Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Overcoming Apathy: The Role of Place

Ten minutes of time and a simple internet search can produce a litany of reasons to abandon industrial agriculture, shop local, and support the small owner. I’ve yet to find anyone making the argument that I will enjoy life and find fulfillment by abandoning my local community, avoiding the farmers market, and conducting all business with the local outlets of big box retailers. Despite the awareness, despite the shop local campaigns, despite the multitude of farmers markets, I’ve yet to see many friends or neighbors embrace “localness” with the same zeal they demonstrate for Hawkeye Football or the annual return of the Shamrock Shake. Despite this awareness, it seems that we are still captivated by “falling prices”. The pervasiveness of an energy economy that encompasses all aspects of life, has squashed the very idea that something local could be of comparable quality of taste to that which is cheaply or expensively imported.

Given that the masses have yet to be driven to take action and embrace cultural change, how do we combat the allure of cheap food, promote the uniqueness of place, and add value to the neglected working lands?

As the masses apathetic attitude towards industrial food demonstrates, relying on people to embrace “local” anything is an unlikely prospect. Energy policy, agricultural policy, and a modern economy subsize and sustain the alternatives to “local” which have lead to the abandonment and decay of rural communities. Perhaps it is now evident that there is need for policies that account for the values of place rather than dismiss it too easily.

For several decades policy has driven cultural and behavior changes affecting how we move between communities, live in our homes, and farm our land. Sometimes with eagerness and sometimes with trepidation, we have accepted policy changes and it’s promise of prosperity. Thus, given the decades of disinvestment rural communities have witnessed, it is with apprehension and skepticism that I suggest policy as an essential component to bringing about a renewed sense of relevance and purpose to rural communities. After all, whether it is reality or self-serving observation, I find it all to easy to identify examples of where policy has created enclaves of prosperity among wide swaths of unfairness and inequity. It is a struggle to suggest that the same instrument which has condoned the decline of biodiversity and removal of mountains may be key to the renewal.

Policy in the traditional sense may be the last thing that rural communities desire, but rather than turn to traditional sources perhaps there exists a better source of motivation. Perhaps there is some wisdom among the bumper stickers which encourage us to shop, buy, and eat local. Instead of relying on (or waiting on) macro policy to make all communities equitably vibrant, maybe local resources are better suited to the task.

Daniel Payne of Front Porch Republic recently wrote that “the difference between corporate agribusiness and small local farms is all the difference between a Congressional caucus and a family meeting: from which gathering comes more clarity, efficiency, and genuine progress?”.

While Payne discusses the conflict of between purchasing “industrially” and the principles of self- governance, his observation draws attention to the fact that “industrial” policy may be ill fit for the scale of rural communities. In the public sector policy is often described with the analogy of a ship, not a canoe or a kayak but a large oil tanker. This ship is on a course which is determined by policy. It is a large cumbersome behemoth riding upon the seas and when it attempts to change direction it will do so slowly. While federal policy often involves highly contentious yet subtle changes, the concept of local policy is often overlooked. If macro policy is an oil tanker then perhaps local policy is a swift three masted clipper. While the large ship is domineering and only calls upon major ports, the clipper can go to places which the oil tanker is incapable of reaching. In terms of place as a motivation for policy, our communities know place in a way that distant policy makers will never comprehend. At the local level we know what we find unfulfilling and disappointing, what we regret, what we miss, what we hope for, what we long for, what we aspire to be, and where we came from. At the local level we are aware of the intimate details of place which fewer and fewer of us call “home”.

While I find good reason to be skeptical of policy in the traditional sense, I believe there are alternatives that have yet to be considered. Macro policy and a macro movement brings our communities into an arena whose immensity is overwhelming, to a place where the intimate details of place are trivial. Yet, as the residents of rural communities will be the first to advocate, the land which we inhabit is anything but trivial. While we recognize that the land we inhabit is essential to our livelihoods, we expend an extraordinary amount of effort to extract every last molecule of value it holds. Amidst a paradigm whereby we may only find fulfillment through “growth”, we have often proven ourselves incapable of changing our behavior. While many of us agree that there is too much carbon in the atmosphere, that pesticides and herbicides don’t belong in our food system, taken as a whole we continue to support the proliferation of industrial agriculture and fossil fuels. Although we may resent what industrial agriculture has done to the land, we are hesitant to acknowledge that it is just as prevalent within our homes. If we are unable to recognize that our perceptions of place has been altered and that our connection to the land has become tenuous at best, then perhaps there is a role for policy in steering our communities towards renewal.