The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift.
ABSTRACT MIT Press: http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/localization-reader
Energy supplies are tightening. Persistent pollutants are accumulating. Food security is declining. There is no going back to the days of reckless consumption. But there is a possibility—already being realized in communities across North America and around the world—of localizing, of living well as we learn to live well within immutable biophysical constraints.
Society is shifting from the centrifugal forces of globalization (cheap and abundant raw materials and energy, intensive commercialization, concentrated economic and political power) to the centripetal forces of localization: distributed authority and leadership, sustainable use of nearby natural resources, community self-reliance and cohesion. While attention shifts to the local, there are crucial regional, national and international dimensions.
This book, combining original and classic works, shows how localization—a process of affirmative social change—can enable psychologically meaningful and fulfilling lives while promoting ecological and social sustainability. Topics range from energy dynamics to philosophies of limits, from the governance of place-based communities to the discovery of positive personal engagement. Together they point the way to a transition that can be peaceful, democratic, just and psychologically resilient.
NOTE: All royalties from the sale of this book have been allocated, by contract with the MIT Press, to two community organizations that exemplify localization. Growing Hope is an organization dedicated to helping people improve their lives and communities through gardening and local food security (www.growinghope.net) and People’s Food Co-op has long sought to feed a community with wholesome food and good work (www.peoplesfood.coop).
Contributors: Gar Alperovitz, Sharon Astyk, Wendell Berry, Adam Dadeby, Raymond De Young, John S. Dryzek, David J. Hess, Robert Hopkins, M. King Hubbert, Ivan Illich, Warren Johnson, Rachel Kaplan, Stephen Kaplan, Karen Litfin, Thomas A. Lyson, Dennis Meadows, Donella Meadows, Lester W. Milbrath, Thomas Princen, Jorgen Randers, Josiah Royce, Kirkpatrick Sale, Ernst F. Schumacher, Michael Shuman, Joseph A. Tainter, Robert L. Thayer
About the editors: Raymond De Young and Thomas Princen are professors at the School of Natural Resources and Environment at the University of Michigan. De Young is the author of numerous peer-reviewed journal articles on conservation psychology and urgent transitions and is the author of The Localization Papers (www-personal.umich.edu/~rdeyoung) and Princen is the author of The Logic of Sufficiency (2005) and Treading Softly: Paths to Ecological Order (2010) and the coeditor of Confronting Consumption (2002), all published by the MIT Press.
- SourceAvailable from: Raymond K De YoungCarbon Management. 02/2011; 2(6):607-611.
Localization is a process of social change pointing toward localities. Its
primary concern is how to adapt institutions and behaviors to live within
the limits of natural systems. In a localizing process, people’s attention
is focused on everyday behavior within place-based communities. At the
same time, because localities are interdependent across scales, localiza-
tion has regional, national, and international dimensions. Ultimately,
localization’s high-level goals are increasing the long-term well-being of
people while maintaining, even improving, the integrity of natural
systems, especially those that directly provide physical sustenance.
Localization is not strictly about the local and it is not to be confused
with a narrowly focused localism. Nor is localization simply globaliza-
tion in reverse. Rather, as overextended economies and resource extrac-
tion efforts exhaust themselves, we foresee industrialized societies
experiencing a shift from the centrifugal forces of globalization (concen-
trated economic and political power, cheap and abundant raw materials
and energy, intensive commercialization, displaced wastes, and abstract
forms of communication) to the centripetal forces of localization (widely
distributed authority and leadership, more sustainable use of natural
energy sources and materials, personal proficiency, and community
Localization is a logical outgrowth of the end of a historically brief
period, one that saw plentiful raw materials, highly concentrated and
inexpensive energy sources, and an abundance of liquid fossil fuels whose
wastes could disperse into the atmosphere, oceans, and soils without
monetary costs. That period is coming to an end. How societies and
individuals respond to this fact is one of the defining questions of our
time. We presume in this book that people in all walks of life, in all posi-
tions of influence, will be asking not if localization will occur but how
it should proceed. People will intuitively see that localization can be a
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force for good (e.g., healthy food, less anxiety, more neighborliness) or
a force for evil (e.g., anarchy, warlords, survivalists, food deserts). In this
book, we call the former positive localization and the latter negative
The world is facing multiple challenges, each capable of shaking the
very foundations of modern civilization. The central role that localization
will soon play can be understood by briefly outlining the current global
Climate disruption, once a mere hypothesis, is now empirically estab-
lished. Through the efforts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate
Change (IPCC) and other bodies, the science is clear: profound changes
in the earth’s thermal patterns are occurring and more will occur this
century. Recent updates suggest that what were recently deemed worst-
case and distant scenarios are now happening. Some believe that a global
carbon management regime will eventually emerge out of the Rio/Kyoto/
Copenhagen/Cancun negotiating process, but few are optimistic enough
to suggest that such efforts will allow modern society to return to a
preindustrial climate state. In fact, a realistic dose of pessimism has some
groups promoting efforts to cope with, rather than just mitigate, climatic
change. In either case, be it ruthless mitigation or revolutionary adapta-
tion, high-consuming societies will have to operate on dramatically less
material and energy in the foreseeable future. For that, we surmise, they
will localize, ready or not.
Peaking of Fossil Fuels
A second challenge involves global energy dynamics. Fossil fuels (i.e.,
solar energy stored eons ago as hydrocarbon compounds) are the life-
blood of industrial civilization. The fact that this carbon store is finite is
unquestioned, as is the empirical fact that eventually the rate of produc-
tion from a reservoir peaks. For each reservoir, a maximum rate of
extraction is reached after which production may plateau for a while but
inevitably declines. Sometimes the decline is drawn out, sometimes
abrupt. The same thing happens in the aggregate—that is, the production
of multiple reservoirs also peaks. The implications of fossil fuel pro-
duction peaking on a global scale are vigorously debated, albeit by a
relatively small number of experts. The high emotions, competing com-
petencies, and huge stakes that play out in this debate (as well as the
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astonishing political and media silence) make it hard to assess the urgency
of fossil fuel peaking. It is even more difficult, but no less important, to
find discussions about appropriate responses.
Nevertheless, agreement on one thing is emerging: soon the global
production rate of liquid fossil fuels will peak, with other fuels and
materials following suit soon after. Exactly when these peaks occur is
much less important than the fact that they will occur. In fact, given how
abruptly some reservoirs will drop in production, debating the exact
timing can be a dangerous distraction. The task now is to prepare our
response. It is to make plans for living—and thriving—while high-
consuming societies descend the far side of “Hubbert’s peak” (see
Hubbert, chapter 1, this volume).
The Role of Technology
The energy crisis has sparked a profusion of technological improve-
ments and publicly funded initiatives, with the great bulk aimed at maxi-
mizing efficiency. A century of technological modernization, including
innovations that have helped propel dramatic and absolute increases in
production and consumption, lead many people to be optimistic, even
complacent, about finding technological solutions to all current and future
dilemmas. We are less optimistic and we counsel against complacency.
First, technology cannot create new energy sources; it only transforms
existing sources into forms more useful to modern society.
Second, some energy-saving technologies can paradoxically contribute
to an increase in resource use—for example, fuel-efficient engines are
made bigger and put into heavier vehicles, which are driven further and
faster; electricity-efficient light bulbs are doubled and tripled to provide
increased illumination.1 Despite all the efficiencies gained, innovations
in technology, policy, and practice have not reduced society’s overall
consumption of resources.
Third, even if society is temporarily reinvigorated by a newly trans-
formed energy source (e.g., biofuels), as it grows, that source will eventu-
ally exhibit diminishing returns. In fact, stepping back for a moment
and viewing this entire process, one can conclude that sociotechnical
problem solving itself may be subject to diminishing returns (see Tainter,
chapter 3, this volume). Supporting this conclusion is research suggesting
that, to keep urban civilization going—that is, growing materially—
innovations or adaptations must emerge at an accelerating rate to avoid
stagnation or collapse. Yet, an ever-faster rate of discovery and imple-
mentation reaches a natural and completely unavoidable limit.2
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New technologies might materialize in time and at a scale to ease the
transition to noncarbon energy sources. But they only buy time for the
transformation to a postcarbon world, a world with less net energy (see
Hubbert, chapter 1, and Dadeby, chapter 2, this volume). Therefore, it
is sensible to be somewhat pessimistic about the likelihood of technologi-
cal innovations occurring just-in-time to ensure a smooth transition. And
it is prudent to assume that, because no technology can overturn the
biophysical laws of nature, other approaches are needed. It behooves us
all to prepare for life with a lot less.
These observations—that climate disruption is occurring and will only
intensify, that energy and material production will peak and then decline,
and that technological innovation will help ease the transition but will
not fundamentally change it—are what initially motivated us to teach
the seminar from which this book emerged. They form the premise of
this book. In designing the seminar we deliberately avoided dwelling on
these facts—they are well discussed by others. Rather, we focused on the
response. So, at this point it will be useful to state, plainly and briefly,
the major components of the premise of this book:
1. Modern industrial society is facing a new biophysical reality, one that
involves an inevitable decrease and, eventually, a leveling of material and
energy availability at the same time that the consequences of past con-
sumption must be addressed. This reality will negatively affect essential
services and social institutions (e.g., food systems, health provision,
2. These circumstances and ensuing effects are, like gravity, not nego-
tiable. They are not altered by political debate or market forces, nor will
denial or inattention make them disappear.
3. Conventional policy tools (e.g., pricing and markets, technological
innovation) will not be up to the task.
4. The speed and suddenness of change mean the operative term is
response. It requires preparation so as not to be taken by surprise. To
prepare reasonable responses, this book sketches plausible future sce-
narios, each of which assumes that the coming downshift is inevitable.
What is not inevitable, however, is the nature of those responses.
These, then, are the four key parts of the premise of the book. They can
also be framed as a prospect:
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1. Without a plan or a process, society risks a rapid, chaotic descent into
a hyperlocal existence, what we characterize as negative localization.
2. Positive localization, in contrast, is a process for creating and imple-
menting a response, a means of adapting institutions and behaviors to
living within the limits of natural systems. Place-based localization
includes institutions at the regional, national, and international levels.
3. Localization is not an outcome or end state to pursue. Rather it is a
way of organizing and focusing a process of transition. It is, arguably, a
process already underway, but one that should be accelerated while
options still exist.
Transitioning While There Are Surpluses
The likelihood of a long descent in material and energy abundance, along
with the disruption of ecosystems, including the climate, suggest that the
transition to sustainable living should start soon, while surpluses of
social, ecological, and economic capital remain. Unlike short-term emer-
gencies where life eventually returns to normal, these conditions will lead
to a new normal. Arguably, that new normal is already emerging, driven
in part by biophysical necessity (e.g., glacier-dependent populations
adapting to diminishing water supplies) and in part by creative, anticipa-
tory response (see part II). Even an optimistic view of the promises of
global management and technological innovation leads to the realization
that, once energy and material limits are reached, we will still require
place-based solutions; proactive preparation is thus desirable. Further-
more, the behavioral and institutional responses must be durable. Lapses
back to spendthrift ways, borrowing heavily from the future, and con-
suming now while hoping that some discovery will return us to the old
days of unlimited growth will only exacerbate the transition, enabling
the negative forms of localization to establish themselves.
The above recitation of trends and responses is the sobering part of
this introduction. Now for the hopeful part, indeed the exciting part.
From where we sit, it seems that the approaches for dealing with indus-
trial society’s fossil fuel dependence and the resulting environmental
disruptions come from two different worlds—the world of experts and
the world of communities. In the experts’ world, centralized power, spe-
cialized knowledge, and top-down, elite-driven global management are
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taken as self-evident. In this world, people—that is, the masses, the
unsophisticated—are the target of global management plans and the
question is “How do we get people to behave properly?” The “we” are
the elites who have the solutions and the “people” are the source of the
problem whose behavior must be shaped. In this world, the experts have
trouble seeing any utility in something like localization.
In the world of communities, the self-organizing capacities of ordinary
people are paramount. Here, local knowledge and group efficacy lead to
locally compatible solutions. Peoples’ behavior must still change, but
citizens define the problem and become the source and disseminator of
its solutions. In this world, citizens working in communities see localiza-
tion as a useful tool for crafting a durable and just society.
While the experts’ world renders small-scale, low technologies trivial,
the world of communities values technology at an appropriate scale.
Where the experts’ world evaluates small businesses and family farms as
inconsequential, the world of communities understands the resilience of
locally owned, independent enterprises. Where the world of experts dis-
misses grassroots organizing as ineffective, the world of communities
understands the staying power of participatory democracy.
In practice, the process of positive localization has three salient
1. It doesn’t plead. Localization doesn’t beg or try to coerce people to
act right. It doesn’t say people must appreciate nature, consider future
generations, or save the environment. All those behaviors may be desir-
able, but localization presumes that the consequences of growing popula-
tions, increasing consumption rates, and past and current emissions are
such that high-consuming societies will be adapting whether they are
environmentally enlightened or not. What is more, behavior change may
precede any change in attitudes, values, or worldviews.
2. It holds little faith in centralized approaches. Top-down, command-and-
control, get-the-incentives-right, correct-market-imperfections approaches,
which might be lumped under the term global management, contain
implicit models of social change that privilege centralized power. What
is more, these models do not draw on the extensive research that shows
how to engage people in reasonable behavior. Localization builds on such
research. It presumes that people are more motivated and content when
they are solving problems and that they are perfectly capable of organiz-
ing themselves to live within immutable biophysical limits (see part IV).
Participatory democracy may be difficult—even tedious, frustrating, and
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inefficient—but it is an essential component for creating meaningful lives
and true communities, especially under the conditions posited here (see
3. It is affirming. Localization affirms self-organization, self-reliance,
self-limitation, and self-rule. It is not protest, not antiglobalization, not
antitechnology, and not antimodern. It assumes everyone has the ability
to contribute to a solution. While no one group is required to complete
the work, neither are any groups free to avoid doing their share. It seeks
appropriate technologies and well-regulated markets that build in respon-
sibility among producers, consumers, investors, and regulators.
An Affirmative Direction with Embedded Benefits
As difficult as it is to change institutions and behavior and as inconve-
nient as the changes will be, an affirmative approach has embedded
benefits. These positive consequences of localization easily go unnoticed,
especially when, understandably, people are not careful and patient
observers. But some people have begun to adapt in place. If one looks
closely, vibrant examples of intrinsically satisfying efforts at simple living,
shared transportation, food provisioning, local finance, and cooperative
enterprises are springing up all over, sometimes in the unlikeliest of
places. And they are doing so with little if any support from the dominant
institutions of government and commerce.
Embedded benefits have two features. One is that they are easily
obscured under the heavy covers of commercialism and consumerism.
The benefits of localization exist but they are hard to see. In this book,
we aspire to pull back the covers and show these benefits.
Embedded benefits are also found in the process of problem solving.
The challenges of the coming transition are great but humans are nothing
if not great problem-solvers. They are at their best when they help them-
selves and help others, when they are called on to be creative and self-
directed, and when they are tackling problems that are challenging,
genuine, and meaningful. Human ingenuity, long aimed at crafting an
industrial society, must now be aimed at crafting a durable civilization.
The creative effort contains its own rewards.
In the classroom we have found students to be great sources of such
creativity. We are confident others will join, creating a conversation
about and a practice of positive localization. They will reorient daily and
public life back to person-to-person and human-to-nature partnerships,
all at an appropriate pace and a human scale(see chapter 11, this volume).
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We say this but we must be cautious in our use of language. “Back
to” in this book does not mean reversion to a primitive state; it does not
mean going backward. It does mean finding cultural assets that worked
in less consumptive times and adapting them to current times; it means
keeping the good of the present and eliminating the bad. What’s more,
it does not mean starting a new environmental movement. Unlike tradi-
tional activism responding to environmental insults, energy shortages,
and climate disruption, we do not aim to spark protests against govern-
ment and industry, denounce the excesses of consumerism, or debate the
pros and cons of carbon trading and carbon taxes. Localization is not a
revolution in the streets, or a new strategy for corporate and NGO
headquarters. Rather, it is an affirmative social trend, driven by biophysi-
cal realities and accepting of the innate human inclinations for self-
provisioning and commitment to place.
While energy is one key resource driving the current debate, this book
does not emphasize energy policy and planning; many excellent books
exist on that topic. Nor does it dwell on the gloom-and-doom scenarios
emerging from the debates over peak oil and climate disruption. We focus
instead on understanding the emerging transition while providing guid-
ance toward a wholesome, just, and resilient version of that transition.
The collected works guide readers through the nuances of the topic—
for example, localization is not simply “the local” or the reverse of
globalization; the transition will be demanding but not necessarily
destructive, possibly uplifting; historical precedents do exist although a
global resource reduction at the level being contemplated is unprece-
dented, making discovery needed. People need to be engaged in a process,
the details of which cannot be worked out by others, certainly not by
decision makers far removed from people’s everyday existence.
So we begin these readings with the context of localization. The early
chapters lead to one unavoidable conclusion: society will be making a
fundamental transition away from fossil fuels, willing or not, ready or
not. While such a future may be frightening to many, human history
suggests that we have adequate familiarity with such changes. In fact,
some of these readings show that humans have longstanding decentralist
tendencies that have served them well. Accepting the inevitability of
transition, however, is separate from knowing the transition’s trajectory.
The collected material will help readers envision a variety of possible
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paths. Some will be quite familiar, although none are extrapolations from
present high-consuming life patterns.
The middle chapters of the book outline ways to self-organize, self-
govern, and self-provision while material and energy abundance is dimin-
ishing. Some of the readings look to the agrarian past for advice on how
to live in partnership with natural systems, while others suggest new
ways to manage the exchange of goods and money and the structures of
ownership. This section also includes readings that suggest the deep
fulfillment that such an existence can provide.
Human societies were once organized locally but this is no longer the
dominant pattern. A new pattern is possible, indeed imperative, but it
requires effective adaptation and strategic management. The later chap-
ters of the book take up this issue by exploring human needs and
strengths and the conditions under which humans effectively problem
solve. The readings then outline approaches for working with innate
human tendencies to initiate a societal transition to sustainable living. A
key notion in these readings is that successful approaches will be those
that enable people to discover for themselves how to transition well,
rather than rely on others to plan and manage the transition for them.
An insight common to many of the readings is that localization is well
underway. However, existing practices lack a framework for understand-
ing and coping with declining net energy and other biophysical con-
straints. This book begins building such a framework, preliminary as it
is. The framework assumes that a fundamental departure from recent
life patterns has begun and that much about the transition will be hard.
However, adjusting to low levels of consumption can be satisfying in a
way present generations have forgotten or never experienced.
A final note on the readings: some are quite old. For example, Royce
wrote his essay in 1908. It may be easy to dismiss such musings as irrel-
evant to the contemporary ecological predicament, a predicament that
was not even on the horizon in the early 1900s. But we hope the reader
will see that this and other readings were harbingers of the current pre-
dicament of unending growth on a finite planet. These readings help
frame the issues in a context of long-term social change. In that historical
trajectory we witness many failures, such as the nineteenth-century popu-
lism discussed by Royce. Such efforts were overwhelmed by larger forces,
in particular by the great wealth and power afforded by industrialization,
commercialization, and consumerism. These forces were fueled by bio-
physical circumstances that no longer exist: abundant fossil fuels, cheap
to mine with wastes virtually costless to dispose of. So if in the past—at
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a time awash in cheap energy and endless waste sinks—there were com-
pelling reasons to start a conversation about durable living, those reasons
are all the more compelling now.
Positive localization is a dynamic, ongoing, and long-term process that
can bring out the best in people. It is about directing the transition in a
peaceful, just, psychologically enriching, and ecologically resilient way.
It asks how new patterns of living can be fostered through creative
exploration as attention shifts from the global and abstract to the close-
at-hand and tangible. In short, the position of this book is that there is
inevitability in diminishing material and energy availability but not in
the way humans will adapt to this new reality.
In sum, our task in this book is to find new language that shines light
on the localizing world. We recognize that the most powerful searchlights
won’t alter the view of those active in globalization. Indeed, they are not
our audience. Our audience includes people who see a looming cliff but
also see a rare opportunity for meaningful change. Our audience sees no
future in endless material growth on a finite planet. In fact, they see the
utter illogic in it. Our audience also includes people who value direct
relations with others and nature, who find restraint and moderation
satisfying, even uplifting. Our audience includes people who are doing
localization already, or are contemplating doing it. We hope this book
provides them support. We hope it helps them frame their good works
as part of a larger, meaningful struggle. We hope to contribute to the
legitimacy of such efforts so that, as localizers multiply, their work
becomes the norm.
1. For an explanation of how efficiencies can increase resource use, see “Whose
Ratios? From Technic to Rhetoric” in Thomas Princen, The Logic of Sufficiency
(Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005).
2. Luis M. A. Bettencourt, Jose Lobo, Dirk Helbing, Christian Kuhnert, and
Geoffrey B. West, “Growth, Innovation, Scaling, and the Pace of Life in Cities,”
PNAS 104, no. 17 (2007): 7301–7306.
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