Historians can be pretty annoying bunch. Trained to see recurring themes over time, déjà vu is our steady state. More annoyingly, we feel obligated to alert everyone to the unoriginality of their thoughts, their aspirations, and their experiences. Maybe,sometimes, we over-exaggerate similarities through time. But we aren’t always wrong. Occasionally social trends glare so familiar, we can’t leave them alone. For me “local” is just such a case. When I see a “buy local” sticker on a passing Prius, voices from the past speak to me. In that motto, I hear the echoes of centuries of anti-modernism. And I hear a heartfelt American (particularly bohemian) longing for self-determination, authentic existence, and intense group affiliation. I also hear the siren song of politics built through personal choices and behaviors.
Localism first appeared in the motto "think globally, act locally" in late 1960s. Later in it appeared in the call for the 100 mile diet. Global and local were a weave in these first conceptualizations. But once the local notion hit the elite mainstream, in the form of farm-to-table, CSA, small batch consumerism, the thin tether that connected the small scale to the globe stretched ether-thin. The end became the food and food became the end. Sure, the helium balloon of anti-global politics bobs and swoops lightly above the heads of “localism” aesthetes chowing on free-range pork-loin with a side of scavenged fiddlehead ferns and cider braised spring ramps. But ultimately, the true pleasure of a local event (or local allegiance) is to see and talk to a “real farmer” to eat “real food” and clink glasses with others who want the same. It goes without saying that the pricey exclusivity of localist events, markets, and food IS the ding an sich-the thing in itself. In a hyperconsumptive culture, where identity is what one buys, authentic existence is often acquired with a debit card.
WHEN I HEAR LOCAL I HEAR:
I hear Thomas Jefferson and yeoman farmer idealism.
I hear Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau's retreat to Walden Pond.
I hear progressive era reformers Jane Addams and John Dewey and Randolph Bourne who longed to create localism in the heart of the modern city of Manhattan.
I hear Marxists back-to-landers, Helen and Scott Nearing.
I hear the Beats who heroically struggled not to be swallowed by the anonymity of Allen Ginsberg’s “supermarket America”.
And I hear the most recent ancestors of the local movement: the 1960s counterculture—in communes from the “Haight” to the Adirondacks and in experimental collective businesses.
Localism critics Julie Guthman and Melanie Dupuis rightly warn us to be careful with un-reflectively privileging the word and idea “local.” Local, in and of itself, while a powerful part of our national imagination, is not a place and not a solution.