Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A romance story

A new year is here and the advice I recently received for the coming year was "romance the details as you revel in the big picture". This may be important because I've been toying with the "big picture" idea about how to make the making of everyday things more important and relevant for our everyday lives.

Is it even possible in your local area to acquire all your everyday items from a local producer? I've been wondering a lot about this lately. For me the question started with food and expanded to the other items I use on a regular basis. Food is a really good place to start though, because it's incredibly important that communities can feed themselves. I lived in Seattle during the 9/11 attacks and had small taste for how quickly the shelves of the grocery store become depleted when air traffic is completely grounded for a few days (and it wasn't pretty). That was a short-term problem, but what if it wasn't? Where would your community get their food in a long term crisis? Where would you get your 'stuff'? [Note: Here in Nova Scotia the amount of locally produced food on our communal tables is somewhere around 13%. That's a long way from food security for a province dominated by a rural landscape and with a strong agricultural history... what do you think happened???]

But that's really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to locally-produced goods. A dollar spent at your local pottery, textile producer or farmer's market will bring a lot more prosperity to your community than one spent at the big box store. Those dollars that get passed around the community increase everyone's well-being. A portion of the dollar spent in my pottery studio will go to a local carpenter to help with repairs to my space, then move on to perhaps the massage therapist, to the local mechanic, to the farmer and so on. When those dollars leave the community through stores like Walmart, they only thing left is minimum wage jobs without benefits. The rest lines the pockets on multi-national corporations. And those multi-national corporations are so powerful now that they direct government policy and even have a HUGE influence on how 'good' government policy gets enacted (i.e. climate change commitments come to mind, but I have lots  more I could share). And, at least here in Canada, these companies are frequently given the latitude to police their own activity!... all under the guise that they provide important socio-economic benefits for our society and that our well-being is in the best interest of these companies... but, think about it... is that really where the socio-economic value in your community comes from? Can you envision a different reality? What if the socio-economic strength in your community came from a breadth and depth of talent and diversity and self-sufficiency?

I'm romanced by a modern twist on what I imagine life was like before the extensive high-speed road systems that cover the modern landscape and before air transport became a normal way to move goods around. Each community with their farmers, coopers, blacksmiths, educators, doctors, hunters, tailors, textile manufactures, lumber mills, potteries and so on. How did they really work? Can a community really support itself? Economists keep telling me "no"... but they haven't convinced me. They seem to be hung up on 'volume'. But, at the heart of the 'volume' argument is the assumption that you, dear consumer, will only pay the lowest price for your 'stuff'. To get the lowest price it needs to be mass-produced, efficiently at a low cost (read offshore where wages are meager and environmental issues are over-looked). We (the tax-payers) then subsidize this by off-setting the transportation costs to move the stuff around. Do you really think it's possible to make a coffee cup in China and ship it to your community in a bunch of packing material and sell it for $2? You may only pay $2 plus tax at the counter, but we have paid (not just figuratively, but literally in real tax dollars) much more to make this possible. The price you see is an illusion, a slight of hand.

Is it possible to change this reality? Can a community take back the production of it's "stuff" and would it make us more prosperous? If you have some personal experience with this, I'd love to hear from you.