Rising Creek Digressions VII – a weekly bucolic blog by Tim Hare
As a Natural Resources student at Colorado State I attended a presentation by Wes Jackson of The Land Institute in Kansas in which he fielded a question “Which is better, local or organic food”? He replied in favor of both, but that forced to choose, he would pick the former. This question is perhaps the most important of all in the realm of sustainable and ethical food systems.
The USDA defines “local” as either coming from the same state or within 400 miles from the origin of the product. But there is more to this. Shopping locally is not just a distance but also a state of being, an intention. Common values, interests, and a sense of a shared future are what define communities. So what is really in conversation here is the design of the systems in which we live.
There are a number of ways local agriculture has manifest – farmers’ markets, farm-to-table dinners or community-supported agriculture. Farmers’ markets are not only fringe occurrences in progressive towns, they are properly woven into the weekly routine of many communities across the country – over 5,000 of them at last count. Farmers’ markets are one aspect of the broader concept of local economies.
One principle of permaculture design recommends keeping energy high in the system: build swales to slow gravity’s pull on water flow, use rainwater catchment, ponds, etc. The same principle is at work with local economies, you are conserving financial energy high in the system, holding it close to home, for yourself and for your neighbors for as long as possible. Not hoarding, but consciously consuming. It’s kind of like fixing the leaky faucet in your bathroom, so you can use it when you need it.
A commonly cited study on bookstores found that of $100 spent at a large chain, only $15 remains in the local economy, while $45 remains when spent at a local bookstore. When you shop online the number is virtually zero.
On one side you can consider shopping locally because it is good for those in your community, which makes you feel good and improves quality of life and interpersonal rapport. On another, you can also consider it as good for yourself, since increasing local wealth has a tendency to increase quality of life for everyone around. So, you may pay more for a mesclun salad mix grown here in Lyons than you would at Costco. But when you pass the cash (or, maybe it’s barter instead of cash) off directly to the person who grew it, you know that that person will have more to spend at your local coffee shop. And then when they buy their double mochachino at your local coffee, they know that you will . . . and on. This is true and honest wealth generation defined by John Maynard Keynes as the “multiplier effect”. It actually works, and it is no coincidence that poorer regions of the country rely most heavily on large chains.
The success of a system’s design can be assessed against its intended function. It should also be assessed based on its resiliency and in consideration of the elements that have been left out (basically on its honesty, integrity and “blind spots”). A market, in a globalized capitalist model, has the intended design of moving goods and services to the consumer in the quickest and cheapest way possible. The producers win when they can make things cheaper and move them faster, while the consumers win when they can have an abundance of goods and services in their lives. It could also be argued that it has made life more comfortable and “easier”, as these seem to be values of many humans. Within these intended functions, global capitalism functions amazingly well. But what has been left out? And what of its resiliency?
The short answer is that the majority of costs have been left out. The cumulative costs are astonishing, in the cultural and ecological realm, where ecosystems and human systems are being devoured almost as fast as Big Macs. The cost of losing a species or losing an indigenous language is relegated to the realm of “market externalities”.
As for durability, let’s consider the fact that the very foundation of our entire economy is built on credit – the loaning of money, at interest, for future re-payment. The root of the word “credit” comes from the Latin credo, meaning “to believe” or “trust”. This is a revolutionary idea, and has its place for sure. But what happens when people stop believing or trusting? Think 1929 stock market crash, 2000 default in Argentina, or recently and ongoing financial issues in the US and Europe. As for trust, maybe the old credo of “never trust a stranger” is most appropriate here.
Moving the conversation to a positive realm, what is important is not about being in opposition to large, global economies, but being for local economies, because local economies are actually better and more successful within a broader set of criteria. Global economies are very effective at delivering cheap products and (occasionally) macroeconomic growth to an increasing number of regions around the globe. So within a value system that defines this as success, sure, the system is successful. But local economies are softer on the environment, better at generating local abundance, have a tendency to expand social capital (i.e. human-to-human contact), and even have the potential to eliminate international conflict. I may be so bold as to say this is the most powerful solution to the environmental, social, and political woes of our world. In a polarized, oppositional climate, it is easier for folks to be against things – against big oil, against big government, against war. This is a rare opportunity activists to say YES instead of NO.
The Farmette kicked off its weekly market this past Sunday. Featured items were the Heirloom food truck and the day’s harvest – Swiss chard, kale, a spicy salad mix, glorious stalks of delphinium, and bundles of chamomile, and sage, among others. And the season is just getting rolling. It most definitely set the stage for a stellar year of sharing community and shopping locally. Come join us next Sunday!