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Monday, September 15, 2008

Localism

In the last few days it seems like the news is more ominous than ever before. Hurricane Ike came to Galveston Texas and continued up through Louisville and beyond. In Ike’s wake are over two million homes without electric power in Texas and Louisiana. Today’s Courier-Journal says that 275,000 homes and businesses are without power in the greater Louisville area. Our supply of oil, gasoline, and natural gas has been destabilized and crippled as well and it only took a few hours for the impact to be felt right here in Glasgow. At the same time, our currency is being threatened by the failure of massive investment banks like Lehman Brothers, and let’s not forget the dramatic effect that TVA’s electric rate increase (which takes effect October 1) will have when it takes another $4 million per year out of our local economy right here in Glasgow.

No matter how you look at it, no matter what your political leaning, one thing is certain; we can no longer count on our state or federal governments to protect us and care for us. Over the last several years, the government institutions that we counted upon to regulate, and protect us from raging greed, have become best friends with those they were supposed to tame. It is happening in Washington and it is happening in Frankfort. As a result, no one is really looking out for us anymore. It seems that the forces of greed overwhelmed our government's ability to look after us. So, let’s do it ourselves! If we want safety, security, and the comfort that comes from a stable local economy and low crime rates, it is becoming more clear every day that we are going to have to take care of ourselves. There is a philosophy that we need to embrace and pursue and that philosophy has a name . . . localism.

While not simple to define, my definition of localism is the desire to make the place where we live better by reinforcing our local economy. We can do that a lot of different ways, including: identifying, and bending over backwards to patronize, locally owned businesses, encouraging local entrepreneurs and the jobs they can create, identifying holes where money leaks out of our local economy through the purchase of goods and services from non-locally owned businesses, focusing tax dollars on the provision of infrastructure that is needed to support local businesses and a durable local economy, and so forth. All of these ideas, and many more, are at the very center of the EPB’s mission and you will be hearing a lot more in the future about our efforts to support and encourage localism, but here are a few initial ideas.

There is an ocean of information on the web about the concept of localism and why we are actually paying ourselves when we purchase goods from a locally owned business. One such web site, local harvest, has an outstanding narrative about the virtues of buying locally:

Most produce in the US is picked 4 to 7 days before being placed on supermarket shelves, and is shipped for an average of 1500 miles before being sold. And this is when taking into account only US grown products! Those distances are substantially longer when we take into consideration produce imported from Mexico, Asia, Canada, South America, and other places.

We can only afford to do this now because of the artificially low energy prices that we currently enjoy, and by externalizing the environmental costs of such a wasteful food system. We do this also to the detriment of small farmers by subsidizing large scale, agribusiness-oriented agriculture with government handouts and artificially cheap energy.

Cheap oil will not last forever though. World oil production has already peaked, according to some estimates, and while demand for energy continues to grow, supply will soon start dwindling, sending the price of energy through the roof. We'll be forced then to reevaluate our food systems and place more emphasis on energy efficient agricultural methods, like smaller-scale organic agriculture, and on local production wherever possible.

Cheap energy and agricultural subsidies facilitate a type of agriculture that is destroying and polluting our soils and water, weakening our communities, and concentrating wealth and power into a few hands. It is also threatening the security of our food systems, as demonstrated by the continued e-Coli, GMO-contamination, and other health scares that are often seen nowadays on the news.

These large-scale, agribusiness-oriented food systems are bound to fail on the long term, sunk by their own unsustainability. But why wait until we're forced by circumstance to abandon our destructive patterns of consumption? We can start now by buying locally grown food whenever possible. By doing so you'll be helping preserve the environment, and you'll be strengthening your community by investing your food dollar close to home. Only 18 cents of every dollar, when buying at a large supermarket, go to the grower. 82 cents go to various unnecessary middlemen. Cut them out of the picture and buy your food directly from your local farmer.

Even though the newspapers and television bring us tidal waves of bad news about our economy and our future, Glasgow is not helpless and totally dependent on the global economy for our daily bread and our ongoing happiness, but we still have a lot of work to do. Our forefathers built us a great foundation for sustainability when they established a locally owned water and sewer system, electric power and broadband network, as well as wonderful parks, roads, sidewalks, and even recent additions like The Plaza Theater and the EPB’s Jama M. Young Technology Center. But even those systems are not perfect. While the EPB is locally owned, the electric power we sell is not produced locally and thus we are subject to rampant cost increases. In addition to our technological assets, we are blessed with fertile land and folks who know how to use it. They have established cattle farms, dairy farms, and abundant crops of all sorts. We have a lot of assets going for us so we don’t have to start from scratch to focus on localism. But we do have to start looking at things differently. We are surrounded by rich farm land that produces large amounts of food, dairy, and beef, but practically none of it is sold and consumed here. We have a lot of work to do to make it possible for our local food economy to flourish and become sustainable.

The localism movement can flourish if we look at today’s headlines, not with fear, but with the resolve to create solutions that will allow Glasgow to thrive in the new world we have created. As we see news reports of the devastation of Galveston (and even Louisville) we should see ourselves as similarly vulnerable. We should assume that fuel supply will be interrupted more often and that it will become ever more expensive. In such a world we need to develop more ways to fuel and feed ourselves from our local resources and farms instead of just taking what TVA has at whatever the cost and waiting at the tailgate of a truck just coming in from afar with our food. We should learn how to use our local talent and infrastructure to entertain ourselves locally without having to drive to Bowling Green, Louisville or Nashville to take in a show. We can also assume that many national banking and investment houses will fail, but we can invest locally and expect the return on our investment in both dollars and in a better life for ourselves instead of distant bank executives. Instead of giving foreign companies our tax dollars to entice them to come to Glasgow, we need to use our tax dollars to pay for the things that make it easier for local farmers to sell their products locally and create a durable and more enjoyable place for us all to live. With a sustainable local economy, those outside businesses and industries will be attracted to Glasgow because it is a great place for their employees to enjoy their lives instead of just because we are willing to pay them for coming. In the long run, sustainable development will flourish more with those incentives than it has using our old formula.

The world is giving us every reason to embrace localism right here in Glasgow. The time has come and the movement is alive. Stay tuned to this blog for more and more information about how we can make Glasgow better without constantly asking for more and more.

1 comments:

John said...

Bill:
I agree with your take on localism wholeheartedly! I was born in Kentucky, and with the exception of some early years while my dad was in the military, I have lived here in South-Central KY for 42 years (Edmonton then Glasgow). My ancestors on both sides of my family have lived within 20 miles of here for close to 200 years. My wife and her family as well for almost as many years. There is honestly no other place I would rather live. We now have a new grandson here also, so yes, there is most definitely a concern for how things may shape up over the next several years. We all definitely want a better, safer, healthier, more stable way of life for our children and grandchildren and so we really cannot afford to disregard the signs or take a 'wait-and-see' attitude when it comes to taking the proper steps to build a healthy social/cultural/economic environment here locally. In addition to owning a local business, I have always tried my best to be a local consumer as well, frequenting as often as possible other locally owned businesses. The local farmer's markets are certainly a wonderful resource as well, (too bad the season is almost gone). Admittedly, there are occasions out there where one, myself included, has to shop at some corporate giant, or go out of the local area (price and product availability being two reasons for sure). Obviously people have to provide for their family within the best of their ability. However, as you have said, being proactive in taking the first steps of being aware of localism, most certainly cannot hurt us, and in the long term, will most assuredly bring a stronger, better prepared local environment. And the practice of 'keeping local dollars local' is something all of us here in Glasgow/Barren County can do as a legitimate first step toward that end. Thanks for the opportunity to voice my comments here, and please do keep 'rattling the cage' and helping make us aware of what we can do to help ourselves here at home.

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