Countervailing Trends

About the Author

Rick Morse

Rick Morse is an associate professor of public administration and government at the UNC School of Government.

Rick Morse is a School of Government faculty member.

“Practical futurist” Michael Rogers recently gave a keynote speech at a Triangle J forum in Durham about how technological innovations are transforming society. It was an excellent and thought provoking speech. At the same time, I’ve also been reading Wendell Berry as well as various articles about the local food movement (a topic I’ve recently written about in this blog). What I see here are two trends (globalism and localism for short), both tied directly to community economic development, yet seemingly pulling in opposite directions. On the one hand there are the forces of globalization that are shrinking the world, dis-placing people in the process. On the other hand, community self-reliance and sustainability (seem to be) making a comeback with the growth of the local food movement and related efforts aimed at re-placing people (in their local communities).

Michael Rogers’ anecdotes about future trends are startling. Twelve-year old boys enjoying playtime, but not together; they each stay in their bedrooms, in front of a computer. A computer programmer in America subcontracting out part of a job to a teenager in Russia. Devices that allow people to be online, literally, 24/7. Thomas Friedman’s writings about globalization include similar, striking examples of how the world is shrinking (and flattening) and how, as a consequence, place matters less and less. The implicit, if not explicit, connection made to community and economic development is the idea that the technological innovations are opening up new opportunities for communities that were once limited by location. The implication also is that communities must catch this wave or die. Thus we see at the heart of so much community economic development practice the creative leveraging of information and communication technologies (ICT).

Yet there are many that see these same trends as a threat to community. While presenting new opportunities for economic growth, they also contribute to what we might call dis-place-ment, where people feel less connection to place and as a result we see declining social ties and engagement within local communities. Others also argue that this displacement damages the resilience–or sustainability–of local communities as they become more and more dependent on external forces related to the global economy.

The rising local food movement can be seen as a strong counter-trend that emphasizes the importance of place, of local self-reliance, and community engagement. Michael Pollan notes that the food movement is drawing people from all points along the political spectrum. What is attracting so many people to the food movement today,” writes Pollan, “is a much less conventional kind of politics, one that is about something more than food. The food movement is also about community, identity, pleasure, and, most notably, about carving out a new social and economic space removed from the influence of big corporations on the one side and government on the other.” It is about re-placing people, reconnecting them to their communities, and fostering “new forms of civil society.”

So what we have here are two countervailing trends. But it should be noted that “countervail” has two different meanings. To countervail can mean to oppose or counteract. In this sense we would see these two trends literally pulling in opposite directions, where gains on one side mean losses on the other, and a sense that eventually one must give way to the other. From this point of view we might ask whether displacement is inevitable or is the pull of community, represented by the surging local food movement, creating a backlash against globalism? Or put another way, is the pendulum swinging back toward localism?

The other meaning of “countervail” is interesting and leads to a different framing of the issue. Here it is the sense of counterbalancing, offsetting, or compensating. In other words, the local foods and broader sustainable communities movements might be seen as a compensating corrective or offsetting force to the trends Friedman and Rogers point to. Rather than viewing localism and globalism as polar opposites (think of the metaphor of a pendulum swinging one way or the other), we may view the two trends or forces as–at least potentially–something more like the concept of yin-yang from Chinese philosophy. Maybe place can still matter and people can be connected to place, and communities can be more self-reliant and sustainable, while still leveraging the benefits that a smaller, more interconnected world offers.

How do you view these two broad trends of  globalism and localism? Wendell Berry argues in an essay titled “Conserving Communities,” that the two trends are countervailing in the first sense, that they are opposites working against each other. He argues that there are really two “opposed” parties, “the party of the global economy” and “the party of local community” (i.e., globalism versus localism). Others might see the trends as countervailing in the sense of counterbalancing, both necessary, working in creative tension, to sustain a vibrant community (i.e., globalism and localism). How you view these trends–in which sense of countervailing you see them–will impact your approach to community economic development.

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