Hudson Valley Challenges The Corporate World
By Tola Brennan
Localism is about as close as you’ll get to a full-fledged utopian vision these days.
For the uninitiated, it can seem like little more than the slogan “buy local,” a phrase now adopted by Walmart and other grocery store chains.
“In the war of ideas, we won,” says Michael H. Shuman, one of the movement leaders and author of The Local Economy Solution.
When I interview Arnaldo Sehwerert, director of the Mid-Hudson SBDC (Small Business Development Center), he isn’t familiar with the term but it smells like a “philosophical position” to him.
“Business is business,” he says, “and people who have philosophical positions are usually not business owners.” Sehwerert, using the example of a hardware store, points out that things like screws are probably imported from Pakistan or Thailand. On its face, localism seems at odds with international trade.
“I have both feet on the ground all the time,” he adds, and describes how upstate New York vineyards are, through the help of an SBDC satellite office in China, finding a Chinese market of consumers responsive to the potent “New York” brand.
Yet advocates of localism would argue that the opposite of globalization is in fact, globalization.
In a time when belligerent protectionism is having its moment, globalization can easily be cast as the reason why Americans are losing jobs. But it all comes down to whose globalization it is.
“This is a major struggle in the world,” says Judy Wicks, another movement leader and a founder of BALLE (Business Alliance of Local Living Economies) who sees localism as the key to “confronting corporate control.” She likens the movement to Gandhi’s campaign to free India of British rule, except that our rulers are multinationals.
Localism has a broad range of meanings, some newly-minted, and some with origins deep in the formation of our present day world. Michael Shuman cites the compromise of Federalists and anti-Federalists at the founding of this country as an example of where local and centralized power have formed powerful underlying themes. And in the early 1900s, with the rise of mega-corporations like A & P and Sears Roebuck, many American cities had localist moments.
Matthew Stinchcomb, founder of the Good Work Institute — a local nonprofit empowering people to regenerate their communities — sees the alienation of industrialization as a starting point where agrarian communities lost access to the commons and were pushed into urban centers during the birth of capitalism.
Despite pockets of resistance, the 20th century has been dominated by relentless corporate globalization operating through complex networks of primarily cheap goods. Localism, now, seems like a rallying cry for a different world — a utopian banner driven by common sense.
“This isn’t just about localism,” says Wicks. “It’s about survival of the planet.” Inspired in part by E. F. Schumacher, author of the 1970s classic Small Is Beautiful, she imagines “a global economy that’s comprised of a network of sustainable and just, local economies.”
It may sound unrealistic, but she gives a concrete example to back her statement up. As a restaurateur in Philadelphia, she funded a cooperative of coffee producers in Chiapas, Mexico and established links with local farmers in Puerto Rico. And that’s on top of fostering connections to farmers in her region: a network she eventually decided to share with her competitors.
Wicks realized that all her work to develop local connections had to shift away from just bringing patrons to her restaurant.
“We have to change our values from personal wealth building to community wealth building,” she explains. “Money can no longer be the only way to make decisions.”
Shuman’s more technical definition of localism is built on three propositions. First, it’s the shortening of links between producer and consumer. Second, it’s local ownership of those links. And third, it’s about power: keep decision-making autonomy as local as possible.
“Localization is a wealth-building strategy,” says Shuman.
Shuman uses the example a Güssing, a small Austrian town, to make his case. In the late 80s, Güssing was one of the poorest places in its country with two out of three people unemployed and an $8.1 million annual fuel bill, mostly for heat and electricity. The town realized the need for energy independence and, along with a program to reduce energy use, utilized ample forest resources to heat its region locally. As these ventures multiplied and evolved, Güssing covered its local energy needs and quickly became a pioneering exporter of clean, renewable energy.
The area now has dozens of new energy companies, over a thousand new jobs, and revenues around $17 million from exports. And the success of this model has inspired other towns in the region to adopt a similar model.
In the United States, as farmers’ markets, CSAs, makers’ movements and other local industries take off, localism has shifted from simply buying local goods to local investment, suggesting an evolution towards the more comprehensive overhaul realized by Güssing.
Shuman’s The Local Economy Solution proposes business incubators that can support local projects and finance themselves through selling of their shares in successful ventures. This allows the community to eventually meet as many of its basic needs as possible before nurturing businesses that sell their surplus into the global economy.
“If every community in the world did that, the world would be a much wealthier place and there might be more trade,” says Shuman. “That’s the paradox of localization.”
Until recently, this incubation process wasn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Because of a side effect of Depression-era securities laws, ordinary people were unable to invest in local businesses unless that business generated complex disclosure documents, which cost anywhere from $25,000 to $100,000. Only accredited investors and the super-wealthy could avoid these restrictions.
Because of this challenge, few small businesses could afford the process; consequently, massive amounts of money are funneled into publicly-traded corporate stocks, leading to over-investment in corporations and underinvestment in small business.
But in part due to Shuman’s work, an Obama-era piece of legislation called the JOBS act lowered the cost of disclosure to as little as $5,000. “We’re really at a very early stage with all of this,” says Shuman, who sees a massive shift waiting to happen.
While localism is often an economic process, Stinchcomb sees it going beyond transacting. His understanding of localism gets closer to core human experiences. “The better word is community,” he says. “It is a community of place.”
“It’s really about a rootedness,” Stinchcomb continues. “Knowing that you are part of a place and recognizing your interdependence with that place — with the health of the river, and the health of the forest — that’s all connected.”
Stinchcomb believes localism, and community, is gaining traction from an unsustainable financial system and the corporate interests that currently drive the American Dream, mixed with the need to meet the challenges of climate change.
He mentions the O+ Festival, Hawthorne Valley, the community purchase of the Rosendale Theater, and the High Falls Food Co-op as examples of already existing foundations, and notes that many people in the Hudson Valley “are coming to the same realization that it’s about place and reconnecting to place.”
“All the ingredients are here,” Stinchcomb says.
To fuel this transformation, GWI will be opening a physical space in midtown Kingston this summer called The Greenhouse, a home for three to five local initiatives and a venue to spread the institute’s vision of community through workshops and access to resources such as legal counsel.
Newly-hired Greenhouse manager Micah Blumenthal says he’s looking to support projects that “all share a belief in trying to break outside the box.”
“If we want different, we have to do different,” he says. “The resources are here. The people that you need to know are here. The wisdom that is needed is here.”
Blumenthal wants to invite everyone to get engaged whether they know the lingo or not. “What’s most important is your intent,” he says.
Stinchcomb says it feels like the Hudson Valley is opening up to a genuinely new localist evolution, at least based on his network. Stinchcomb and Blumenthal both describe a remarkable accumulation of people all wanting to put meaningful work towards overlapping shared goals.
As Blumenthal puts it, “we’re living in a special place and time here.”