Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Local Economies and Ethics

In Deep Economy, Bill McKibben argues in support of local media and in support of distributed power generation. (This is my university's common text this year, and I'm teaching it in my ethics course.)

I’ve long believed that these are important and under-appreciated public problems (together with how recent expansions of intellectual property rights constrain creativity).

McKibben cleverly twins these issues as symptoms of a larger problem: the loss of local control over how we lead our lives. If local media were substituted for corporate nation-wide media, we would have the opportunity to develop our own tastes and ideas, not just swallowing what is mass-produced for everyone to consume. We might appreciate the diversity around us, learn more about our communities, and develop new tastes. If we had the ability to feed to as well as take from the electric grid, we might find pleasure in making this commodity for our neighbors to use:

Instead of something that you buy from far away, energy becomes something you help make and distribute to your neighbors. On a sunny day I can walk down to the electric meter under my porch and watch it spin the wrong way. As long as the sun stays out, the solar panels on my roof make me a utility. It’s a sweet feeling, knowing that my neighbor’s refrigerator is running off the panels above my head….Japan leads the world in building a decentralized solar-panel energy economy…[Perhaps] because people feel both an obligation to and an ability to trust one another… (p. 148)

But I’m left with the question: What is ethical about supporting local economies? Is this just a fancy twist on identifying and supporting what is in our own selfish interests? Sometimes McKibben presents localism as a way of keeping profits in the community: we support our neighbors’ businesses, and then they reciprocate and support us. We benefit by cutting out middlemen who drain profits out of the community.

This may be smart and it may be efficient, but is there any sense in which it could be ethical? Indeed, an emphasis on local communities over the universal public cuts against over 200 years of Kantian ethics and over 100 years of calculating “the greatest good for the greatest number.” I’ve been wondering how to fit this support for local economies into an ethics class. In an earlier post, I argued that virtue ethics can sometimes do the job, since virtue is aimed at guiding people to cultivate the virtues that we most admire in others, including virtues such as charity, friendliness, and living deliberately. Care ethics, in particular, prioritizes beneficence directed toward our circles of family, friends, and acquaintances over beneficence to strangers.

Without adopting a version of virtue/care ethics, it is impossible to say what drives a choice to consume local goods rather than imported ones (excluding, of course, the environmental cost of transportation). In utilitarian fashion, Peter Singer argues that buying food products grown in poverty-stricken areas directs our money to the people who benefit from it the most. He argues convincingly (in The Way We Eat) that this is true even when foreign growers are not participating in fair trade programs. Against this argument, McKibben’s plea to invest in local communities rather than poor communities seems to be supported by little more than self-interest? (Certainly, many of my students interpret it in that way.)

However, I think that support for local economies, local power generation, local media, and local agriculture can be justified in one more way. It can be justified on the grounds of the psychology of responsibility and on the limits of knowledge. Looking for justification from ethical theory is to look in the wrong toolbox. Instead, we should look to social epistemology and to moral psychology.

The greatest benefit of localism is that it functions to establish accountability. McKibben sells localism as a route to greater happiness—we are more likely to have friendly, meaningful conversations at the farmer’s market than the supermarket. But another benefit of localism is that it’s easier to know what’s going on in a limited sphere, and we are more likely to take an interest in it. “NIMBY” is a phrase that’s used to denigrate elites who would prefer exploitive, dangerous, unsightly, or polluting operations to be located out of sight, in other communities or overseas. But there’s a positive side to NIMBY movements, too. If something is so unpleasant or harmful that no one wants it, there is motivation to change our practices or improve our technologies or accept higher prices. When products and power come from under our noses, it's much more difficult to hide or externalize costs.

Perhaps McKibben's best example is of local, sustainable logging. In the forestry industry, it is efficient to clearcut an area and then replant it. One reason this is efficient is that it takes all of the value now, and thus hedges bets against an uncertain future. Another reason is that sustainable logging is more labor and equipment and time intensive. In fact, with the economy going the way it has been (barring global recession, that is), it is more economically efficient to harvest the value from forests now and to reinvest the profit. Any standard investment will reap a greater economic return over the time that it takes to regrow a forest than to actually regrow the forest. But this is a viable strategy only if you don't mind eradicating your forests, and forests have more than economic value. In McKibben's example, people are more willing to pay a higher price for sustainable forest products if those products come from woods that they know and enjoy.

The ethical aspect of McKibben’s localism is that it activates responsibility.


Khadimir said...

What is ethical about supporting local economies? How can supporting the local community ever fail to be ethical? Ever? Short of a parochialism of evil?

I suspect that a modernist universalism (e.g., Kant, Mill, etc.) and liberalism underlie some of the mentioned lines of thinking. Contrariwise, if one grants that the community is part of oneself, and vice versa, then "localism" should be the default standpoint. Concerns for some context writ large or a universal lead one to disconnecting abstractions ... or sometimes to escape a damaging parochialism, hence the value of the afore-mentioned thinkers.

If students were interpreting localism as self-interest, then I would say that they might be disconnected from their communities (which is likely literally true in their current student context), which is aided and abetted by our current socio-cultural milieu. (That is, the homeostatic activities of an organic community will appear as self-serving rather than as sustaining.) Such disconnection fosters the instrumentalization of our lives, which leads to that "loss of control over how we lead our lives."

I guess I would first target the assumptions that make "localism" problematic rather than first try to defend it, for otherwise the game is already given to the universalist-liberal tendencies that I think should be combatted. ("Liberal" in the classical sense says this raving Lefty.)

lga said...

In general, I support your observation that local purchasing is best supported by care ethics, because it can potentially activate responsibility. Here are my further thoughts:

The local/global distinction can be a useful heuristic in decision-making when there isn't time for a richer understanding of the origin of one's purchases. To the extent that it defines local origin as "good" and distant origin as "inferior," though, I think it is obscuring the real issues. The real ethical benefit, I think, is that when we buy locally made goods, we are more likely to see the interconnectedness between those goods and other values. The goods are not simply interchangeable objects, things, devoid of all associations beyond one's ownership, and because of this, one is more likely to appreciate them, savor them if they're consumable, care for them and maintain them properly if they're durable. In other words, we are more likely to have a personal, rather than instrumental, orientation toward them, and the result of cultivating personal relationships with objects is that one finds oneself more connected to, and less alienated from, one's personal world.

The heuristic I prefer isn't the local/global distinction, but rather whether or not the goods have a storied origin. If I know the story behind something - the conditions under which it was grown or made, the fact that a loved one personally selected the object for me as a gift, details of the life of the creator, etc. - then that object has an enriched status for me. I should value it more. If I believe it was made under exploitive conditions, my appreciation for the item should be bittersweet, and my concern may motivate me to do what I can to address those conditions for the future, which may include not supporting the organization creating those conditions by not buying the product.

If we take the local/global distinction too far, we will fail to support the craftspeople around the world who are attempting to maintain the traditions they've inherited and to exercise their own creativity without selling out to Big Business, and we will likewise overlook the harm caused by exploitive businesses in our own community. I would far rather have a sweater purchased just for me by a friend from a weaver on the far side of the world than a chicken from our local factory farm.

Skye said...

I am a student in the ethic class mentioned here, and I’ve been thinking about localism further as well.

It may be partly the source of the push for localism that causes my initial recoil, because I fundamentally disagree with some of the premises of environmentalism as a movement. Most of my writing has been against McKibben targeting that deeper level. I think I may have missed isolating the issue of localism itself.

What I’ve conveniently neglected is that I live in a small potato farming community in northern Maine, and when I look at the way I actually live my life, I function in the way McKibben is advocating. I support local businesses in our downtown as much as possible. My family buys food from the high school farm down the street (where most of my friends work) whenever it is available. We would never dream of buying a sack of Idaho potatoes, and look for the “Cheney” label because we know the entire family, and that their sons who I graduated with helped keep the farm going while their dad was serving in Iraq.

Living in a small town it is impossible not make such connections, and knowing the extended values at stake automatically changes your decisions. It may be cheaper to buy online, but it’s not worth losing the only art supply store within a 3-hour drive (whose owner is my ex-boyfriend’s aunt). I take all this for granted, as do most of the people there whose families have been in the county for generations and who can’t imagine life any other way. Many would laugh at there being entire books about how people crave a sense of belonging and should force themselves to change their consumption habits in an attempt to fill that void.

Valuing the community you live in is self-interest, and that sense of worth inspires community-oriented action. (This is neither a negative nor an amoral basis, it simply means that you understand that the people around you enrich your life, and thus their interests begin to matter to you- perhaps ranking higher than some of your other values, such as money.) But buying locally out of a sense of duty after reading this book or listening to localist arguments, is an attempt to reverse cause and effect, to impassively practice an action in order to obtain what should have been its cause. In a way, by seeking to avoid self-interest as the root, McKibben falls into a more negative selfishness, promoting care for one’s community as a means of gaining a value for oneself: that sense of connectedness and place, rather than as a payment to the value that is community. I think that this is the source of his internal conflict evident throughout the book. If we rejected the Kantian notion that in order for an action to be ethical, it must necessarily oppose self-interest, and stopped over-simplifying self-interest itself, no conflict would exist.

Evelyn Brister said...

Nice thought about cause and effect, Skye. If it's worth supporting local people and local businesses and local efforts, then they ought to deserve that support. I agree with what you're saying--that if we live in a community, and if we value the things and events that are coming out of that community--then we will support them because they deserve it, not because some guy from Vermont says we should or because we're convinced by his examples.

I would only qualify that by saying that what comes naturally to you and to your family and your community has been lost by some other communities. That was Kunstler's point, too. There are places (is it too easy to point the finger at Henrietta?) where you can look high and low and not find a local flavor that differs from some suburb outside of Houston or Atlanta or Kansas City except in the weather forecast.

Sometimes, in my more discouraged moods, I actually think McKibben is aiming too high. There are some students (and neighbors and colleagues) who are not only unaware of what's going on that's unique to their own communities, they also don't appreciate their talents and have no ambition to be a creator themselves. They think that "personalizing" their facebook page or picking a PowerPoint template off a menu of 20 options really is as creative as it gets.