Think Global--Buy Local


The idea of local economies is in the air. A few days ago I met with someone I met at my last book talk. It turns out he is working to establish a local economy in the town next door to Lexington where I live. Then in the last few days, two very interesting items about local economies turned up in my daily alerts and RSS feeds from websites featuring sustainability in some form or another.

WorldChanging has a story about local currencies, noting their emergence in faltering economies.The economic function of such currencies is to enable people under severe hardship conditions to trade with others in the community.

"In the last four years, there has been a renewed interest in local economy, local production," said Witt, executive director of the E. F. Schumacher Society, a Massachusetts-based think tank focused on local production. "It just skyrocketed with the collapse of the global economy."

Complementary forms of currency are nothing new, and they frequently appear when mainstream financial systems are in distress. Examples include Greenbacks during the American Civil War, and the British Bradbury "Treasury Notes" and German Kriegsgeld during the First World War.

Alternative currencies, in theory, encourage consumers to make purchases within their communities rather than elsewhere in the country or abroad. "Buying local" circulates wealth in the region, reduces unnecessary imports, and helps avoid higher unemployment levels, supporters say.

Orion Magazine republished a 2001 article by Wendell Berry. Berry was arguing that total economies, like Thomas Friedman's Flat Earth model, erode both economic security and freedom. We have, unfortunately, seen the first part of his prediction come to be.

If the government does not propose to protect the lives, livelihoods, and freedoms of its people, then the people must think about protecting themselves. How are they to protect themselves? There seems, really, to be only one way, and that is to develop and put into practice the idea of a local economy—something that growing numbers of people are now doing. For several good reasons, they are beginning with the idea of a local food economy. People are trying to find ways to shorten the distance between producers and consumers, to make the connections between the two more direct, and to make this local economic activity a benefit to the local community. They are trying to learn to use the consumer economies of local towns and cities to preserve the livelihoods of local farm families and farm communities. They want to use the local economy to give consumers an influence over the kind and quality of their food, and to preserve land and enhance the local landscapes. They want to give everybody in the local community a direct, long-term interest in the prosperity, health, and beauty of their homeland. This is the only way presently available to make the total economy less total. It was once, I believe, the only way to make a national or a colonial economy less total. But now the necessity is greater.
Perhaps one also begins to see the difference between a small local business that must share the fate of the local community and a large absentee corporation that is set up to escape the fate of the local community by ruining the local community.
So far as I can see, the idea of a local economy rests upon only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence. In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This, and nothing else, is the practice of neighborhood. This practice must be, in part, charitable, but it must also be economic, and the economic part must be equitable; there is a significant charity in just prices.

In these lines from the article, Berry points to two very important links between local economies and sustainability, One is the idea of subsistence or sufficiency. Production is limited to taking care of the community. The concept of care, the other link, is central to this way of relating to others. By bringing care to the surface, people in the community can shift their mode of living from having to being, an essential step in moving toward generating sustainability. WorldChanging again quoted Witt:

"You don't just go online and use the Berkshare [the local currency, shown in the photo]. You go down to Main Street stores, have a conversation with a shopkeeper, hear what it's like to do business in the community," Witt said. "It's a conversation. It's the building of citizenship. We're out of that habit. But when we re-establish the habits, we like it."

Although we use different words, Witt recognizes the shift that occurs when relationships become at least as important as the material transactions that take place. The meaning of "local" is more than a geographic boundary, it refers a place where individuals can rediscover what they care about and flourish. The rapid growth of connectivity via the Internet has greatly diminished awareness of place and its critical role in shaping one's identity and sense of being.