Back in 1991 my brother lived in a shitty little town called Hawthorne, Nevada. Hawthorne is basically a town that only existed because it was a munitions plant. There was in the town a Casino, of course, two churches a small school, and exactly one store which at the time was Safeway. I remember visiting at Thanksgiving and noting that even for Safeway, the prices were jacked up sky high. They could get away with it because the nearest town was an hour away and also only had a Safeway.
The point of all this is when I was recently asked how small town American can possibly hope to break free of corporatism and the evil despot Wal-Mart and begin to live sustainably I instantly thought of Hawthorne.
Hawthorne is a pretty extreme example. However, here is a town that is in the middle of the desert. Barely anything grows there naturally and human beings wouldn’t live there if it weren’t a perfect place to build weapons that are dangerous and bad for the environment. The continued munitions manufacturing can’t have helped the water tables in the area and the soil is kaput. So how can a town like this possibly make choices about buying organic, free range anything?
It’s easy to talk about sustainable living in small northern Californian towns like where I’m from and indeed in most of the Pacific Northwest. We are blessed with good climate for growing, and small farming. Most of our towns are if not close together, close enough for trade. We also have an overwhelming amount of craftsmen/women, scientist interested in green living and business people who earned their money in Silicon Valley and were savvy enough to put it into new technologies like solar energy and other alternative energies.
However a good portion of America has one of two problems. They are either urban dwellers or they live in areas whose biodiversity and economic diversity have been destroyed. The benefit of being an urban dweller is you have choice at your fingertips, but when you get outside the cities, you lose those choices and the diversity.
This diversity has been systematically destroyed by capitalism. It would be unrealistic to say that the Sam Wal-Mart’s of the world ruined small town America for sustainability. No, we did that to ourselves with capitalism. We decided early on that we would give up small community and family farms and collectives in order to focus on one or two commodities in most of the areas of our country. The result of that has been disastrous to both our environment and our ability to take care of ourselves.
For example if an area like Nebraska decides to focus its energy on growing corn and trading it, it will make money for a while, a hundred years or so even. But corn is a heavy feeder and requires a lot of pesticide to make it profitable. After a while the soil is ruined but so are the communities that have focused solely on the growing and marketing of corn. In addition as a community shrinks so does the view of the people living there, they get narrow minded, afraid, liable to believe that anyone and everyone is out to get them. They are suspicious of new technologies especially that which have nothing to do with what they know corn.
The same thing could be said of places like Detroit which focused all its energy on making cars. When automated factories grew and workers were laid off, they were left with nothing to do. What we have is a depressed city that doesn’t know what to do with itself.
Add to all that the monopolization of the distribution of goods. It must seem hard to break free of big corporations like Wal-Mart even when we don’t like them or their policies when they are the only ones in town selling tomato plants. How do we plant a garden without out them? They are also the only ones selling other commodities. How do we eat the rest of our diet, dress ourselves, get out prescriptions filled, etc. without them? Taking back choice in areas like this is hard but it is doable, and thinking back to Hawthorne as an example I have some ideas.
First off people need to figure out what they are good at. Not everyone is going to be good at gardening. Neither is everyone going to be good at raising and handling chickens. Most certainly there are going to be people who can’t sew or make soap or do the hundreds of other things that you would normally go to the store for. Figure out what you like and begin doing it. Once your friends get wind of it they will want some of your soap, fresh eggs and zucchini. Count on it.
The good thing about smaller communities that hasn’t been changed by retailers like Wal-Mart is everyone knows what everyone’s business is; they also know what your talents are. In addition they are easier to organize, so getting together and talking about who’s going to do what and how many eggs to trade for how many loaves of bread that week is very doable.
Participate in trade. Nearly every community in the country has access to Freecycle.org, an online group where you can go to post things you need and want to give away. If your community doesn’t have a group it is easy to set up and get it going. By doing this, things that you aren’t using get a second life and you can find things you need from plant starts to furniture, for free. Most people want to share they just don’t know how.
Support local trade that already exists. If your community has a farmer’s market, take advantage of it. Take time to talk to the vendors who mostly are from close to your home. A lot of the time you will find they have their wares available not just on the farmer’s market day. Or you can negotiate bulk purchases like I did when I bought 100lbs of honey. Who would even think to ask that? I probably got such a good deal because they were so dumbfounded. Supporting local growers and business people will ensure that they keep selling. Now here’s the thing that is a little bit hard for some people. Paying a dollar more for something made or sold by someone who made something is a better for you ultimately than going to Wal-Mart and spending a dollar less. Why? Because you paying for quality not quantity.
Big Box stores make their money on the ideal that the stuff they sell will wear out and you will come back in to buy more stuff. It is in their interest to sell sub-quality items. Generally the things we buy from retail outlets last a maximum of 5 years. So you are actually losing money in the long run by paying for cheaper stuff. If you invest in quality craftsman built items your money is going to go further.
Band together to boost your buying power. Collectives and co-ops have done this for years and while many people to this day look upon Co-ops as hippie stores, the fact is joining together increases your ability to buy at a lower price. Big stores do this and your town, civic or church group can do it too. As I mentioned before I brokered a big honey buying deal. It wasn’t all for me a group of friends pitched together and bought it at a reduced price and doled it out. The rice farmers in my area are more than happy to sell in bulk to groups both big and small and I have participated in this before as well. The benefit that a local or nearby grower gets from selling in bulk is they don’t have to pay extra fees for transportation as well as things like packaging and less beautiful looking product can be sold instead of wasted. Also mostly area producers want to work with their communities. They like living and working there and if they are smaller family farms they too understand how helpful it can be to bypass the business Robber Barons.
Another group that famously does this is The Mormons. Whether you love them or hate them, they have “storehouses” of selected foods in every area of the country and they will let anybody buy their goods at cost. From wheat to jam, you can get it in bulk at cost from the Mormons; they do not turn people away. You can even take advantage of their packing facilities. Just check your local phone book under The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints-Bishop’s Storehouse.
Start a seed collective. Once you know people who are gardening or if you garden start a collective that shares seeds and starts to cut the costs. Very often this can be helpful if you are on your own and need just one tomato plant and a couple of bean plants. Also, by connecting with others who are already gardening you can get and share information on how to grow food in your area. What things work and how.
What you can’t get in your area from a retailer you can feel good about, order online or from catalog. A lot of times people feel like this is a hassle or wonder if it’s worth the money. They also reason, local people work at these big stores too. Everyone has to decide for themselves what is most important, but when companies like Wal-Mart accept corporate welfare and in the same quarter ”roll-up” their prices for the first time in memorable history, it seems like time to take sides. Besides, UPS, FedEx, and Postal Workers all work and live in your area too. Buying online and from catalog helps their small franchise business because most delivery trucks, USPS excepted, are owned by small business owners who own and operate 2-5 vehicles. In this way you can buy from companies that match your conscience and provide things that big stores don’t. Like un-fertilized, un-radiated, non-genetically manipulated seeds. Ever try to grow something from seed that you saved from Lowes or Target and have it either not grow or come out different? That’s because it’s not the plant in its true form, it’s been genetically manipulated.
It is admittedly harder to make changes when you live in an area dominated by a Wal-Mart or Safeway. It’s equally harder to be a pioneer. But excuses never change the world. We have to do that. If we want something to be different we have to make it so. It’s not as easy as writers of books who live within walking distance of organic dairies and candle shops make it out to be. But it is do-able. It is quite possibly critical for these changes to happen.