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Localism is attractive today—but that’s often localism as a form of consumerism. True localism is demanding.

Democracy, Winston Churchill famously remarked, is the worst form of Government, “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

A similar line of thinking runs through last week’s Givers, Doers, and Thinkers podcast with Gracy Olmstead concerning localism—that it is probably the worst form of human sociality . . . except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Not that Olmstead and host Jeremy Beer say as much, exactly, but rather this notion echoes throughout their conversation about the search for rootedness in the contemporary world.

Localism requires one to accept geographic confines and economic limitations, to subject oneself to the demands and frustrations of a community, to grit one’s teeth in silence as the usual suspects drone on insufferably at the town council meeting. Arrayed against it are the allures of cosmopolitan popular culture, upward mobility, geographic flexibility, and online living.

No wonder people leave the confines of their place of birth. Why, then, does localism retain its aura of being a more real, authentic mode of living that many crave even in its absence?

Well, have you seen the other modes of living that we’re trying out from time to time?

There’s a reason why no one is writing odes to strip-mall suburban anonymity, nor discovering in the Facebook newsfeed a sense of joy and life well lived they had previously lacked. Localism retains its appeal because on some fundamental level humans crave a sense of belonging, permanence, and embodied sociality.

So, Jeremy asks Gracy, what do we make of the signs that localism is on the upswing? There’s the locavore movement, the rise of CSAs and microbreweries, all those people fleeing the city in the past eight months to stay with family, and so on. Olmstead welcomes these trends, but with a twinge of skepticism. Locavoraciousness is all well and good, she implies, but might amount only to another form of consumerism—which is precisely one of the forces that undercuts local attachments.

Shopping at the farmers’ market on Saturday, in other words, does not constitute any serious commitment to living locally. Nor does moving back home as a temporary convenience. What’s missing is any serious investment of the self—of one’s time or energy, or the conscious choice to constrain one’s horizons.

Hence when Jeremy asks Gracy to identify a contemporary movement in which people are seeking rootedness, she surprisingly singles out fitness organizations like CrossFit and SoulCycle. Although these are international chains, she argues, they function more like churches—structured around shared rituals and practices—that offer people a sense of belonging and groundedness. They also, Jeremy points out, are difficult: such strenuous exercise demand sacrifice.

This, in my view, is the big idea underlying this episode of GDT: the importance of grounding identity in investment (or, to use religious rather than financial language, sacrifice) rather than basing it in consumption. “Lifestyle” decisions and social media demand little of us, and ultimately mean little to us either.

Perhaps it is no coincidence that as local communities and rootedness has eroded—and with them all those constraints, limitations, and frustrations they entailed—identity has become increasingly articulated in terms of how we express and satisfy our desires. No longer bound to any one place, profession, or group, we seek to define ourselves by what we want or what we like. But the paradoxical endpoint of this perfectly placeless pursuit of desire is that what we actually want is to belong to some place or group on terms more substantial than what we buy, ingest, display, or take to bed.

Localism in the strong sense—of sacrificial investment in a particular community—involves subjecting the self to the larger entity and thus on some level renouncing individual interests. (When Socrates is given the option of escaping Athens or being unjustly put to death by his political community, he chooses to take the L rather than go elsewhere.)

Such rootedness is a tough sell in 21st century America, even if we instinctively feel its allure. But nonprofits can still make use of the localist impulse—not just by continuing to work at the local level, but by inviting their donors into a sense of belonging grounded in shared investment, sacrifice, and commitment to the particular.

That might sound less enticing than the new locally-sourced microbrewery opening in the old steel yard downtown, but it speaks to the sort of identity that people hunger for today.

2 thoughts on “Localism and its discontents”

  1. John Coffey says:

    This is an extremely important conversation. I live down the street from a lot where every Sunday there is a farmers market. There they sell vegetables at a markup that a working family would gasp at. They can do this because they are not selling vegetables; they are selling Instagram photo ops and a lifestyle feeling. Gen Xers and Millennials flock to our small agricultural town from Los Angeles every weekend to buy the vegetables that few people in said community actually consume. This faux-localism is mostly harmless, but can be used as a metaphor for more important issues in American life. Just as the Hollywood executive goes to the country to buy his overpriced vegetables that are no longer grown in his sprawling metropolis, so too does the small town American take to twitter/Fox News/ Cnn to get his dose of political outrage manufactured in Washington and New York, and loses all sight of the impactful political action he could take in his own community, no matter how mundane it may be. Good politics is like good vegetables, best close to the source.

  2. Dion McInnis says:

    Absolutely! People innately need community and connection. It is for this natural “need” that many organizations were created, ranging from cultural fraternal groups like SPJST, et al, and networking groups (like Rotary that then grew into the huge organization with local connections and labor), health organizations like YMCA and YWCA, and so many more, e.g., chambers of commerce, church groups and so on. You nailed it that what separates localism distinguishes itself from simply “being local” is work…service…commitment…purpose.
    Outstanding article and perspectives.

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