Madison residents love their farmers' markets, windmills, rural health cooperatives, credit unions and hundreds of other green businesses, appreciating how they simultaneously benefit the local economy, environment and civic life. Less appreciated, however, is the essential role localization plays in promoting global prosperity, sustainability and peace - the central theme of this weekend's Future Cities 2009 conference taking place in Madison.
Some skeptics, like Princeton University's Peter Singer, argue that Americans have a duty to avoid going local and to keep purchasing raw commodities from the global South, like plantation-grown bananas and coffee. Yet given how little of each import dollar actually winds up in the hands of the workers most in need - probably less than a penny - this is, at best, an extremely inefficient antipoverty strategy. It perpetuates domination of the poor by global corporations.
If we really want to help the poor, it's far smarter to help poor countries, poor communities and the poorest residents living in them to achieve the same level of local self-reliance we seek for ourselves. Mohandas Gandhi argued that the way to defeat British power was to restore self-reliance, especially in basics like textiles and salt. He did not suggest that India embark on a campaign to attract nicer British factories or to expand exports to London.
This isn't going to be easy. As Madison's long-standing sister-city partnership with cities like Managua, Nicaragua, have underscored, serious global antipoverty work requires ongoing, long-term partnerships between communities, North and South, in which we help one another reorganize every element of our economies. As we in the North create community food systems, we might help partners in the South transform their food systems, away from the plantations and export crops and toward the cultivation of enough healthy fruits, vegetables, rice and beans to feed their own families. As we strengthen and spread our own local banks, credit unions, stock markets and mutual funds, we can help partners create these institutions as well, so that local savings everywhere increasingly support local housing, local education and local entrepreneurship. As we deploy new technologies to become more energy efficient, we can share our know-how with renewable resource innovators in the South.
For nearly a generation, the city-state of Bremen, Germany, has been spending about $1 million per year to help its partners in the South - in Pune, India, for example - become more energy efficient by giving away digesters that convert local waste products and plant matter into burnable biogas.
Every localization initiative, if we are prepared to share and spread it, provides another piece to the puzzle of global poverty relief.
As these activities proceed, relatively wealthy partners like ourselves should remember that we have as much to learn as to teach. Microfinance was pioneered by the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Some of the best mass-transit innovations have come from Curitaba, Brazil. The wireless telecommunications networks in Asia, which skipped the "wired" phase of industrialization, are among the best in the world. One of the world's finest examples of a self-reliant community is Gaviotas, a 200-person village in Colombia, which has pioneered several solar and wind technologies, developed a particularly effective and environmentally benign means of extracting resin from pine trees, and set up organic farms, social services and reforestation efforts that have drawn worldwide attention.
A world of self-reliant cities is better not only for global ecosystems but also for the health of global democracy. Actively sharing great local business models provides a new tool for spreading democratic practice, not through threats or violence, but through opportunity and collaboration. Self-reliant communities, moreover, have very little rational reason to invade or coerce one another for oil, water or other resources.
Localization is not about ducking globalization but about redefining it.
Michael H. Shuman is author of "The Small-Mart Revolution: How Local Businesses Are Beating the Global Competition" and a keynote speaker at the Future Cities 2009 Conference this weekend in Madison. For more information on the conference, visit www.FutureCities2009.org.