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How humankind was liberated from localism

The eco-worriers promoting a Mao-style return to local energy and food production overlook how destructive ‘local living’ has traditionally been.

Colin McInnes

Topics Science & Tech

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My two youngest sons spent an enjoyable, if wet, summer tending to a pair of potted tomato plants. Growing some of our own food was an interesting distraction, illustrating the connection between food and the soil on which we all depend. But now that we are in the depths of winter, the cultivation is of minds in the classroom rather than plants in the garden.

Fortunately for my children, they can look forward to many more years of education. Food production is now organised at such large scales, using hydrocarbon-fuelled machines, that the input of carbohydrate-fuelled human labour is relatively small. Unlike previous generations, or those people still subsistence-farming in the developing world, large-scale agriculture has freed us from the land.

In the developed world, this freedom has enabled a massive specialisation of labour, the provision of universal education and healthcare from the surplus of production and a global exchange of goods and services. This is the basis of our modern prosperity. But let’s be clear: prosperity need not be about crass consumerism. It is also about having the resources to improve the human condition. Nurses nurse and teachers teach only because someone else is providing their food, energy and other material needs.

While growing energy use and global trade have led to rapidly improving standards of living across much of the planet, some now advocate a return to localism as the means of production. For example, growing more of our own food in gardens, generating our own energy through roof-top wind turbines and crafting our own material goods are seen as the solution to a range of contemporary economic and environmental problems. Unfortunately, the result would be a socially regressive slide back towards subsistence and poverty. Subsistence, doing everything for oneself, is the very definition of poverty.

Regression to local modes of production is nothing new. During the Great Leap Forward in late-1950s China, individuals were required to produce steel in small community furnaces. The result was useless, poor-quality steel and a massive misallocation of economic resources. Even when failure was accepted by Mao himself, the scheme continued in order to raise awareness of national need.

The UK energy and climate change secretary, Chris Huhne, harks back to such self-sufficiency when he invites us to return to localism in energy production. Big energy companies are the enemy, while home generation will apparently allow us to escape their tyranny. The idea of local energy production is superficially appealing. Like Mao’s backyard furnaces, it is widely seen as a means of raising awareness by connecting us personally to the means of production. While Huhne’s own department recognises that local energy production makes little economic sense, it notes that it can ‘empower individuals’ and be ‘used as a lever for behavioural change’. Some may well feel empowered, but the rest of us will be poorer for it.

For example, small domestic roof-mounted wind turbines at present enjoy a so-called ‘feed-in tariff’ of 34.5 pence per unit of electricity produced, guaranteed and index-linked against inflation for 25 years. However, the average spot-price for electricity production in 2009 was 3.8 pence per unit (for base load), so aspiring wind-turbine owners can in principle sell their spare energy to the rest of us for up to 10 times what it is actually worth. Even as a means of displacing carbon from energy production, this is as outrageously expensive as it is ineffective.

Feed-in tariffs for local energy production will simply result in a socially regressive transfer of wealth from the poor to the affluent since the cost of the tariffs is spread equally amongst all electricity consumers. To earn income from a roof-mounted wind turbine, it is firstly necessary to own a roof and the means to pay for the turbine.

Such local energy production may well empower individuals, but it is reliant on the largesse of other consumers and the productive economy for support through the feed-in tariff scheme. As with agriculture, efficient energy production requires economies of scale. Such economies arise through the cooperative, organised effort of many people, through large energy utilities, to construct thermal power plants operating at immense energy densities, or perhaps to deploy vast offshore wind farms with arrays of giant turbines.

Individuals who purchase a domestic wind turbine can certainly congratulate themselves on their apparent self-sufficiency. However, they are entirely dependent on the international semi-conductor industry for embedded power electronics in the turbine, materials manufacturers for thermo-plastic turbine blades, Chinese miners for neodymium permanent magnets, and the oil industry which fuels the container ship that imports the constituent parts. There is nothing remotely local or self-sufficient about a modern wind turbine.

Worryingly, some are embracing these new forms of localism as a means to avoid everything from catastrophic climate change to peak oil (the point when oil demand far outstrips supply). Their argument is that as peak oil approaches, the cost of transportation will rise sharply and so international, and even regional, trade will break down. To survive this impending crisis, pre-emptive action is needed to build resilient communities that are largely self-sufficient with massively reduced energy needs. These community power-down initiatives are popping up with growing regularity, partly inspired by the Transition Town movement.

Transition Towns can be viewed as a harmless pastime for those with time on their hands. However, the danger of the Transition Town movement is that some in positions of influence are buying into the underlying philosophy. Their vision of local production is for a sustainable society filled with Saturday farmers’ markets, forever. For some, this would be a welcome retreat from the uncertainties of modernity to a mythical golden era – an era which never actually existed. Such a future, low-energy, sustainable society based on local production is seen as a re-invented agricultural Britain, but with access to the internet and modern healthcare. This is dangerously naive. A community living in permanent energy austerity, cut off from regional and international trade, would quickly regress, its life expectancy would fall and the young would be pressed into agricultural production rather than education.

In any case, there is no shortage of high-grade energy. While oil production will likely decline in the decades ahead, reserves of natural gas are growing sharply through recent innovations in drilling technology to extract gas from deep, shale bedrock. Shale gas is believed by many to be a significant new source of low-carbon energy. Importantly, gas can be an almost direct substitute for oil in transportation, particularly for fleet vehicles. Many nations, like Pakistan and Argentina, already rely heavily on compressed natural gas to power conventional, internal-combustion engines. In addition, uranium and truly vast, untapped reserves of thorium can provide copious, clean, low-cost energy into the far future, but only if we have the will and ambition to exploit them.

The idea that localism will bring resilience is also seriously mistaken. An insular community which does not trade regionally or internationally is at risk from the most basic threats, such as crop failure due to local extremes of weather. The evidence for this is all too apparent in the developing world. In a global community, local crop failure is not a life-or-death issue since food can be temporarily imported in exchange for other goods or services. During times of plenty, excess food can be exported and the long-term surplus and deficit balanced out. The community is buffered against extremes of weather through international trade. While an isolated village has to depend on its own grain store to smooth out times of feast and famine, a trading nation has the entire world as its grain store.

Most importantly, localism cuts off a community from innovations. Local modes of production cannot deliver complex products such as superconducting medical scanners, vaccines, biosynthetic insulin or indeed such taken-for-granted luxuries as dental anaesthetic, never mind efficient crystalline photovoltaic solar cells for community energy production.

Local production and its embodiment through ventures such as Transition Towns are not the future, they are a romanticised view of the past. Our agrarian ancestors may well have been more connected to the land, but they died younger, spent little time in education due to the need for human labour and rarely travelled far from their place of birth. They also made appallingly inefficient use of the land and natural resources. A truly progressive future will see the growth of clean, low-cost energy and the use of technical innovation to decouple human needs from the environment.

At its core, localism is in many ways an indulgent form of self-interest. A self-sufficient community is exactly that. It is independent of the cares or needs of other communities and is unwilling to engage in the wider human enterprise. For those who value humanity and its collective future, globalisation, in its widest cultural sense, is a statement of shared human values. We should reject these new forms of localism. We should have as little interest in growing our own food or generating our own energy as we have in producing our own steel. If we leave energy to energy utilities and food to efficient large-scale farming, we can enjoy the products of both while undertaking a myriad of other productive tasks, and so ensure growing prosperity for all.

Colin McInnes is professor of engineering science at the University of Strathclyde.

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Topics Science & Tech

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