As some worry about globalization, many New
Englanders work to build local economies.
Despite all the years of hype, it seems that bigger might not be better
after all. At least that’s what a growing number of New Englanders think
when it comes to the global economy. Instead, they’re building
sustainable local economies in communities throughout the region.
“A local sustainable community is one that is working toward being more
self-reliant in all the building block sectors — food, energy,
manufacturing, retail, services and building,” said Chris Morrow from
Manchester Center, Vermont. Chris is one of the organizers of
Local First Vermont.
The Local First movement is catching on in pockets all over the globe,
but the New England mindset is particularly aligned with this way of
Bill McKibben is an
activist, author and a resident scholar at Middlebury College in
Vermont. His latest book
the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
takes a critical look at the “economic mantra of perpetual growth” and
uncovers the inspiring possibilities and the success of locally
sustainable communities around the world. He believes that scale is one
of the big reasons that New England folks are so open to this new/old
“We've got a lot of relatively small towns, not far removed from each
other, which have built up long traditions of community. Across much of
New England, town meeting is still operational, which I think provides a
real base for thinking locally,” said McKibben.
There are at least 12 Local First communities in the region. Most of
them are members of a national network,
Business Alliance for Local Living
Economies (BALLE). BALLE has 65 local networks across
North America. According to their website, “BALLE brings together small
business leaders, economic development professionals, government
officials, social innovators and community leaders to build local living
BALLE members believe in the power of local businesses to transform
communities for the better by working cooperatively toward a shared
vision. They imagine cities and towns of every size and political stripe
engaged in shared learning to build community assets like sustainable
agriculture, green building, renewable energy, community capital,
zero-waste manufacturing and independent retail. They envision a time
when local economies not only generate community wealth, but also are
catalysts for civic action, social diversity and ecological health.
Pioneer Valley Local First
(PV Local First) in western Massachusetts was one of the founding
members of BALLE. The volunteer-run organization has been encouraging
people in their region to think Local First since 2001.
“Shopping locally is one of the best ways to stabilize and sustainably
grow our economy in western Massachusetts,” said Dan Finn, PV Local
First spokesperson. “A study in west Michigan found that if people there
could shop locally 10 percent more often, it would keep an extra $53
million in their community.” That could happen in western Massachusetts
too, he noted.
“When you support the people who own businesses and live locally, it
turns out that much more of your dollar stays in the community and
re-circulates there,” Karen Marzloff said. She is the coordinator for
Seacoast Local in
Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They are part of a coalition of New England
businesses, citizens and government agencies who are promoting the
10 Percent Shift as a
means of making people aware that spending locally could make a big
difference in their communities.
According to Local First Vermont website, a 2003 case study of Midcoast
Maine verified that the money spent locally stays local. Eight locally
owned businesses were examined. The survey found that the businesses
spent 44.6 percent of their revenue within the surrounding two counties.
Another 8.7 percent was spent elsewhere in the state of Maine.
“Spending money locally has a multiplier effect as that money circulates
many times in the community,” Morrow said.
Pioneer Valley Local First is currently working on valley-wide print
directory of local businesses to connect people, promote commerce and
educate everyone. “The directory will have a lot of good consumer
information on the benefits of shopping locally, sustainability, fair
trade and local farms,” Finn said.
In addition to reinvesting money into the community, local economies
leave a much smaller carbon footprint than the bigger institutions of
the global economy. Mega-retailers contribute to air pollution, acid
rain and global warming. Their gigantic buildings add to the overall
sprawl that threatens forests, lakes, rivers and the other creatures who
inhabit the Earth. “The number of retail square feet per capita in this
country doubled between 1990 and 2005 with the rise of big box stores,
but spending only rose 14 percent,” Marzloff said. “So we’ve doubled the
amount of paved and built area for shopping even though we’re not
actually spending more money proportionally.”
In Deep Economy, McKibben argues that the Earth cannot withstand our
current economic model. Thinking local just may be the only way we have
to avoid or at least survive the ever increasing likelihood of global
catastrophe. Climate changes or the even the continuing or worsening of
economic conditions could lead to the disruption of the global food
assembly line. This would mean that many and probably most people in the
United States would only be a few days food supply away from hunger.
“Sustainable Local Economies can let us get what we need — food, energy,
culture — with lower impact on the planet,” McKibben said. “And they can
build the strong communities that will help us survive that which we can
no longer prevent. The kinds of communities they nurture are
psychologically far healthier than transient suburbia.”
One of the cornerstones of good health is balance. Communities large and
small have to take into account the needs of human beings and the
Earth’s resources. Finding a balance between economic gain and
ecological cost is essential for a sustainable society. A healthy planet
and a productive economy are not a contradiction. In fact at root they
are more or less the same.
“The words ecology and economy share the same root, “eco,” which means
home,” Finn said. “I’ve said this to my business-hating environmental
friends, and they get more of an appreciation for the role of business,
and I’ve said this to more business minded people, and it helps them to
see it’s not just about making money. We want clean air. We want clean
water. We want a world that is beautiful and that is going to provide
for us now and into the future.”
“Local sustainable economies can help build resilience over the long
term,” Morrow added. “Trade is fine, but we need to do it from a
position of strength. The more self-sufficient we are, the stronger our
communities are and the better our quality of life.”
Many economists, politicians and corporate tycoons would have us believe
that our quality of life is proportional to our purchasing power, but
research suggests that is only true for people who are climbing out of
dire poverty. Once someone gets to be plain old poor, more money has no
significant effect on happiness. But good relationships — economic and
social — and supportive communities can make a big difference in how
people feel about their lives.
There is room for everyone to participate in building sustainable local
BALLE website has
information on how individual businesses can join existing BALLE
networks or how a group of businesses can start a network in their area.
But anyone can help out.
“Support local businesses,” Morrow said. “Get involved in organizations
that are pursuing these goals. Join a
CSA (Community Supported
Agriculture). Petition the government to support policies
oriented towards local self-reliance.”
Although they are pushing up against a mighty weight, sustainable local
economies offer a diverse and vibrant alternative to the monolith called
globalization. It isn’t easy — worthwhile endeavors rarely are. But like
the old adage says, sometimes the best way to move a mountain is one
shovel at a time. A good start is to begin to look at not just where we
spend our money, but also how we spend it and what we are buying.
P.B. Fahy is a contributing editor for