Rebuilding Local Economies: A Shift in Priorities



The grassroots movement for economic localisation represents a positive and practical response to the challenges of food insecurity, climate change, peak oil and financial instability. Governments should support this alternative vision for sustainable, human-scale development.

From the burgeoning popularity of farmers’ markets and co-operatives to the revitalisation of community banking, people are organising to reclaim the economy from large profit-driven corporations and ‘too big to fail’ financial institutions. The small-scale and diversity of these local initiatives masks the immense potential they hold for addressing fundamental flaws in the current model of economic development. Rather than treat the swing towards the local as a fad or misplaced radicalism, the policy community should work to support this alternative vision for sustainable, human-scale development.

Why localise?

The concept of discriminating in favour of local economies is by no means new. One of the most well known advocates of protecting the local is none other than John Maynard Keynes, as emphasised in his famous essay of 1933, On National Self-Sufficiency: “I sympathise with those who would minimise, rather than those who would maximise economic entanglements among nations. Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel – these are things that of their nature should be international. But let goods be homespun wherever it is reasonable and conveniently possible, and above all, let finance be primarily national.”

Of course, the world has changed in ways that Keynes could not have anticipated. For contemporary advocates of what is often referred to as ‘localisation’, the issues extend far beyond the protection of local jobs and industry. To dismiss supporters of small-scale, community-oriented economic development as protectionists – as many do – is to misconstrue both the motivation and the methods of those involved. The growing emphasis on greater self-reliance should instead be considered in light of a number of unresolved crises that are the unintended consequences of a globalised economic framework: food insecurity, climate change, peak oil and financial instability.

Hunger in the global food system

Global food production has increased significantly over recent decades, yet so too has the number of people suffering from chronic hunger. Recently revised figures reveal that victims of global hunger remain at an unacceptable high of 925 million (UN Food and Agriculture Organization, 2010). Lack of available food supply is not the fundamental problem, as current production levels are more than sufficient to meet global needs. The structural causes of food insecurity are rooted in an over-dependence on volatile international markets in basic food commodities, both in developing and developed countries.

Market volatility – largely a result of speculative activity – not only results in price hikes for the poorest households who spend up to 90 per cent of their income on food, but it can also push prices down for farmers whose livelihoods depend on export crops. The media and many NGOs have also paid much attention to increasing malnutrition in agricultural areas where cash crops, including biofuel crops, have replaced local food production.

The conclusions of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development, undertaken by 400 scientists under the auspices of the UN and the World Bank, clearly state that the focus on export crops has left many small-scale producers (the majority of the rural poor) vulnerable to volatile international market conditions and international competition, often from subsidised producers in the North.

Prioritising local food

Rebuilding local food economies is an important step towards addressing the problems of volatility in global markets. Small-scale, diversified food production for local and regional consumption is essential for creating more stable livelihood opportunities for the rural poor in developing countries, and also offers the best hope for ensuring national and regional food security through increased self-reliance.

In industrialised countries, localising food production and increasing food self-sufficiency is equally important. The local food movement, most evident in the growing popularity of initiatives such as community gardens and local farmers’ markets, seeks to address both sustainability and fairness in the global food system. Concepts such as ‘food miles’ have made consumers conscious of the carbon emissions associated with long-distance trade in agricultural commodities, to the point where supermarket chains now actively seek to stock shelves with local produce.

The environmental costs of globalisation

Various reports by UN agencies over the past year suggest that the worldwide drive towards globalisation and urbanisation is taking an ever-greater toll on the earth’s ecosystems. In particular, the twin spectres of climate change and peak oil threaten the long-term viability of current international trade patterns.

Trade forms a growing share of our increasingly fossil fuel intensive global economy, and the transport it depends on is one of the fastest rising sources of greenhouse gas emissions. Not only are nations engaged in ecologically wasteful ‘boomerang trade’ (exporting and importing identical goods that could remain in domestic markets), but many industrialised countries now ‘outsource’ the true environmental impact of their consumption patterns by importing goods and food from other countries.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, greenhouse gas emissions are allocated to the countries where the gases are generated, not where the produce is consumed. A study undertaken by the Carnegie Institute for Science found that around one-third of EU nations’ CO2 emissions were embodied in goods and services imported from other countries, mainly in the developing world. Globalised production patterns thus allow countries with high levels of consumption to avoid responsibility for CO2 emissions and other ‘negative externalities’ yet to factor into the market price of goods.

Price rises associated with peak oil production also threaten the longer-term sustainability of current production and trade patterns. In many parts of the world, communities have become dependent upon globalised supply-chains fuelled by cheap energy to meet local needs. As readily available oil supplies dwindle – which the International Energy Agency has warned may be as early as 2012 – the extraction of more energy- and carbon-intensive fossil fuels (such as from the Canadian tar sands) will further exacerbate the environmental costs of globalised trade.

An alternative – trade subsidiarity

If governments seem sluggish in their response to these problems, large numbers of the public do not. The Transition Towns Network, one of the fastest growing social movements in the world, aims to reduce the ecological impact of economic activity by building resilient, diversified local economies. Through projects such as local currency schemes, community gardens and re-skilling workshops, people are self-organising to rejuvenate localised economic activity and reduce fossil fuel usage.

The aim of such initiatives is not communal autarky, but rather to realign the production and distribution of goods and services within ecological limits while still ensuring basic human needs are secured. Supporters of localisation recognise that economies of scale are essential for efficient production in some areas, such as in the manufacturing of electronic goods. But where there are major environmental and social benefits in producing on a smaller scale, local trade should be prioritised.

A global economy organised along these lines would naturally reflect the principle of trade subsidiarity. While political subsidiarity involves devolving decision-making to the lowest practical level, extending the concept of subsidiarity into the realm of production and consumption would encourage goods to be traded as locally as possible. The environmental benefits are twofold. Firstly, replacing large-scale, energy-intensive production and transport systems with localised small-scale, labour intensive systems would help countries to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Secondly, it would also reduce the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ effect that allows rich nations to avoid the environmental consequences of their over-extended consumption patterns.

Financial crisis: an opportunity for reform?

The 2008 financial crisis exposed deep flaws in the neoliberal approach to economic development that has dominated policy-making since the 1980s. Government intervention in the economy and the nationalisation of many financial institutions proved essential in preventing system-wide collapse, despite the dominant laissez-faire ideology. It is now clear that unregulated markets are not intrinsically stable, nor do they lead to greater prosperity for all. Policies to promote free trade and economic globalisation have concentrated wealth in the hands of a few, while communities everywhere have become more vulnerable to shocks in the global market and a ‘race to the bottom’ in labour and environmental standards.

With little consensus on what should replace the status quo in economic policy-making, the G20 has directed all its efforts to saving the free market global economy – leading to an even greater reliance on export-led growth, reduced barriers to trade and increased capital flows between states. Frustrated by a perceived lack of sufficient action from governments, many people are moving to reclaim control over the economy themselves through alternative business and banking practices. An increasing number of community banks and credit unions are seeking to redirect finance towards long-term investments in local business and social enterprise. The boom in micro-credit is also bolstering social investment in the poorer regions of developing countries, enabling people to start up localised enterprises in areas often neglected by traditional finance. And alternatives to the corporate business model, such as co-operatives, social enterprises and family-owned businesses, are receiving renewed support to encourage local ownership and production.

With many long-held economic maxims under serious review, a great opportunity exists to build a fairer and more sustainable global economic infrastructure. Instead of rolling back the regulatory powers of the state in the hope that the globalised free market will act as the lever of economic growth and widespread affluence, members of the Commonwealth should work together to foster resilience and diversity at the local level.

A new policy framework

Although strengthening local economies depends upon bottom-up development and widespread participation at the local level, the wider policy environment is equally as important. Current grassroots efforts to ‘go local’ are hampered by national and international policies geared towards encouraging comparative advantage in a liberalised global economy. To allow this marginalised movement to reach the mainstream clearly requires a wholesale shift in the priorities of economic policy-making.

As the specific conditions for encouraging locally-oriented business vary from country to country, the recommendations listed here are necessarily broad. These are but the first steps in creating an alternative economic framework in which sustainable, resilient local economies can flourish:

Internalise environmental costs of production and transport to provide the right kinds of incentives for more efficient and environmentally-friendly local forms of production and consumption in a range of industries. This can be achieved through ecological tax reform and/or pricing mechanisms for the use of natural resources and ecosystem services, as well as the removal of public subsidies for fossil-fuel-intensive energy, transport and agriculture.

Renegotiate international trade and finance rules so that their end goal is the regeneration of diversified local economies. Trade agreements should be guided by the principles of subsidiarity, sustainability and sufficiency, thereby reducing the negative environmental and social ‘externalities’ associated with globalisation.

Facilitate the introduction of local currencies and the set up of local banking and micro-finance institutions to encourage long-term investment at a local level. This can help provide the necessary financial assistance that small businesses require to set up and operate.

Introduce and enforce rigorous anti-trust legislation to break up concentrations of corporate power and encourage local competition among small businesses.

Develop alternative indicators of progress, beyond GDP, that incorporate measures of well-being and sustainability.

A new path of development

For many people, the motivation to rebuild local economies goes beyond practical concerns about economic stability and sustainability. It is rooted in a deep dissatisfaction with the lifestyle promoted by an economic system that globalises production and consumption, placing profit and efficiency above local participation and community. By actively discriminating in favour of diverse and resilient local economies, the governments of the Commonwealth can set their countries on a new path of development – one that fosters human flourishing and safeguards the planet for future generations.

Anna White is a policy analyst at Share The World’s Resources. She can be contacted at anna(at)stwr.org.  This article was originally published here: http://www.stwr.org/economic-sharing-alternatives/rebuilding-local-economies-a-shift-in-priorities.html

In defence of downshifting and work sharing‏

In the hope of tackling the twin crises affecting the economy and the climate, governments and institutions around the world have echoed environmental groups in calling for a ‘Green New Deal’. Major government investment in renewable energy and other green initiatives would indeed create thousands of new green jobs, but would it address the underlying drive for endless economic growth that many now believe lies at the heart of our headlong gallop toward ecological destruction?

As convincingly argued by Tim Jackson in his groundbreaking book, Prosperity without Growth, the unlikelihood of ‘absolute decoupling’ (reducing resource use while continuing to grow the economy) means that a different way of ensuring economic stability and maintaining employment is necessary. A growing number of academics and activists who recognise the tendency for New Deal economics to rely on a “grow your way out of unemployment” approach are calling for an alternative route to sustainability – reducing the working week and sharing paid employment equitably in a steady-state economy.

A recent report by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) makes a particularly compelling argument for work sharing in their proposal for a new ‘normal’ working week for Britain of 21 hours. “While some are overworking, over-earning and over-consuming, others can barely afford life’s necessities,” wrote one of the report’s authors in the Guardian. “A much shorter working week would help us all to live more sustainable, satisfying lives by sharing out paid and unpaid time more evenly across the population.”

In her new book, Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth, Juliet Schor similarly argues for fewer and more evenly spread hours spent in paid employment. A long-time advocate of work sharing, she maps out a vision for a new economics that would not only allow more time for family and community, but would also give people the opportunity to acquire goods and services in more ecologically friendly ways outside of the fossil-fuel intensive market economy.

Making the time to live sustainably

An enduring myth of industrial capitalism is that as technological advances have increased labour productivity, we no longer have to work as hard to meet our material needs. That it takes fewer people to produce the same amount of goods is undoubtedly true, yet prior to the successes of the labour movement in the late nineteenth century, industrialisation drove working hours to their highest level in human history. According to the economic historian James E. Thorold Rogers, the workers participating in the eight-hour movement were simply striving to recover the amount of leisure time enjoyed by their medieval ancestors. With the push for deregulation over the last few decades, work hours in the most affluent parts of the world have actually started increasing once again, reversing the century-long decline sparked by trade union action.

As governments around the world have prioritised the pursuit of GDP growth as the single most important goal of their economic policy, productive effort has become separated from human needs. Economic activity now prioritises the accumulation of private profit over the securing of basic welfare – the pursuit of ‘what can be done’ over ‘what needs to be done’. The imperative for ever-expanding economic output creates a need to stimulate and satisfy higher and higher levels of consumer demand. Instead of producing the anticipated era of leisure – Keynes himself envisioned a 15-hour week with the work shared as widely as possible – the pursuit of growth for growth’s sake has led to an era of hyper-consumerism and overwork.

There is much less evidence to suggest that the constant ramping up of economic efforts and the commodification of more and more of our time and activities is healthy for social or environmental well-being. In 2004, a study by the NEF found that whilst economic output in the UK has nearly doubled in the last 30 years, life satisfaction levels have remained resolutely flat. Steady-state economist Herman Daly suggests that growth in the industrialised world may even have become ‘uneconomic’ in that its social and environmental costs exceed the benefit it brings. Collectively, humanity is already using up the Earth’s natural capital faster than it can be replenished, as evidenced by the work of the Global Footprint Network. All of which begs the question: instead of maintaining a system that maximises economic output and full-time employment, what about creating new arrangements that maximise human well-being and ecological sustainability?

People are already taking the transition to an alternative economic system into their own hands. A movement is growing around the idea of ‘downshifting’ – deliberately choosing to work and earn less in order to live a more fulfilling and simple life. In so doing, people are consciously rejecting the idea that we live to work, work to earn, and earn to consume. Such endeavours to redefine ‘the good life’ are not only reflected in individual decisions to downshift, but also in the growing popularity of transition towns, the collective rebuilding of local economies, and the climate justice movement’s vocal critique of overconsumption.

The problem is that downshifting as well as other efforts to counter consumerism are incoherent in modern economic terms. In Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, Madeleine Bunting reveals that while the majority of Britons accept it as self-evident that, for all but the poorest people, overwork ‘is your choice’, there is also a widespread acceptance that this purported power to choose is often exceptionally hard to exercise. It is not only the clear structural bias towards full-time employment that makes it difficult to negotiate flexible working hours, but also the ingrained logic of social comparison – the need to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ – which constantly upgrades our perceived materialistic ‘needs’ as incomes rise. The widespread sense of having to earn enough to live a ‘normal’ consumer lifestyle, one that is sold to us through advertising and reinforced by cultural norms, reflects the immense structural and social barriers to work sharing that exist in industrialised growth-driven economies.

Overcoming structural barriers

As evidenced by some of the more virulent reactions to the NEF’s 21 Hours report, the proposal to slash the working week and share hours more evenly across the population seems counter-intuitive. How would the poor and even middle-classes cope with losses in income? Wouldn’t government revenues drop and demand for public services rise? How would businesses cover the increased cost of employing a greater number of people for the same amount of work? What about shortages in skills that are already stretched to meet labour demand in some industries?

Although many of these concerns are valid, it is important to remember that work sharing is not a short-term policy solution, nor do its supporters suggest that it should be a sudden or enforced change. No one assumes that the redistribution of paid employment is a panacea for the social and ecological malaise described above. It is instead part of a long-term vision for a post-industrial world in which the economy is transformed to meet the needs of communities rather than the desires of consumers; a sustainable future where the benefits of the planet’s limited resources are shared equitably and protected for future generations.

Importantly, reactions such as that of the Institute for Economic Affairs’ Mark Littlewood, who called the proposal for a shorter working week “fantasyland economics”, reveal how deeply engrained the growth imperative is in today’s economic and social logic. The tendency in orthodox economics to assume that GDP growth is the best measure of economic progress is the greatest barrier to any policies that seek to purposefully ‘downshift’ the economy. Yet it is precisely because work sharing goes against the conventions of the growth paradigm that the idea is so important.

Overcoming the current structural bias toward long and unevenly distributed work hours requires a myriad of economic reforms. These could include income and wealth redistribution (including a substantially increased minimum wage); encouraging uncommodified forms of production and consumption (such as ‘self-providing’ or ‘co-production’); creating new measurements of progress and prosperity; and freeing sources of finance from the burden of interest-accruing debt. Perhaps most importantly, it requires an end to the work-to-earn, earn-to-consume mindset that currently dominates day-to-day life in many industrialised societies.

The fact that the proposal for a 21-hour week has been taken seriously in the halls of Westminster is a sure sign of encouragement, but until a popular movement gathers momentum behind the idea, governments are unlikely to act. In the end, it is up to people themselves to willingly step off the consumer treadmill and demand the right to an even and reduced share of paid work. Instead of accepting the trappings of ‘consumer-sovereignty’, we must demand the freedom not to consume – the freedom to become the producers and creators in a new economy that builds lasting prosperity within ecological limits.

Anna White represents Share the World’s Resources.   This post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license

Challenging the bailout economy

The inherent instability of the current financial system, largely to blame for the recent credit crisis, has raised its ugly head once again. What began in October last year with Greece admitting to a budget deficit exceeding 12 percent of its gross domestic product  (well beyond the EU’s supposed limit of three percent) has burgeoned into a Europe-wide sovereign debt crisis threatening to split the monetary union apart.

When it became clear that the €110 billion bailout loan to Greece had not placated market fears that the crisis would spread to other weaker economies such as Spain and Portugal, EU leaders and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) constructed a €750 billion emergency fund to restore market confidence. The fund is not actually intended for use, but rather to protect eurozone countries from speculative attacks and to ensure that they can continue borrowing from the private sector.

While many commentators are quick to blame overblown government budgets for the current crisis, more measured assessments recognise that there are structural factors at play. Like most of the world, these governments had their excesses during boom years of easy credit, but they can hardly be blamed for the downturn that sent their national deficits skyrocketing. The fact that private banks, a number of which were implicated in the credit crisis, willingly lent vast sums to supposedly profligate and corrupt governments is hardly mentioned (for an exception, see C.P. Chandrasekhar). In what is becoming a familiar pattern, the burden of adjustment has fallen not on the financial sector, but on the Greek people and the taxpaying citizens of Europe.

The Greek public are now facing austerity measures of eye-watering severity – pay and pension freezes, public spending cuts and tax increases – the effects of which will be ongoing declines in income and employment. The IMF has admitted that even if the program ‘works’, Greece’s debt will rise from 115 percent of GDP today to 149 percent in 2013. In other words, the economy is likely to enter into an even deeper recession, with devastating impacts for the working and middle classes.

Why not just restructure Greece’s debt and let the international money lenders swallow the losses? According to economist Jayati Ghosh, this is the most obvious solution. Austerity measures will not correct the existing imbalances but actually worsen them. The problem, she argues, is that “the power of finance – in politics, in media and in determining national and international economic policies – remains undiminished despite its recent excesses and failures.”

Here lies the crux of the matter. The EU/IMF bailout is not intended to ensure that Greek workers will be able to pay the bills, but purely to restore confidence in the markets. Of course, the justification spouted by the IMF‘s managing director Dominique Strauss-Khan is that market confidence will “deliver the growth, jobs, and prosperity that the country needs for the future”, but the underlying assumption is that a placated international finance sector is a precondition for this future prosperity. The same can be said of the new EU stability fund. Markets may be reassured that Spain and Portugal are safe from default for now, but they too must implement harsh austerity measures that will negatively affect incomes and employment.

The Greek bailout and the EU stability fund are merely temporary solutions to the underlying problem of privatised finance. Neither addresses the structural faults of a system in which the health of the real economy – the part concerned with actually producing goods and services – is entirely dependent on the conditions of an overblown financial sector whose only purpose seems to be fattening the pockets of speculators and bankers. Austerity measures and bailouts may keep the banks happy, but what about the people? Popular protests, which have already caused three deaths in Athens, are likely to spread as other governments across Europe cut spending.

Perhaps for once, governments should start listening to their citizens instead of the financial lobbyists, market gurus and policy technocrats. The process could yield some surprisingly common sense results. Rather than frantically shoring up an unravelling economic system that has proven inherently unstable, unsustainable and unjust, policy-makers would be forced to address a fundamental question: how can we build and economy that best serves the needs of the people whilst protecting the environment upon which we depend? With the inequality gap widening, unemployment rising and the world’s ecosystems on the brink of collapse, one thing is for certain: throwing more money at the bailout economy is not the answer.

Anna White represents Share The World’s ResourcesThis post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license

Why local economies matter

Around the world, there is a growing movement to pull back from the relentless march of corporate globalisation by re-rooting economic and social activities at the community level. From the burgeoning popularity of farmers’ markets and food co-ops to the revitalisation of community banking, people are organising themselves to reclaim the economy from large profit-driven corporations and instead build sustainable, local alternatives.

While the term ‘localisation’ has never gained popular currency (perhaps because it is so easily misunderstood), it is worth considering a broad definition for this trend towards small-scale, community-oriented businesses. In Localization: A Global Manifesto, Colin Hines defines localisation as “a process which reverses the trend of globalisation by discriminating in favour of the local”. It is important to note, however, that this does not mean “walling off the outside world” through nationalistic protectionism (see Micahel Schuman, Going Local: Creating Self Reliant Communities in a Global Age). Nor does it mean creating communal autarky, with self-sufficient groups cutting themselves off from the monetary economy. International trade, travel and cultural exchange would continue, but locally-controlled, diversified economic activity would reorient production and service provision towards meeting the needs of the community first.

Why Localise?

Individuals and organisations who are already working to strengthen their communities and local economies are doing so for a multitude of reasons. This is not an ideologically driven movement that fundamentally rejects the global in favour of the local, nor is it based on one blueprint solution or economic model. Rather, it is an organic process motivated by a number of interrelated factors.

Economic globalisation has gradually increased the power of multinational corporations and ‘too-big-to-fail’ banks, not only over the means of production and distribution of goods and services, but also over the entire democratic and social process. In light of the recent financial crisis, where governments spent billions of taxpayer dollars on bailing out the banks that were partly responsible for causing the crisis, the  overbearing influence of the corporate and financial services sector has never been clearer.

In response, people around the world are moving to reclaim local control over the economy through alternative business practices and banking. Campaigns such as Move Your Money aim to revitalise community banking so that finance is redirected towards local needs rather than speculative profits and bonuses. Alternative business structures such as cooperatives and community-supported agriculture also encourage local ownership and production, thereby closing the divide between owners and workers or producers and consumers upon which the corporate model thrives.

A growing awareness of the ecological impacts of a globalised, fossil-fuel dependent economy is also inspiring people to ‘go local’. With the twin spectres of climate change and peak oil looming, people are recognising an increasing need for localised production and distribution in order to build a viable alternative to the current environmentally destructive, export-driven model. Projects such as Transition Towns and Ecovillages are largely motivated by a belief that sustainable living requires resilient, diversified local economies. Many of the strategies adopted by these communities are not new; community gardens and local currency schemes, for example, have long been used to ensure local resilience.

For many people, the motivation to rebuild local economies goes beyond practical concerns about the unstable and unsustainable nature of the globalised economy. It is rooted in a deep dissatisfaction with the lifestyle and values promoted by a system obsessed with efficiency, competition and consumerism. Re-rooting economic activities at a local level offers a way to rebuild the community ties that have been eroded by a tendency towards competitive individualism in society. In the words of David Korten, author of Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth, the broader goal of a localised economy is to shift “its favoured dynamic from competition to cooperation, and its primary purpose from growing the individual financial fortunes of the few to building living community wealth to secure the health and well-being of everyone.”

Promoting Small-Scale on a Large-Scale

Currently, the shift towards the local remains a fringe, grassroots process, made up of small-scale initiatives as diverse as the cultures and environments in which they are taking place. As Helena Norberg-Hodge argues in her contribution to The Case against the Global Economy: And For a Turn Toward the Local, for these efforts to translate into a wholesale shift in the mainstream economy, they must be accompanied by policy changes at both the national and international level.

With politicians pandering to the interests of corporations in the never-ending pursuit of economic growth, policy support for local economies remains near to nonexistent. Many government policies, such as ensuring the availability of cheap fuel, liberalising markets, subsidising agribusiness and bailing out the big banks, essentially act as a form of corporate welfare in support of large-scale, profit-driven multinationals at the cost of small-scale community ventures. The same is true at the international level. Agreements under GATS and the World Trade Organisation bar governments from discriminating in favour of the local, all in the name of free trade and the logic of economic competition.

Yet if economies are geared towards meeting local needs first, rather than becoming ever more efficient at producing goods for export-oriented trade on international markets, the logic of competition and ‘comparative advantage’ flies out the window. The only question that remains is how to untangle government priorities that currently favour of big business and globalised finance, and to gain political and popular public support for a more diversified global economy geared toward localisation. In order to build a new paradigm for development, one that empowers communities and works within the ecological limits of the planet, the rules of the game need to fundamentally change.

‘Going local’ offers a way for people to push for transitional economic alternatives from the ground up, but individuals, communities and civil society must come together to form a powerful political movement demanding that the necessary shift toward local empowerment takes place through national and international policy measures. As multiple and interrelated global crises reveal the socially and environmentally destructive nature of the current globalised economy, the time for such a movement has never been more propitious – an opportunity that we all must make the most of.

Anna White is editorial assistant at Share The World’s ResourcesThis post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license

Cochabamba and the road to Cancun

In an unprecedented demonstration of global public opinion, over 30,000 people gathered in Bolivia over four days in April for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth. Convened in Cochabamba by Bolivian President Evo Morales in response to the failure of December’s Copenhagen summit, he extended an invitation to “social movements and Mother Earth’s defenders… scientists, academics, lawyers and governments” to directly participate in formulating an alternative climate strategy. “The only way to get climate negotiations back on track”, reasoned Bolivia’s UN ambassador, Pablo Solón Romero, “is to put civil society back in the process.”

Progressive commentators have clearly documented a number of problems with the Copenhagen negotiation process. Formulated behind closed doors, with no input from civil society or countries most affected by global warming, the outcome was not so much an accord but, as eco-activist Jason Negrón-Gonzales declared, “a threat made by a bully”. When Bolivia and Ecuador refused to add their signatures to the Copenhagen Accord, the US government cancelled $3 million and $2.5 million in climate aid to each country respectively.

Although some environmentalists deemed Copenhagen a ‘step in the right direction’, it is widely acknowledged that the process of voluntary pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has been dangerously ineffective. Despite non-binding international commitments, carbon emissions have accelerated globally by more than three percent a year since 2000. Even if the official Copenhagen target of limiting the average global temperature rise to two degrees Celsius is reached, there will remain a 50 percent chance of irreversible damage to climactic stability, with many parts of the world becoming inhabitable. With such feeble targets, analysts estimate that pledges made under the Copenhagen Accord will lead to temperature increases of between three and four degrees Celsius – a level widely considered disastrous for the world’s ecosystems and humanity itself.

For the world’s poorest countries, those expected to suffer the worst consequences of global warming, a fifty-fifty chance of mitigation is not good enough. In stark contrast, the People’s Agreement or ‘Cochabamba Accord’, released on the closing day of the Cochabamba conference, calls on developed nations to limit the average global temperature rise to a maximum of one degree Celsius. This would require a commitment to emissions reductions of at least fifty percent based on 1990 levels – far higher than existing pledges.  

While these more ambitious targets are crucial, it is the agreed strategy for how to reach them that is of particular importance. Arising out of a movement that sees climate justice as the only effective and fair way to tackle global warming, the People’s Agreement contains a number of interrelated elements. Concrete proposals include the call for a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth Rights and an International Climate and Environment Justice Tribunal. These mechanisms provide a legal framework for restoring the balance between human beings and nature, as well as recognising the historical debt owed by developed countries – the main contributors to the climate crisis – to the countries of the Global South.

Woven through the various proposals in the Agreement is the core message of the global climate movement – that addressing the ecological crisis requires more than targets and tinkering with the status quo; it requires an entirely new economic system based on an alternative ethos for how humankind interact with each other and the planet. While official negotiations remain ideologically shackled to the notion that market mechanisms offer the only realistic means of addressing global warming, the Cochabamba Accord reflects the growing view that the market-obsessed system is the structural cause of climate change, and thus cannot offer a viable solution. Informed by the indigenous Andean concept of vivir bien (‘living well’), the Cochabamba Accord calls for an alternative development model that prioritises “collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all.”

President Morales has promised to table the People’s Agreement at the Cancun climate summit in December this year. However, discussions at Cancun depend on what official negotiators agree on during a number of meetings over the next eight months. With a strong ongoing mobilisation by both civil society and progressive governments, it is imperative that the radical new approach mapped out by the Cochabamba Accord influences the direction these negotiations take.

Beyond affecting international climate talks, the conference in Cochabamba has the potential to inform a wider public awareness of the structural causes of the climate crisis and the wholesale change required in the global economy. The indigenous notion of vivir bien (‘living well’) as an alternative to the consumerist drive to vivir mejor (‘live better’) provides a simple distinction between meeting basic needs sustainably rather than endlessly amassing goods at the expense of the environment.

The gathering in Cochabamba vividly demonstrates an understanding of the causes and solutions to global warming far beyond those acknowledged during the Copenhagen conference. Perhaps most importantly, the People’s Agreement represents the willingness of the global public and progressive governments to support the difficult decisions that must be taken if we are serious about creating a sustainable future.

Anna White is editorial assistant at Share The World’s ResourcesThis post was originally published here under a Creative Commons license.