Of Unicorns and Mules

(A Response to Small is Possible, by Lyle Estil)

Small is possible. I’m a believer. In fact, we have to assume that small will be necessary, short of miraculous developments in the field of renewable energy, allowing society to fully replace its fossil fuel needs within coming decades. More likely, the first answer to the looming death of fossil energy will be to sustainably produce most goods where they are consumed. We will shorten not only our food-miles, but our clothing-miles, our construction-materials-miles, our health-care-products-miles, etc. Furthermore, Small may be necessary to a healthy democracy. We’ve watched Big buy more and more elections, and the average American voter feels increasingly alienated, disempowered, and politically apathetic – just look at our pitiful voter turnout numbers, despite low approval rates for national government. Small was what many American founders had in mind, most notably Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned a nation of agrarian smallholders, whose economy remained inextricably tied to the land. An entire movement of progressive young people, under the mantle of “new agrarianism,” are dusting off those ideas to see if we might reclaim some of Jefferson’s vision in the present day, even in our urbanized, technologized society.

So you’re right, Mr. Estil, small is possible, and the town of Pittsboro, North Carolina is working to prove it. Some of the local businesses that have come together there are indeed impressive and inspiring, not least Piedmont Biofuels, where Estil is a founder. The town’s progressive focus has resulted in blossoming small scale sustainable agriculture, a local co-op grocer, a thriving local bank, and various local energy projects – the basics of a self-sustaining small economy. To increase the benefit of these businesses, the region has a local currency, called the Plenty. Plenties circulate only in Pittsboro and surrounding towns, increasing the local “multiplier,” or the number of times a dollar (or Plenty) changes hands within the community before it leaves town. When it comes to self-sustaining economics, the longer a dollar stays in the community, the better.

But before we sing the praises of this exemplary local economy, we should acknowledge where all that locally circulating money actually came from. Estil began his career in the computer industry just as the internet was taking off. He brought with him to Pittsboro (presumably) a decent pile of global-market money. We can probably safely guess that many of the progressive, alternative-economy-seeking residents of Pittsboro retreated to the woods from lucrative jobs in the Research Triangle, bringing their global-economy money along with them. I currently live right down the road from Pittsboro, and I can comment from experience that the town also benefits from a high cuteness factor. Being the county seat, it has a beautiful old courthouse, a classic main street, and two significant highways that feed traffic into the town. Meaning, when businesses that capitalize on that traffic, it’s going to catch some tourists – another source of global economy dollars. Businesses like “The French Connection,” a quirky little boutique with a front yard full (and I mean full) of whimsical metal sculptures, can’t “anchor” a town economy as Estil describes without a good deal of moneyed tourist traffic. They’re not selling Eiffel Tower sculptures in the dozens to farmer Joe out in the county.

In some ways, Pittsboro is situated much like another small town where dedicated folks are practicing small-economy principles, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Great Barrington is home to the Schumacher Center for New Economics (formerly the E.F. Schumacher Society), a non-profit based on the ideas of economist E.F. Schumacher that manages a local currency (the Berkshare) and promotes local entrepreneurship of all sorts. Great Barrington is a wonderful, walkable town with a thriving independent business scene, which I was lucky enough to briefly enjoy while completing an internship with the Schumacher Center.

But again, let’s consider where the money is coming from. The first line of the town’s Wikipedia article reads, “Great Barrington is an affluent town in Berkshire County, Massachusetts, United States.” Affluent – not because of its multiplier number, (which is surely better than most rural towns) but because of its location. By and large, the money in beautiful, mountainous Berkshire County comes along in the pockets of vacationers and second-homeowners from New York City. Like Pittsboro, its Main Street is historic, walkable, on a significant highway, and downright adorable. There are no major chain stores in town. Then again, there are very few low-wage service workers who can afford to live within Great Barrington itself. Many who work in town live elsewhere, and shop at the Wal-Mart in Pittsfield, presumably.

For those who now have their hackles raised about my criticizing the efforts of some of the most progressive towns in America, don’t get too worked up. I don’t think there’s a thing wrong with what’s happening in Pittsboro or Great Barrington. The good work is being done, and being done whole-heartedly in these places, and the results are significant and praiseworthy. Estil is right to believe that places like Pittsboro are leading the charge toward the new economy, and they will undoubtedly be better off, if and when the fossil-fuel age comes to a crashing end. They are creating better quality of life for many people who do business in their local communities. However, this does not make Pittsboro or Great Barrington the desirable model for transition to the next economy. These towns are unicorns. Which is to say, they are a rarity, not an archetype. Each is situated at a perfect convergence of proximity to out-of-towners with disposable income, progressive politics, and miraculous cosmetic preservation. There are probably a number of unicorns across the country, picturesque small towns next to big towns or universities, who can siphon big-town, global-economy money into their small-town circulation. Good for them. They’ll be the first testing grounds, where novel economic strategies can be implemented with relatively lower risk. The question is, what about everyone else – in other words, the vast majority of America, and the world?

If Great Barrington is a unicorn, Park, Kansas is a mule. It’s a blip on the map along Interstate 70, one of many towns passed every day by thousands of drivers who have no business there. Because my family lives in Colorado, and I seem inexorably drawn to the East, I have driven back and forth on this Interstate several times, with all my meager possessions packed to the ceiling of my Prius. Every trip, in between the big fast-food gas station stops, I notice little towns – just a steeple and a water tower rising out of a haze of small buildings, at the end of a dirt farm road, in a sea of corn and beans. For each one I can see from I-70, there must be a dozen more beyond the horizon, along the vast networks of dusty county roads with numbers and not names that criss-cross the once and future Great Plains. I feel drawn to pull off the freeway, but I usually don’t. I’m making good time, good mileage, and what business do I have in a random farm town? But I finally pulled off the road in Park, the last time I made the drive. I was moving back to Colorado from Great Barrington, and my interest in small town economy was piqued. Park is closer to the interstate than most of these mysterious steeple-towns, and I finally found its gravitational pull irresistible. I rolled off the pavement beyond the exit, and kicked up a little cloud of dust, up and down the streets of a ghostlike community.

Park is beautiful. The tallest structure (other than the small grain elevator by the freeway) is an ornate red-brick Catholic church on the east side of town. The north-south streets are named Cedar, Elm, Main, Walnut, Cottonwood, and Maple. The east-west streets are numbered 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th. There is a gas station, a liquor store, and the remains of a few other businesses. Park could be (and presumably once was) a walkable small-business community. Before the advent of mechanized farming and the construction of the interstate, it must have had its own stores and grocers, and other services. Now, the few residents must have to drive I-70 to a neighboring town to buy much of anything. The buildings that should house community-sustaining businesses still stand. But there is no money coming to Park. It is near absolutely nothing else. It is not quite cute, in the way of a Pittsboro or a Great Barrington. Of all the streets in its neat, compact grid, only Main Street and part of 2nd (leading up to the church) are paved. To its credit, there is clearly a lot of pride in Park – all the residences are neatly kept, municipal areas mowed – but it’s not clear where its kick into the next economy will come from.

Maybe truly rural communities like Park are destined for the dustbin. Maybe the wave into the next economy passes them by, and maybe that’s ultimately, in the grand scheme of things, okay. But if the new economy is about putting people first, maybe it’s not okay at all to consign the 126 livelihoods of Park to history. That’s the strategy of global economy after all – destroyed communities are merely acceptable cost for “the greater good.” Maybe towns like this are the challenge we have to meet. One must wonder what an ambitious town garden, a small biodiesel co-op, and a local currency could do for such a community. Can sweat equity, community resource sharing, and a little progressive strategy bootstrap a local economy into viability? What if local-economy strategies could resurrect a lonely outpost on the plains? Then we’d be getting somewhere. Maybe the new-economic mantra should be, “if you can make it in Park, you can make it anywhere.” If small were proven to be possible, right now, with no steady flow of global-economy cash, then small would begin to look much more viable for many more communities. If new-economic thinking could take hold in a place that looked more like a mule than a unicorn, it would spark a real movement toward systemic change.

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