Radical Relocalisation

by Zac Goldsmith

If the principles of fair trade were to be applied to the global economy, we would see that economy slowly dismantled and replaced by localised trade.
Is the global industrial economy inherently flawed, or can poor nations, given fair conditions, trade their way to prosperity?

It's hard to see how the latter could be possible. Massive material consumption in the North has been possible because of our historic ability to plunder colonies in the South. Even if it were desirable, it would be mathematically impossible for the Third World to emulate us. But physical constraints aside, is it wise to equate consumption with wealth? Analysts often point to the high consumption levels of rich nations as proof of their unfair advantage. But if developed-country citizens consume too much, it is because they live with a system that requires them to. When local production is undermined and basic goods are shipped thousands of miles, northerners cannot (unless they are rich or ascetic) be anything other than rampant consumers. Does that make them better off? It's a big assumption to make, particularly in the light of what we know to be true that multinational corporations are profiting at the expense of everything else (both North and South), and that the very nature of industrialisation turns luxuries like cars into necessities. To pitch 'rich' countries against poor countries is to ignore the fact that people everywhere (and their environments) are being undermined by large, mobile corporations.

Very few people argue that the global economy has been a resounding success. And no doubt its rules could be made fairer. It's absurd that developing countries should be expected to abandon protections for their fledgling industries while developed countries build barriers of their own. And for countries whose people have already been pushed into overcrowded cities, and have lost their diverse food producing base and been made dependent on the volatile commodity markets, relocating large factories, for example, would provide some short-term relief. But it would also cause massive vulnerability. Markets fluctuate, factories move.
So the question is: can the global economy be maintained on a fair and ecological basis? George Monbiot believes it can - with fundamental reform through an international institution. Companies could then be forced to behave well in host countries, and the indirect costs of their business - so often shouldered by taxpayers and the environment - could be fully internalised. But the problem with global institutions has always been that they are more effectively lobbied by big businness than local communities. They are invariably co-opted by vested interest. Were a new institution to take fair-trade considerations seriously, what would be the chances of it being respected by the US or the European Community?
Even so, if such an institution were initiated (and respected) its effect would be radical relocalisation of global economic activity - exactly as proposed by localists everywhere. Without infrastructural support and direct subsidies, a company like Wal-Mart would not be able to justify sourcing food from sites thousands of miles away. The global economic landscape would be altered, ending at a stroke the advantage  big business enjoys over smaller operators.

The effect of a genuine fair trade organisation would, therefore, be a world where trade comes second and localisation comes first. That means a return to the human scale - the only hedge we have against continuing corporate power and ecological destabilisation. In other words, such an institution - if it were possible - would logically lead to the end of the global economy as we know it. So in real terms, the issue is not about ends but means. At what level should we pursue relocalisation? If we start at the top, we are advocating the replacement of one massive centralised authority with another form of massive centralised authority, with all the risks that that entails. It would require persuading the entire establishment to radically alter its priorities. On the other hand, if we start somewhere in between — with loose international coalitions between nations of similar status, with individual countries actively relocalising their food economies and strengthening their local communities — we would see a process of gradual independence from the corporate monolith that is undermining developing nations... without needing the prior approval of the corporations.

Author: Zac Goldsmith is the Editor of The Ecologist and features frequently in radio and TV discussion programmes.

Source: with thanks to Fourth World Review No 123, 2003.
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