Localism: Small is Beautiful


At a time when “isms” seem to be reproducing like rabbits, it’s hard not to be confused. What exactly does the word localism mean?

According to Webster’s, localism means, “the state or condition of being local; the influence that a particular place or location exerts.” It’s the idea of exerting influence that seems the most important characteristic of localism.

A search of the term localism results in a number of recent articles, most of which posit localism as a response to the problems of Washington’s hyper-partisanship and central control. The age old practice of handing down a one-size fits all solution, whether it’s from the central office of a large multi-national, or Capitol Hill, all too often begets the dreaded “unintended consequences” when it hits the regional office or Main Street. Localism, then, is emerging as an alternative path to getting things done.

No reflection on the term localism is authentic without recognizing the tremendous contributions of E. F. Schumacher, the brilliant economist and author of Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered.

Schumacher’s perspective on work and economics reflected, in the late sixties, a prophetic understanding. He grasped the problems of this age, because he recognized what had taken root in his day, nearly fifty years ago: consumption for consumption’s sake; shareholder value theory and its progeny, globalization and the violence being done to Earth’s systems. Schumacher understood that systems of economics should serve people, and in serving people, elevate and value people above things.

By applying Buddhist reverence for non-violence, Schumacher articulated localism as a principle and foundation for “human scale” economics. In his essay, “Buddhist Economics”, Schumacher wrote,

“As physical resources are everywhere limited, people satisfying their needs by means of a modest use of resources are obviously less likely to be at each other’s throats than people depending upon a high rate of use. Equally, people who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.”

What happens when we reject an economic system predicated on continual consumption, one that consumes resources at rates approaching six times Earth’s ability to provide and destroys communities in its wake? What would happen if we embrace a local economic system that holds in primacy meaningful human work and the provision of the needs of the community through local means?

Too often, entrepreneurs and the folks who fund them get caught-up in the “big is better” syndrome; they pursue mythical beings called unicorns, believing when they find one, all will be well. The allure of big bucks blinds them to the elegant solutions found in the simplicity of small scale. What would happen if all the entrepreneurial energy of our community was directed through Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” framework?

What are we doing in our community – in Detroit and the region – to apply Schumacher’s principles of “small is beautiful”? As a grass roots movement, localism is beginning to take shape in our community: There are entrepreneurs, business leaders, venture capitalists and others who are making in-roads; they’re leading the way to what could be a vibrant and resilient, local economy, one that serves people at human scale.

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