I've been asking myself the question: does it make any sense to have a local economy as a goal? Can local economies still work? Or is the whole "buy local" trend just a nostalgic or even irresponsible fantasy? Has our population even here in Ka'u over-grown to the point where we must have global economies of scale for all of us to survive?
In the big picture, there's no doubt that we need industrial agriculture, with its complex set of technologies and skills, to continue to make enough calories available to all or famine will happen. At the same time our global system of production and distribution has become rigid and therefore inefficient. It also supports and is supported by a certain world-view which is overly simplified and therefore, basically, stupid. A lot of people growl about corporations, but there's nothing wrong with corporations in and of themselves. Corporations, big and small, are just one way to organize people and materials. It is the world view - the culture - that undergirds global corporations (and hedge funds and credit-derivative swaps) that is so ridiculous. Ridiculous because blindered and short-sighted. Ridiculous because sterile, obsessive, neurotic. Does anyone like to live in a McDonalds, an office tower, or a strip-mall? The stripped down environments that this world view generates just plain suck. They really are like malignant tissue.
Bryan Fagan's book draws strong connections between rigid, top-heavy, and overly centralized civilization and the inability to adapt to the challenges which extreme weather such as El Nino inflicts. Our business culture certainly has become overly rigid (banks "too big to fail") and top-heavy (bonuses), and definitely over-centralized (just try to start a small business).
Here's the weird thing from a food producer's point of view: the more involved you become with our modern system of processing and distribution, the less -pound for pound - the stuff you produce is worth. Why? Because your carrots, corn, cucumbers, or in my case, beef have to carry the weight of the entire structure, the top-heavy and elaborate structure of distributors and government regulators, bankers and insurance salespeople, truckers, grocery-store clerks, food writers, chefs, graphic designers, window-washers, janitors, etc, etc, etc. To support all that there is a relentless pressure to drive down the costs of the actual stuff that the system exists to distribute. It's the opposite of adding value. The structure overwhelms the content. And so we have CAFOs and GMOs, giant slaughterhouses and illegal alien farm-workers. It's not somebody else's problem. We are all implicit and complicit. And it is all much more fragile than most people realize.
Which gets me back to the title of this piece: congruous & modular. Which is how I am breaking down that the all-too-ubiquitous concept of "sustainability" in my mind. I think we should aim to build systems that are congruous with the scale and character of communities and regions, that are congruous with local values, the local environment, and the particular carrying capacities of local natural resources. We also need to build flexibility into our systems by making them more modular (rather than centralized, consolidated, or global) in character. As well as being flexible, modular systems are also more human-scale, and therefore have the ability to tap into the creativity of individuals more completely, which really is a profoundly under-utilized natural resource at present. These are both time-tested grass-roots survival strategies, of course, nothing new. But I think congruous and modular - which local systems generally are- is the way to go.