New Strategies for Economic Relocalization

March 20, 2008

In the 1970's, we called it "import replacement". Local economies can be revived by it, neighborhoods too. It's a strategy that creates jobs, reduces consumption, increases local environmental awareness, and broadens the connection between people who work, and people who shop.

Relocalization is not protectionism. It's pride of place. It's humane. It makes sense. Of course we want to buy bread from that great independent baker down the block, rather than something produced in a factory.

Import replacement has always been the community alternative to the massive, wasteful economic development juggernaut of modern capitalism. Subsistence agriculture, small-scale manufacturing, appropriate technology ... these are the tools of community independence. When economies collapse, local production booms.

Whenever a community organizer is asked "but, what can we produce?" ... the first answer is always "what are you buying?" Everyday, people buy things their community could produce. If we nurture our production base, the skills and level of creativity in our community improves, and we can more easily weather difficult economic times and resource shortages.

Today, with increasing transportation costs and greater pressure to increase profits, relocalization has become increasing viable as a sustainable business strategy.

So, even in the US today, your community can beat import prices.

In the photo above, we see typical, inexpensive meal-in-a-box products found at a local natural food store in Eugene, Oregon. The box on the left is a relocalized "copy" of the one on the right. It is comparable in quality, and it's 30 cents cheaper. Because it doesn't need to travel as far.

"Economy of scale" is an abstraction that is usually applied incorrectly. Corporate monopolies and oligopolies often use it to justify their power and profits, even for products you could make more cheaply in your own house. Food is a perfect example -- there is no packaged food that comes close to the quality and low-cost of a homemade equivalent, and yet the premium on packaged food is astronomical. Is this "economy of scale"? The industry that mass-produces food would have us think so.

Places and products

In most of the world, the displacement of local production, along with the loss of economic independence, that has accelerated since the industrial revolution, has been accompanied by an increasing destruction of places of community.

Neighborhoods were replaced by "zones" for shopping, working, education, and residence. This has been especially true in the US since WW II. Since production was commodified, neighborhood coherence was less valued by planners, architects, developers, financiers, politicians etc. Awareness of this problem has improved in recent years, but the rate of neighborhood destruction, and conversion to mass-production, is still heady.

Given this, why not reverse both trends together? Why not relocalize products and recommunalize places?

One possibly useful tool is a "geographically-focussed incubation network". We're building one to revitalize downtown Eugene, Oregon.

Downtown Eugene was drained and destroyed by Urban Renewal and automobile economics over the past 40 years, and much of it is abandoned, or feels that way. A popular new nightlife district recently sprang to life, and there's now community interest in filling the surrounding empty spaces.

A recent measure to increase Urban Renewal spending (which was defeated) caused a rift among people focussed on downtown, but it was followed by a kind of increased energy and reconciliation, and an agreement that creative, grassroots solutions could help to fix the problems.

To spark such solutions, a citizens' group is hosting a series of "networking events" ... the intention is to bring together all levels of people who might help each other to actually do something positive downtown. This means an open, all-level gathering of potential partners, clientele, entrepreneurs, non-profit organizers, developers, investors etc. It means trying to get people to:

1. start a project

2. gather steam for it

3. figure out how to make it real

4. present it to the larger community

Socioeconomic networking

The biggest difficulty in launching a new venture, is visibility. How does the talent to relocalize, the desire to relocalize, etc. become visible to the community? Without a permanent exchange on which to announce these desires, potential cooperation becomes lost.

If a physical area is revitalized through creation of new local businesses and activities, then it's easy to be visible. But the same cannot be said of the desire to expand, to branch out, to cooperate, collaborate, and form flexible economic cooperative networks. These things are necessary for the survival of neighborhoods and local economies, as they are constantly assaulted by marketing attacks from outside corporate interests.

One solution is a team of people who constantly try to connect everyone. In a different age, a chamber of commerce would have played this role. But now the need for cooperation and fluidity is great, so we need new tools for those who are trying to repair their torn community economies.

One obvious place to do this, is the community memory of our age: the world wide web.

Greg Bryant