Going Local




Routledge       2000


The real work of planet-saving will be small, humble, and humbling, and (insofar as it involves love) pleasing and rewarding. Its jobs will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.

Wendell Berry



  • My involvement in local politics began shortly after I graduated from Stanford Law School in 1982, when I cofounded and then directed the Center for Innovative Diplomacy (CID). For 9 years, CID built up a network of several thousand mayors and council members who were eager to influence international relations through initiatives like antiapartheid divestment, nuclear-free zones, sister cities with war-torn villages in Nicaragua and El Salvadore, and stratospheric ozone-protection ordinances.
  • How could wealthier communities in the First World alleviate the poverty in most Third World megacities and villages? The best answers to this question were coming from a group called Towns and Development, a coalition of citizen groups, nongovernmental organizations, and elected officials based in the Hague.
  • Towns and Development commissioned me to write an evaluation of their programs, and I put my findings in a book titled Towards a Global Village. I was particularly concerned that participants professed their dedication to creating ‘sustainable communities,’ yet had no coherent vision of what the term meant.
  • In 1994, I wrote a paper on ‘Reclaiming the Inner City’ for the Kellogg Foundation’s Task Force on African-American Men and Boys and began to collect stories about communities making strides toward economic self-reliance.
  • This book aims to weave these anecdotes into a larger story of how community development can succeed in an era of globalization; it is written for anyone and everyone committed to reviving his, her, or their community.
  • Since most community-change agents do not have a lot of time on their hands, I’ve tried to keep this volume short, and free of jargon.
  • Many readers will be surprised – and some annoyed – to find that I’m also a strong believer in economic growth, weak central government, private ownership, and the profit motive. How all these views can exist within the same person is the story of this book. I believe that they not only are consistent but also have the potential to revive an all-but-dead progressive movement in America.



  • Nearly every state, county, city, town, and village in America is hitching its future to globe-trotting corporations. Most communities have become convinced that by creating a favourable business environment to attract multinational, export-oriented firms, they can compete in the new global economy and ensure good jobs at good wages.
  • Cleveland is widely considered the comeback kid of American cities, but there are some disquieting facts. Nearly half of the city’s population has moved to wealthier suburbs, creating an explosive level of economic and racial segregation. 42% of its residents live below the poverty line. 2 out of 3 kids never graduate from high school.
  • Stores and shops are closing down because of the proliferation of chain stores like Wal-Mart, Barnes & Noble, and Home Depot, which offer less expensive products. In the quest to find lower-wage venues elsewhere in the world, local industries have taken 96,000 high-paying manufacturing jobs out of the city since 1979, with offsetting job growth occurring primarily in low-pay professions like sales and clerking.
  • A week after the city’s baseball team narrowly lost the World Series, owner Art Modell moved the football team to Baltimore after failing to strong-arm Cleveland officials to build a new stadium.
  • Factories, offices, shops, farms and sports are the lifeblood of the community. They provide the jobs that keep families alive. They pump up the local economy through sales, savings, and investments. They pay the income-, property-, and sales taxes that finance schools, hospitals, police, and street repairs.


No place like home

  • This book is about how communities can reinvigorate their economies by ‘going local.’ For more than a generation, theorists like Leopold Kohr, Ivan Illych, E.F. Schumacher, Jane Jacobs, Paul Goodman, and David Morris have offered provocative ideas for a new economics sensitive to place.
  • Think tanks have sprung up around the world to elaborate and apply these ideas, including the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the E.F. Schumacher Society, the Institute for Community Economics, The Rocky Mountain Institute, and the New Economics Foundation in London. They share one core belief: a community can best strengthen its economy when it builds on its internal strengths.
  • Going local does not mean walling off the outside world. It means nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages, and serve primarily local consumers. It means becoming more self-sufficient, and less dependent on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of distant corporations and back to the community, where it belongs.
  • The key player in this transformation is an entity I will call a community corporation – any business anchored to the community through ownership.
  • The only way communities can ensure their economic well-being is to stop chasing multinational firms with no community loyalties, and to start investing in community corporations. Prosperity follows when ownership, production, and consumption become intimately connected with place.


The perils of mobility

  • The only part of the production process that cannot move is land. Parcels of real estate are where consumers live, farmers grow food, producers operate factories, and workers clock-in their time. And around these stationary islands emerge the networks of people, art, music, crafts, religion, and politics we call community.
  • The increasing mobility of our economic assets carries enormous risks. The growing power and will of corporations to move without notice or warning has presented many communities with a terrible dilemma: either cut wages and benefits, gut environmental standards, and offer tax breaks to attract and retain corporations, or become a ghost town.
  • How have states and cities responded to this dilemma? By offering ever-larger incentives for corporations to come in and set up shop.
  • Multinational corporations have become increasingly adept at pitting locales against one another. No piece of legislation protecting workers, consumers, or ecosystems can proceed very far without opponents warning about the dire consequences for the business climate.
  • Most community efforts to improve the quality of life weaken their ability to attract or hold on to footloose corporations.
  • Corporate mobility today poses 4 fundamental threats to U.S. communities: it guarantees that communities will continue to experience declines in both quantity and quality of jobs; sudden departures impose huge costs on all levels of government; the gradual destruction of local culture; and they undermine the capacity of communities to plan for the future.


The triumph of economists

  • Their challenge to economic orthodoxy contributed to most journalists’ and pundits ridiculing them as kooks. Free-marketers dismiss the costs imposed on communities by mobile corporations as irrelevant.
  • If agribusiness conglomerates operate more efficiently than family farmers, then it’s time for the latter to pack up their bags and move to the cities. If some communities lose factories while others gain them, don’t bail out the losers.
  • That the planet’s 447 billionaires now have more money than the poorest half of the world combined suggests how much room for redistribution there is. If shareholders turned some of their profits back into paying workers higher wages, prices also could remain stable.
  • Inflation reflects not a failure to keep a certain number of people out of work, but a refusal of corporate heads and shareholders to redistribute more fairly the gains from production.
  • What the popularity of NAIRU (Non-Accelerating Inflation Rate of Unemployment) theory really demonstrates is a moral posture: They would prefer to throw 5% of the workforce onto the streets than to shrink the rewards to managers or shareholders.
  • It is an inevitable reality in the new global economy that privately owned firms, seeking to maximize profits, will relocate production facilities to the most business-friendly areas in the world.


An emerging countermovement

  • Why are we producing so little of what we really need and so much of what we don’t need? So many industries are churning out products that are deadly (hand guns and land mines), addictive (tobacco and alcohol), ecologically harmful (hormone-disrupting chemicals), or useless.
  • Is greater consumption really the road to personal and social Nirvana? We focus too much on getting what we want now and not enough on future generations. Most of us buy and consume far more than we need.
  • If the world’s population doubles in the next century, our ability to survive as a species may depend on our ability to reduce per capita consumption of energy, water, wood, and other natural resources.
  • In recent years diverse communities have come together to advocate ‘sustainable development’ – development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
  • The real challenge is how to create decent long-term jobs without compromising the long-term health of the surrounding ecosystems. Too many advocates of sustainable development and sustainable communities seem unwilling to face the problem of corporate mobility.
  • The social movements that aspire to represent the interests of the working class have remarkably little to offer in the way of jobs and economic development. The absence of a clear progressive vision of business has ensured the dominance of the conservative vision.
  • A few progressive entrepreneurs have risen to the challenge by creating socially responsible businesses.


A way forward

  • This book provides the outlines of both a new economics and a new business philosophy, both based on the conservation of communities.
  • The imperatives for activists, businesspeople, politicians, and planners are simple: stop destroying the quality of local life to accommodate mobile corporations; stop expanding exports and instead create new import-replacing businesses that meet people’s needs; insist on the legal and political power to create a rich soil for homegrown enterprises.
  • The vision that follows is a modest one. Communities should increase their self-reliance on local resources, workers, and capital while appreciating that they cannot unplug from the global economy altogether.
  • A new commitment to going local would make a dramatic shift in the economic-development strategy of almost every city in America.
  • Chapter 1 presents an argument for addressing American’s yearning to renew their communities with a new economics that takes into account the critical importance of place.
  • The following chapters explore three different features of self-reliance: producing locally for local needs; owning business locally; and recycling finance locally.
  • Chapter 2 gives numerous examples of how communities are increasingly producing themselves necessities like food, energy, water, and materials. A growing number of businesses are finding it profitable to go local.
  • Chapter 3 looks at the issue of ownership. Chapter 4 suggests that the starting place for restructuring the local economy needs to be the financial sector.
  • Chapter 5 explores how a municipality can boost the economy by awarding subsidies, investments, contracts, and purchases primarily to community corporations. Chapter 6 shows the critical role that the federal government has to play. 
  • The book concludes in Chapter 7 with a 10-step plan for how you can help your own economy go local.
  • Every locality must find its own way. The arguments here can be nothing more than a framework for a community to retake control of its own economic destiny.
  • Any community – whether rich or poor, urban or rural, big or small, old or new – is confronted with insurmountable opportunities. To exploit these opportunities a community needs to start in its own backyard.

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