One day in September of 1995, I made a trip with my wife and a mutual friend to Cedar Bluff, a place I considered the most beautiful place in Indiana, and only fifteen minutes from our home in Bloomington. I experienced an intense re-awakening of some ideas and aspirations that had been slumbering close to my heart. Below, you can read what I wrote in my journal on that day. What’s fascinating to me is how much things have changed over the past two decades — and also how little. The very word “localism” (as an ideology, opposed to “globalism”) seemed like a novelty then.
The bureaucratic state and the multi-national conglomerates have made the individual irrelevant by breaking down the local community. They’ve made the local community irrelevant by isolating individuals in gilded cages.
What can be done? Big business and big government are so entrenched, so monolithic that revolutionary dreams seem like hopeless (and therefore pathetic) fantasies.
The only solution is to do to them what they’ve done to us. We must make big business and big government irrelevant to our lives as individuals and as a community. We need to develop communities that are more self-sufficient, independent, autonomous.
“Think globally, act locally” — a popular bumpersticker slogan. But of course it’s more complicated than that. In order to act locally, we must also think locally.
So I’ve got a new “ism” for y’all. Localism. In its simplest articulation, it’s just the belief that local is good. This runs counter to the globalism that is one of the most pervading ideologies of our century, and probably the past couple centuries as well.
It’s essential to our survival. We must support local agriculture and other local producers. The reasons are numerous:
- Accountability. When you buy bananas from Guatemala, you may be supporting death squads. But you don’t know, because it’s far away. The businessman near at hand is more accountable to your demand than some mysterious clan in a far-off land. [Note: sexist language preserved for the sake of rhyme.]
- Sustainability. When you buy local, you’re eliminating a lot of wasteful packing & shipping. Why squander our non-renewable fossil fuels on a Guatemalan banana when you could be munching on an Indiana apple? Let’s ship food when it’s needed to places of famine and drought.
- Meaningful employment. Spending your dollars locally means supporting local jobs. That’s pretty obvious. But furthermore, I think working to produce goods for your local community would tend to be more meaningful and rewarding than making stuff for people on the other side of the world.
- Community values. These can only exist when there is an actual community, which requires a commerce not just of durable goods but of ideas and information. A higher or more pervasive community ethic means less crime and less violence. How can a suburban bedroom community with no actual industry of its own have a real sense of identity or pride?
- Individual freedom. Increased employment opportunities + smaller and more accountable employers = individual empowerment. Today many people are slaves to their jobs. It doesn’t have to be like that.
- Quality of life. This idea of localism requires that we live more richly and more complexly. You may be surprised to learn how many agricultural varieties are not available in your supermarket. You might also be surprised to discover how much better locally grown food can taste — it hasn’t been bred for fiber, to look good on display after being trucked across the continent. Your local craftsman might just have higher standards than that factory in southeast Asia.
But where to begin? I don’t feel quite ready to go out and start organizing the syndicates, though I would love to see that happen down the road. I’m not ready to start raising money to buy land for a commune. I don’t think running for office is appropriate — I want to effect collective action outside of the auspices of government. It should be as un-institutionalized as possible.
OK, so let’s say you’ve bought this localism idea. You’re ready to do your damnedest to keep your money in the local community. You’re going to the farmer’s market every Saturday morning.
Now you need to buy some paper. You look in the Yellow Pages. Oops — no local paper makers? (Too bad hemp’s not legal.) No local condom-makers either. No local automobile factories!
Some things that aren’t made locally now could be made locally in the future, if and when localism blossoms. Other items will never be made locally — like a rare pharmaceutical product, for example.
But one thing is for damn sure. Any population oughta be able to sustain itself agriculturally. That’s why I harp on food production so much: it’s essential, basic, primal. It’s a good place to start. If we can make big agribusiness irrelevant to life here, we’ll have accomplished something that is significant, worthwhile, revolutionary — and dangerous to the status quo.
Of course one could try to legislate this kind of economic transformation by putting a high tariff on food goods imported from outside a certain geographic boundary. I’m skeptical of trying to impose this from above. Probably it’s impractical — such a radical platform would never get elected to office in the first place. Not now. There’s a lot of consciousness-raising that needs to happen first. My dream would be that the consciousness-raising could translate directly into collective action without recourse to any legislation.
A few years after writing the above, I moved to New Orleans, a place with intense local pride second to none, but a place still subject to the depredations of globalism. (Here I’ve got to give an enthusiastic plug for the Urban Conservancy’s Stay Local project.) Have things gotten better or worse over the last twenty-something years? We’ve lost ground in some areas and gained in others. It’s hard to say where the balance lies. What do you think?
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.