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Thursday, December 20, 2012

Beware the "Local" Trap

By Wes Eaton

The buzzword “local” has grown in popularity in recent years. But more than this, notions of “being local” have accompanied an increasing number of projects and enterprises, and this is certainly true for West Michigan. But has “local” lost its bite? Is “local” at risk of being co-opted? If so, where do we draw the line, and who ought to draw it?

For me at least, notions of “local” are symbolically charged with concepts like authenticity, originality, limited availability, craftsmanship, integrity, and honesty. In other words, local products and local practices carry with them the normative assumption that they are better than such goods and services that are not local. What this seems to imply is that local goods are worthy of our trust. We have built up the notion of local to quite a high standard, and if this is indeed the case, my argument is that we need to listen to those who would caution against “the local trap.”

In 2006, two planners, Brandon Born and Mark Purcell, published a provocative paper titled Avoiding the Local Trap: Scale and Food Systems in Planning Research that made some points I’d like to share with my fellow West Michiganers. Before I go on, I want to point out that their agenda is not aligned with global corporations—entities we assume are threatened by our turn toward local economies. Rather, the authors are concerned that all the fanfare about being local has obscured many of the socially positive things “local” is actually taken to mean. In other words, the definition, use, and value of the concept of local is itself at the center of conflicting ideas of social betterment, and those who see local in the way I romanticized above had better take a closer look at how this powerful and meaningful concept is being put into play.

Like good planners, Born and Purcell unpack the notion of locality by pointing out that what this essentially implies is “scale.” They are anxious to point out the ways that scale, in this case, local versus global, has been misconstrued with socially positive concepts such as justice, sustainability, and democratization. In making this conceptual and emotive slip, we fall into the “local trap,” a pitfall that can blind us “to the most effective strategy for achieving desired ends.”

Thinking about this requires us to ask a couple key historical questions. How did we turn toward the local in the first place? And what were we turning from? Globalized food systems have been increasingly decried in the media and well as in everyday culture. If global food system players, such as, say, Anheuser-Busch InBev are the problem, then locally produced beer is the solution. Indeed this has been a rallying cry in our community for years now, especially from folks like me. But the “local trap” points out that there are limitations with this simplistic, black and white way of understanding the world, and understanding food systems in particular.

The point Born and Purcell stress is that we need to distinguish between issues of scale and issues of socially desirable practices and outcomes, whatever they may be in particular contexts. In other words, scale can creep in and supplant these other “desired ends.” Take beer for example: what are our collective “desired ends” for craft beer? Their paper has three specific things to say about distinguishing between “scale” and “desired ends.” First, scales (such as “local food”) are socially constructed, meaning they are contingent on political struggles. Second, scales are never stagnant, but are always in flux. They are a project that people work to achieve, but are continuously contested by other interests. Finally, scales are relational, meaning they only make sense in relation to other scales. Rather than taking scales such as “local” or “global” at face value, they argue, we ought to interrogate how the relationships between scales are fixed and unfixed by people pursuing specific political, social, economic, and ecological goals. We should ask why a particular scale is better than others for achieving specific goals, “and these goals should be distinguished from the scale used to pursue these ends.”

What can we learn from and how can we use these insights? While our answers are likely contingent on our own personal or professional interests, the first advice I might offer is that the ends we are all looking to pursue need to be made more clear, and following Born and Purcell, distinguished from “scale.” We need to ask, is “being local” an end in itself, or is it a means to an end? While Born and Purcell might argue the latter, I would think that others would agree with my pointing out that this does not tell the whole story. In some cases being local is clearly concomitant with socially, ecologically, and economically positive ends. Take the case of restaurants and chefs who seek out locally grown and produced food and beer so as to reduce pollution from transportation, resist the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, and support an up and coming generation of small farmers. This story and others like it certainly resonates in West Michigan. But does local automatically mean these things? Many of you, I’m sure, can think of examples where the notion of “local” has been exploited by people both powerful and less so, instances where the product and service fell far short of the promise that came—and we knowingly or unwittingly attributed—with the glowing badge of “being local.” After all, all places are in effect “local” if we are near them. In this sense then, local is a pretty low standard. My argument, then, is this: we take a lot of pride and have a lot at stake in our local goods and services. Beyond “scale,” let’s emphasize exactly why what we have to contribute is authentic, integral, unique, and substantially important for our economies, communities, and cultures.

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