A Charter for Sustainable Localism

Tim O’Riordan

Let us hope that the world will take seriously the complete cessation of carbon based atmospheric warming gases by mid-century. To do so in thirty years’ time means embarking on a colossal shift of fuelling industry and transport, heating buildings, and selecting diet. Or it means living locally and compassionately in self-sufficient communities. Or it requires an awkward and incompatible mixture of the two.

The preparation for the 26th Conference of the global nations (COP 26) convened in Glasgow in November 2021, has to grapple with this mix. So far the conventional and comforting thinking is favouring the first option. This has the political advantage that it offers very little that needs to be changed in lifestyle and in wealth for the already rich who control the show. The trouble is that these changes do not come cheap, so will hurt the already poor who have far less say in the matter. Most of the carbon substitution involves technology which has not been tested up to the colossal scale of the global. These technologies depend on particular materials which are not in ready supply, and where many of which are not found in politically or economically reliable areas even today, let alone in 2050.

Offshore Wind farm by Andy Dingley

The objective is to get to net zero. This is a combination of carbon substitution and carbon removal by growing vegetation and regenerated soils and bogs. To turn all energy provision to renewable will involve massive construction schemes on an unimaginable scale.

The tension between the different models of achieving environmental sustainability is being played out in many places. To give just one example, over a period of a dozen years, two swathes in Norfolk will be “untimely ripped” to enable high voltage direct current cables to cross from the coast where they connect to the vast new off shore wind farms to two colossal substations in the heart of the County. This is being treated by government as an ‘infrastructure of national importance’ which means that planning decisions will be made rapidly with limited public interference. We will see. Already the schemes are delayed by two years due to the wrangling and locally inspired blocking legal action. The map below portrays the likely routes for the two sets of high voltage cables marked on a parish basis

Economists and trades unions see all of this zero carbon investment as a huge plus for jobs and the economy, unleashing all manner of innovation in smart technology and training skills. But the locals do not see these opportunities. They are gearing to fight these cabling paths to the bitter end. There is no absolute guarantee that the final delayed and highly contested result will the commercially viable. So much for the green new deal. This is just a minute example, but it is typical of the struggles to come if the high technological globally-based paths to net zero are followed.

Another way

But there is another way. This is to establish a process of creating local initiatives and economies around where people live, where they have grown up, and where they would like to spend the rest of their peaceful and protected lives. This will be led by communities acting locally. For local action to be effective and persistent, it is necessary to have a trusting relationship between the people and those who act on their behalf. And it is vital that people acting as individuals know they are functioning through the support of their communities.

Sustainable localism is the outcome of joint actions by individuals, households and communities. One element is the regeneration of natural spaces, for the sake of nature, and for the nurture of healthy minds and healthy bodies.  A second is looking out for each other, so all of the vulnerable are spotted, and no one is left uncared for. A third is living with sufficiency of need drawn mostly from within the locality. All of this is meant to ensure that our next generation is suitably prepared for the changing times to come.

At its heart is wellbeing. This is the combination of self-worth, of personal leadership and responsibility, of trusting everyone to share the same fundamental values, and of hope. Economic security is an important component of wellbeing. But its full purpose is both to help create and to benefit from supportive families, neighbourhoods and communities. Wellbeing generates a joint belief that shared local commitment will prove the centrepiece of enjoyable living.

There are a growing number of examples of local initiatives which improve sustainability. They may start from a desire for local control or from a sustainability initiative.

The city of Preston has pioneered a set of enterprise networks which create local entrepreneurship and local buying and selling. The result is a series of strong “anchors” which channel investment and training into the locality. This generates cooperation, learning, pride and innovation. This is the kick start of sustainable localism. We simply cannot do nothing. There are swathes of very broken people and families who will not be able to cope to 2030, let alone cut their carbon. This is a social catastrophe in the making.

The way forward

Building on the Preston model, let us see just how this might be achieved.

Digital availability

We need to connect everyone to each other. The rapid completion of broadband and the ubiquity of the internet are essential elements to sustainable localism.

Purposeful training

Everyone who needs it should be trained for the expanding digital age. This is particularly the case for those already left behind. There is a need for a variety of training courses and experiences to encourage creative entrepreneurship.

Mentoring and social support

Everyone who requires it should have access to social support in the form of mentoring and care. This extends to keeping a watchful eye on those who are or who might become vulnerable or a danger to themselves or others. This requires support for families and households and a form of welcome mentoring, suitably funded and given meaningful income to those who demonstrate their value.

Community networks of local knowledge

Discovering and identifying help, support, training, and opportunity is vital for community cohesion and local solidarity. Preventable hardship and sadness can be spotted by businesses, by community services, from community organisations, to parishes, to schools, colleges of further education (technical as well as academic), and to universities. Many of those most in need remain presently hidden.

Caring and health provision

Central to this vision is a new emphasis on overcoming inequality, discrimination, vulnerability, ill health, poverty, joblessness, and child care. This will require a demanding set of challenging policies and actions. It will involve redistributive income sharing, taxation reform, greater recognition of the role of charities and sensitive solidarity across age, gender, race, sexuality, disablement, and shared outlooks. A start could be locally financed carbon levies feeding sustianability charities.

Localising mobility and economy

Norfolk countryside in spring by Andy Peacock

Getting rid of atmospheric warming gases demands several fundamental changes of us. We need to reduce movement, expand local living, support local food sourcing, and encourage regenerative agriculture. We need to create, consume and reuse goods fuelled by local renewable energy technologies. Personal commitment is hugely influenced by neighbourly esteem and common pride. Social esteem breeds carbon removing action.

Creativity, imagination and the arts

Sustainable localism must generate creativity, artistic expression, imagination, and social bonding. A sustaining community is an artistic community. This opens the mind, builds confidence, generates all-round health, and stimulates optimism. Imagination is the great purveyor of hope and of innovation.

Spiritual uplift

Sustainable localism connects the new inner worlds of the personal to the expanding outer worlds of the spiritual. We face a century of almost unimaginable suffering for both humans and the functioning of nature. We are facing a collective near death experience. We require a profound sense of the spiritual to spur us into creative and effective change.

All of this sounds fanciful. We are prosperous enough to share and to care. We should not stand by while our society fragments. The young will not tolerate our avoidable delay. Surely we least seek a running battle between the old and the young. Sustainable localism provides the healing of everlasting survival.

Further reading


The Cities 40 movement  https://www.c40.org/


About the Author

Tim O’Riordan (HF 1963-65) obtained a Masters’ Degree in Water Resource Engineering from Cornell University, and completed his US based studies in Berkeley. He subsequently obtained a PhD from the University of Cambridge, and worked in Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, and the University of East Anglia, where he gained his Chair in 1980. He served on the UK Sustainable Development Commission for ten years, and the Broads Authority for 20 years. He was awarded an OBE in 2010, was made a Deputy Lieutenant in Norfolk in 1999, and a Fellow of the British Academy in 2009.