Why We Need to Help Develop Our Local Communities
I alluded to this when discussing newspapers a while back, and the time has now come. For what? Well, there are many problems in the world. Hunger, loneliness, disease, corruption. Some problems are small, others are large. While there are as many possible solutions as there are problems, in this post I’d like to bring forth the idea that, at least some of the bigger problems, can be fixed or at least mitigated by investing time and money into your local community.
To get ahead of some possible criticism, I want to clarify that, when I say “local”, I don’t mean “national”. Without getting into the details, I think that nationalism is idiotic. I don’t define locale as nationality, as the artificial country borders. I think of physical proximity, meaning that, for someone in northern India, for example, a nearby village past the Chinese border is more local than a city on the southern coast of India. In practice, such cross-border cooperation might be tricky, particularly due to language, but for the ideas I’ll describe later, defining “local” this way makes more sense, so that’s what I’ll go with.
Let’s start with a question – go to your fridge, and look for perishable foods. Milk, eggs, salad, and so on. How did they get there? You most likely went to a store and picked them up there, but where were they before? Tracing back the logistics, you’ll likely end up at some sort of farm, perhaps not too far from where you live. That farm, wherever it may be or whatever it may produce, is operated by people. Who are they? What are their names? What are their lives like? Are they having a good time? Do they feel like they are paid appropriately for the work they do? Are there laws and regulations that cause them grief, annoyance, or otherwise make their lives harder?
Knowing who they are isn’t exactly irrelevant. After all, these are the people who supply you with food, which you need in order to live. A few hundred years ago – unless you were entirely self-sufficient from your personal farm – knowing who they were and what they offered was quite important if you didn’t want to be malnourished and starving. Even now, their well-being is essential for them to do their job in society, which in turn is essential for you to maintain your well-being. Even if you are motivated exclusively by personal gains, making sure that these people are doing well should still be important to you.
I focused on things that perish quickly, because they are most likely to come from a place nearby. The issue extends to everything and everyone, though, no matter how far. It’s just that (hopefully) the things you depend on the most – water, electricity, major staples of your diet – come from nearby, not from far away, so the focus on locality remains valid.
This knowledge of producers, important in theory, is not something we really pay attention to, in part because it’s something we have to inquire on our own, not something that’s suggested to us. What is suggested, is to focus on the product. It doesn’t matter what something took to make, who made it or how, what matters is that it’s there, it’s available, and you can get however much you want as long as you have the money. The issue of producers is seldom brought up, and when it is, it’s usually for marketing purposes. I never cared about how sponges are made, nor was it ever shown to me. Obviously, someone somewhere makes it somehow, but the only thing I can be certain of is that it appears in the supermarket and I pick it up if I want it. Other things do generate some questions about how they’re produced, for example dairy. Because we don’t have personal experience with farmers, however, we become vulnerable to romanticism. We get fed the idea that milk comes from happy cows grazing on lush grass, and the farmer is always smiling and pats their cows frequently. Bread has happy farmers lightly caressing bits of wheat to inspect it, it grows in rustic ovens and it always comes out perfectly golden and crisp. Even if we suspect that this idealized world isn’t real, the real world remains a mystery to most people.
When I talk about the well-being of producers, I don’t mean individual, psychological well-being. It’s not about making sure they have access to psychologists or health services (those should be available to everyone, regardless of what they do for us). What I’m talking about is primarily economic well-being. When someone sells me a product, they don’t do so in order to fulfill their basic needs, but to get money that they can spend on their needs, basic or not – hence the focus on economic well-being. Being aware of producers is key to being aware of whether or not their economic needs are being met. Just like advertising can warp our perception of production, marketing slogans and cherry-picked statistics can warp our idea of how the people are being treated. Alternatively, in especially egregious cases, the company may choose to never bring up production, so that people don’t even get to think “Is that actually true?”, with good examples of that being clothing and electronics manufacturers. By putting the people making our products out of sight and out of mind, we become ignorant of the issues that they might be facing, and complicit in their exploitation if such a thing occurs (it often does). When buying furniture, do you ever consider who cut down the wood, if it’s wooden, or who painted it, who designed it, who delivered it from the factory to the store? Or do you only care about price, durability, and whether you like the way it looks? The longer and more opaque the supply chain, the more places there are for corporate greed to cut in and lead to exploitation or even human rights abuses.
This removal of people from the way we acquire stuff also fuels consumerism and produces a sterile, boring environment. For example, imagine that someone in your city likes to knit in spare time, and through talking to them you ended up purchasing a sweater they hand-knitted. It may not be as well-crafted as a sweater from a store, and it was likely more expensive, but just by knowing who made it, where and how, it acquires some sentimental value and a story beyond its pure utility. It gives them long-lasting appeal beyond the initial novelty factor, which discourages you from throwing them out and replacing them with new and shiny baubles, which fills your home with memories and a personality.
This affects not only long-lasting things, but also perishable produce. Supermarkets throw out thousands of tonnes of food every year, not because it’s rotten or bad, but because it’s not perfect, and perfect alternatives are available. A loaf of bread baked two days ago can still be eaten for a whole week, but who’d buy it if there are fresher loaves available? Who’d buy a banana with black spots, if there are beautiful, yellow ones right beside it? If you’ve ever grown your own crops, you’ll know that, once you’re made aware of the toil required, such imperfections suddenly become less meaningful. When replacing the good-but-slightly-flawed with flawless has tangible cost and effort associated with it, we may finally see how irrational it is.
It affects not only the environment of our homes, but of the planet as a whole. If all the things we buy were sourced locally, few people would deny climate change, with their landscapes being filled with factories and smoke and polluted waters. But with distance to the producers and production sites, the effects of the production can feel similarly alien. A person living in France, for example, might not care much about sea levels rising and sinking a bit of land in the Philippines, because they don’t realize just how much their lifestyle, whether directly or indirectly, is dependant on countries like the Philippines. Modern, international trade outsources not just production, but all the dirt and pollution associated with it, too.
Besides the nasties, you know what else gets lost along the way? Human connections. Reading a book feels quite different when done at the library or a park bench, instead of at home. Eating a meal is a wholly different experience when done at a restaurant (I don’t mean a fast-food chain), as opposed to buying it in a store and taking it home. A huge reason for the different feeling is that we get to see other people and interact with them. Not every connection has to be deep and personal, you don’t have to be good friends with someone to benefit from having them around. Having idle chit-chat with the librarian, or hearing suggestions and opinions on the food from a waiter/waitress is beneficial for the human psyche, as is the process of getting to the place where the interaction happens. Focusing on local endeavours means replacing the current scheme, where the outside world consists of select few places where one can acquire things to consume. When you shop locally, there’s rarely the possibility of just going online and getting what you want. Many establishments lack any sort of internet presence (beyond a barren Facebook page), so if you want to know what shops, institutions and services there are and what they offer, you have to go out, traverse the city, look around, talk to others. It helps you be aware of the place you live.
This awareness is especially important for immigrants. Because there is such a wide variety of country-wide or international stores and services, immigrants have little incentive to get invested in the local culture, which in turn hinders their language and networking skills, perpetuating inequality. How can an immigrant become a “productive and active member of the community”, if they can get perfectly well throughout their life without even knowing that a community exists, and have little incentive to do otherwise?
Immigrants are not the only ones who benefit, though. When local businesses (including family-owned estates) see less and less traction, they may become dependent on larger corporations for support. Vacated buildings may also be repurposed by said larger corporations. When that happens, the variety of products available decreases, and regional diversity and identity suffers. Traditional restaurants are replaced with McDonald’s, offering the same food across the world; locally-inspired woodworkers and craftsmen get replaced by IKEA, offering the same furniture across the world; individual clothes makers and seamstresses go under in place of H&M, offering the same fast-fashion wherever you go; home-grown fruits and vegetables of farmers’ markets get replaced with supermarkets, letting you support banana republics no matter where you live. Having a bit of international presence is all well and good, but what’s the point of tourism and travel if two cities in two different companies, on two different continents 8000 km away are just slightly different paint-jobs on the same few corporate giants?
Avoiding corporate giants not only promotes regional variety, but also entrepreneurship and the marketplace of ideas. As the viability of small, local businesses decreases due to lessening demand, there are fewer chances of a great idea breaking through and realising its potential, without first having to climb the corporate ladder. When giants like Amazon are big enough, they can effectively steal good ideas from individuals due to having such large control of the market, forcing them to either do their bidding or perish. From the “American dream” of entrepreneurial power, to – also inspired by the United States – corporate neo-feudalism and high-tech slavery.
Although I focus here on goods, it’s also important to have non-monetary interactions. After all, human interactions would be shallow if they happened only because of money. Local meetings and councils, discussion groups and activity centres can build relationships, stave off loneliness and depression, and give a feeling of greater influence over your life. It also lets appreciate people as people, not as simply providers of stuff.
The modern way of life in many affluent countries is unsustainable, and leads to many “civilizational diseases”. People who’ve chosen to live off-the-grid, which shares many traits with this local focus that I preach here, typically have vastly reduced environmental footprints and typically a slower – for many, more pleasant – way of life. But going off-grid is not for everyone, and it can’t be for everyone, as there simply aren’t enough resources or space to accommodate every human having their own little patch of earth. Besides, even off-gridders rely to some extent on their neighbours and friends. So a more sustainable and realistic lifestyle lies somewhere in the middle. Instead of throwing everyone in a metropolis, or telling them to go live in a shack in the woods, we should be local. Instead of connecting everyone to everyone else at random across the globe, let’s create local networks, and then connect these networks to each other.