I’ve long believed that these are important and under-appreciated public problems (together with how recent expansions of intellectual property rights constrain creativity).
McKibben cleverly twins these issues as symptoms of a larger problem: the loss of local control over how we lead our lives. If local media were substituted for corporate nation-wide media, we would have the opportunity to develop our own tastes and ideas, not just swallowing what is mass-produced for everyone to consume. We might appreciate the diversity around us, learn more about our communities, and develop new tastes. If we had the ability to feed to as well as take from the electric grid, we might find pleasure in making this commodity for our neighbors to use:
Instead of something that you buy from far away, energy becomes something you help make and distribute to your neighbors. On a sunny day I can walk down to the electric meter under my porch and watch it spin the wrong way. As long as the sun stays out, the solar panels on my roof make me a utility. It’s a sweet feeling, knowing that my neighbor’s refrigerator is running off the panels above my head….Japan leads the world in building a decentralized solar-panel energy economy…[Perhaps] because people feel both an obligation to and an ability to trust one another… (p. 148)
But I’m left with the question: What is ethical about supporting local economies? Is this just a fancy twist on identifying and supporting what is in our own selfish interests? Sometimes McKibben presents localism as a way of keeping profits in the community: we support our neighbors’ businesses, and then they reciprocate and support us. We benefit by cutting out middlemen who drain profits out of the community.
This may be smart and it may be efficient, but is there any sense in which it could be ethical? Indeed, an emphasis on local communities over the universal public cuts against over 200 years of Kantian ethics and over 100 years of calculating “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I’ve been wondering how to fit this support for local economies into an ethics class. In an earlier post, I argued that virtue ethics can sometimes do the job, since virtue is aimed at guiding people to cultivate the virtues that we most admire in others, including virtues such as charity, friendliness, and living deliberately. Care ethics, in particular, prioritizes beneficence directed toward our circles of family, friends, and acquaintances over beneficence to strangers.
Without adopting a version of virtue/care ethics, it is impossible to say what drives a choice to consume local goods rather than imported ones (excluding, of course, the environmental cost of transportation). In utilitarian fashion, Peter Singer argues that buying food products grown in poverty-stricken areas directs our money to the people who benefit from it the most. He argues convincingly (in The Way We Eat) that this is true even when foreign growers are not participating in fair trade programs. Against this argument, McKibben’s plea to invest in local communities rather than poor communities seems to be supported by little more than self-interest? (Certainly, many of my students interpret it in that way.)
However, I think that support for local economies, local power generation, local media, and local agriculture can be justified in one more way. It can be justified on the grounds of the psychology of responsibility and on the limits of knowledge. Looking for justification from ethical theory is to look in the wrong toolbox. Instead, we should look to social epistemology and to moral psychology.
The greatest benefit of localism is that it functions to establish accountability. McKibben sells localism as a route to greater happiness—we are more likely to have friendly, meaningful conversations at the farmer’s market than the supermarket. But another benefit of localism is that it’s easier to know what’s going on in a limited sphere, and we are more likely to take an interest in it. “NIMBY” is a phrase that’s used to denigrate elites who would prefer exploitive, dangerous, unsightly, or polluting operations to be located out of sight, in other communities or overseas. But there’s a positive side to NIMBY movements, too. If something is so unpleasant or harmful that no one wants it, there is motivation to change our practices or improve our technologies or accept higher prices. When products and power come from under our noses, it's much more difficult to hide or externalize costs.
Perhaps McKibben's best example is of local, sustainable logging. In the forestry industry, it is efficient to clearcut an area and then replant it. One reason this is efficient is that it takes all of the value now, and thus hedges bets against an uncertain future. Another reason is that sustainable logging is more labor and equipment and time intensive. In fact, with the economy going the way it has been (barring global recession, that is), it is more economically efficient to harvest the value from forests now and to reinvest the profit. Any standard investment will reap a greater economic return over the time that it takes to regrow a forest than to actually regrow the forest. But this is a viable strategy only if you don't mind eradicating your forests, and forests have more than economic value. In McKibben's example, people are more willing to pay a higher price for sustainable forest products if those products come from woods that they know and enjoy.
The ethical aspect of McKibben’s localism is that it activates responsibility.