By Helena Norberg-Hodge
When ISEC first started our global-to-local work in the mid-1970s, there was widespread awareness that both policy change and individual action were needed to solve the world’s growing social and ecological problems. In the last two decades, however, mainstream thinking in both the media and academia has focused almost entirely on market solutions rather than political ones. We have been encouraged to see ourselves as consumers instead of citizens, and to believe that the best way to effect change is through the decisions we make when we go shopping.
Since we hear so little about the consequences of corporate and government growth-at-any cost policies, it’s easy to believe that the health of the environment depends largely on our willingness to buy recycled paper, install fluorescent light bulbs, and opt for hybrid cars. (Along the way, we are also expected to accept the absurd notion that environmentally friendly products will of course be more costly; that potatoes from the organic farm down the road, for example, will ‘naturally’ cost more than a packet of potatoes that have been pulverized, reconstituted, frozen, triple-packaged and shipped to us from several hundred miles away.)
This blind focus on the market is reflected in a giddying array of what I call “pseudo-solutions”—from corporate social responsibility and debt-for-nature swaps to carbon offsets and fair trade. Virtually all these market-based strategies (and there are many more) ignore the fundamental distortions and injustices of the global marketplace. In the name of trade, the marketplace has been steadily deregulated: ever more power has been handed to global traders, while health, safety, environmental and labor standards have been systematically gutted. In a world where the value of currencies and commodities is determined by speculation, where the price paid to the producers of coffee or timber or wool very often goes down while the price to the consumer increases, and where hidden subsidies promote environmental breakdown on a colossal scale, it becomes ever more difficult—and expensive—for people to change the world simply by voting through their pocketbooks.
Fundamental critique of the global trading system is perhaps most notably absent in discussions about the relationship between North and South. For centuries, colonialism and debt meant that cheap labor and resources were ruthlessly extracted from the South and made available to the wealthier, more industrialized parts of the world. Even though the injustices of the colonial era are widely recognized today, many well-intentioned people argue that we should effectively accelerate that flow by opening more markets in the North for products from the South. But that step would do little if anything to reduce poverty: long-distance trade primarily benefits a small commercial elite, not poor primary producers in the South.
Failure to understand the workings of the global economy is apparent in other attempts to alleviate poverty. Take micro-credit, for instance. This scheme, which was first introduced into Bangladesh, is spreading around the world like wildfire, and recently won its creator the Nobel Peace Prize. But not everyone is happy about it. Some months ago, I met Ideh Fesharaki, an Iranian-Canadian researcher who has spent two years studying the effects of micro-credit. She found that it has not succeeded in changing the lives of the poorest of the poor, but it has helped people slightly higher up the socio-economic ladder to “make the leap from the village to the city.”
By fueling the migration from rural areas to cities, micro-credit thus contributes to the growth of sprawling Third World cities, in which per capita resource consumption and pollution is vastly higher than in villages, towns or smaller cities. Every pound of food and the raw materials for every article of clothing and every bit of construction material comes from elsewhere and must be transported long distances. In a modern concrete high-rise building there is no space to turn waste into fodder or fertilizer, nor can trees be used for shade or the sun for warmth. And since urbanized populations are exposed to far more advertising pressure, consumption of everything from electricity to soda pop and Barbie dolls increases exponentially. Meanwhile, the women and their families who have been encouraged to abandon the land and communities that provided for them in the past—however imperfectly—are left increasingly dependent on volatile market forces far beyond their control. The end result is that the pressure on the environment rises dramatically while the vast majority of newly arriving immigrants sees a declining quality of life.
Should we make the best consumer choices we can? Of course. But focusing too much attention on our impact as consumers can blind us to far more strategic steps we can take. If we really want to make a difference, we also need to act politically, in collaboration with others, to insist on different rules in the marketplace. Rather than continuing to promote the creation of a single, deregulated marketplace dominated by giant monopolies, rules are needed that promote instead the flourishing of multiple, truly free markets closer to home. Surely the best way those rules can be monitored and businesses held accountable is if business and capital are rooted, place-based, and localized.
Changing policy is a daunting task, but we can start right now by informing ourselves better on these issues and spreading the word. Send out those DVDs, newsletters, emails now! Vision and information could spread rapidly enough to translate into real political action in a matter of a few years. In this way, education is activism.