While you may want to stretch your legs after months of lockdown, keeping some new, pandemic-inspired aspects of living a more locally centered life (and even deepening them collectively) will be needed to combat systemic challenges like climate change and extreme wealth inequality.
On February 23rd Shareable hosted a discussion about local living and the future of local economies after COVID-19. Listen to the audio recording and/or read the transcript below.
Shareable’s Neal Gorenflo kicks things off by briefly sharing some of the lessons he learned from a just-concluded, year-long life experiment in local living. This is the starting point for a higher-level discussion with Stacy Mitchell, executive director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and futurist Jose Ramos, director of Action Foresight.
The hour-long recording explores the opportunities (and structural barriers) to live a more local, civically engaged, and sustainable way of life, within the context of how COVID-19 has changed local economies.
The event also launched Shareable’s new ebook, “A Year of Living Locally,” based on Gorenflo’s year-long experiment with a foreword by Stacy Mitchell. Download a free copy of the ebook here.
Shareable is partnering with Tufts University on this special eight-session series hosted by professor Julian Agyeman (Co-chair of Shareable’s Board) and Cities@Tufts. Initially designed for Tufts students, faculty, and alumni, the colloquium has been opened up to the public with the support of Shareable and The Kresge Foundation.
Register to participate in future Cities@Tufts events here.
Below is the transcript from the session “How to go even more local after COVID-19″ with Shareable’s Executive Director Neal Gorenflo, Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in the United States and Jose Ramos, a cosmo local futurist with Action Foresight a consultancy in Australia.
Listen and subscribe to “Cities@Tufts Lectures” podcast with the app of your choice:
How to go even more local after COVID-19 (Transcript)
Neal Gorenflo: Hey everyone, welcome to Shareable’s event today, how to go even more local after Covid-19. I’m Neal Gorenflo, Executive Director of Shareable and your host for the next 75 minutes or however long you’d like to be with us. We have what we hope will be a fun and helpful program today, exploring our preferred local future after the pandemic. To start our discussion, I’ll share a few lessons learned from my one year life experiment in local living. This is something I did in 2020, and it’s the basis for Shareable’s new book, “A Year of Living Locally.” All of you will get a free copy after the event, and I hope this will be a brief part, but a good way to get into the broader discussion about localism.
Part two of the discussion, it’ll be a panel discussion with Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-reliance in the United States and Jose Ramos, a cosmo local futurist with Action Foresight, a consultancy in Australia. Really great to have them anchor part two of the discussion.
And part three will be your questions. And that’ll be about 30 minutes of the event. And at any time during the discussion, just drop your questions and we’ll collate them and get to them at the end of the discussion. And I’m super excited about this part of the discussion because there’s some serious brain power in the room, folks that have been studying, doing, advocating for local far longer than I and some that do all three at a high level. So that’s fantastic because of the size of the group today we’ll be managing the forum or Q&A part of our event through Zoom’s chat function. Again, just drop question in any time. We’ll get to it. I hope more than anything, we have fun today, foster goodwill, have some laughs. Maybe learn a thing or two from each other along the way.
With that, let’s get started. So first, know, you might be wondering why I did this one year life experiment in living local. Well, there are three main reasons. First, I felt like I needed to, you know, I, in my work and my sort of personal decision, I’m immersed in this toxic, polarizing, disorienting media environment that I felt is a kind of slowly killing me and making me a worst person along the way, you know, more anxious, less patient. With degraded powers of reflection and slightly poor executive function. Nothing dramatic, mind you, but yet noticeable and worrying. And so I wanted to try a fundamental reorientation to the more tangible things around me, my place, my town, my neighbors, things that I actually have some influence over, some control over in some ways that I can shape directly. And I also thought I can improve my quality of life by connecting with my neighbors and working with them on projects that would directly benefit us. And by becoming a much more engaged citizen at the local level. I wanted to put the pedal to the metal in these directions and see how this felt in comparison to my more mediated life work with lots of screen time.
The second reason is because for me, life experiments are a great way and a practice I’ve used in the past, having made changes in my life, helped me learn. And it’s a good way, life experiments to try some things on at a low cost before making a big commitment. And it also has helped me avoid becoming paralyzed by uncertainty, something I suffered from when I was younger. And also just getting immediate experiences is probably, for me, the best motivation to make changes. Knowledge somehow, isn’t enough for me.
And lastly, last reason is that I approach this with a lot of humility. I thought my experiment might yield some useful lessons for others. Writing about my experiment turned out to be a fantastic way to process and deepen and, even, I felt like embody what I learned this past year. And if someone gets something from my reflections from the writing, from the book that we’re putting out today that you’ll get, then that’s a big bonus, but not one I can necessarily expect or count on.
So how did my year of living locally go? So let me give you a brief overview of what actually happened. Alright, so I started out in January, 2020 by promising to explore living locally on three levels, at the personal, neighborhood, and city level. I created a laundry list of things to try in each category. It was slow going at first I took steps to open channels. Things started to chug along, but slowly. After I launched a Cool Block Neighborhood Climate Action Program and the pandemic hit in March, things really sped up. My local activity exploded. Things got a whole lot more local than I expected. And it was really a pretty good time to decide ahead of time to go local. It really was, I think, very fortunate in that way.
And in any case, my plans went out the window when the pandemic hit and my interactions with neighbors took things in unexpected yet deeply worrying directions. For instance, Cool Block program spawned multiple parallel neighborhood projects, including a major irrigation system overhaul, regular neighborhood grounds maintenance workdays. And done, you know, masked and socially distanced. Renegotiated grounds maintenance contract for our neighborhood, huge exchanges of goods and ideas facilitated by our neighborhood selection, which was an outgrowth of the Cool Block program I started in our neighborhood and also lots of pandemic related mutual aid. So multiple grocery runs for neighbors, food collections and also to deliver inside, mostly outside the neighborhood, donations of all kinds of goods. PPE drives for local hospitals and getting bikes to local frontline workers in need of transportation and more. And you know, I’ve never belonged to such an active neighborhood. My Cool Block program catalyzed this. Well, I, you know, I catalyzed this. Most of the activity was actually led by my neighbors. Once I kind of like, opened the floodgates, so to speak, right?
When things settled down a bit in the fall, I got back to that laundry list I made in January. And as I had planned, I switched from a big bank to a credit union, explored our local ecosystem and history, got involved in local elections, explored starting a library of things at a local library, tried on a local identity through civic engagement at geographic scales that was made possible in November with our U.S. presidential elections and also some involvement I had with my Sharing Cities colleagues in Seoul, South Korea. And I also continued struggling with reducing my screen time, which I went through periods of really following my guidelines and other times where just things really fell apart and I fell off the wagon.
And some activities resulted in measurable impacts. My Cool Block group reduced annual neighborhood carbon emissions by over 44,000lbs through 159 actions over six months. Then that’s what the nine households involved were able to accomplish. Our grounds work reduced water consumption by 62 percent and saved the community around twenty five thousand dollars. We were able to actually reduce the water use on our five acres here from 1.3 million gallons a year to around 700,000 gallons a year with I think more improvement to be had. And then we just — the amount of interaction, which is incredible, somewhere in the neighborhood of 5000 messages were exchanged on our neighborhood Slack channel that was set up as an outgrowth of our Cool Block program.
So this last, you know, 2020 changed me and perhaps dramatically. I’m still digesting it. One feeling stands out that I feel deeply humbled. I feel humbled by learning how much I didn’t and should know about how to be a good citizen and how much my success depended on my awesome neighbors, by the enormity of the system change that we must undertake. By others who know much more about local living, how much I love and depend on my family, and by how powerfully fate can intervene. That was kind of the feeling I got after I was done, and as I said, I’m still digesting all of that.
But, you know, one lesson did really stand out. The main lesson, the main takeaway is that it takes way, way, way more time, skill, knowledge, and perseverance to be an effective, engaged citizen at the local level than I expected. Americans only spend an average of fifteen minutes per day in public life. I committed to an hour a day and it wasn’t nearly enough. And two experiences hammered this home. I got involved in the redesign of an intersection in Mountain View that, you know, we’ve got the high speed rail coming in and we’re going to cut off traffic to the main street, Castro Street and redesign a park there. And if it sounds complicated, it was by getting engaged in this, I realized how much time and how much knowledge and thinking I had to do to be a really effective commentator on this project. I always felt like I had to have a kind of degree in urban — or Master’s degree in urban planning or something. And I even wrestled with like, what perspective am I taking this from? From a transportation environment, equity, you know.? So any case that was one of the things that was very telling experience.
And the other one was just, you know, fixing our irrigation system in our neighborhood. It was an old system from the 70s, really should be massively upgraded and reduced in size, and re-plantings done, and all of this, anyways. I had to learn, it took me months to learn enough to manage it and fix it in a way that it was working as intended. These two experiences and others were deeply humbling and sobering. Also, I realized that the kind of system change I hope for is totally out of the question, totally out of reach with this absurdly low level of focus and commitment that many people have. And that a huge encompassing change in all the ways that power is expressed will be needed to channels people’s energy into the sphere, where it’s needed to address all the big challenges that we face, climate change and wealth inequality and so forth.
An the same way that capitalism commands our time, space, attention, resources, culture, rules, etc., we, the people must do the same for our own purposes, for our own survival. And I estimated that it would take at least 20 percent of the population spending two hours a day to reach a kind of tipping point for systems change for any local community that we really need to up the civic engagement to get the kind of changes we all talk about. And I already knew this to an extent, but my experiment kind of seared this lesson into my consciousness, into my soul, and made me understand at a deeper level, to the bone really, that we civil society, are a very long way from taking control in this all encompassing way. We must up our ambitions, up our imagination, our civic imagination. We are not playing for all the marbles like the establishment is.
And so let’s, to broaden out this discussion some, let’s turn to our panelists and first have a question for both Stacy and Jose. Yeah, just talk about your work and how it relates to our topic today.
Stacy Mitchell : Yeah, So I’m the Co-Executive Director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we’re a nonprofit research and advocacy organization. We work nationally. We’re a small organization, but we work all over the country. And our focus is on how you build thriving, equitable communities. And we think one of the biggest barriers to that is concentrated corporate power. So we both fight concentrated corporate power and work on the ground with a lot of communities, on building alternative systems, on building the local businesses, the local renewable energy co-ops and all of the rest of it to be the system that we’re calling for. So we focus a lot on policy. We do a lot of research and we collaborate with organizations across the country that to move that vision.
Neal Gorenflo: Thank you, Stacy. Hey, Jose, chime in.
Jose Ramos: Cool. Great to be here. Thanks, Neal, for inviting me. And I really enjoyed listening to your story for the year. I mean, I remember we hung out early last year when I came to visit my dad, or actually the year, a little bit more than that. But you told me you’re going to do this experiment and it sounded a little bit challenging, crazy timely. It’s great to see the other end of it and to see all the learnings that you went through and experienced. And it just sounds super rich. So, yeah, really, really lovely to share this journey with you.
Jose Ramos: So the way that I sort of insert myself, I think would be in 2010, I finished the PhD in critical globalization studies really coming out of research and activity in the World Social Forum, that was sort of the counterpoint to the Davos World Economic Forum, really challenging the neoliberal global economic model and searching for alternatives, searching for ways to think about how do we create a different kind of globalization? A globalization which protects the environment, that respects human rights, that protects labor rights, and that creates the world that we want to live in instead of a world is getting trashed and moving into runaway climate change. So in that study, I began to identify different dimensions of ways that people saw the future and one of them was relocalization. I think it was in Menlo Park. At the time you had the International Forum on Globalization, people like Vandana Shiva and Helena Norbert-Hodge and Edward Goldsmith, and Gerry Mander, and many others who are writing about re-localization back in the 90s. And so they were a very important part of my research.
But those other parts of the research as well that were saying, we actually need a global community that takes care of each other. So people like David Hale and Mary Kaldor and others who are essentially talking about a concept called ‘cosmopolitanism,’ which goes back to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. So basically — and there were a lot of other discourses as well, I had met Michel Bauwens and he was talking about peer to peer, and the commons was the theme. And over that time, I just began collaborating with people like Michel and Neal and others and kind of formulating ideas. And I think that sort of came together on this concept of Cosmo Cocalism, which is essentially that we are part of this global community that needs to take care of each other, take care of our climate. We all depend on that for a mutual survival and well-being, but at the same time, we’re not going to do that if we don’t work locally and reduce all of the extremes of globalism, so to speak. All the waste and all the alienation as well. We’ve been kind of rendered apart through kind of processes of empire. So, yeah, I mean, for me, this is a critical question and critical challenge. And I think your experiences just kind of reveal so much about both the challenge and the opportunities that we have.
Neal Gorenflo: Thanks, Jose. Yeah, and I really appreciated the conversations that we had a year plus ago, and if you’re happy to see the end results, I’m doubly happy. So, Stacy, all right. So a basic question for you: why should we go local in the first place?
Stacy Mitchell : Well, the one that came to mind immediately because of kind of where we’re at with a pandemic is sort of how much I’m longing for the interaction that comes from having more of our daily commerce and our daily kind of engagement of the world rooted in relationships with other people who share the same geographic community. You know, the numbers of happenstance interactions that people have when they’re, say, shopping in a neighborhood business district, you know, running to a local hardware store, picking up food from a neighborhood grocery store, like there’s documented evidence that people are much more likely to run into people that they know, run into neighbors and have these kinds of happenstance conversations.
And that is one of the things that not only enriches our own lives, we’ve learned a lot about and have experienced, I would say in the last year, a lot about the importance of those sort of secondary relationships, relationships that are not your close friends and family, but are these sort of more acquaintance level relationships, that we haven’t really thought about really concretely, but that have a lot to do with our own personal enjoyment and well-being. That’s part of being part of a community that’s incredibly nurturing for us as individuals. But they also pay enormous dividends in terms of the civic fabric and the social fabric. We know that people who live in places where they have that kind of engagement, where the economy is more localized and there’s just more of that kind of face to face engagement with your neighbors, that those communities have higher rates of civic participation. People are more likely to know about and empathize with the problems faced by their neighbors who are not like them. People are more likely to go to public meetings to engage in various kinds of community organizations and in fact, even vote more frequently than people do in communities where that’s not the case. And these are studies that, of course, control for other factors that influence civic engagement and find that this factor is, in fact, causal. So that’s, I think, really one important reason and is all the more important, I think, as we face huge challenges, both the challenges we’re facing with nascent authoritarianism and also climate change. I mean, we really need to be called upon as a society to address some really big things. And our fabric and connections to one another is going to be like the strength and the ability to do that.
So I’m worried about the way that the pandemic has eroded that. And I’m worried about how increasingly consolidated economy, more of it mediated through dominant online players, has actually led us in the opposite direction. So that’s one thing. And I’ll just quickly name a couple of other reasons that I think we should go local more. Obviously, this is a spectrum and some types of, you know, I like to drink coffee, for example, like this is not an all or nothing kind of a thing. But another reason has to do with equity, equality. We know that an economy that disperses power and decision making and ownership more broadly is also an economy that distributes income more broadly and that has a more equitable distribution of power in terms of who makes decisions. You know, so as we think about how do we have an economic system that matches our notions of liberty and of equality, we need to have something that’s more democratic in form. And that means getting away from concentrations of power and distributing things out.
And then lastly, I would just note that there are a lot of ways in which people at the local and regional level are better able to produce systems that are more effective and that meet needs and challenges more effectively. We see that, for example, in places where people take charge of their energy systems, their electricity systems, they’re more likely to go renewable. Given given control over the system and able to take into account the full range of impacts in a broader set of concerns, people make different choices than, say, monopoly utilities make. I just published a piece a couple of weeks ago in The Washington Post about how independent pharmacies have responded to the vaccination drive that I think sheds some light on the ways in which, the phrase I used in the piece was, ‘economies of small scale.’ We talk about economies of scale, but there are also economies of small scale that we should pay much more attention to.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, thank you, Stacy. That’s great and very eloquent. You make a fantastic argument for local. And I want to kind of tag on that. You touched on a little bit, but for both you and Jose, we’ll start with you, what have we learned about local from Covid-19?
Stacy Mitchell : Yeah, we learned so much. I mean, just to give you a kind of a few examples of some of the things that we’ve — and there’s so much to say, and we could just sort of open this whole conversation up to what what people have experienced. It’s remarkable the way in which local systems, local businesses, local institutions are able to pivot and meet local needs. That when people have control of the resources collectively, that they’re able to then marshal those resources to meet whatever, something that comes along that’s unexpected. And that centrally controlled systems are less adaptable and resilient in a lot of cases. We learned that consolidation in the economy has serious effects. I mean, for example, we learned that a huge amount of our our meat production is concentrated in a handful of enormous slaughterhouses and that those slaughterhouses became centers of infection, in part because of how abusive they are to their workers. And they had to shut down. We actually had shortages on our supermarket shelves of meat. And so as we think about like, what does it mean to have like local and regional food production in slaughterhouses? There’s a lot we learned about how fragile our system is because of that consolidation.
And then at the local level, there are just so many examples we saw of local businesses and institutions stepping up and really interesting ways. You know, in the case of pharmacies, the federal plan was that Walgreens and CVS would handle vaccinations at long term care facilities, nursing homes and the like. And that was the first wave of vaccination. But there were a couple of states that opted out of that. West Virginia was one, a lot of their pharmacies are locally owned. North Dakota was another. North Dakota has no chain pharmacies. They actually banned chains from operating pharmacies. So they exclusively have independent pharmacies. So they also effectively opted out and those states were way ahead. They were 80 percent of their vaccines in that early phase were actually getting into people’s arms. And it was other states were way, way, far behind. And as it turns out, those local pharmacies, there’s a lot of evidence that they do a better job all the time, that they are cheaper, according to Consumer Reports, that they provide a broader range of services, that they spend more time counseling patients and so on. And so tasked with this new need, they were able to quickly figure out a plan and they understood the community. They knew the long term care facilities and often had relationships there. And so they were able to draw on all of that to be very effective in this moment in a way that CVS and Walgreens simply were not. But those are just two quick examples of something that we saw in a lot of different ways, across a lot of different sectors.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, that’s interesting, because one of the things I wanted to do during 2020 in my local year experiment was to shop local and do now online shopping. I was successful in cutting out online shopping almost entirely, I would say 99 percent. I just quit using Amazon and that kind of the job. But then like just shopping local was like, that quickly fell apart because you can’t get gas or prescription drugs or you know, so, so, so much of the local economy is controlled by big corporate chains, sometimes monopolies. So that was sobering. I kind of knew about it. But then it was like put to task. It was really hard. Jose did you want to add anything to that amount of lessons from Covid-19?
Jose Ramos: Yeah. I mean, look, when I look at what happened over the year, I see a couple important things. One is that in many ways we ere forced local because we couldn’t travel. I know Neal and me, you, a lot of other people were traveling a lot. So it kind of put us back in our box, so to speak. So, okay, well, here you are. You know, you’re not going to go anywhere. But at the same time, because I think something strange happened as well, people kind of discovered Zoom and they discovered the capacity to be here, there and everywhere. And so in a way, I call it like a spatial mutation that we were not traveling, but we were traveling in a different way. We were traveling through meeting people on different platforms. And so for me, I think there’s something there about how we have to think about the spatiality. And I think a lot of people felt liberated by that. So you’re stuck at home, but you can network with people. You can go beyond geographic boundaries, I know not everyone’s going to be like that, but I found with a lot of the people that I work with, there were more meetings, we were getting burnt out by Zoom meetings, meeting people from all over the world, finding collaborative projects, etc, etc. So, I think that’s an important aspect of what happened.
The other thing, as you mentioned, Amazon, Jeff Bezos got richer and richer and billionaires got richer and richer. So I don’t think Covid-19 was necessarily good from the point of view of wealth disparity. I think it was actually quite bad. I think that we were forced to confront a lot of the nature of our economic system and the dysfunctions that exist. But did people buy more from Amazon? Yes, they did. You didn’t. But other people did because that became the way to get around the problems with the virus. So for me as well, like in Victoria, had the strictest lockdown in the world, 14 weeks of don’t meet anyone. So how do you do local in that context? Really, really hard. Right. So we don’t have the virus here. So the government controlled it, but the cost of that was really full on. So Dan Andrews, the Premier here, his nickname is Dictator Dan. So he basically gambled his entire political capital on public health. So anyways, I mean, to me, it’s quite a mix. And if you talk about local. Yeah, there’s, yes, and lots of gray areas in there.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, I have to say that it was a pretty inconvenient time to cut out all online purchases, but I did find a way to make it work in some ways, and shopping local, I didn’t succeed.
Stacy Mitchell : Can I can I ask Neal, just on that note, I’m just curious because I found, I don’t think I bought anything from Amazon in the last year, but found, I did do a fair amount of online shopping from local businesses. And sometimes it was, I could get stuff on their website or I could call them and then just they would do curbside pickup. So I actually found I could do that a lot and did shop online in some cases from sort of smaller manufacturers that I could buy direct from that aren’t in my community. So not local, but at least scaled at that sort of scale, but somewhere else. And I’m curious if you explored that and what you found in terms of the things that you needed, being able to sort of use the technology, but not the, you know, separating the difference between Amazon’s control of the technology versus the technology itself.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, I mean, I had a lot of sort of internal struggle with with this because they were like these gray area things like, for instance, Ace Hardware. So I have a local Ace Hardware that I go to. It’s a chain, but at the same time, it’s a co-op, it’s a purchasing co-op and all independently owned, but being part of a big brand that’s a co-op that helps local ownership. So kind of like messed with my boundaries a little bit. Also, like as you spoke to, like, you know, there were instances where it’s like, okay, I’m buying local, I am buying it online, but I am buying it from a local store. You know, when I would go back and forth and I just I just have to be practical and get it, get it that way the way that I can. You know, I’m a tinkerer, and the one big downside is like, if you want anything special, any specialty item, any weird thing that you can’t get at like a drugstore or grocery store, from tools to materials to specialty foods or supplements or something like that, like online, they can’t be beat that way. And so I’m really hoping to see more alternatives to Amazon with such incredible selection, kind of like turning the Amazon model kind of upside down where there is an online platform, but it’s driven by the local businesses that maybe are kind of like member-owner of a larger kind of platform co-op, for instance, something like that.
There was a, during the pandemic, a big bookseller launch that was just local books that you buy it through the platform. So that’s kind of an example of some of the things that I’d love to see. Yeah, but it was it was a struggle. Yeah. I’m not always clear cut on what to do. Yeah, and that leads me to the next question is like, what are some of the structural — and I want to start with you, Stacy, what are some of the structural barriers to going local? I know you’ve done a lot of anti-monopoly work and like, if you could point to what are the main obstacles and great.
Stacy Mitchell : Yeah, yeah. I and I think this is really, really crucial. There’s a lot about our own personal experiences in terms of, as you sort of found over this year and wrote about really well and eloquently, is that you, when you do that, when you attempt to to go local in your own life, you learn a lot about how the economy works, what’s possible in that way, what’s not possible, like it’s a whole exploration. And I you know, I’m sure even more that you learned that didn’t even make it on the page in terms of like the details of how particular sectors work in the barriers. But I think to actually change things, we can’t expect that our choices as individuals are going to make a difference. I don’t actually think they — I mean, not to say that your local farmer and your local bookseller and your various co-ops and community institutions don’t need you, they do rely on you. And so that in that way there is a real impact from what you do as an individual. But in terms of changing the larger systems, that really has to come down to policy. And there are so many ways in which policy is structured to undermine local systems and to advantage large corporations.
I’ll name maybe three things. This is a lot of the work of the institute is sort of documenting and advocating for those kinds of policy changes. There’s a lot of stuff on our website. If people want to dig in, it’s kind of organized by sector. I run our independent business program, but we also have an energy program and a broadband program and so on. The first one is monopoly power. For many decades in the 20th century, for a long time, we had strong laws and policed the ability of big corporations to use their size and their market power to push smaller competitors out of the market or to undermine them. And then around the 1970s and ’80s, we began to relax those laws and to relax our interpretation of them such that a lot of big companies are now able to get away with behaviors that would have been illegal and have been able to monopolize markets. We’ve seen just extreme levels of consolidation in many different sectors and with the tech companies, we now have companies that not only dominate markets, but effectively control the underlying infrastructure that lots of other businesses depend on. So it’s controlling the E-commerce system through which the vast majority of traffic flows, controlling online search, controlling the exchange of information and news. That kind of infrastructure control is like a sort of even greater level of monopoly power.
There is a growing anti-monopoly movement afoot because what we’re seeing is, is all of the effects of that. We’re seeing rising inequality in terms of wages. We’re seeing a decline in new business formation and in small businesses overall, farmers are getting squeezed and can’t make a decent living because they have so few companies to sell to. And they’re dependent on these giant input providers, independent businesses — you can’t effectively sell online unless they deal with Amazon. And then Amazon steals all their data and takes a big cut of their sales and screws them over in the end. And so that doesn’t even work. Kust on and on, there are these barriers that are created by monopoly power. So what a big focus of our work right now is overturning those. And there’s a real movement afoot in Congress to do that right now that I think is great.
Then I would just also name quickly two other areas. One is the flow of capital. The way that our banking system and our investment system is set up. So much of the capital flows to the big guys and there is not enough capital flowing at the local level to build those systems and to invest in that kind of infrastructure, in that kind of entrepreneurship. And effectively, what it is, is if you think about your banking system, your banking system is almost like the DNA for your economy. If you have a big consolidated banking system, it will replicate in the form of big consolidated businesses. And so if you want like a different capital system, you actually need a local capital system, so that’s where we need to go.
And then lastly, those are both things that to not not exclusively, but there’s a lot of federal law involved in both banking and monopoly. And there are also state and local laws. But a lot of it’s federal. But I would also just say that there’s a lot of ways in which local governments — you would think being on the front lines of this would understand this better. But, you know, a lot of our economic development policies, the way we favor cars over pedestrians, the way that we tax through property taxes, dense downtown districts that have lots of small spaces and lots of opportunities for entrepreneurs, we tax those districts at a much higher rate on a per square foot basis than we do the sprawling big box store at the edge of town. There’s just all sorts of ways at the local level, we’ve also constructed systems that are barriers.
Yeah, it seems like the barriers are great and many, that’s an impression I’m getting. Yeah. So it’s a big fight. Jose, I’ve got a question for you, but first I want to go to Ashley Colby. Yeah, somebody who I met through Shareable, who’s doing incredible local research and also living the lifestyle down your way, so Ashely asked this question, can you address if, how, you’ve thought through which product should be as close to home as possible? Food, especially perishables, and which could be coming regionally and which are okay to come from global supply chains.
Stacy Mitchell : It’s sort of worth looking at everything from what what can be done locally and what makes sense to do locally, I mean, a lot of energy production, for example, can be through local wind and solar and other renewable resources. And we’ve done research and others have done, and documented how many states, most states, could get most of their power that way, and would be better off in a huge variety of ways. Food systems, obviously, is a huge area where we could not only do significantly more production locally, but would be an incredible engine of economic development, particularly in rural places and places left behind. But then there are also things, chocolate, coffee come to mind immediately for me, scotch, as things that like, you know, we need to have a fair trade system for. And so, you know, I think a lot of how we think about it at ISLR is not that we are trying to absolutely maximize what we can do locally, but that we’re looking to do what makes sense and is reasonable to do locally and in the process to build communities that are locally self-reliant and have the wherewithal then to engage in trade with one another on terms that are fair. And so that exchange of goods and ideas, I think is great and we should be having that. I think the problem really is do you consolidate control over that exchange and exploit communities in the process in order to advantage the people controlling trade. Or is it really an exchange of people on equal footing? I mean, I think that’s part of how we need to think about that in terms of global supply chains. Yeah. So I think those are some of my thoughts.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, that’s really cool, too, because just, you know, putting that sort of local production and fair trade ideas together is a sort of vision there that, you know, your community thrives and then through fair trade, you help other communities in other places thrive at the same time. Jose, was there anything you wanted to add?
Jose Ramos: Yeah. I mean, I think there’s a lot of new technologies. There’s a lot of new opportunities where you can completely skip the global supply chain process. So, for example, there’s a enterprise called Open Desk and you essentially just choose from a number of designs that they have for furniture and you put in a request for quotes and then you get local manufacturers that give you quotes around what it would cost to build that furniture using and see machining technology. And so instead of having IKEA send stuff all over the place, you know, get their supply here and then move it to Sweden or wherever and cut it up. So you’re basically leveraging more like a distributed network of production. And that’s sort of typical of what’s emerged with the maker space and the Fab Lab movement, this kind of idea that you can take designs or ideas from around the world and you can instantiate them at a local level.
And so we’ve seen that with a lot of different things like beehives. There’s an enterprise that basically has open designed for beehives. There’s a lot of farming equipment cooperatives associations, Farm Hack, in the northeastern United States, l’Atelier Paysan in France. And even there’s auto manufacturing. Basically within the neoliberal model, capitalism went global. So instead of a factory system that was national in scope, that was everything up to the 1970s, we have a global factory now, which is international in scope. And so, you know, your parts are made in Mexico and the labor is somewhere in Vietnam and then you get your car, right? But there’s actually a manufacturing company, auto manufacturing design company called Open Motors that will ship modular systems that can be adapted. So there’s a lot of these types of initiatives that are popping up and ways to basically cut out that global supply chain. Not completely, but it’s more of a digital supply chain, I would say, rather than a physical supply chain.
And the other thing I would emphasize is that in order to make any of these and I call these Cosmo Local examples or initiatives, in order to make these Cosmo Local initiatives work, you actually have to have a very well functioning local capacity so you can’t simply push buttons and expect it to arrive like an Amazon package. That’s one thing that we’ve learned in the research, which is a very interesting thing and actually really ties into everything that you’re saying, Stacy, and your experience, Neal. Actually the more capacity you have locally to organize, understand who’s got what strengths and weaknesses, the better you can actually adopt ideas and designs globally and instantiate them at a local level and create that sort of local resilience and and livelihood and well.
Jose Ramos: Thank you, Jose. We did have a another question, actually, you know, please, if you have questions, drop them in the chat or just going to start mixing all the questions. And we got one from Kelly Kultys, for someone who was interested in and working in local media, particularly local media startups, what roles can local media organizations play in being a part of these local community’s connections and fostering that spirit of civic engagement Stacy was talking about? Wow, that’s a great question. I’ll I’ll take a shot at it, since I actually do media with Shareable and I’ve thought about this a little bit at least. But just I think part of it is there’s a news function that you’re narrating how local government is proceeding and offering also points where citizens have an opportunity to have voice, to have a say. I think that’s a kind of really basic one, to get accountability and points of engagement through the public. And then, there’s this incredible example down in Tupelo, it’s called the Tupelo Miracle, where the local newspaper and through later, I think a foundation that they started, became integral to bringing the local economy out of the depths of despair and into something vibrant and diverse and also making civic life there a very rich experience in creating the sense that we’re all in it together. I think a newspaper can really do that at its best. Those are just a few ideas. Stacy, did you have anything to add or Jose?
Stacy Mitchell : I would, just to draw a connection back up to some some federal policy issues, one of the real challenges with local news, of course, is that Facebook and Google are eating up all of the ad dollars. So the content is created by local news, but the advertising dollars are flowing disproportionately to the platforms that are then sharing that content. And also in the process, often driving more attention to hate groups and other kinds of misinformation content and away from actual local news. And so those are those are both problems that really have to do with economics and the business models of the platforms. So there’s some moves afoot, one, there’s a growing discussion about banning targeted advertising, which would sort of neutralize a lot of that business model, both the sort of the misinformation piece and also the sort of data collection and surveillance part of that. And then there’s also some proposals in Congress around giving local news media outlets more leverage to negotiate with the platform so that they get a fair cut of the content that they’re actually providing that gets distributed on those platforms. So just when we talk about sort of structural issues, those are a couple of things that there’s a real live conversation about right now that would really help to rebuild local news as a viable enterprise.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, just to add that I’m on the board of a local newspaper, San Francisco Public Press. So, you know, one of the things that we’ve learned is that, you know, local government works better when there’s a local newspaper in town. And now cross the country we have news deserts all over the place. It’s an epidemic of local news organizations getting shut down. First, it was kind of a consolidation thing. Now they’re just disappearing altogether. And there’s kind of countermovement of local nonprofit news organizations trying to fill the gap. But the chasm is very large and this is a really far bridge to build to get there. Jose, did you have something to add?
Jose Ramos: Yeah, definitely. I would put it in very simple terms: they need us more than we need them. So here in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission put together media laws that basically said, if you’re reusing content, just talking about the platforms, Facebook and Google and others, then you have to actually pay those outlets. Now, at first, Google and Facebook, were like, that’s this is outrageous, we’re not going to do that, this is not how society should work or whatever their silly arguments were. And over time, Google came to the table. They basically said, look, we’re better off negotiating outside of, you know, on our own. So it’s basically a framework that forces, or that encourages these platforms to negotiate outside. Facebook tried to play hardball. So about a week and a half ago, they pulled the plug on all news media on Facebook. And I was relieved. I was like, yeah, thank goodness, you know, finally. And a week, a week and a half later, Facebook’s come back and said, we’re going to put news back. And it wasn’t because the Australian government negotiated, you know, that’s what — they kind of tried to save face. But really, they need us more than we need them. And so I would basically go back to the importance of the political economy. You’ve got to have national frameworks and laws that are going to provide the framework for that revenue to go back to local. And I think we also need the platform cooperative movement to continue to develop so that we have that local media and digital systems that are cooperativized.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, it brings to mind, Jose, in 1996, the Telecommunications Act, I was in grad school at the time, and it removed a lot of those barriers for media concentration and for the protection of the diversity of news sources. And so you had the rise of big media conglomerates after that and also was, I think, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine or something, maybe Stacy or Jose, you know more about that, but I think it was something along the lines of you share both sides of an argument and then after 1996, you had the rise of the sort of hate mongering and the Rush Limbaugh’s of the world. So we can see the Telecommunications Act of 1996, that’s led to where we are right now in this hyperpolarized media and political environment and how maybe we need to go back to some of that modular sort of regulatory structure that not only was all in our banking and financial system, put in place after the Great Depression, but was in place before ’96 and taken away. So we’re living with the results now of the concentration of wealth and also of the media system.
Jose Ramos: Basically capitalism in general creates externalities. It’s a system for wealth accumulation for shareholders, but in the process it’s going to create externalities. And we can see this play out with tech platforms. You know, the externalities of the tech platforms is you have moderators of PTSD that they have to look at all this horrible content. You have misinformation and you have increasing polarization because people aren’t filter bubbles, because people are getting reinforced, their world view is constantly being reinforced. So the end result in large terms, the externality that these platforms create is the erosion of the public sphere.
Neal Gorenflo: And biosphere too, right?
Jose Ramos: And biosphere. And this something that Germany took this very seriously after World War Two. They put in the strictest media laws in the world because they did not want to have another sort of Nazi coup in the foreseeable future. And this is something that I would say Anglo nations and other nations have been very naive about, that you actually need very strong, intelligent media regulatory systems for protecting the public sphere. And until we do that, we’re just going to get that externality after externality and that erosion.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, I wanted to ask you too, both of you, so what are some of the downsides of going local? What are some of the pitfalls and how do we avoid them? What made me think of that Jose, s just you mentioned fascism and Nazism.
Jose Ramos: Yeah, well, look, I mean, look, local in itself is not the answer to me. The question is what kind of local? So feudalism and medieval Europe was local, okay? And the lords could do whatever the hell they wanted. It was a completely abusive system.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, if you were a surf, you were eternally bound to land. You couldn’t you can’t leave. You can’t go to anywhere else.
Jose Ramos: You couldn’t go, it was practically slavery. Well, in practical terms, it was slavery. And local can also be a diminishment of opportunity. So the question for me is what kind of local? And I think everything that you said, Stacy, is the kind of local that we want. We want a local that animates our capacity to connect with people, tp respond to our climate emergency, to produce the things that we need. But that doesn’t diminish necessarily our liberty or our freedom. But I think that has to be in inverted comments, like what do we mean by liberty and freedom? It’s not Peter Thiele’s idea of liberty and freedom. It’s not a libertarian idea of liberty and freedom. That’s capitalism writ large. So I guess for me, the question we ought to be asking is what kind of local? You know, and we can look historically at many different phases of locality. The Roman Empire was this vast, sprawling economic system, and that was their success formula. It collapsed. And then we went into this feudalistic period. And that’s kind of history writ large. Some people might romanticize that, but we’ve got to we’ve got to think critically about this.
Stacy Mitchell : I think that’s so right. And I completely agree with you, Jose, that the framework isn’t exactly local. What it is, I guess, I would say is democracy. The idea of people collectively being able to control their own lives and their own future in their own communities and doing that in view of the larger good, the public, the notion of a commons and those kinds of ideas. Certainly what we don’t want is a kind of — you can very easily imagine and find a lot of examples in our own history of scenarios where you had, you know, local structures of power that were highly racialized and involved gender oppression and all the rest of it and that were really maintained at the local level. So that’s obviously not what we’re going for. We talk about, you know, our name is Local Self-Reliance, sort of community self-reliance. That’s sort of the community being like the kind of key thing and to really emphasize. And so I think it’s always through that lens of like, are we going to a system that is more equitable, more just more democratic, more that emphasizes our connection to one another and the sense of cooperation? Or are we going in a system that is the opposite of that? It seems to me to be to the right lens.
I do think this idea of liberty that you raised, Jose, is interesting. I’ve been using the word a lot more lately in my work because I think what I’ve started to think about more is, you know, how some of these big corporate structures like Amazon are really systems of private government. You know, I mean, Amazon increasingly regulates our commerce. They decide which businesses are going to win and lose, what’s allowed to happen on the marketplace. And so instead of having an open market governed by public rules, we now have a marketplace governed by an autocrat who rules with complete arbitrariness and total self-interest. And I think that that to me has been an interesting framework to work with, because I think the neoliberal ideology that we’ve all been internalized with for many decades now has been one where we imagine that the economy is created outside of government, that it exists on its own. And we have been sort of taught and trained to think about despotism in terms of government power potentially being exercised in negative ways and to ignore the fact that our lives are ruled by a form of corporate power. And in that way, I think the framework of liberty is kind of interesting to play with in terms of opening people’s eyes to that exercise of power that, once you observe it, it’s like that is people’s experience. Most people’s day to day experience of like going to a job or doing the various things that they’re doing in their lives are completely governed by private power, exercised typically by bigger corporations.
Neal Gorenflo: Great. Thank you. Thanks, Stacy, Jose, did you have something to add?
Jose Ramos: I agree vigorously. And I guess there’s one term that’s used in the re-localization discourse, which is subsidiarity, which basically means that, devolve all power possible as much as possible to the local. All governance power that you possibly can. Not everything can be pushed down to the local right. But for example, in Australia, all the Covid responses that were legislated were through the states. So that got down to the state level. And local communities should have the right to decide whether they want a franchise like McDonald’s in their communities or not. And in many cases, they struggle with national laws that in a sense create that kind of libertarian framework, or neoliberal, framework that forces them to accept whoever wants to show up and whoever wants to perform in their community. So subsidiarity for me is the key sort of academic term there.
Jose Ramos: Yeah, thanks Jose. We have a question from Joan, and anyone who has a question. This is the time to get it in. We’re round the corner here and be done in about five minutes. Joan asks, Has anyone here read the Rethinking Humanity report from the RethinkX Think Tank? If so, what organizing advice would you give to local communities to prepare for the technology shift they need to envision. In particular, maybe this is the crux of the question, in particular, what technology should local co-ops begin to harness?
Jose Ramos: So the technology that local co-ops should begin to harness? I mean, it really depends on the kind of co-op you are, right? So, for example, if you’re a food distributor, have a look at the Open Food Network by Kirsten Larson and others, Serenity Hill. Basically it’s an amazing platform that allows people to connect farmers, markets, and consumers. It just makes it a lot easier than it is. And they have a kind of global network of distributors and farmers and lots of other people using their platform. If it’s in another space, if it’s in furniture development, then maybe look at a different enterprise. It just really depends. There’s a lot of technologies out there that are enabling that localization and bringing together a global team and global group of people that are essentially in service to relocalization, but they’re organizing and they’re working internationally. So it’s just about the fit. And I think there’s so many different aspects. And housing, we see that happening right now with construction, lots of different initiatives. So, yeah, it just depends on the sector.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, I would just I would just add that, you know, I’m one of the stories Shareable Broke was about the platform co-op movement and we helped start and catalyze that movement. And I think it’s really applicable to local co-ops. I think that it’s not so much a technology question. It’s equally a kind of business model question of how do you build these sort of federated structures that gets you the advantages of a platform, but also keeps the local co-ops, their democratic nature intact at the same time. And so, you know, thinking of, for instance, of just one example of Fairmondo, which is like the eBay, the kind of co-op eBay, but in each country, they have an organization that runs their part of the marketplace. Another example was a tool library up in B.C., Canada that was operating like a, almost like a franchise co-op model. So why don’t we see more franchises in the co-op world? That would be restaurants and retail of all of these things where you get the advantages of scale and brand and infrastructure and financing, but the business is controlled by local member owners. So I think that we could really benefit from more attention, more action, more resources flowing into those kind of simple things that exist, the models that exist already just need to be adapted by co-ops. And also just locally owned businesses in general, small businesses in general.
All right, so we’ve got a couple more questions. We’re just about out of time, so let’s do our last question on the. Yeah, this is a meaty one from Onja. Let’s see, what are your thoughts on so-called free trade in the myriad of treaties that ties into global economic model dominated by corporate giants? Okay, not a small. Stacy, has a hard stop. So, Stacy, yeah, I’ll just thank you and let you go and really appreciate all that you brought this and what a terrific experience for me and I think for everyone, watching the book, this event is kind of a capstone for my 2020 year of living locally. I couldn’t ask for a better capstone so thank you so much.
Stacy Mitchell : Well, thank you. This is such a great conversation. I really appreciate Jose’s work and all that you are doing, Neal, especially sort of giving everyone a window on everything that you’ve learned in the last year on this process and so, great journey. And so, anyway, thank you so much and I really appreciate being part of this.
Neal Gorenflo: Yeah, you’re welcome. Check out Stacy’s work, too, so ISLR.org. So thank you, Stacy. And Jose, did you want to you know, I think Stacy was the one to answer this question, to be honest. Yeah. Do you have a did you have anything you wanted to add?
Jose Ramos: Let’s see, so, thoughts on free trade and the myriad of treaties as it applies in a global economic model dominated by corporate giants. Again and again we see how these agreements supersede national laws and regulations, undermining democracy at every level. If we want to shift toward the local, do we need to actively resist free trade as localization activists? Yeah, I mean, the answer is yes. And this goes back like into the ’80s and ’90s. In the global south, you had structural adjustment programs that were driving liberalization and you had the global south that were protesting against this. And then that emerged in the global north through the protest circuit and the battle in Seattle in 1999 against the WTO was an example of that. The WTO is already undermining environmental and labor laws through a global — I mean, this is a symptom of capitalism going global. So I would say yes. And and at the same time, we need transnationalism of activism. We need cosmo localization of designs and ideas, so we can’t disown the global. But we need to definitely push back against free trade agreements that are going to undermine democracy, a hundred percent.
Neal Gorenflo: And local economies.
And with that, I’d like to thank everyone, Jose, for joining. So great to see you and be in the conversation. To my staff, Jocelyn and Tom and Elizabeth, who helped make this happen, make this experience for me more than I really was asking, they just upped the whole thing. To everyone that joined and all your questions, please stay in touch, go to Shareable.net, you have a chance to sign up for our newsletter and stay in touch. And anyone who wants to reach out and learn more about my experience, I welcome that, I’m firstname.lastname@example.org. And thanks again, with that we’ll end our seminar. Enjoy the rest of your day. Thank you.