For a lot of us, the connections between a warming world and our local economy are becoming more and more disturbingly apparent. I hear the sap runs were so low that many maple syrup makers needed 90 gallons of sap to sugar out one gallon of syrup this year. Those climate changed summer days in March really had local costs.
As the planet heats up, it also seems to be getting more complex, interrelated, and more than a bit scary. Big challenges like climate change, globalization and the constant barrage of negative national news can make it feel as if more and more control is being taken away from us, both as individuals and in our communities. Our cars, our food, our furniture, our computer equipment are all imported — if not from foreign countries, then from other North American regions that are increasingly environmentally and economically fragile.
It’s no wonder that many people I talk to are wondering if there is some way to begin simplifying things while bringing control back to a human scale. One path towards such a more manageable future can be is found in the whole concept of localization – that is, creating and maintaining a local economy that is much more resilient and self-generating than the current global one on which we depend.
As this conversation on the future of the Vermont’s economy and organizations expand, a wise direction of our future must include a move towards localization. We are going to need to adapt to a future in which the costs for our past 70 years of living beyond our means are rapidly coming due. Localization of our production and resources could help reverse this damage. However, such a move will require some sacrifice, but it will allow for a more manageable and healthier future.
Yes, we are a small state with few resources, and yes we are currently dependent on large industrial scale producers for our needs. However, we have always been inventive, self reliant and community minded.. This means that Localism is not a new way of thinking for Vermonters. Traditionally, our state — with its town meetings and self reliant agrarian culture – has represented very attractive values – the same ones that inspired to the “back to the land” movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Many those young immigrants to Vermont had been deeply influenced by the seminal thinkers such as E.F Schumacher (“Small is Beautiful”), the poet Wendell Berry and Kirkpatrick Sale (“Human Scale”). Their core belief was that by re-localizing our governmental, food, and economic relationships, our ability to respond to the burgeoning social, economic, and environmental problems could be more humane, manageable and affordable.
While there is a certain romantic and a strong environmental appeal to this movement, practicing it today would be more demanding, when it comes to changing our current expectations and lifestyles. Today, there are still many inheritors of that vision who are aligned with such Green concepts as Think Globally, Act Locally
Such values are deeply ingrained in many Vermonters still, potentially laying the groundwork for a whole localist direction in defining What Comes Next in our state. Localization offers a ways of being, which doesn’t demand new technologies or big systems to operate. Such a choice should inform a different direction for the proposed New Climate Economy by including adaptation to a future, disrupted by the climate and economic dislocations already baked in the cake.
While there is a certain romantic and a strong environmental appeal to this movement, in actual practice it will initially be quite demanding of change in our current expectations and lifestyles. It’s hard to get our heads around what could actually constitute local, and still allow us to continue our current level of consumption. Perhaps not much. Recycling takes on a whole new meaning as we decide what stuff we now have, can we keep working without replacement. The Covid crisis already has many folks cleaning out their lives and laying the groundwork for a sharing economy. Could a more local economy allow us to slow down more than a bit, live closer to nature and shift some of our entertainment to local arts, music and celebration culture? Can we nurture a sharing economy in which people give away what is not needed while learning how to keep other things repaired. You know, like the Vermont farmers of 50 years ago?
We don’t need to give up technology, but we need to know how to rigorously manage it so that it improves our lives rather than controls them. That is part of what “Act Locally” has always meant. Right now, localizing makes a lot of sense, because it will help cushion us from many predictable, oncoming crises, while bringing us together. Imagining what ways we can take better care of ourselves, while importing a lot less, can provide an empowering frame for looking at our future decisions.
Dan Jones is the executive director of Sustainable Montpelier Coalition.