The “localist movement” is making inroads across the United States, where more than 100 local business organizations have sprung up in the past decade. Although perhaps best known for its “buy local” efforts, the movement has a broader goal to help invigorate and maintain a region’s economic, environmental, political, and social well-being. But is that possible, especially during an economic downturn?
Rensselaer Professor David J. Hess answers that question in Localist Movements in a Global Economy: Sustainability, Justice, and Urban Development in the United States. The book draws on Hess’ research the first scholarly study on localism to assess how localist ventures and supportive government policies can contribute to a more just, more sustainable regional economy and society.
Among the obstacles to localism are perceptions that independent businesses cannot compete with their big-box counterparts, and that supporting the local economy requires funds that states and municipalities simply don’t have. According to Hess’ findings, those perceptions are not always accurate.
“Many small businesses have learned to become price competitive with the chains,” Hess said. Equally important, “they are organizing and delivering the message that they can compete with chains in other ways: with better service, with higher quality, and with combinations, such as used and new products, that only independent businesses can offer.”
On the government side, some of the most successful localism efforts stemmed from policy changes that required little or no investment. “Communities can make an enormous difference by revising zoning and economic development policies and practices to help level the playing field for small businesses,” Hess said.
A professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, Hess serves as director of the Program in Ecological Economics, Values, and Policy. He also is a board member of the nonprofit Capital District Local First, an affiliate of the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economy.
Hess’ interest in localism was prompted by his earlier research on the relationships between social movements and industrial innovation. His book on those findings, Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization, recently earned him the 2009 Robert K. Merton Award, given by the American Sociological Association Section on Science, Knowledge and Technology. For Localist Movements in a Global Economy, Hess drew on empirical evidence, gathered during interviews and site visits between 2005 and 2008.
“The key finding is that localism has connections with the sustainability and social justice movements,” Hess said. “But because localism is primarily a middle-class movement, supported by small businesses, its connections with sustainability and justice depend a lot on specific organizations and the local industrial sectors.”
In some communities, for example, localism is evident in community gardens or business development in low-income neighborhoods. In other regions, it has helped give rise to green public transportation systems or locally owned utilities and conservation programs for low-income residents.
Hess recognizes that “localism is by no means a panacea,” but he also is optimistic at its potential to “serve as an ingredient in projects to build more democratic, just, and sustainable politics for the 21st century.”
More information on David Hess’ research is available at www.davidjhess.org. To read an interview with Hess, go to http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11802&xid=13&xcid=12359.
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