The Institute’s mission is to provide innovative strategies, working models and timely information to support environmentally sound and equitable community development. To this end, ILSR works with citizens, activists, policymakers and entrepreneurs to design systems, policies and enterprises that meet local or regional needs; to maximize human, material, natural and financial resources; and to ensure that the benefits of these systems and resources accrue to all local citizens.
Since 1974, ILSR has championed local self-reliance, a strategy that underscores the need for humanly scaled institutions and economies and the widest possible distribution of ownership. (For more on ILSR’s history click here.)
The United States has always emphasized the individual and deemphasized the community. From the cradle onwards we are taught that whenever “we” becomes as important as “me,” whenever the social becomes as important as the individual, we are heading down a slippery slope toward tyranny and misery.
This harsh American emphasis on individualism has always been tempered by the historical presence of extended families, of ethnic neighborhoods, of family farms, of small towns—places where people know when you’re born and care when you die. But in the last two generations we have moved more often and farther and our neighborhood based gathering places have been severely diminished.
Decisions are made in an unintelligible and inaccessible process remote from the people and places that will feel their impact. Little by little, we have lost our sense of mutual aid and cooperation. Fewer than half of all adult Americans now regard the idea of sacrifice for others as a positive moral virtue.
Some view this decline in the importance of territorial communities as an inevitable consequence of modernity. But this theory of the inevitable decline of community implies that public policy has been neutral on the issue. It has not.
For half a century Democratic and Republican administrations have consistently pursued policies that disabled rather than enabled compact, strong, and productive communities.
Urban renewal programs literally bulldozed hundreds of inner-city neighborhoods. Federal housing programs encouraged suburban sprawl. Federal policies have encouraged centralized technologies like garbage incineration and high voltage transmission lines while more modestly support decentralized strategies like maximizing recycling and composting and reuse or the use of highly decentralized energy sources. Federal tax and regulatory policies encouraged leveraged buyouts and hostile takeovers that shuffled hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate assets and forced tens of thousands of workers to abandon their communities in search of jobs.
ILSR challenges the view that localism and regionalism represent a misguided desire to turn back time. There is nothing inherently progressive about globalization, and there is nothing inherently backwards-looking about localism.
At the end of the 19th century, as we switched from wood to steel, from water wheels to fossil fueled central power plants, and from craft shops to mass production, technology seemed to demand larger scale and eventually worldwide production systems and economies. But at the beginning of the 21st century, as we switch from minerals to vegetables as industrial materials, from fossil fuels to sunlight and wind for energy and from mass production to flexible manufacturing, technological progress may mean more decentralized, localized economies.
ILSR challenges the conventional wisdom that bigger is better, that separating the producer from the consumer, the banker from the depositor and lender, the worker from the owner is an inevitable outcome of modern economic development. Surprisingly little evidence supports this conventional wisdom. In every sector of the economy the evidence yields the same conclusion: small is the scale of efficient, dynamic environmentally benign societies.
And unsurprisingly, we make better and more informed policies when those who design those policies are those who feel their impact. History shows that most policy innovations come from below: unemployment insurance, worker’s compensation, minimum wage and maximum hour laws, environmental protection, and health care reform.
In an increasingly planetary economy, strong communities must be nurtured and protected by international policies, too. Currently what we call “free trade” is not at all free. Indeed it comes with a high price tag: the subordination of our desire for community and equity and sustainability and democracy to the quest by ever-larger corporations to eliminate all obstacles to the flow of resources.
Moreover, the increasingly ubiquitous internet – unmediated by corporate media or big governments – plus the introduction of new technologies such as rapid translation will inevitably and inexorably overcome the inward looking nature of even the most parochial community. We might envision a time where two metaphors guide our thinking: a global village and a globe of villages. Products made of molecules will travel ever-shorter distances while ideas delivered by electron or photon will be exchanged on a planet-wide basis.
We make the rules and the rules make us. Part of ILSR’s mission is to identify and design the new rules necessary to channel entrepreneurial energy and investment capital and scientific genius toward the creation of a global village and a globe of villages.
Both conservatives and liberals recite the proverb, “Give a man a fish and he will be without hunger for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will never be hungry.” Yet the ability to fish will not keep someone from starving if he or she has no access to a net or a boat. Even a boat is insufficient if the community lacks the authority to prevent overfishing or stop the pollution that can destroy spawning grounds. And all of these additional considerations are immaterial if the person fishing bears no greater responsibility to the community at large.
It seems oxymoronic to argue that the federal government can promote self-reliant communities. Yet we are at an important crossroads in world history. People are clamoring for a more effective voice in government at the same time as the management of corporations are moving farther and farther away from their workers and their communities. The federal government can play a key role in mediating between local demands and global realities.
We at ILSR believe in the ARC of community: Authority, Responsibility, Capacity. Without authority, democracy is meaningless. Without responsibility, chaos ensues. Without a productive capacity we are helpless to manage our affairs and determine our economic future. International, national, state and local policies should be evaluated on the basis of how it strengthens all three cornerstones of strong communities.
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