The world is changing rapidly. Becoming more global, more diverse, more urban. There is so much we gain from our globalizing world. But, at the risk of potentially sounding a bit like an isolationist (I don’t think I am), I’ve been reflecting lately about the ways that an increasingly global world is—necessarily— decreasingly local. For all we gain in the global age in which we live, are we losing something by losing sight of the local? Wendell Berry writes about this question in several places and I’ve been struck by the way he frames the nature of neighborhood and community. Here are a few selections to reflect on.
“In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford. This…is the practice of neighborhood.” (The Idea of a Local Economy)
“A good community…insures itself by trust, by good faith, and good will, by mutual help. A good community, in other words, is a good local economy. It depends on itself for many of its essential needs and is thus shaped…from the inside.” (The Work of Local Culture)
To me, this idea of a community depending on itself for much of what it needs, and allowing the culture of a place to be determined from within is a kind of sacred question. I see many communities across a wide array of contexts, though, who do not determine for themselves but, from an economic perspective, have their community/economic culture determined for them by external demands. Rust belt towns are a good example. Rather than creating a community of mutual interdependence (more on this next week), the economic engine to fuel the entire town served the demands of a market that existed outside the community. A kind of economic determinism where people lose some of what Berry is talking about above in favor of producing for others. Tapping into outside markets is one of the gifts of the global world, but what happens when the market decides it no longer needs what you are making? What happens to a community that is no longer equipped to thrive from within? Well the term Rust Belt town exists for a reason. Becoming indebted to outside demand to drive a ‘local’ economy means that a community places itself, and the people who inhabit the place, at the mercy of forces outside their control.
Regarding the question of vocation, this kind of approach to economic vitality can tend to see people as tools of production to serve the needs of the market. So, rather than a person discerning vocation they are needed to fill a need in the production line. This is not to say that manufacturing is of no virtue, it is to say that in a decreasingly local world, the question of vocation is first taken away from those with ‘less.’ I have begun to wonder if the way we begin to reclaim the dignity of work and the gift of vocation is to wrestle with the justice of the reality that the most vulnerable folks in our community are the first to lose the gift and are the first to be relegated to work many might consider beneath them.
After all, “without prosperous local economies, the people have no power and the land no voice.” (The Idea of a Local Economy)