Shifting the Paradigm, One Community at a Time

Date: 29 Dec 2022 | posted in: Building Local Power | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In 1978, RAIN Magazine described the Institute for Local Self-Reliance as an organization that “puts hard numbers on soft dreams.” That, says co-founder David Morris, is how the Institute first gained a reputation for being “empirical as opposed to theoretical.” 

For our final Building Local Power episode of 2022, we invited David to offer a history lesson on the self-reliance framework that underpins ILSR’s work. He discusses how that framework has evolved over four-plus decades, the organization’s inherent aversion to bigness, and the successes and hardships of ILSR’s early years. 

From tracking the flow of energy dollars in DC to illustrating how fast-food chains depress employment, the Institute was, at first, not very well-liked. But through its pragmatism and emphasis on hard evidence, ILSR has, over many years, proven the importance of self-reliance in every part of our economy. As David says, “at the local level, you can change people’s minds. Culture comes from the bottom up.” 

Consider the Institute’s approach to recycling: Up until the mid 1980s, the conventional wisdom was that you could only recycle up to 10% of your waste stream. So ILSR went out and identified communities that were recycling more than 25%. Four years later, the organization completed a case study focusing on cities that were recycling over 40%. At over 40% “you could make the case to cities that they should design a solid waste system to recycle and not to dispose,” says David.

 “We should think of cities not as self-sufficient, because they aren’t self-sufficient, but as self-reliant, self-conscious, self-aware,” says David. “That is the basic framework of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.”

*This is our final episode of Building Local Power until February 2023, when we will debut a new seasonal format for the podcast. Thank you to all of our dedicated listeners!

“I think inherently people hate bigness. We hate monopolies. We hate the utility company. We hate the telephone company. I think that’s human nature. We might even hate our neighbors but it’s a different kind of hate. You yell at your neighbor – you wish that the dog would stop barking… But it’s a different dynamic than the hatred that you have of big remote institutions.” -David Morris

Peter Kropotkin-Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution. 1902. The chapter on Medieval  Cities, beginning on p. 279 of this free eBook offers a different perspective on the “dark ages”.  Kropotkin was one of the world’s leading scientists in the late 19th century.  His empirical studies led him to make a powerful case that cooperation, not competition was a driving force in evolution, but that in human societies it depended on community governance and the rules they create. If you buy the book, try to find the edition with the introduction by Ashley Montagu. Wikipedia has an excellent introduction to Kropotkin.

Peter Kropotkin, Fields, Factories and Workshops. 1898. This important companion book to Mutual Aid makes the empirical case that technological advances had made it possible for communities and regions to produce much of their own wealth.  Available as a free ebook here.

Leopold Kohr-The Breakdown of Nations. 1957.  Kohr was an economist and perhaps the father of the modern movement advocating humanly scaled societies and economies and pointing to the dangers of the centralization of economic and political power. Kohr described himself as a “philosophical anarchist”. Find his free ebook here. Wikipedia has an excellent article on his life and writings.

David Morris, The New City States. 1982.  A brief exploration of the past, present and future of self-reliant cities.

Self-Reliance Newsletter. 1976-1982.  In its first decade the Institute for Local Self-Reliance published a newsletter containing brief articles examining economies and societies from a local self-reliance perspective.  Many have stood the test of time.

David Morris, Can Community Survive in an Age of Globalization? November 19, 1997. A speech delivered as part of the San Francisco Public Library’ series, On Stage: Interviews and Conversations.

David Morris, The ARC of Community: Authority, Responsibility, Capacity,  1996. A chapter in the book The Case Against the Global Economy.

The HomeGrown Economy:  A Prescription for Saint Paul’s Future. 1983. Produced on contract with the mayor of Saint Paul, Minnesota and published by the Saint Paul Planning Department, this booklet presented the city using a local self-reliance framework.

Richard Schragger, Localism All the Way Up: Federalism, State-City Conflict, and the Urban-Rural Divide. Wisconsin Law Review, 2021. An excellent recent law review article describing tensions baked into the U.S. legal and constitutional system.

David Morris: Nations aren’t self-sufficient but self-reliant, self-conscious, self-aware, that is that they track their resources and try to get the most that they can from their local resources. That is the basic framework of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.
Reggie Rucker: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance dedicated to challenging corporate monopolies and expanding the power of people to shape their own future. I’m your co-host Reggie Rucker, and I have to say I’m a little emotional right now. This is a very special episode. It’s kind of the end of an era. Not only is this our year-end episode, but this episode also marks the end of a six-year-long season.
So what does that mean? Well, starting in February of 2023 and February means we’re going to take a little bit of a break. We’re going to start a new season of Building Local Power where we change the production and format of the show a bit to really drive home the connection between the work that we do to weaken monopoly power and how that monopoly power stands directly in the way of people’s ability to build a sense of self-reliance in their own lives and in their community. We talk about this briefly in a special sneak peek video that goes along with our annual report. So definitely go check that out. Before today in our last episode of the year and this season, let me toss it over to my co-host who is truly the gift that keeps on giving, Luke Gannon. What’s up, Luke?
Luke Gannon: Thank you, Reggie. Well, first I have to give an enormous thank you to you for being an absolutely incredible person to work on this podcast with. I also want to say thank you to our dedicated listeners and wonderful guests in these past six years. But let’s jump into the show. Our final guest of 2022 is the co-founder of ILSR, David Morris, who has been working for the past 50 years to build local vibrant economies. We are so happy to have you on the show today, David. Welcome.
David Morris: Well, thanks for having me.
Reggie Rucker: All right, David. We want to start where it started. Can you take us back, we’re approaching 50 years at ILSR, so take us back to 1974, the early ’70s. What is the context? What’s the world that existed that you were living in, that you were looking at where you first had this instance of, you know what? There’s a better way that we as a society, we as a community can be approaching how we create economies that work for everybody. Kind of set the stage for what you were thinking about and what some of the challenges the communities that you were a part of were facing.
David Morris: Well, sure, but when one talks about passion, those were passionate days, there wasn’t a lot of cynicism. There might have been a lot of anger, but there wasn’t a lot of cynicism. And by the early 1970s, there was a feeling that things were moving, if not linearly in the right direction, at least moving in a direction that made sense to people. And when it comes to local self-reliance, this was a period of full decolonization. So people need to remember that there were empires in 1945. I can’t remember, maybe there were 60 countries in the world and by the 1970s there were probably double that number. And so you had the uncoupling process, and with the uncoupling process, you had countries that had been governed by someone else, which had imposed on them a governance structure which might not have fit their local culture, transportation system, which was essentially from the mines to the docks, and certainly no educational system that served the purposes that an independent nation would want to serve. And so you had a lot of ferment in the economic discipline.
I went to graduate school for Latin American studies in the late 1960s, and in Latin America, the reigning school in development economics was import substitution. That is, how do we produce at home, what previously we imported and how do we produce at home and use it at home rather than be dependent on imports? So that was the whole school of economics. And then in the United States, of course, you had a great deal of things going on, but especially in Washington DC, which is where I happened to be, and we happened to end up being, but people may or may not know that Washington DC in the 19th century governed itself. It had a popularly elected city council, it had a popular elected mayor. And then in the 1870s, it was stripped of power and it became a ward of the state.
One can argue why that was the case. For some people it was because there was corruption and a great deal of the money that was raised, disappeared. I prefer the school of thought that says that that Blacks were fleeing the south, coming to DC, and threatening to become a majority. But be that as it may, the city became a ward of the state, which meant it became a ward of subcommittee in Congress of usually three southern congressmen who then ruled the city. In fact, segregation was not voted on by the District of Columbia. It was imposed on them by a Southern Mississippi congressman.
So in the late 1960s, you had a home rule dynamic, and we were in the middle of that. And so in 1968, the District of Columbia got the right to vote for mayor and city council. And in 1970, there was a referendum as to whether the good citizens of the District of Columbia wanted to govern themselves. And those who wanted an elected mayor were in the significant majority, but those who wanted elected neighborhood councils were even more significant majority. There was a strong sense of purpose on the local level. We should think of cities as not self-sufficient because nations aren’t self-sufficient, but self-reliant, self-conscious, self-aware that they track their resources and try to get the most that they can from their local resources. And that is in fact the basic framework of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Luke Gannon: In the 19th century, DC governed itself. What part of that framework that you have been discussing of self-government do you feel like was applicable to other cities?
David Morris: I think that the whole idea of governance should be examined. What does it mean? What should its extent be? When the institute started in 1974, I’d say we were pretty much disliked by everybody. That is, if you were a radical liberal, if you will, then you believe that communities were parochial, they were racist, and that the federal government had to step in, that you couldn’t really allow communities to govern themselves because they would be oppressive to the minority within those borders. If you were a conservative. They initially resonated to our message when it was focused on community because they believed in mutual aid. But when we began talking about the community collectively adopting rules that could channel resources in a certain direction and stop resources from going in another direction, they fled for the hills.
The environmentalists at that time thought of cities as a blight. They exceeded their caring capacity by definition. What the environmental movement wanted was to sort of a ruralization, if you will, at that time. And people were fleeing cities in the early 1970s. On the one hand, we were swimming downstream because of the decolonization movement and the idea that many small nations were trying to govern themselves in the face of 100 years of being under someone else’s thumb. And technology was decentralizing, I believe, for the first time. And there were a lot of policy around the issue of economies of scale and the breaking up of corporations. We think of that as new, the whole antitrust thing, new in 2022, that is new. There was obviously antitrust 50 and 100 years ago, but that wasn’t true. I mean, in the 1960s, you had a bill introduced in the Senate, which would have considered that if any four corporations controlled more than 50% of a market, it would be a prima facie case for breaking them up, a prima facie case for breaking them up. And the burden of proof was on them to defend themselves.
And so these things were in the air at that time. On the other hand, as I say, we were swimming upstream when it came to people really trusting a community to govern itself. At that time, there had been a massive increase in federal intervention and imposition, if you will, in terms of its own policies, overstate and local wishes. So in that sense, the whole idea of governance is an interesting one. And without going into any major detail, the institute has had to grapple always with the issue of where is the locus of authority. And it’s an issue that we should all, if people believe that upper levels of government should not preempt local levels of government, which seems to be in vogue today, well, what do you do about civil rights? What do you do about protecting the rights of minorities? And the institutes had to grapple with that. And I think I’ve come to a certain conclusion, but my sense is that the upper level of government, the higher level of government should be able to preempt and impose on local level of governments when it comes to defending the Bill of Rights.
Now, by the way, the other side believes that too, when it comes to gun control, which they consider a constitutional right, but be that as it may, when it comes to a civil right and the first 10 amendments were protecting people against the government and also protecting a minority against the majority, at least as the 1960s and the 1970s Supreme Court defined it as such, but that would be the only case. And for any other case, the burden of proof would have to be on higher levels of government to in fact, preempt the exercise of authority at the local level. And I think that it’s the kind of framework that we should think about very seriously applying widely.
Reggie Rucker: David, I want to take you back to where you were thinking about, you have this very clear idea or relatively clear idea of how local economies should work, how municipalities should be thinking about structuring their local economies, how that interfaces with the state. So you have some very clear ideas about that and a passion to move some ideas forward. And then like you said, on the other side, there are people that, for one reason or another, were not fans of your approach, and you were getting pushback on both sides. How did you approach having an idea that you were fairly confident was good for the communities that you were working with, yet you had enemies on both sides, you had enemies that were not receptive to it from all across the spectrum. How did you navigate that challenge and find a space in which you knew that you could be productive, proactive, valuable to the movement that you were seeking to create?
David Morris: Well, one was being empirical rather than theoretical. I mean, the institute gained a reputation and cache through our data really. In fact, one magazine in late 1970s said that the institute puts hard numbers on soft dreams. We were the first to track energy dollar flows through the District of Columbia, through any state, through any city, for example, and found out that 85 cents on the dollar, the locality left the metropolitan area if you filled up at the gas station or if you bought electricity from an investor-owned utility company, which means if you could get it down to 50/50, you’d be strengthening the local economy dramatically. When it came to recycling, conventional wisdom was that you could only recycle 10% of your waste stream. Up until the early 1980s, mid 1980s, that was the conventional wisdom, which meant it was going to just be a little side note to your solid waste system.
We did empirical case studies that identified communities that were doing more than 25%. And then four years later, we did an update for communities that were doing over 40%. And when you get to over 40%, you can make the case to cities that the city should design a solid waste system to recycle, not to dispose. And then disposal should be the afterthought. And when you’re finished, the reduction and recovery and recycling. In the mid 1970s, a man named Bill Badco joined the staff, an economist who taught night school. In his night school, he talked about what we were doing and the like, and found out that one of the students was an accountant who work at the local McDonald’s. And so he had her look at the books for the local McDonald’s and track where they spent their money. And this was a moment where the District of Columbia government had proudly announced the opening of another McDonald’s as a job generator.
She did the report. With her data, she found that actually virtually all of that money left the local area obviously to buy the food, but also for legal, for accounting, for design, for so many different things. And then we compared that to what would’ve happened if people had eaten at home and bought food from a grocery store or gone to a restaurant, a sit-down restaurant. It turns out that anything else that you would’ve done would’ve retained more money in the local economy. And so we put out a press release that said, every time a fast food restaurant opens up, the city loses jobs, which is not intuitive because that building was empty and now it has people working in it. But systemically we were losing jobs. It’s that kind of, I think empiricism that allows one to navigate these situations because we weren’t arguing theory, we were arguing practice. And practice doesn’t always trump theory, but practice informs theory. And for those people who thought differently, you’d kind of have to say, “Well, show me your practice, show me your case studies, show me your data.”
Luke Gannon: In that same vein of that question, obviously a lot has changed since the 1970s. And like you said, David, whether you named the radicals, the conservatives, the environmentalists, they didn’t necessarily agree 100% with ILSR’S mission. What you’re just talking about is that just by having factual information by the incredible people, started to make that shift. Many people talk about having this bipartisan alignment on all of these monopoly issues, and that has really pushed us forward. How did that momentum build over time?
David Morris: Well, I think inherently people hate bigness. I mean, in our gut, we hate bigness, we hate monopolies, we hate the utility company, we hate the telephone company. I think that’s human nature. We might even hate our neighbors, but actually it’s a different kind of hate, frankly. You yell at your neighbor, you just wish that they’d stopped the dog from barking and they’d stopped their tree from growing over your property. But it’s a different dynamic really than the hatred that you have of big remote institutions.
In the old days, you would call and you would get somebody who was unresponsive. Now, you don’t even get somebody who’s unresponsive. In some ways, it wasn’t that one had to convince people because it was the other side that had to spend hundreds and hundreds and millions and billions of dollars in advertisements to convince people that that was efficient. And when you think of it, there’s an efficiency to not having people answer the phone. And the efficiency is that it saves the company money by imposing the burdens of time on you. And then the question is, well, how much is time worth it to you?
Reggie Rucker: I have a couple of places I want to follow up. First, when you were talking about how people hate bigness and you’re running through some of the big institutions that people hate, I hope we don’t have a lot of Yankee… Well, I hope we do have a lot of Yankee fans who listen to the podcast, but that’s where my mind first went. It’s just they somehow became the evil empire and it’s this idea that they were so big and they could just buy World Series. So I could definitely relate to that point.
David Morris: I need to interrupt you as a Yankee fan. I mean, after all, I grew up in New York City. If you lived in Brooklyn, you’re a Dodger fan. If you lived in Bronx, you were a Giant fan. I lived in Queens, so I was a Yankee fan. When I was growing up in the 1950s and the 1960s, the people on the field came from their farm system. They didn’t come from people buying people. It was in the 1970s and the 1980s that the richest team got the best players because they went out and they bought them. So I want to put a little footnote there to the, we hate the Yankees because they can buy their championships.
Reggie Rucker: With the exception of Reggie Jackson, that mostly sounds true. That mostly sounds true. I want to pivot to the answer you had around where authority lies and some theories about where authority lies. One of the things that I think we wrestle with as an organization is whether big or small, how much the answer to that statement, that question is the responsiveness. And you turned to this when you talked about having someone to answer the phone. And so I wonder if you could expand on that idea a little bit, where at a certain point, scale, the size of the institution matters more or less, really depending as sort of the size is a proxy for how responsive they can be to the demands of the people. Can you maybe expand on that concept a little bit?
David Morris: Yes, and I think it’s a very good point, and I’m glad you raised it because in broadband for example, you essentially have a monopoly. Well, if your city establishes its own municipal broadband, you have a monopoly. Now, there’s a difference between the one and the other. It’s the same as if you have a municipal electric utility company. Well, that’s a monopoly. Your investor-owned utility company, if you happen to have that, is a monopoly. The difference is, and I cannot remember the quote exactly, but the person who was the head of the Lafayette municipal broadband utility talked about that the difference was that somebody could come up to him in the grocery store and scream at him. That in fact, these were your neighbors that were getting angry at you.
Furthermore, I would say in terms of business, for example, that your kids were going to the local schools. I mean, you were interacting with locals and the kids were going to the local schools, which also meant that you knew that the taxes that you paid provided services to your family. Whereas if this was a branch plant of some multinational corporation, any taxes that you paid essentially was simply expenses on the balance sheet that you wanted to get rid of. And so the responsiveness works in many different ways. The responsiveness to you as a customer, responsiveness to the community itself, and I think responsive to the idea of citizenship in its really profound way. So I thank you for the question.
Very good things happen from the bottom-up. More good things happen from the bottom-up than from the top-down. From the top-down, you can essentially… you can’t build institutions from the top-down. You can give orders from the top-down, and sometimes we like the orders, but on the other hand, you can’t build institutions. But from the bottom-up, you can. Let me just give you a couple of examples. One is the nonpartisan league in North Dakota, which was created in the early 20th century, changed the election rules to enable referendums. It was a very interesting political party because it essentially said, “Look, here’s our program, it had four planks. Anyone who supported our four planks, we will support. We don’t care what political party you’re part of.” Four planks, right? That’s a very interesting program. And they were practical planks.
They wanted a state bank, they wanted a state flour mill. And every farmer in North Dakota knew why they wanted that, and they won and they got a state bank. And to this day, North Dakota is the only state that has a state bank, but they got other things as well. North Dakota is the only state… Now, we think of North Dakota as conservative, and it certainly is conservative in terms of the political party that governs it, but it’s the only state that has a law essentially effectively banning multinational pharmacies. Their pharmacies are locally owned. And this all came out of those first 20 years. Frankly, after that, you had virtually none of this that happened.
Reggie Rucker: I always hate to interrupt these wonderful conversations, but let us take a quick break and we’ll continue the conversation on the other side.
So here’s the thing, as an organization seeking the end of corporate control in local communities, you’ll understand why commercial break sounds a little different. There’s no corporation selling you something in an ad, just me thanking you for listening to our show. And if you’re enjoying this episode, which if you’ve made it this far, I’m assuming you are, I need to ask you for two things. One, head over to and check out our annual report for 2022. We’ve done so much great work this year building local power and broadband, energy, composting, and independent businesses. Our co-director said this in a conversation, you can also see on that annual report page, so much of why we’re able to do this work is because of the donations from individuals like you.
She called them magic dollars because of the way we can be creative and forward thinking in our approach to this work. And that really sets the stage for what eventually becomes central to what we do and the work that foundations will then fund. You all plant the seeds for that. And so this leads me to my second ask as we hit the end of the year. Please head over to\donate to make a contribution of any amount. And I mean that. Any amount is deeply, deeply appreciated to let us know you have our back in this work and to help us keep making progress. And if you’re looking for additional ways to support, we love reviews and are always looking for more of them. So please go ahead and leave one. These reviews make a huge difference in helping us reach a wider audience. Okay, that’s our break. Thank you so much for listening. And now, back to the show.
Luke Gannon: You talked about, you can’t build institutions from the top-down and the importance of building bottom-up solutions, but that’s a really hard thing to do. So I’m curious, can you talk about one or two of the hardships that you faced in the initial five, 10 years of ILSR?
David Morris: Well, there are different kinds of hardships. We were an institution, so a hardship for an institution is raising money. But the institute from the very beginning made our name on our research and on our framework and on the way we’ve made our case. So two things happened in our first year. One, the publication of a book called Neighborhood Power by Beacon Press, which was essentially at the neighborhood level explaining what we did. And then the other was the creation of the Self-Reliance newsletter. And anybody who is interested in the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, go to our webpage, put in the search term Self-Reliance newsletter, and there are seven years worth of them. Do we need large companies? That’s our very first 1975 of self-reliance. Do we need it? And it wasn’t in theory, it was in practice, it had footnotes on economies of scale. And when people read this, they understood that we were serious in what we were talking about.
It’s easier if you can write it than if you do it, obviously. But on the other hand, we also did it. I mean, one of our early successes was in fighting incinerators, and we went to communities and they were mostly communities of color because in fact, where do you place a transfer station or an incinerator? You place it in the area where people have the least political power to stop you. And so we worked in those areas around the country and we went in there and said, “We want to promote recycling.” And they said, “Yeah, that’s interesting, but we got an incinerator here we have to fight.” And we agreed to them that once you had an incinerator, it was going to be very difficult for you to have recycling. You don’t have enough materials really for it. So we worked with them. Sometimes it was years that we worked with them. And by the middle of 1980s, not we, but all of the we, the coalitions, the people on the local level managed to stop the wave of incinerators.
At that point, we said, “Remember when we talked to you about recycling?” And it was at that point the recycling then took off in the United States. So sometimes you have to fight something that will preempt a good thing before you actually get to the good thing. But that’s a victory nevertheless.
Our big contract, major contract in the first 10 years of the institute was with the city of St. Paul with the mayor of St. Paul. He asked us to design what he called the homegrown economy. There are many, many aspects to it. We were essentially talking about how much wealth could be generated internal to St. Paul. Once again, not self-sufficiency, but extracting that maximum value of useful work and wealth. And there were two things that came out of that. One was Summit Brewery.
Now, today, there are what, 5,000 craft breweries? At that point, there were I think three. So it was still a very novel idea, but the reason that we promoted it was to prove about the case, about economies of scale. And we found a master brewer, we helped to finance it, we set it up, and that brewer was producing at, I don’t even know what, 1000th the scale of Anheuser-Busch, probably less than that. And the beer was about 30% more costly and incomparably better. So what we were saying to people is, “Okay, look, do you understand that there… There’s a thing called economies of scale. Absolutely there is, but they’re really quite minor, frankly, and the upside is really quite tremendous.
Luke Gannon: You’ve already been talking a bit about this, David, but in the past couple years there have been some major events that have taken place, whether we’re talking about COVID, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, state spanning critical race theory, talks of recession, you name it, the list goes on. Although currently ILSR only tackles a few of these issues, this idea that you are talking about applies to a much larger framework as you have mentioned before. So can you talk about how this philosophy, ILSR’S philosophy is applicable or could be to these other issues that are going on in our world today?
David Morris: Yes. I mean, I think that it could apply to all issues. Now, it can sometimes apply directly and fully, and it clearly could be the strategy. At times, it can inform a larger strategy. For example, if you’re doing climate strategy, climate strategy has to operate at the international level, the national level and so forth. But at the local level, it’s where you change people’s minds. It’s where you change culture. It’s where you say, essentially, “I don’t really see solar on your rooftop.” Or, “I see smoke coming out of your chimney.” That’s not going to come from the top-down. Culture comes from the bottom-up. And so I think that it can even be applied to places like climate change.
But let’s take a look at COVID for example, which is a fascinating example because in the United States you had the federal government wanting to do one thing and the state’s unclear and the localities and then the school districts. I mean, we’re a mess when it comes to governance. I mean, the whole world looks at the United States, and when we were really rich and powerful and the number one, and we have military. Then people went, “Wow! Kind of interesting system, it seems to work pretty well.” Now, they know it doesn’t. On the other hand, it does lead to an enormous amount of experimentation.
And so you had school districts that required masking and school districts that didn’t require masking. You had businesses that required and so forth, and it was a mess. But from a local self-reliance perspective, it was a mess that should have been the foundation for the gathering of data that would inform policy. We didn’t do that, but other nations did that, small nations and modernized nations in which, for example, initially they closed the school systems down, which is of course your initial reaction, you got an infectious disease. And then what they found out was number one, the kids weren’t getting it really, and the parents weren’t getting it from the kids coming home. But number two, when school was closed down, education was seriously hobbled.
In Germany and Sweden and so forth, they looked at the data and they said, “All right, we’re going to open them up again.” Now, this was about after three or four months. But it was data driven, it wasn’t ideologically driven. So the United States had all of this possibility really of taking the mess, if you will, anarchism in the best sense of the word, collecting the data and coming up with a policy. We didn’t do that, but we certainly should have done that, whether it’s wayward youth, whether it’s drugs, whether it’s homeless, whether it’s whatever, we have a problem. This is the number of that problem that we have. We need X number of facilities to solve that problem. I, the mayor will give us a year and the neighborhoods can fight it out among themselves who it’s going to be, but it’s going to be dispersed equitably around the state. But you decide, and if after a year you can’t decide, nobody wants it, the city is going to impose it on you.
Now, that’s local self-reliance from where I come from because it essentially says, “Let’s see if we agree that there is a homeless problem. If we agree that there is a homeless problem, let’s talk about the next step and then let’s talk about the next step.” And so you come at it essentially the way you would if you were a neighbor, right? What you’re saying is, we’re all in this together. We’re going to have to make a decision, we’re going to allocate it fairly so all of us are modestly burdened by it, but we will have come to that decision ourselves. So local self-reliance is a framework that you could use for setting policy, but it’s also a framework that you could use for designing process.
Reggie Rucker: What I found so fascinating about this conversation is, and we’ve run across this in a lot of our recent podcast, and it’s a consistent theme of how the importance of stories and the examples of what the community over there is doing or the community across the way, across the state, across the country, but other communities and seeing how they’ve handled similar issues, how they’re attacking these issues to make their communities better. I think that’s something that we as a society, certainly what we do at ILSR and with this Building Local Power podcast, how can we create and present the stories and the examples of what’s working well in our society. And so I love that you’ve brought that together for this last episode of the year to really help us wrap our mind around the power of stories, the power of data, the power of being practical. There are all these lessons for us to learn in this episode that we’re going to take forward.
Before we let you go, this is the last episode of the season. We’re going to take a holiday break and come back with a new season in early 2023. We finish up every episode with a question so we can shout out our local bookstores. We’re really fond of these local bookstores and try to uplift them and send people to them whenever we get a chance. At some point, relatively soon, we’re going to have a digital library of the favorite books from our podcast guests, other than yours, of course, other than We Must Make Haste Slowly, we’ll plug again, we’ll put a link to that in the show notes. Other than that one, what’s a book that you think about that really informs the way you’ve approached local self-reliance over the last 50 years, and you think others who are looking to create change in their communities, what’s a good book you think they could learn from?
David Morris: Well, I’ll answer that question, but I do want to say that all of my books are online at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. There are a number of them. They can all be read online or downloaded. To answer your question responsibly, there were two books, both actually on the same topic. One is a book called Mutual Aid by a man named Peter Kropotkin. He was a world-class scientist, Russian prince, revolutionary anarchist, shoemaker, and geographer in the 19th century. He lived at a moment where Charles Darwin issued his Theory of Evolution, and a man named Spencer took that, and he made it into what’s now called Social Darwinism, which is essentially applying it to explain why some people were rich and some people were not. And competition, tooth and claw was the sort of metaphor that people used to talk about evolution.
Kropotkin was out in Siberia doing research on animal life. The more he examined it, the more he found that they were not competitive, that animals were not competitive, they’re cooperative. That led him to a multi-year examination about the question of cooperation and competition. He ended up writing a marvelous, astonishingly wonderful book called Mutual Aid, in which he posits that cooperation is bigger, they’re both important, but is a bigger fundamental basis for evolution and for the building of societies.
The other is a man named Leopold Kohr. Leopold Kohr wrote a book called The Breakdown of Nations. He wrote it in the 1950s. Now, he was writing at a moment with Europe began to form around coal and steel and France and Germany having fought three wars already, sort of working together on essentially this project. And from that came the European community, and from that came the European Union, and he was arguing it from the issue of scale and local self-reliance.
Luke Gannon: Thank you so much, David, for being on the show. We really appreciate all of this content and all of your words. It was great to have you here.
David Morris: Well, thank you so much and I appreciate it. I hope it has served you well, but I had a good time.
Reggie Rucker: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. It’s been a great year, and I really appreciate you all for tuning in, whether this was your first episode or you’re a regular listener. As our regulars know, you can find links to resources, references, the transcript, everything from this episode and all of our episodes by going to, finding Building Local Power under the podcast tab, and clicking on the show page for this episode or any other episode of interest. That is
Luke Gannon: Our podcast’s research and resources are made possible by your support. If you are doing a little gift giving at the end of the year and you love our work, head over to\donate. Any amount is deeply appreciated. This podcast was produced by Reggie Rucker and me, Luke Gannon. This podcast was edited by Drew Birschbach. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunctional. We are taking a short holiday break, but we’ll be back with a new season in February. Thank you for listening to Building Local Power.


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Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Follow Luke Gannon:
Luke Gannon

Luke Gannon is the Research and Communications Associate for the Independent Business team.

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Reggie Rucker

As Communications Director at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Reggie develops communications strategies and leads campaigns to build public support for ILSR local power initiatives. Contact Reggie with media inquiries.