2011 BALLE Conference: What Works Locally, Ripples Globally

In June I spoke at the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies annual conference in Bellingham, WA.  BALLE is North America's fastest growing network of socially responsible businesses, with more than 80 community networks in 30 U.S. states and Canadian provinces, representing over 22,000 independent business members.

BALLE’s vision is that within a generation we will see “a global system of human-scale, interconnected Local Living Economies that function in harmony with local ecosystems, meet the basic needs of all people, support just and democratic societies, and foster joyful community life”.  For this year’s conference I was asked to help frame the need for a new economy and discuss my efforts over three decades to build a stronger local economy in VT. 

I began by showing an image from a conference I organized back in 1980.
The first energy crisis had just “ended” and people were starting to realize the precarious connection between our industrial food system and cheap fossil fuels. I suggested that Vermont’s response could be to produce more food for local consumption using less petroleum inputs and using more sustainable practices. This is exactly what’s happened, though it took another ten years to begin gaining traction. Burlington lead the way with Vermont’s first CSA and community-wide waste food and yard waste composting program – both now part of the Intervale Center.

Vermont’s evolving local food system and the new business opportunities it has fostered, have proven BALLE’s belief that: “local, independent businesses are among our most potent change agents, uniquely prepared to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century with an agility, sense of place, and relationship-based approach others lack.”  As Michael Pollan, author or the The Omnivore’s Dilemma, wrote a few years ago:

The total economy is the globalized world in which everything is a commodity. Everything is produced wherever it can be produced most cheaply, which is to say most destructively, of people and resources, and moved to wherever it can be sold most dearly. This is zero sum food economy. It means more cheap food for us, less for the soil, less for the workers and much less for the animals…Our food, in the vision of the globalizers and the vision of the total economy, will come from wherever in the world it can be produced most cheaply, freeing American labor and land for higher uses. I frankly don’t know what higher use there is for labor and land than growing food…Local food economies are our best hope for checking the drift toward the total global economy. And food is where these economies begin. A revolt is underway across this country. A revolt of the small producers and consumers and some of the most important politics today…are happening at the farmer’s market.

The “total economy” that Pollan speaks of relies on a neoclassical economic principle in which the human economy is above the biosphere and nature imposes no limits on continual economic growth. Peak oil, climate change and diminishing soil and water resources reveal a different reality. Food security and food prices will continue to challenge this wrong-headed human assumption.

At BALLE, I also pointed to other factors that are supporting change in our food system. Similar impulses are at play in the energy system and waste system, and the consequences of damaged ecosystems are becoming impossible to ignore. Regaining local control is a trend that will result in a remade global economy, built on more resilient local economies.

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