January 20 is approaching. The “hope-mongers,” as Barack Obama jokingly called himself at a Northwest Junior High campaign rally in December 2007, cling to visions of revolutionary social transformation. The hardcore liberals are shaking their heads at the President-Elect’s centrist and hawkish Cabinet appointments.
To tell you the truth, I’m a little bit of both: a bit Pollyannaish, a bit cynical. I was on board the Obama train since the 2004 Democratic convention keynote. I caucused last January for Obama and wholeheartedly supported him in November. But I always knew he was ultimately a centrist and, in many ways, a conventional politician. From the beginning, I could tell he was a pragmatist. What I loved in him was his ability to inspire, his intelligence, and my own faith that he would be able to forge consensus better than anyone else I had seen. That’s why I thought he should be president—not because he would bring about utopia, or even a (traditional) liberal renaissance. I don’t know that any president can.
Today, we are still seeing headlines about mortgage crises, automaker bailouts and recession. I do have faith that Obama is the person to right the national ship as best as anyone can. But he’s not going to bring about the revolution we need. Obama will bring much-needed good to our country and our world. If any mainstream president will bring about better international relations, diplomacy before war, and movement toward green energy, it’s Obama. But his economic plans, and to a large extent his social vision (with perhaps some modification around the edges), will still be grounded in the status quo: the global economy, the primacy of multinational corporations, and “free trade” in the modern sense (NAFTA, GATT, etc.).
I’m no economist, so I may simply be talking out of my hat. But I think the headlines for the past several months bear me out: The global economy is collapsing. From a historical standpoint, this is not surprising. All social and economic systems eventually collapse. The bigger ones collapse more dramatically and often more quickly. What military empire ever lasted? What centralized economy ever sustained itself forever? Why should we be surprised that what we have been living for the past 60 or 150 years (depending on where you pin the beginning of the modern economy) is ending?
So if Obama can’t really save us, who can? Well, as Dorothy said at the end of the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own backyard.” Indeed, we have to be our own saviors.
Some interesting books have been published in recent years focusing on the possibility of a truly new human age aborning. David Korten, co-founder of the Positive Futures Network and author of When Corporations Rule the World, posits in his recent book The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community that 5,000 years of the dominator hierarchy, which has led not only to military empire but corporate global hegemony, is ending, largely because human societies and the natural environment can no longer tolerate its stresses. What he sees happening across the globe is a return to community, a fellowship of locally oriented economies and social structures embedded in ecological realities. As he says, “The health of a community depends in substantial measure on its ability to set its own economic priorities and control its own economic resources. Strong communities and material sufficiency are the true foundation of economic prosperity and security and an essential source of meaning.”
Paul Hawken, one of the earliest voices calling for a green economy through such works as The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism, makes a similar point in his new book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. Hawken’s “blessed unrest” is the tens of millions of locally oriented people and organizations across the globe working toward positive change in the interrelated (or, as he says, “intertwingling”) areas of social justice, environmental activism, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization.
As does Korten, Hawken notes the collapse of mass ideologies and corporate-controlled global economies and the actually in-process movement back toward local orientation. And, as do many who think like him, he says all of this is eminently realistic and practical: “A broad nonideological movement has come into being that does not invoke the masses’ fantasized will but rather engages citizens’ localized needs. The movement’s key contribution is the rejection of one big idea in order to offer in its place thousands of practical and useful ones. Instead of isms it offers processes, concerns, and compassion.”
One of the best—and most popular—books on this subject is Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. Clear-eyed about today’s dangers yet engagingly optimistic—and practical—McKibben also advocates for rebuilding our local economies. As do Hawken and Korten, McKibben does not call for a new ideology per se. Rather, he calls for a return to ways of life that have worked for humans for thousands of years. McKibben illustrates the impracticality of the current global economy by citing the obvious (environmental collapse) as well as the often ignored (that 95 percent of people’s wealth has stagnated or declined in the global economy of recent decades) and the little known or considered (human happiness and satisfaction have measurably declined with the rise of the globalized economy). McKibben does not undermine basic economic precepts. He says we need markets. And he says wealth does make people happier. But only up to a point. Today, only the few in control of the global economy actually are increasing their wealth (and they’re going south now, too). And wealth raises happiness fairly quickly, but a point of diminishing returns soon sets in.
All three of these visionary—but oh so practical—thinkers go into much more specific detail about how the relocalization of economies would actually work, detail that I cannot adequately address in this short space. If you’re skeptical, McKibben especially can show you how and why relocalization is not only necessary but eminently doable (yet not without problems and challenges, admittedly). And as all three of the authors I’ve cited point out, relocalization is already happening–and happening at accelerating rates.
You will not hear Barack Obama talk about relocalization of our economies as he fashions his own federal policies to help “Joe the Plumber.” So it’s up to us—to shop at our local merchants, to patronize the farmers market, to produce (and conserve) energy to the extent we can close to home, to care for our local fields and woodlands and streams, to create and share our own stories and songs and artworks. As we relocalize, we turn our attention to supporting each other in community directly. We share our treasure more willingly and equitably. We help ensure social justice much more readily. We produce and enjoy much higher-quality goods and services. And we build a happier, more resilient, and more abundant society. Indeed, being together in this place is our most promising field of hope.