come together. The environmental costs of globalisation have been clear for some time, and now the social consequences are becoming more apparent. As the latest round of ‘free’ trade treaties are negotiated and come up for ratification, we need to speak with a single voice – a resounding NO! The recent WikiLeaks revelations helped to pull back the veil of secrecy built into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). These treaties will make it easier for corporations to sue governments if national laws or regulations might limit corporate profits. As outrageous as this sounds, there have already been more than 500 such disputes: in Australia, for example, tobacco giant Philip Morris sued over a law mandating larger warning labels on cigarette packaging. The notion that democratically enacted laws can be overturned at the behest of global corporations is leading to a growing sense of outrage, and may yet turn the tide against further deregulation. This is the ‘resistance’ side of the IAL’s mission, and we hope to help bring together some of the many groups that have been working on these issues in different parts of the world.

For more information, visit: www.localfutures.org

Helena Norberg-Hodge is founder and director of Local Futures.