Following up on EnergyNumbers' questions: What is the relationship between localizing the economy and sustainability? Does pushing for local food markets, local production of goods for use, local energy sources, local food production help sustainability?

Are there any cases where a push for localization makes sustainability harder to accomplish?

3 Answers 3


The big advantage of localising the economy is that transport is reduced, which means less CO2 emissions. A second advantage is that multiple local farms or factories spread over the country have less impact on the local enviroment than one large farm/factory that needs to produce the same amount. Farm monocultures for example can only be maintained with (artificial) fertilizers and often pesticides are also used. Third, localisation reduces the power of multinational companies and a lot of multinationals have very poor track records when it comes to sustainability (e.g. Shell, Chevron, Dow Chemicals, Cargill). Finally, although not directly related to sustainability, food that is produced in bulk is usually processed and then stored in warehouses for years before it is being consumed. This means that the quality of the food is much less than that of food produced locally and consumed quickly after harvesting.

With this being said, some of the advantages I mentioned need not necesarilly apply. For example, some crops only grow in countries with a warm climate all year round. To only way to have those crops available in countries with a colder climate is to grow them in greenhouses. Greenhouses use gas or electricity for heating which leads to higher CO2 emissions than when transporting those crops from warmer countries (provided transportation is done by truck and/or boat, see also this question). Also a local farmer can still use a lot of pesticides and artificial fertilizers to grow crops when trying to increase his production. Some people also claim that localization requires more land to produce the same amount of food and products, but the debate on this point is still ongoing.

If you also count 'social sustainability', localising the economy will mean that people in poor countries do not have access to markets in rich countries so it may be harder for them to earn money. On the other hand, infant industries in poor countries will not be put out of business by large global companies and in local economies there are much less corporate 'middlemen' who do nothing more than drive up prices.

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    +1 Actually your comment although not directly related to sustainability. . . overlooks an important aspect of sustainability. Since bulk-produced anything has a longer supply chain and longer manufacturing throughput time, it necessarily required more energy input! There is a huge but very difficult relationship to quantify here.
    – Jack Ryan
    Mar 25, 2014 at 20:01

Generally, localisation and sustainability are opposites. Localising the economy will typically require more inputs for a given set of outputs, and higher inputs means lower sustainability.

For example, it requires much lower inputs to grow fruit in the tropics and ship it to Iceland, that to grow fruit in Iceland.

Shipping is a remarkably low-input way to move things around, and a lot of work is underway to lessen its unsustainability. Road transport over the last few tens of miles is far more costly than shipping over a few thousand kilometres.

We've known for a couple of centuries now, since the work of David Ricardo, that free international trade allows for national specialisations, meaning that countries that can produce the same goods for lower inputs, will do so, and export to other countries.

More recently, in the last 12 years, Gregor Czisch and others established that the lowest-cost and lowest-input way to provide sustainabile electricity was by hugely increasing the capacity of international electricity connectors (interconnectors): up to pretty high levels, the larger the interconnectors, and the larger the international electricity trade, the easier it is to get to a sustainable electricity supply.

That's not to say that internationalisation in and of itself is beneficial: it is necessary, but not sufficient.

When there are unpriced externalities in transport, then it is very difficult to establish what a sustainable level of international trade is.

One of the big problems with localisation is that it requires low-density land-use, so that settlements have local supplies of food and water. However, low-density land-use makes most transport unsustainable: high-density cities with remote high-intensity farm and water supplies are far more sustainable than the equivalent population in rural settlements, because of the relative land-take and energy inputs needed for the transportation of people and goods.

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    So would it be fair to say that sustainability-wise, Walmart is good because it saves us from farmer's markets and local bakeries? Mar 1, 2013 at 12:28
  • There is a down side to globalization though. One instance would be Corn in Mexico. The poor in Mexico can no longer afford corn that has been a staple in their meager diet(not to be confused with the US version of meager, this means barely surviving many times). The farmers are making far more selling the corn to ADM for dollars than selling it to local poor for pennies. This is happening with grains, and raw sugar across the world now.
    – user141
    Mar 1, 2013 at 14:22
  • @ChrisTravers, no, I didn't say anything about any particular business. And with there being unpriced externalities and unenforced regulation in the market, any for-profit company, including Walmart, is likely to incorporate unsustainability.
    – 410 gone
    Mar 1, 2013 at 14:37
  • @Chad I agree. I'm not sure how much of that's a sustainability question, but it's certainly a social equity / market failure issue.
    – 410 gone
    Mar 1, 2013 at 14:39
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    @EnergyNumbers, but why not? I mean if you are in a big city, suppose a farmer is taking his produce to the farmer's market in a pickup truck, driving 3 hours each way. Suppose he sells half of it, and drives back. Isnt that exactly what you are talking about? And similarly shouldn't we be able to suggest at least thermodynamically we have more options to make a huge bread factory energy efficient than a local artisan baker's kitchen, right? Why doesn't the same reasoning apply? Mar 1, 2013 at 15:01

Since this is a part of the defining sustainability series, I want to throw add my own approach as well.

It is true, as EnergyNumbers points out, that localization does tend to add some inefficiencies. If you compare a small bakery to a large bread factory, there are some optimizations that can happen with the latter that can't happen with the former (for starters, the ovens, by virtue of being larger, will have higher volume to surface area ratios and this reduces accidental energy loss). Similarly centralized transportation requires less inputs than decentralized transportation. The farmer who takes 500lbs of produce in his pickup truck 200 miles to sell at a farmer's market uses up a lot of fossil fuels compared to what would happen if things were shipped in larger quantity.

Taken to its extreme I think one might be tempted to say that Walmart is good from a sustainability perspective because it saves us from farmer's markets and local bakeries. The problem is though this optimizes (and optimizes badly, I might add) for only one factor and thus, in my view runs the wrong way.

Before I say why I think that runs the wrong point it is worth saying that a lot of things cant be localized. Many of the higher technology components, like solar cells, really do require a certain economy of scale even to hit break-even points energy-wise. For this reason I don't think that things go all one way. This being said, I think sustainability requires to some extent decentralizing the economy from where we are today.

Localization and Agriculture

Our current system of food production, distribution, and processing is very energy-intensive. The majority of this is in indirect costs, such as pesticides and fertilizers. The massive use of fossil fuels allows modern large-scale farming techniques and there is no current substitute which allows downsizing our nation's farms without the large input of fossil fuels.

It's worth noting that the congressional report cited above notes that the majority of energy consumed in the production of most crops is in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides, not the use of diesel to plow land, harvest, etc. Cutting down on fossil fuels in agriculture thus means abandoning large-scale mechanized farming of hundreds of acres and a move towards smaller scale, where concerns over soil fertility, pest control, etc can be managed through biodiversity. Thus liquid biomass fuels don't really even approach a solution for agriculture.

The primary contenders to solve this problem both require downsizing farms and replacing cheap fossil fuel inputs with more expensive human inputs. These include smaller scale organic farming (note that draft animals are making a comeback as a reaction to high fuel prices. Organic farming by draft animal potentially gets rid of the vast majority of fossil fuel inputs.

The other possibility is permaculture, which tries to harness natural dynamics between species for support of plants and control of disease. Permaculture is small-scale, however, and while it is high yield at low inputs, most of the human-directed inputs are directly human.

I don't see any possibility of achieving sustainability without decentralizing farming. This means a shift of inputs from fossil fuels to people and animals. That has a lot of implications regarding lifestyles, and a need to significantly downsize energy consumption in order to make that happen (more people working in agriculture, fewer in energy).

Localization and Energy

Some materials in this area do not work well from a standpoint of localization and so manufacturing and distribution of these may not be able to be localized. However, I think that there are still very important benefits from thinking about the problems in terms of localization.

The first is that the most promising technology to replace fossil fuels for electricity generation is wind power, at least given current EROI figures. Wind has a very good EROI. The real challenge is that wind is fickle and unreliable, and so it is hard to generate baseline energy over a small area. One solution for this to have large numbers of geographically dispersed wind farms but this requires a power grid designed for a level of what might be described as "chaos" that they are not designed for today (where things are based on large, reasonably dependable power plants serving specific areas). Thinking in terms of localized production, done well, is an important aspect I think to more distributed energy production (and Wind requires thinking about energy production in a distributed manner).

A second point is that there have been installations of methane digesters at commercial dairy farms. Whether CAFO-modelled dairy farms may not be sustainable, the idea of smaller scale, local energy production off of material that would otherwise be discarded is very positive development sustainability.

Localization and Waste Management

The final area where I think that is important to consider here is the idea of local material cycles. Our current approach can be described as "factory to landfill" and the problem with this is that recycling becomes somewhat problematic and requires heavy centralization. While some areas of recycling can be centralized, things like organic material are harder to do so. We can't exactly ship sewage or compost effectively over the railway system and so the ability to take waste products and turn them into useful products is reduced by over-centralization.

Waste management is closely tied to energy and agriculture however. New York City is moving towards harvesting methane from sewage treatment for electrical power, and they are not alone. Some forms of fertilizer come out of wastewater treatment and there are many other products which can be seen as locally produced in this way as well.

Robustness vs Efficiency

With modern agriculture and global distribution of food, we still see famines as a result of civil war and other factors, where disruption of distribution, in the distribution network leads to catastrophic human costs. There are major issues here including the over-centralization of agriculture globally and this raises very significant social and economic sustainability concerns. Overreliance on long-distance trade raises concerns about robustness. This means that overcentralization trades efficiency for a lack of robustness.


In general, I think decentralization, re-ruralization, and localization, compared to where we are today, are necessary for attaining sustainability. This does not mean however, that everything can be decentralized. Some things may require greater economies of scale to be viable. However our centralization today is heavily subsidized by fossil fuels and to kick that dependency one must move somewhat in the other direction.

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