The United States economic outlook is bleak, and predictions for the cultural fabric rather ominous. Don Peck writes in this month’s Atlantic that joblessness “is likely to warp our politics, our culture and the character of society for years to come.” While I tend to agree, I’m also working hard with folks on what to do to stave off this impending doom. What seems to help is going local, or investing in community, according to Dr. Robert Leahy, or recommitting “ourselves to cleaning up democracy” (2/2/10), according to Economist Robert Reich. Going local means re-investing in the place you live and re-establishing possibilities that your local environment can support. David Brooks comments “Somehow there must be a way to use the country’s idle talent to address freshly exposed needs.” That’s right. People must focus on the places they live, see what needs doing, and get started with the task of creating, developing and providing new services, ideas, products and systems that can help usher in the new economy of the better decades awaiting us. Some people are trying.
I’ve been encouraged by the small steps I have observed people taking. A middle-aged man has been re-educating himself to channel years of business expertise into a career consultation practice. A middle aged woman is transforming her marketing expertise into accounting services for people in need. A young lawyer is trying to apply his newly acquired skills to clean energy. A technologist is figuring out how to combine a love of yoga with his mastery of the internet.
Make no mistake, this is very hard work. People are working for free. They are suffering financially. They are scared and frightened, and I am doing a great deal of hand holding. Yet, they have accepted the demise of an old economy and are bravely leaping into the future with ideas, some of which may not work. While not necessarily happy and relaxed these people are feeling better because they are freed from the idealistic illusion that large businesses and industries can meet the local needs of all its citizens, and solve backyard problems, so to speak. Globalization has a great deal to offer the world, but communities tend to fare better when they generate ideas and businesses that work within the limitations of their local ecosystem and take advantage of possibilities inherent in the talent pool in their midst.
A young woman, a former event planner, explained it like this: “The thing is, I graduated from college thinking I would just make tons of money but then I started to think about what I would do with all that money. It’s like food . . . yes, you can buy an enormous amount of food for an event and it can look great. But what happens to all the food when the event is over? It just gets wasted, often thrown away. Why not make as much as you need and use the rest of your resources to help others? This way, everybody benefits. ”
For a long time in the United States, the prevailing point of view was that large scale corporate operations could subsume the local needs of citizens and their environments. Instead, large scale corporate and financial institutions should begin investing, or re-investing, in the local authority of citizens, their ideas, their economies, and the needs of their habitats and eco-systems. And people should do their part by actively generating the creative ideas, projects and plans that make sense right here at home, wherever home may be. It is a risky approach, and it often won’t work out. The attempt however will land somewhere. Risk, after all, is a part of life. Best to embrace it, ride it and benefit from it rather than mistakenly assume that any job can supplant it with the illusion of security.