In It Together
Despite the apparently overwhelming dominance of the industrialized food system, McKibben sees strong evidence of a steady drive toward localism in American farming and consumption habits. He cites the spread of farmers markets and community-supported agriculture as evidence for the power of the local economic idea. Despite little or no support at the level of national public policy, farmers markets have multiplied over the past 30 years, so that there are now 3,700 in the United States. In a suggestive detail, McKibben reports that sociologists have found that consumers have 10 times the number of conversations at farmers markets as they do at supermarkets.
McKibben describes other efforts to create “human-scale” economic relationships, including efforts to create a local currency now underway in Burlington, Vt., a community-owned clothing store in Powell, Wyo., and local energy producers from Colorado to Massachusetts. He describes how a locally owned radio station in Vermont, WDEV, plays a central role in binding its community together. He reports on the move away from industrialized food production in both the industrialized West and in the developing world. He explains how Cuban agriculture shifted, out of necessity, to a low-energy, local model in the early 1990s in the wake of the cut-off of Soviet subsidized oil and a Soviet market for sugar. While McKibben says Cuba’s new agricultural system is working well, he holds no brief for the Cuban political system.
Energy prices remain the Achilles heel of industrial food production, as industrial efficiency and low food prices depend on high inputs of cheap oil and natural gas. Small local producers can produce more food from an acre of land than industrial agriculture can but require much more human labor. The elimination of human labor and the substitution of fossil fuels in agriculture have had negative consequences for communities as well as for the environment.
Citing evidence from several studies, McKibben makes the case that we are demonstrably healthier and happier in community. He argues that the erosion of community has coincided with an estimated 10-fold increase in the incidence of depression during the twentieth century in the United States, according to a 1985 study. The glorification of individualism has been accompanied by growing economic and social inequality and a disconnection of the wealthy from any community other than the rich. McKibben tells a story about Bentonville, Ark., home-base of the Wal-Mart empire. The community could not afford a sewer system despite the $90-billion personal fortune of the Walton family, who ostensibly lived in Bentonville.
In a passage that speaks directly to community development, McKibben points out that while communitarians, social conservatives, and progressives have stressed the importance of community, their perspective has been primarily moral and sometimes takes on an almost magical or mystical character. He writes, “But it is our economic lives, even more than our moral choices, that play the crucial role in wrecking or rebuilding communities. We need to once again depend on those around us for something real. If we do, then the bonds that make for human satisfaction, as opposed to endless growth, will begin to reemerge.” McKibben emphasizes the importance of the economy in building or destroying community in contrast to the emphasis that sociologist Robert Putnam places on the role of voluntary organizations in his book Bowling Alone and in other work.
Community is built out of both the social capital of voluntary association that Robert Putnam documents but also out of the economic relationships that exist in a community with a local economy. McKibben believes that a social structure where people know their neighbors creates a society where greed will be tempered by the social ties of community. He asserts that today’s “hyper-individualist” capitalist society is not something that Adam Smith, who believed that market forces would be tempered by social forces, would recognize. The current subprime mortgage debacle is a graphic illustration of how dysfunctional the market can be in meeting the needs of community. The distance between the hedge-fund investor and the low-income borrower in an urban neighborhood allows the hedge-fund investor to escape accountability for the consequences of his actions.
Bob Van Meter has served as executive director of the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation in Boston since 1993. He has been a community organizer and community developer since 1979.