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Posted by Charlotte Ashlock, Executive Editor, Berrett-Koehler Publishers Inc.
Charlotte Ashlock is a crazy idealist trying to make the world a better place!
Last week, I attended BALLE’s conference on the growing Localist Movement. Localists shop at Main Street stores and farmer’s markets instead of Wall Street’s big box stores and malls. But the movement is much more than a preference for high-quality, artisan products; localists passionately believe that keeping our money local will liberate us from the vicissitudes and injustice of a globalized economy.
Conference organizers called for us “to create a new economy with a living and breathing heart of justice at its center...Prosperity for All." Before BALLE, I’d thought the localist movement was something for the high-end consumer… but the conference showed me the movement had expanded to include race, class, and justice issues.
I attended one particularly moving workshop, facilitated by Nikki Silvestri, where they reminded us that slavery is the very foundation of our modern economy. The USA rose to strength and power on the backs of slaves- and even today, capitalism exerts its human toll. The biggest brunt is still born by minority groups, but even majority and powerful groups suffer within systems which are not built to respect humanity. And there are powerful interests preventing change: big organizations can lobby the government easily to steer things their way.
As a 2010 graduate from a private liberal arts college, I belong to a pretty privileged group. But when the recession hit, it felt like my group was being ground beneath the wheels of capitalism. All our lives, we’d been promised jobs if we worked hard at school and followed the rules. But when the economy went bust, all those promises turned to lies. We struggled to find a sense of meaning, purpose, and self-worth in a globalized economy that ignored us in favor of outsourcing and robots.
Even though I eventually found a job I loved (working for Berrett-Koehler Publishers) I’m still painfully aware of human frailty in the face of massive economic forces. I have a sense of being a fragile skiff afloat on a vast and stormy economic ocean. Sure, I’m happily pulling in my fish for now. When will the next big wave swamp us all? What use is teaching a man to fish, when the storms are too big to fail?
BALLE opened with a magnificent performance by a Spoken Word poet who gave us “a new dictionary for a new economy.” “My dictionary only goes up to W,” he warned us. “You’ll soon see why.” In a musically flowing, heart-pounding recitation, he listed all the adjectives that belong to localism: “Abundant, amazing, brilliant, bounteous,” and so on down the alphabet. When he reached W, his crescendo became a chant of, “We will win! We will win!” The audience, uncoached, rose joyfully to their feet to join the chant.
Standing there in that surge and tide of hopeful energy, chanting, “We will win,” with all the rest…. a tiny quiet thought intruded. “Will we win?” I thought. “Will we really?” I tried to imagine mom & pop shops winning against Walmart, local bookstores winning against Amazon, windmills and solar winning against Big Oil… and it just seemed rather unlikely.
I stopped chanting. I stood in my own little pool of silence even as the energy of the crowd soared and roared around me. I thought, “What do I really believe our future holds?” And the answer terrified me:
Corporations ruling the world in new-fashioned feudalism: office drones crawling in and out of skyscrapers like ants from a hill. Climate change: floods overwhelming the coastlines, hurricanes ravaging countries rich and poor. Social disorder: tides of refugees fleeing weather catastrophe and war, turned away at every door. People hypnotized by the rippling colors of Google Glass, brushing disdainfully past the millions of beggars sleeping on the streets. Buying guns to protect my home from the riots. Trying to teach my children to believe in goodness and justice, despite everything.
And after all that has happened, THEN maybe the people who’ve been working on local solutions all along, will be powerful enough to take over.
A few hours later, I shared the story of my existential crisis with my lunching companion, a kind-hearted lady in a beautiful scarf. She bit her lip and said, “I really like that quote they shared with us, ‘Times are too dire not to be optimistic.’ That’s the way I feel about it.”
Optimism is the tool we use to keep ourselves moving. And of course it is worth fighting the small battles— even if we believe we will lose the war. I still was glad to find I was not the only conference attendee who was secretly questioning it all.
Glynn Washington, host of NPR’s Snap Judgment, and moderator of the conference’s closing panel, drew laughter and applause when he asked the panelists, “Do you ever wonder if all this is bullshit? Will we really accomplish anything?”
It is a hard question to answer directly- none of us quite wants to look at the answer face-on. I think about this when Berrett-Koehler publishes yet another “leadership” book on treating your employees kindly and valuing them. I doubt WalMart’s board of directors is reading our book. And if perchance they found our little book… they would probably dissolve into gales of thigh-slapping laughter.
But after our world has weathered an apocalypse or two, perhaps the last laugh will be ours.