The Loss of Local Living: Implications for Economics and Culture

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What makes a good city?

In his Politics, Aristotle says that one key characteristic of a good city is self-sufficiency. Aquinas, following Aristotle, writes in De Regno:

Now there are two ways in which an abundance of foodstuffs can be supplied to a city. The first we have already mentioned, where the soil is so fertile that it amply provides for all the necessities of human life. The second is by trade, through which the necessaries of life are brought to the town in sufficient quantity from different places. It is quite clear that the first means is better.

Aquinas goes on to say that a city that provides for its own needs has a greater “dignity” than one that does not. Applying the term dignity to a city may seem odd to us, but Aristotle and Aquinas see the world as an ordered and hierarchical place. The dignity they refer to deals with a city’s ability to fulfill its purpose—a purpose which is, in part, to supply for the needs of its people.

At first sight, such ideas might seem antiquated and out of touch. But there may be more wisdom—quite applicable to our modern age—hidden in these old texts than we realize.

If a city, state, or nation is not able to supply its own necessary goods through its own efforts and resources, it is dependent on an outside entity to provide them. And economic dependency produces vulnerability on all fronts: cultural, political, social, and religious. The one who provides the food calls the shots.

A recent article on Forbes makes an argument very similar to Aristotle and Aquinas’ but transposed into the context of 21st-century economic, military, and political rivalry between the U.S. and China: “Just as no nation can compete over time with another nation on which it is dependent for military resources,” writes George Bradt, “no nation or sphere can compete effectively with its rival who controls its supply chain and accumulates trillions of trade surplus and hard dollar currency.”

Bradt’s article, which summarizes the thought of CEO advisor Ram Charan, argues that the U.S. has fueled China’s political, economic, and military ascent by exporting technologies, manufacturing, and innovations to the Chinese. This compromises our own self-sufficiency.

COVID-19 exposed the dangerous game of outsourcing industry and manufacturing to other countries. As we can all remember well, our country’s dependence on a worldwide network of manufacturers and distributors led to shortages of certain goods. A report from the Joint Economic Committee Democrats relates that the U.S. has lost over a quarter of its manufacturing jobs since 2000, largely due to increased foreign competition. This decline in domestic manufacturing was a direct cause of the recent shortages.

What is true on a national level remains true on a local level, too. As individual families, communities, and cities, we depend for our existence on forces far away and faceless. As a Wisconsinite, I find that my oranges come from Florida; my toilet paper from Pennsylvania; my phone from India; my pants from Bangladesh; and my “entertainment” from an industry headquartered in Hollywood, Los Angeles, and New York.

While we may be reasonably impressed by the wonders of modern logistics, we perhaps ought to hold back our knee-jerk applause. Instead, the wide and unknown range of our products and resources should concern us. Why?

In the first place, foreign factories (and to a lesser degree, domestic ones) often offer abysmal working conditions. Take, for example, the notorious Apple factory. There workers work up to 10 weeks with no rest day during peak season, putting in between 12–18 hours of work per day, according to an investigation by SACOM.

Next, from a practical point of view, any breakdown of our complex modern transportation system could prove catastrophic to the individual consumer, even when it comes to “domestic” goods (Florida may be a U.S. state, but it’s still a long way from Wisconsin). Suppose the price of fuel skyrocketed. Or there was an extended power outage. Suddenly, you can no longer buy electronics. Or toilet paper. Or even food.

In addition, our politics and beliefs may be compromised by reliance on far-flung corporate and governmental power. In our current system, we are dependent on the policies of faceless, multinational corporations and bureaucrats—entities that are often exploitive in their practices and whose values may or may not align with the best interests of our local communities.

But the problem runs deeper than inhumane working conditions, the risk of material deprivation, or compromising our beliefs. We are already deprived when we do not “live locally.” We are deprived of community, culture, and a healthy awareness of the sources of our life, which are found in the earth.

In a globalized economy, economic forces consistently chip away at local community and culture. Few writers are more eloquent on this subject than Wendell Berry. In The Unsettling of America, Berry shows how the rise of Big Agriculture decimated the rural communities in America. As farming work moved from families to corporations, small farmers and their children had to seek work in the cities. Many rural communities throughout America were gutted of their populations.

Now, products produced in the country are increasingly not for the country, but for the rapidly swelling supercities of the 21st century. The country is now, as Berry puts it, the “colony” of the city.

In “The Work of Local Culture,” Berry writes:

As local community decays along with local economy, a vast amnesia settles over the countryside. As the exposed and disregarded soil departs with the rains, so local knowledge and local memory move away to the cities, or are forgotten under the influence of homogenized sales talk, entertainment, and education. This loss of local knowledge and local memory—that is, of local culture—has been ignored, or written off as one of the cheaper ‘prices of progress’, or made the business of folklorists.

When a community becomes dependent on “somewhere else” for the necessities of life, its culture begins to wither away. When localism is rejected, the center of life moves, literally, elsewhere.

As a result of all this, citizens no longer have to rely on or help their neighbors. They do not share in work and commerce, thus not sharing in leisure and culture, either. And when people do not come together first out of necessity, camaraderie, and mutual reliance, they cannot make culture together. Gone are local celebrations of the harvest, Sunday picnics, dances, and generational memories as son succeeds father in tending the fields of his ancestors.

Again in “A Work of Local Culture,” Berry says this: “A human community, then, if it is to last long, must exert a sort of centripetal force, holding local soil and local memory in place.” Yet how can we hold memory in place if we do not live—both economically and culturally—on a local scale? Loss of memory leads to loss of identity—a loss that has captured many parts of our nation as more Americans adopt a nomadic lifestyle.

Many of us daily wind our way through thousands of strangers to work for a man we have never met to sell products to people we will never see to earn money to spend on things whose makers are unknown to us. Our “leisure” consists of watching images of people who are not really with us and whose story was invented by individuals in glass offices somewhere beyond our horizon for the purposes of their own enrichment.

Is it any wonder we’re lonely?

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