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Ecological localism and restoring the mother of all common goods – our living planet’s health

We already know that many of the means we are employing to restore our eroded natural capital are not working. We are not making nearly enough progress in tackling the mother of all common good challenges – that of restoring our living planet’s ecological health.  How can we find more hope? And how can we escape  the obvious and miserable trap of contemporary state failure? It doesn’t take Matthew Taylor to discover that there are ‘deep, endemic, structural failings of the modern state’ – even if he does nail them pretty effectively.

The curse of the early twenty-first century state lies in its highly specialised, overly legalistic, and prescriptive nature, combined with the febrile tactical manoeuvring of its political leaders.  The centralised state has neither the will nor the imagination to  become more creatively permissive or more outcome rather than process directed.  Faced with this failure, we need a refreshed model of change; one that acknowledges the limits of an exclusively top-down, public sector driven approach; but which doesn’t let the state escape its key roles: those functions require national leadership, coordination or facilitation.

Let’s start with a search for an institutional geography that is more easily action-orientated, that rewards innovation and imagination, that runs with the grain of cultural norms, that is aligned and attuned to the different nature of each place and its economies.  Let’s build on the distinctive strengths of these particular places, rather than trying to manage them away.  Let’s buttress and leverage specific assets of all types; whether that’s a legacy of skills and working traditions, or the natural power of wind, waves and sunlight.  Let’s build on the excitement that’s generated when people benefit from their natural environment, where that’s at its most tangible – at the local level. This is also the level at which collaboration and exchange are the easiest, and where relationships can be built and sustained between the old and the young, the academic and the artisan, the farmer and the conservationist.  It is here that cluster or social action theorists might tell us we will find collective mindprints, or even better a ‘mindplace’ – fertile spaces for progress.

In a brighter version of what is in front of us, central government and globalised markets (with their by-products of atomistic firms, workers & communities) are trumped by this newly equipped local dynamic.  A renewed, informal power to convene, emerging from strengthened relationships,  brokers the rebuilding of resilient and democratic structures and institutions; and with them a new sense of liberated but locally relevant talent, capital, infrastructure, and shared branding and marketing.  Joint stewardship – taking the best from public-private partnerships –  is put to work to overcome problems which are experienced in real places, rather than conceptualised by a remote centralised bureaucracy.  In these places, success is tangible and almost tactile – it can be tasted, touched, and felt – in distinctive products, in the health of local rivers, in the success of a town or region’s young people –  in a way that abstract national actions will never be.

New approaches can also harness the potential of new technologies. With a focus on our living planet, we can seek to direct local investment into genuine ecological enterprise; into local renewable energy production and high quality food, for example.  This will in turn allow an experience of place that is more than just a concept of neighborhood, but also part of the wider emotional politics of the common good. Where ‘ecological localism’ is a genuine operating principle – where it marries the protection of nature with a place-based human geography – we can begin to tackle problems which at present seem insuperable; which seem genuinely beyond our agency. In this way, a strongly principled commitment to environmental stewardship blends with a more comfortable human geography.

Let’s not be poisoned by the Big Society and its moment of ‘Lazy Localism’ – a pastiche in the face of a dominant culture of English centralism.  Instead let’s look to a ‘New Localism’* grounded in place, and then beyond this to a more radical vision – ‘Turbo-Localism’ – where an even greater share of service provision is administered or organised at a very local level. The big question this raises, is will citizens step up?  Will they be willing to create their own stories of reciprocity for the common good? Or will a much darker ‘collusive denial’ – a failure to accept both opportunity and responsibility – dominate too easily?

Positive examples from the South West gives us reason to hope.  One such comes from Devon – and is best understood by those who have laboured snail-like for years to achieve ‘favourable condition’ for our most precious wildlife sites (the so called Sites of Special Scientific Interest – SSSIs). ‘Dartmoor Farming Futures’ has emerged out of the carbon rich upland blanket bogs and wet heaths of the Dartmoor Forest; where on a whopping great Common of 11 square kilometres, a minor revolution has occurred.  Farmers and landowners have been offered, by the ‘powers that be’ , responsibility for the design and delivery of an ‘agri-environment’ scheme that invests public money in land-restoration via farmer land-managers. They are paid for delivering a complete range of public benefits (ecosystem services) associated with upland farming, from food production to carbon sequestration, centred on a collaborative approach to agreeing outcomes, management and monitoring. After decades of state agency which neither genuinely secured co-operation or imposed compliance, here’s a co-production model, waking up the hopes and building on the responsibility of the farmer Commoners who work this hard piece of upland Dartmoor.

Ecological localism necessarily blurs the boundaries between state, private and civic action, with outcomes that are the combined achievement of all.  It allows public bodies, socially responsible businesses, individuals, families and communities to create a local tapestry of choice and flexibility; a whole system of common good provision. It also generates legitimacy for environmental action that is underpinned by a shared ethos, and which reflects and is rooted in local circumstance. Why would we not choose this much richer alternative, rather than relying on a central state that is increasingly paralysed by ideological division, and dominated by the sort of tactical adventuring that puts short-term politics before the common good of our people and our land?

Mark Robins

This post is a contribution to the Common Good Green Manifesto project.