My grandparents lived in rural areas in east Texas and southwest Arkansas and, as a boy, I visited them many times, generally in the summer. They were not particularly well off, in terms of conveniences and luxuries, but they did sustain themselves by hard work and their industrious spirit. While they didn’t have farms, like we think of them today, they did raise chickens, a cow or two, and lots of garden vegetables. They made some of their own clothing, fixed things when they were broken, and often, with the help of their neighbors, did the construction when a shed or barn addition was needed. They didn’t travel much; most of their friends and relatives lived nearby. Their world, including commerce was mostly local – the grocery store, the general store, the gas station, their church, their school. They knew most of the people they interacted with every day. Just about all of the money they spent stayed in their community. To a large degree, their lifestyle was mostly sustainable within their own community. When I think about a local economy, the community my grandparents enjoyed seems to fit this definition.
Consider how we live today. We live in a global economy. By proportion, most people live in urban areas in contrast to rural area. As individuals we grow less of our own food, and make fewer (if any) of our clothing items. Virtually everything we use is sourced from areas outside our local economy. In fact, we have to work at it to figure out where things come from. Our connections with the products we consume are masked by the multi-national corporations that service us. Satisfying, yes. Convenient, yes. But is this good? Is this sustainable?
In the course of living within our global economy, we’ve become less independent, and more dependent on the multi-national corporations to sustain us. We’ve lost some of the skills that years ago were essential for our survival. And many of us, as employees, have become the tools of the corporations, dependent on their existence for our livelihood.
I offer these observations and questions regarding a local economy as a bit of a personal wake-up call. To a degree, I can control the way I interact with the world – e.g., where I shop, what I buy, what I eat, where I live, the people I interact with. As I think about it, it makes sense to me that I need to do more to support my local economy as compared to the global economy. And this isn’t necessarily easy; it takes work to figure out who makes things and where they come from. It’s much easier to simply go to, say, Wal-Mart, and get things as cheap as possible, but that choice sends my money to the richest people in the world. It would be much better to have those profits remain within my local community. Multi-national corporations source and transport goods from around the globe, polluting the air and water, and exacerbating labor abuses in poor countries, all because it’s cheaper. Corporations generally exist to make money, and the more money, the better. To the degree I can, I don’t want to contribute to the global economy if alternatively, I can work and support my local economy.
To better support my local economy, I can simply use two criteria: (1) where do things come from; and (2) who provides them. Products made within my community have the highest priority while things made overseas have the lowest priority. Locally owned businesses have the highest priority while multi-national corporations have the lowest priority.
To evaluate these criteria requires research, but some choices are easy. Take food. I can grow some foods; that’s about as local a source as there is. I can shop at a farmer’s market, thereby shortening the distance between the producer (the local farmer), and the consumer (me). And with this choice, I’m also contributing to the livelihood of a neighbor who pays local taxes to support our community. Shopping at co-ops are another way to keep money in the community. Locally owned businesses like the local hardware store is another good example, in contrast with Lowe’s or Home Depot. I can bank at the local credit union instead of the largest banks in the world. I can patronize local restaurants instead of national chains. I can subscribe to my local newspaper. The list goes on; the key is to think about everything we do and examine how we can do it better.
For other products, like clothing or manufactured goods, it takes a bit more research. Where is it made? Are the materials sustainable? Are local jobs supported by my purchase? This research, in the long run, is a good investment of my time. Better choices are things all of us can do to make our world better and more sustainable.
Last year, when I wrote Local Sourcing, I was focusing on the transportation emissions associated with local sourcing instead of international sourcing. Cargo ships crossing the oceans burn a lot of dirty fuels. I realize now that supporting a local economy is much more than just emissions; it’s our community’s livelihood and survival.
Food for thought; MikeThatFoodGuy!