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The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift.

Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen (eds.) The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012 ISBN-13: 978-0262516877 (PB) [pounds sterling]18.95. 376 pp.

Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen, professors in the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan, have contributed in their earlier work on general issues of ecological sustainability, the need for sufficiency, simplification of life and an overall reduction of consumption. As editors of the recently published The Localization Reader (2012) they have concentrated on the concept of localisation as a process of social learning and flexible cultural change. In their view, in the coming decades there will be a definite shortage of fossil fuels and raw materials, resulting in highly negative consequences such as endangered food systems, massive environmental disruptions and uncontrollable climate change.

The editors presume that because of these negative effects localisation will occur inevitably and people will 'intuitively' find that localisation is a viable solution in a situation of excessive globalisation and a concentration of economic power in the hands of multinational enterprises. In their analysis it is vital to come to a wide distribution of authority and leadership, adaptive forms of 'muddling through' and exploring, as well as to look for the appropriate scale for solving our current environmental and social problems.

This reader has grown out of a series of seminars and lectures in which scientists from various disciplines have actively participated. The editors have made an interesting selection of earlier published articles and book chapters about the general concept of localisation, and have added self written introductions to the different contributions, in order to inform the reader about the historical background and specific social contexts. Also, De Young and Princen have written an intelligent introduction about the major topics of the book and added an extensive final chapter about the main observations and lessons about the drastic changes in the direction of an environmentally responsible and stable state society which will be based on reduced levels of consumption. At the same time they expect this far more localised, communal and resilient ecological society to offer more spare time, better work conditions, healthier lifestyles for its citizens and improved food security.

In total the reader contains 25 chapters, written by some of the most influential thinkers in the field of philosophies of decentralisation and localisation. Among the authors are, for instance, Ernst F. Schumacher, Ivan Illich, Kirkpatrick Sale, Rob Hopkins, John Dryzek and Karen Litfin. The overall relevance and quality of the selected texts is very good indeed, although it would have been advisable for the editors to have revealed the precise criteria on the basis of which their selection was made. Now it remains questionable why some of the most prominent theorists about localisation and decentralisation have been overlooked in this reader. In my view there are at least five other essential thinkers who should have been added--namely Peter Kropotkin, Murray Bookchin, Arne Naess, Vandana Shiva and Rudolf Bahro.

Moreover, there is the issue of 'eclecticism' which can often be seen in collections with classical texts. Evidently, the political ideas and theoretical assumptions of, for instance, such authors as Ernst F. Schuhmacher, Rob Hopkins and Donella and Dennis Meadows are so fundamentally and culturally different, that it remains controversial whether their basic starting points, general ideas, principles and notions are ultimately compatible.

It is also fair to say that the editors have taken quite some risk by not adequately questioning the two following basic assumptions: first, that localisation is inevitable in some form, and secondly that localisation will undoubtedly improve the diversity and integrity of nature, and lead to more freedom, efficiency, human well-being, as well as less environmental pollution, energy use, climate disruption and over-consumption. In this way, it is suggested that localisation is like an effective medicine against virtually all social, political and ecological problems.

Despite my great sympathy for a system of humanly-scaled local and decentralised communities, this model seems to be vulnerable with respect to the effective coordination and adjustment of the environmental policies of decentralised communities. Often, local communities will lack a general overview of the total ecological situation and will probably also miss the complicated (and expensive) expertise in environmental matters that can be generated more easily by large-scale and centralised organisations.

Surely, one may have considerable confidence in spontaneous coordination and adaptive social learning processes at a local level, but there will always be the danger of socially and ecologically irresponsible local behaviour. For example, there may still be the issue of local communities attempting to 'free-ride' and avoid ecological policies. When there is insufficient mutual respect, adaptation and a lack of central coordination of environmental policies, there is a real danger that the vulnerable ecological equilibrium of a fully decentralised society will be violated.

Moreover, it is a well-known fact that in small, decentralised communities, the problem of individual liberty may be endangered by social control and group dominance may assert itself in sometimes more intense form. It may be asked whether social control and the power of tradition and local custom could possibly rather work in the direction of conformity and uniformity, exactly the kind of consequences one would rather prefer to avoid in an ecologically responsible, green society of the future.

Without any doubt De Young and Princen have edited a most fascinating reader containing a number of high level analyses of the human condition in an age of increasing resource scarcity and climate change. As argued above, their collection may not be flawless but it can certainly be recommended, as most readers will find it informative and inspiring.


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Author:De Geus, Marius
Publication:Environmental Values
Article Type:Book review
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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