Monday, May 25, 2009

David Hess' "Localist Movements in a Global Economy"

David J. Hess is Professor of Science and Technology Studies and Director of the Program in Ecological Economics, Values, and Policy at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He is the author of Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry (MIT Press, 2007) and many other books.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Localist Movements in a Global Economy: Sustainability, Justice, and Urban Development in the United States (MIT Press), and reported the following:
Page 99, perhaps fortunately, has a summary section on it. Here I discuss the issue of “justice” in the title and some arguments that have been raised against localism. But first, let me give a little bit of context.

By “localist movements” I refer to grassroots efforts to build greater local ownership and control over the regional economy. Examples that I discuss in the book include the “buy local” movement of local businesses, the local food and community gardening movement, community media, expanded public transportation, the reuse sector, and publicly controlled or owned electricity. Much of the motivation for the movements is that the quality of life has not been improved by the growing corporate control of the economy, whether it is big-box retail, factory farms, or media conglomerates.

In the book I explore how efforts to rebuild local economic control are related to questions of sustainability and economic fairness. To answer that question, I traveled around the country and visited organizations where there was some evidence that local control and ownership could be brought into alignment with sustainability and fairness goals. Examples included community gardens, reuse stores, public power agencies known for their green electricity, and public transportation organizations that were greening their fuels. I also became heavily involved in those efforts in the region where I live: New York’s Capital District.

Some people are skeptical about localism, and on page 99 I summarize one set of their arguments. One of the central arguments is that localism tends to be a middle-class phenomenon. Somewhat like the “buy organic” phenomenon, the idea of shifting some of your purchasing to locally owned and independent businesses may seem like a luxury that the poor cannot afford. In the section following page 99, I look at these arguments and conclude that although they present risks to advocates of localism, there are many examples where cross-class coalitions are being built. To begin, the “buy local” movement supports locally owned and independent businesses, which are often small, mom-and-pop shops that contribute a great deal to the quality of life in the community. Some of the stores are located in low-income neighborhoods, and when the “buy local” idea is extended to the “bank local” idea, then we find some very interesting patterns of investment occurring from community banks, loan funds, and credit unions.

I also point to studies that indicate that although goods are not always cheaper in the local sector, they are less expensive more often than the big-box advertising would have us believe. Plus, service is often better, and the quality of merchandise is superior. For example, produce sold at farmers’ markets is often cheaper than comparable produce sold in supermarket chains, and you can ask the farmers (who aren’t certified as organic) if they spray the food with pesticides. Likewise, in the reuse sector—second-hand stores that include clothing all the way to home supply stores—prices and quality are often superior even to new objects in the discount chains. Furthermore, by keeping your money in the community, the local economy benefits from the recirculation of money in the local economy. At the same time there can be environmental benefits from buying local food and reusing goods.

So that’s the general terrain that I look at in this book. When I started writing it, I didn’t see the great recession coming, but I think this book is an example of how we can start to think about rebuilding the real economy and exiting from the casino economy of financial speculation.
Read excerpts from Localist Movements in a Global Economy, and learn more about the book at the MIT Press website.

Visit David J. Hess' website.

--Marshal Zeringue