Wednesday, August 15, 2012


In Fixing the Future, host David Brancaccio, of public radio’s Marketplace and NOW on PBS, visits people and organizations across America that are attempting a revolution: the reinvention of the American economy. By featuring communities using sustainable and innovative approaches to create jobs and build prosperity, Fixing the Future inspires hope and renewal in a people overwhelmed by economic collapse.

The film highlights effective, local practices such as: local business alliances, community banking, time banking/hour exchange, worker cooperatives and local currencies. 


Friday, April 13, 2012

Local Economies for a Global Future

Yes, we need to relocalize—but that doesn’t mean we're headed for provincialism. Anticipating our near-heavy, far-light future.

camels by trim tab
Photo courtesy of Trim Tab
This article is about a simple, singular idea, yet the significance of the idea to modern society is profound and far-reaching. Here it is: In the near future anything heavy will become intensely local while at the same time the limits to things that are ‘light’, ideas, philosophies, information will travel even further than today—literally and figuratively. This is a new paradigm for humanity and it has huge implications for the complete reordering of society. 

Environmentalists, economists, and sociologists agree: we are in an incredible state of flux, and this is simply the beginning. The planet is undergoing massive change and critical resources are diminishing, conditions to which the human race must respond. Population growth, resource scarcity and climate change will propel us, whether we like it or not, toward a new energy, food and resource paradigm. The world’s economies, based on cheap plentiful energy and the exploitation of people and the environment are starting to crumble. We are beginning an era in which the cozy assumptions of the last half-century are turned upside down, a time when the institutions and technologies that run our civilization are re-engineered. To understand how radical this new paradigm will be, let’s explore similar re-orderings in the past. 

Thousands of Years of Human History – A Heavy-Near, Light-Near Paradigm

For most of human history, everything in a person’s life was intensely local. People all over the earth had a deep understanding of their place and the world that they could literally see, touch and feel.  Moving things that were physically heavy was difficult and limited first to what people could carry, then the limits of domesticated animals. Culture too was intensely local—with peoples only a short distance away who they couldn’t understand due to differences in language and customs. These cultural differences emerged in relation to climate, the range of species and other place-based distinctions.

Oral cultures, by necessity, stayed close to home, keeping beliefs and ideology very local – sometimes as local as a family group or small village. The world had hundreds of languages and thousands of dialects and even more foundational stories, creation myths and ways of looking at the world. Most of human existence has operated under this paradigm of ‘Heavy Near and Light near’.

There were intermittent exceptions of course—moments when bursts of innovation launched our species on great journey’s (almost like punctuated equilibrium) the great Polynesian migrations and Viking explorers come to mind, but even they after finding new islands for habitation typically settled back into intensely local realities. 

Population during this massive era of our species history was relatively stable, our impact on the planet largely within the carrying capacity of each place we lived. But as inventions of our intellect compounded, the paradigm was someday destined to end.

Heavy-‘Nearish’, Light-Somewhat Far

Slowly as new inventions arose and were refined, our species began to move some physical objects (heavy) and ideas and beliefs (light) across the globe. The emergence of agriculture, the domestication of animals and the written word made change inevitable. During the rise of the first great civilizations, resources like gold, jewels, salt and spices were transported through caravan, sailing vessel and on the back of slaves. With them traveled early ideas including the migration of all the world’s great religions. The circumference of travel – both ‘heavy and light’ grew in proportion to the size and influence of the empire behind it. Yet energy during this era was still a precious commodity and because of the extreme costs to move goods and even people, it was only the most valuable things that really traveled far—and only the richest and most powerful members of the society that benefited. For most of humanity this second age was still intensely local with but mere glimpses of world’s beyond their own. 

From the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution to today, ideas, technologies and inventions have allowed us to radically remake the world.
By the middle Ages, some ideas (particularly religious beliefs) began to spread more widely. Exploration or conquest began to transcend language barriers. But religious and political leaders held many of the most important ideas closely, limiting the general public’s access to them in order to control their populations and to keep ‘divine information’ in the hands of the ‘anointed’.

So even widely traveled belief systems like Christianity and Islam were localized in a different way, carefully released and controlled by the intellectual elite. Priests, monks and royals were the typical gatekeepers. 

With the rise of empire based on the success of agriculture, population quickly grew—sometimes outstripping local ecological carrying capacity as happened in the middle east and parts of the Mediterranean, but for the most part the planet did not feel too many ill effects from our species societies under this overarching paradigm—there were simply too few of us and our technologies not yet transformative to planetary health.

Heavy-Far, Light-Far

Most of the history we now study is centered on the huge changes that have occurred globally in the span of just a few hundred years. From the age of enlightenment and the industrial revolution to today, ideas, technologies and inventions have allowed us to radically remake the world. 

The beginning of this age often saw violent clashes between civilizations still operating in earlier paradigms and the civilizations that had rushed ahead (the old paradigms always lost). The ‘civilized’ speech of empires eclipsed tribal languages and beliefs the world over, which weakened and in most cases disappeared. Large-scale manufacturing models called for inexpensive human labor and the scourge of human slavery spread.   

Gutenberg paved the way for many modern inventions when he introduced the printing press in the mid-15th century, allowing language and ideas to be distributed widely for the first time in human history. The Industrial Revolution enabled the most dramatic change in our ability to move the fruits of our labor, first with the steam engine and eventually with the combustion engine. 

Advances in weaponry—gunpowder in particular changed the rules forever. Suddenly, anything we made or conceived of could reach people in the farthest corners of the planet simply by shipping it overland or overseas. The United States and Canada as new nations were some of the first products of this new paradigm and the cultural mythologies that exist with us today (and are so hard for us to shake) are a result of this timing.

We could—and did—ship anything anywhere. We could and did share ideas and stories with others across the globe. There was no limit placed on the distribution of anything.
After thousands of years in the first paradigm, then a couple thousand years in the second, we fully transformed to this third paradigm in the span of just a few hundred years—with exponential acceleration happening in the last one hundred years—matched graphically with the huge explosion in human population. Each decade the world became smaller and smaller—and the human toll on the environment suddenly tipped beyond what was sustainable.

All of this was made possible through the availability of cheap, plentiful energy—borrowing on the stored carbon of millions of years of dead organisms partnered with human ingenuity and invention that did not see nor believed in limits. Moving heavy objects like stone, concrete, furniture and even people require enormous inputs of energy. 

Coal and petroleum met the need and easily satisfied the demand. Ideas—just like goods, traveled the globe; first through printed publications—but then through even more powerful mediums—the radio, the phone, the television and finally the computer. In the last century ideas finally began to move not only across physical boundaries—but across socio-economic, racial and gender boundaries as well, with the average person in modern society having access to information and ideas from anywhere on the planet. 

By the 1980s and 1990s, we could—and did—ship anything anywhere. We could and did share ideas and stories with others across the globe. There was no limit placed on the distribution of anything—indeed our society completely re-ordered itself around this reality within the span of a single lifetime—seemingly completely oblivious to the long-term disruptions it would cause.

Gradually, in the midst of this “success,” people questioned the sanity of the paradigm—and the modern environmental movement was born only 30 years ago. And here we are—a world with 7 billion people, rapidly closing on 8 billion. A world where the era of cheap energy is quickly disappearing and the economic house of cards built on it as well. 
What’s next?

Heavy Near – Light Far – the Responsible Paradigm

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.
container ship erin gehle
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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.
bikes by trim tab
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.

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.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ethical Markets

ETHICAL MARKETS MEDIA is an independent media company promoting the emergence of a sustainable, green, more ethical and just economy worldwide. They share the goals of all their non-profit groups and friends listed on their Partners/Links page.   Ethical Markets researches, assists and reports on all the new organizations: civic, non-profit and for-profit, as well as individuals working for the transition to the new economies of the dawning information-rich Solar Age.

Here is an excellent intro to Ethical Markets founder Hazel Henderson:

Thursday, June 9, 2011


This critique is being published with the authors permission with intent to begin a very important conversation about our current economic crises and the role that the Transition Town movement can play through its own transition in priorities and focus.  The critique was originally posted on Paul Raskin's Great Transition Initiative private participants space and we would like to thank Ted Trainer for allowing us to reprint it here so that the movement can benefit from 'an elders friendly criticism'.  

...and an Elders Friendly Criticism
by Ted Trainer


“The only way the alarming global sustainability and justice problems can be solved is via a Transition Towns movement of some kind.  At present the rapidly growing movement is inspiring, but there is an urgent need for critical thought about vision, goals, and means.  There is a serious risk that without this it will not make a significant contribution to solving our problems.”

The Transition Towns movement began around the year 2006 and is growing rapidly.  It emerged in the UK mainly in response to the realization that the coming of “peak oil” is likely to leave towns in a desperate situation, and therefore that it is very important that they strive to develop local economic self sufficiency.

For decades some of us in the “deep green” camp have been arguing that the key element in a sustainable and just world has to be small, highly self sufficient localized economies under local cooperative control.  (See Abandon Affluence, published in 1985, and The Conserver Society, 1995.)

It is therefore immensely encouraging to find that this kind of initiative is not only underway but booming.  If this planet makes it through the next 50 years to sustainable and just ways it will be via some kind of Transition Towns process.  (This is the core argument in my last book, The Transition to a Sustainable and Just World.)

However, there are some very important issues the movement must think carefully about or it could actually come to little or nothing of any social significance. 

Indeed, if it remains on its present path it will not make a significant contribution to the achievement of a sustainable and just world.  This will probably strike transitioners as a surprising and perhaps offensive comment, but please consider the following...

Everything depends on how one sees the state of the planet, and the solution.  Many people do not understand the nature and magnitude of the situation, including many green people.  Consequently they are working for goals which cannot solve the problems.

Where we are, and the way out.

For decades many have been arguing that the many alarming global problems now crowding in and threatening to destroy us are so big and serious that they cannot be solved within or by consumer-capitalist society.  The way of life we have in rich countries is grossly unsustainable and unjust. There is no possibility of all people on earth ever rising to rich world per capita levels of consumption of energy, minerals, timber, water, food, phosphorous etc.  These rates of consumption are generating the numerous alarming global problems now threatening our survival.  

ln addition there is the huge problem of global economic injustice.  Our way of life in rich countries would not be possible if we were not taking far more than our fair share of world resources, via an extremely unjust global economy, and thereby condemning most of the world’s people to deprivation.


The Implications for Action?  Clarifying Goals

When faced with a task of the magnitude that we are currently faced with we have to ask ourselves what do we have to do in order to eventually achieve such huge and radical changes.

The answer goes far beyond the “level 1” things that green/transition people are doing now, such as setting up community gardens, food co-ops, recycling centres, farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture, Permaculture groups, skill banks, home-craft courses, commons, volunteering, downshifting, etc. 

Yes all these are the kinds of institutions and practices we will have in the new sustainable and just world so it is understandable that many people within the EcoVillage, Transition Towns and ‘green’ movements assume that if we just work at establishing more and more of these things then in time this will have created the new society.  This is a serious mistake.

Firstly these things are easily accommodated within consumer-capitalist society without threatening it, as the lifestyle choices and hobby interests of a relatively few people.  They will appeal to only that minority of people potentially interested in composting or organic food or Permaculture etc.  Larger numbers will not come to them unless they understand why they should.

Secondly, the most crucial changes required for sustainability are not in the “level 1” list above that transitioners are focused on.   The most crucial changes are things like getting rid of growth and preventing the market from determining our fate and developing local participatory democracy...”level 2” changes. 

Creating more commons and Permaculture groups and farmer’s markets makes little and probably no contribution to these massive, radical changes in the basic structures of society.

If we confine ourselves to level 1 goals, and succeed wildly, we will end up with lots of commons, Permaculture gardens, farmers markets, etc., - .in the same old consumer-capitalist society, in which most people who never would be very interested in Permaculture etc. remain enthusiastic consumers. 

Some Transitioners have fears or criticisms around goals that seem to be expecting too much too soon, expecting people to respond to a call for revolution, and expecting hard-working and worn-out activists within the movement to achieve impossible goals. 

If we do not see the level 2 set of goals as the crucial ones we have to focus on, then we are actually largely wasting our time...because no matter how many nice gardens we establish we will make no significant contribution to a satisfactory world unless in time we take up and achieve the level 2 goals.


The insufficiency of resilience
Making your town “more resilient” is far from a sufficient goal.  That could involve little more than building a haven of safety in a world of oil scarcity…a haven within a wider society that remains obsessed with growth, markets, exploiting the Third World, and using mobile phones made with Tantalum from the Congo. 

If you want to protest that you are not just building a haven, that you see yourself as working for the kind of society that would defuse world problems, then again you need to consider that you won’t achieve that unless your vision and goals shift to way beyond building compost heaps and recycling groups and that you need to be able to develop strategies and explain how the things you are doing are supposed to lead to the achievement of the big/radical system changes that are needed.

The Lack of Guidance

A major deficiency in the current Transition Towns movement literature is the lack of information on what to do. 

The website, the Handbook and especially the 12 Steps document are valuable, but they are predominantly about the procedure for organising the movement and it is remarkably difficult to find clear guidance as to what the sub-goals of the movement are, the actual structures and systems and projects that we should all be trying to undertake if our towns are to achieve transition or resilience. 

What we desperately need to know is what things should we start trying to set up, what should we avoid, what should come first. 

Especially important is that we need to be able to see the causal links, to understand why setting up this venture will have the effect of creating greater town resilience. 

But unfortunately people coming to the movement eager to get started will find almost no guidance in the current literature as to what to actually try to do, let alone anything like a suggested plan of action with steps and do’s and don’ts and clear explanation of why specific projects will have desirable effects.

The advice and suggestions you do find in the literature are almost entirely about how to establish the movement (e.g., “Awareness raising”, “Form subgroups”, “Build a bridge to local government”), as distinct from how your movement can establish things that will actually, obviously make the town more resilient. 

There is some reference to possibilities, such as set up community supported agriculture schemes, but we are told little more than that we should establish committees to look into what might be done in areas such as energy, food, education and health.

The lack is most evident in The Kinsale Energy Descent Plan, which does little more than repeat the process ideas in the 12 steps documents and contains virtually no information or projects to do with energy technology or strategies. 

It lists some possibilities, such as exploring insulation and the possibility of local energy generation, and reducing the need for transport, but again there is no advice as to what precisely can or might be set up to achieve these goals.

We need much more than this; we need to know what projects we should start with, what the difficulties and costs might be, etc.  And we need to know what projects to avoid because they are too difficult yet or not high priorities, etc.

Just being told “Create an energy descent plan” (Step 12) doesn’t help much when what we need to know what such a plan might include.

There exists a possibility that many now rushing into Transition Towns initiatives all around the world will do all sorts of good things, which will not turn out to have made much difference to the crucial economic issue. 

At least one group has folded apparently because of confusion over what to do.  If people become disenchanted the movement could be set back seriously.  

A possible explanation here is partly that the authors of these documents and the “leaders” of the movement are very anxious to avoid imposing their views.  They seem to see their role as facilitating the movement, spreading information, enabling people to communicate and share, publicising and encouraging the spread of the movement. 

The style and tone of the documents is admirably polite and quite unlikely to offend anyone’s sensibilities or ideology.  This is an attractive feature of the discourse and the publications. 

They would also probably say that at this stage no one knows what works best.  True, but we need ideas about what might work and what the priorities should be and why. 

We need to develop online mechanisms for feeding information that some groups have accumulated from experience that now surely indicates more effective directions to take within a context that allows healthy digestion and making it available to others who are new to the movement or outside of it still.

As this lack of guidance seems to reflect the view of the world that the movement’s “leaders” hold.   Perhaps some of them privately believe in a need for radical system change but they proceed as if it is appropriate and sufficient to facilitate the heavily reformist nature of the movement, indicating that they subscribe to the assumption that if people just set up a seed bank here and a recycling centre there, somehow it will all result in revolution someday.

What then should the Level 2 goals and strategy be?  What should we do?

The supreme goal should be building a new local economy, and running it.

The focal concern of the movement should not be energy and its coming scarcity.  Yes all that sets the scene and the imperative, but the solution is not primarily to do with energy. 

It is to do with developing town economic self-sufficiency.  The supreme need is for us to build a radically new economy within and around our town, and then for us to run it to meet our needs.  

It is not oil that sets your greatest insecurity; it is the global economy - it doesn’t need your town. 

  • It will relocate your jobs where profits are greatest. 
  • It can flip into recession overnight and dump you and billions of others into unemployment and poverty. 
  • It will only deliver to you whatever benefits trickle down from the ventures which maximise corporate profits. 
  • It loots the Third World to stock your supermarket shelves. 
  • It has condemned many in your town to idleness, in the form of unemployment and wasted time and resources that could be being devoted to meeting urgent needs there. 
ln a time of scarcity it will not look after you. You will only escape that fate if you build a radically new economy in your region, and run it cooperatively to provide for the people who live there. 

Establish Economy B!

What we need to build is a new economy, Economy B, underneath the old one

Economy B will give the people in our suburb, town, or region the power to produce the basic goods and services we need not to thrive as the old economy increasingly fails to deliver.  The old economy could collapse and we would still be able to provide for ourselves from our local resources and enterprises and systems and town assemblies etc.

We ordinary people in our towns and suburbs eventually have to establish our own local Economy B, take control of it and relegate the market to a very minor role, identify local needs and work out how to meet them, get rid of unemployment, work out how to cut town imports, etc. …and grope towards the practices which enable us to collectively self-govern the town to serve the welfare of all. 

In other words we have to deliberately come together to create alternatives to consumer-capitalist ways in our town. 

This requires thinking about goals that are at an utterly different level to just initiating some good green practices within present society. 

It requires coming together to organize and run our own collective economic and political and infrastructure systems. 

The town must ask itself what are we going to get together to do to solve our problems; what arrangements and institutions do we need to set up to make sure everyone around here is provided for? 

This kind of thinking is rarely encountered in current green or Transition movements, which typically politely focuses only on innovations within the old/existing economy. 

The Transition Towns movement will come to nothing of great significance if it does not eventually set itself to build ‘B’ economies. 

Either your town will get control of its own affairs and organise local productive capacity to provide for you, or it will remain within and dependent on the mainstream economy.

Building an Economy B, a new local economy enabling the people who live in the town to guarantee the provision of basic necessities by applying their labour, land and skills to local resources - all under our control – becomes the primary focus of Transition. 

The old economy A can then drop dead and we will still be able to provide for ourselves.  This kind of vision and goal is not evident in the TT literature and reports, let alone central.  There is no concept of setting out to eventually run the town economy for the benefit of the people via participatory means.  


The Transition Towns movement is characterized by a remarkable level of enthusiasm and energy.  This seems to reflect a long pent up disenchantment with consumer-capitalist society and a desire for something better.  There is a powerful case that the only way out of the alarming global predicament we are in has to be via a Transition Towns movement of some kind.  To our great good fortune one has burst on the scene.   

Coming next –  The Transition Town Local Economy B Handbook