Building Prosperous Regional Economies that Serve All
America’s rural and urban communities are tragically divided by anger and misunderstanding. It hasn’t always been that way. There was a time not so long ago when urban and rural communities co-created regional economies built on mutual respect and trust. Farms and cities were connected by local supply chains that carried basic needs to market, building self-reliance for the whole region. Main Streets bustled with activity where local retailers gave their towns and cities unique character and identity. Prosperity and even survival depended on strong partnerships between rural and urban communities.
Corporate globalization changed all that. Local supply chains were severed, ending the interdependent urban-rural relationships that once bound regions together. Around the globe, communities lost self-reliance and become dependent on corporate controlled long distance supply chains to deliver the basic needs of food, clothing, building materials and energy. Imported products made with cheap foreign labor replaced locally made products and the workers who once took pride in producing the goods their regions needed. Community life where the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker were friends and neighbors became a distant memory.
In rural areas, diversified family farms that once feed their regions were gobbled up by corporate agribusiness and encroaching developers. Malls and sprawling housing developments were built over the fertile soil surrounding our cities. Farmlands were consolidated into intensely cruel and noxious animal factories that are poisoning our water, soil and air, and accelerating climate change with their emissions and demand for industrially produced grains. Vast plantations of pesticide-laced mono-crops tended by machines are producing foods destined for distant markets, creating food desserts right in the heartland, while exhausting the soil, destroying wildlife habitat and emptying rural communities. An unholy alliance between the monopolistic giants of industrial agriculture and federal regulators and lawmakers has put money and influence above building a healthy, just and sustainable food system that Americans can rely on.
Though the promise of globalization was to improve living standards for all, it has made billionaires of a few, while devastating America’s rural and urban middle class. For the first time since World War II, the new generation is faring worse than their parents did at the same age. Corporate dominated globalization has sucked capital from our communities, concentrating wealth, while abandoning family farms and shuttering our factories and the local shops on Main Street. The recent opioid epidemic has hit hardest in rural communities and the former industrial neighborhoods of our cities, exactly the communities that globalization has left in despair. While the US remains the wealthiest nation in history, studies show that our citizens are less prosperous, less healthy, and less happy than our counterparts in other countries.
Underlying these economic transitions is a shift in our value system. In today’s consumer culture, we’ve been conditioned to feel a fool not to get the lowest price when we buy, the highest profits when we sell, and the highest return when we invest, without a thought to the impact on workers, our communities and our natural environment. Our society measures success by money and material goods – how large our houses, how wide our wardrobes, how big our bank accounts. Materialism teaches us to spend without thinking, yet there are consequences to our everyday economic decisions that cumulatively build an economic system that shapes the very world we live in. By perpetuating a system driven by maximizing profit – one that values money over life itself – our legacy will be a bankrupt world on a dying planet, where humans and most other species are driven to extinction by our own greed.
Fifty years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, called for a “revolution of values” in order to “shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” Now is the time for that revolution! It will happen when we arrive at the moment of truth in which we, as individuals and as a society, move our priorities from the continuous gratification and convenience of our habitual consumer lifestyles to doing what is necessary to leave a viable future for our grandchildren. We can begin by making our economic decisions – buying, selling, investing – not to maximize profits and material gain, but to maximize the well-being of our communities and eco-systems, while receiving a fair return. If we succeed, it will be because humans at last have found our rightful place in the community of life, no longer as exploiters. but as lovers and protectors of life.
Here in my state of Pennsylvania, as in many states, the local food movement is well underway, and offers a successful model of decentralization and community empowerment that can be applied to emerging industries, such as renewable energy, recycling, industrial hemp, and plant medicine. The local food movement has rebuilt local supply chains, saving many a family farm while bringing fresh, healthy food to city dwellers. Demand for organic and humanely raised food has encouraged local farmers and ranchers to employ ecologically restorative practices that reduce pollutants and build healthy soil that not only produces nutrient-rich food, but also sequesters carbon, and resists both drought and flooding. Highways connecting local farms to urban communities are humming with the transport of fresh local produce to a plethora of farm-to-table restaurants, burgeoning food enterprises, and farmers markets. Local supply chains bringing grass-fed beef, locally milled grains, and milk from pasture-raised dairy cows are supplying a new generation of butchers, bakers and ice cream makers.
Young entrepreneurs and artisans are attracted to the growing makers movement, producing glassware, furniture, textiles, fashions, and botanical soaps, lotions and medicines. The recent legalization of hemp, after 80 years of prohibition, now provides new opportunity for our local farmers and entrepreneurs to produce the many products made from this versatile plant – food, medicine, textiles, building materials such as hempcrete, and much needed plastic substitutes. The promise of dirt-to-shirt hemp supply chains could boost local fiber processing and clothing manufacturing in our towns and cities. Along with its cousin, marijuana, hemp is helping to build a locally based medicinal herb economy, replacing addictive pharmaceuticals that have put profits over the well being of patients.
Renewable energy produced by wind turbines and industrial arrays of solar panels is flowing from rural areas to towns and cities throughout the region, augmented by further energy decentralization through rooftop solar and geothermal wells. In the state that birthed the world’s first oil well, Pennsylvania can once again be an energy leader in the global transition to renewable energy that will some day replace the coal, oil, and gas that once powered our state, while providing meaningful jobs and supporting a healthy environment.
Rather than burning carbons on long distant flights and enriching faraway resorts, local tourism provides the opportunity to spend our travel dollars on the Main Streets of our towns and cities, connecting with our neighbors and exploring the natural beauty of our state.
To reimagine self-reliant regional economies is not about nostalgia for a time long gone; it’s about our very survival. Climate change brings urgency. Not only do local economies reduce the carbons of long distance shipping, but they also decrease our dependency on global supply chains easily disrupted by chaotic weather and social upheaval. Building local self-reliance in basic needs is preparing our communities to withstand climate change. While doing so, we can insure that marginalized communities find a way to participate in the new economy, so that we can all benefit from everyone’s unique contribution.
The resilience of local economies may well determine the survival of tomorrow’s children. There is no time to waste. Lets start today in our own communities to build the new locally-based economy that works for all, and nature, too.