Living Local

In a new book, two SNRE colleagues collect ideas that together point the way to a healthy and sustainable future

Act local: Raymond De Young and Tom Princen enjoy a conversation at Cafe Verde, part of the People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor.

On a sunny fall morning, Tom Princen glides his bike to a stop in front of the People’s Food Co-op in Ann Arbor and joins Raymond De Young, his SNRE colleague and longtime collaborator on papers, seminars and now a book. Their most recent work explores and argues for localization; that is, the possibility of achieving a satisfying life with the end of fossil fuel-based, consumption-driven growth that has depleted resources and run up debts worldwide.

De Young and Princen buy coffee in the co-op’s café and discuss details about the production of their book, a collection of essays and academic papers they co-edited called The Localization Reader: Adapting to the Coming Downshift. Scheduled for publication in early 2012 by MIT Press, the anthology approaches the concept of localization from an energetics, psychological and political perspective, all aimed at practice. The book includes contributions from such well-known environmental and scientific writers as Wendell Berry, M. King Hubbert and E. F. Schumacher, as well as new work by political scientist Karen Litfin and sociologist David Hess.
The concept of localization is very much evident as De Young and Princen leave the coffee shop and stroll through the nearby Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market, stopping to chat with acquaintances along the way. The two social scientists, both Ann Arbor residents, are on a first-name basis with many of the market vendors. One farmer, Carol Brooks, sells spray-free blueberries, handicrafts and snow cones. In blueberry season, Princen helps out in her booth.

Walking the localization walk, they argue, will entail making daily decisions in the context of one’s own community as cheap energy declines. This decline scenario usually leads observers to predict societal collapse, but De Young and Princen assert that communities can write a different storyline. People have the choice of crafting a new era even while they grieve the loss of the old one. De Young and Princen’s forthcoming book doesn’t debate the rate or depth of the energy descent; the authors take a decline as given, a “new normal” on a grand scale. Instead, they focus on the promise of well-being, self-reliance, satisfaction in work and community, and freedom—freedom from debt and from dependence on unending economic growth: “a process of affirmative social change,” as they write in the introduction.

The book begins by explaining the premise of resource decline and then establishes the inevitability of transitioning. Its content shifts first to explorations of locally-owned businesses and community-based agriculture and then to philosophy. The book includes a psychological perspective on the transition to durable living with articles by De Young, SNRE Professor Rachel Kaplan and her husband and fellow U-M faculty member Stephen Kaplan, and writer and farmer Sharon Astyk that, together, make a case for a less materialistic and more fulfilling life as society transitions away from fossil fuels.

The latter sections of the book address the issue of governance—stressing participatory democracy, self-correcting feedback, mutual accountability, collaboration and equity—and tools for navigating a transition to a localized lifestyle. It ends on a piece co-authored by De Young and Princen titled “Downshift/Upshift: Our Choice.”

Adapting in Place

The book emerged in part from a graduate seminar they created and continue to co-teach at SNRE, “Localization: Envisioning Less Energy, More Time, Better Food.” The course doesn’t dwell on energy or climate trends nor dire predictions. Instead, it looks for opportunities people can create to pre-adapt to living within biophysical limits.  

“What would a society look like that responded well to a drastic drop in resources?” De Young asks. “There’s a reoccurring theme here: Life will be more local, more place-based. But it could also be more psychologically satisfying and ecologically resilient.”

Both professors joined the SNRE faculty in 1991 and have been deeply engaged in localization issues. De Young has written in scientific journals on the complicated matter of behavior and decision-making in relation to environmental stewardship, and on localization through a blog on the psychological aspects of responding to emerging biophysical limits. It’s also a focus of his and Kaplan’s Environmental Psychology Lab, which studies human and environmental stewardship. Among his many courses, he taught an urban planning class in the 1980s titled “Decentralism/Stewardship Communities;” even then, the class was detailing the trends of dwindling natural resources and exploring the psychological benefits of transitioning to self-reliant communities.

Princen has written extensively on overconsumption and sufficiency. In an edited volume, Confronting Consumption (MIT Press, 2002) he developed an ecological notion of consumption.  In The Logic of Sufficiency (MIT Press, 2005), he developed a social organizing principle—sufficiency—that orients collective behavior away from excess and toward “enough.” Both books received the International Studies Association’s award for best book in the study of international environmental problems.

SNRE alumni frequently mention De Young and Princen as teachers who changed the way they see the world. And the professors recognize them in turn: They are donating their royalties from sales of The Localization Reader to Growing Hope, an Ypsilanti community agriculture organization founded by SNRE graduate Amanda Edmonds (B.S. ‘00, M.S. ‘05), as well as to the People’s Food Co-op in Kerrytown.
And in these places and throughout the community, the two continue their ongoing dialogue.

“Efficiency measures dominate policy discussions,” says Princen.

“It’s not that using resources efficiently doesn’t matter,” De Young adds. “It does, but ‘greening up’ isn’t sufficient to make the larger-scale stewardship problems go away. In a period of declining cheap energy and rising defensive expenditures for past environmental disruption, everyday behavioral choices will matter more and more.”

“If we choose well,” De Young said. “Our behavior can be the foundation of a meaningful, satisfying and durable existence.”

Laura J. Williams's picture

Laura J. Williams is the assistant director of communications at the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

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