The 2020 election has left us a deeply divided nation. But politics did not cause this rural-urban division, and the wound will not be healed by political debates over which party will take better care of us. I believe we must learn to care for each other.
I’m inspired by a time not so long ago when rural and urban communities co-created regional economies built on mutual trust and respect. Community wealth was built through strong rural-urban partnerships that supplied basic needs to the region. Farmers and factory workers took pride in producing the goods needed by their communities. Bustling main streets in our rural towns and urban centers, where the butcher, the baker and the cabinetmaker were friends and neighbors, gave our towns character and unique identity.
But corporate globalization put an end to thriving local economies. Local supply chains were severed, breaking the interdependent relationships that had bound regions and people together. Workers lost their jobs to faraway sweatshops, and prosperous main streets of rural towns, once community gathering centers, became distant memories, replaced by malls of corporate chains and soulless big box stores.
At the same time, family farmers in the midwestern heartland and elsewhere, who once fed their regions with a diversity of healthy farm products, have been replaced by machines tending vast plantations of monocrops, destined for distant markets. Wildlife habitat has disappeared. Bucolic countryside with grazing cows and red barns has given way to cages in windowless animal factories, which emit noxious fumes and fouled water, while institutionalizing animal cruelty. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers have exhausted the land and greatly limited the soil’s capacity to produce nutritious food and sequester carbon.
I see this severe economic disruption at the root of the political divide that is tearing the U.S. apart. Is it possible to understand that “Make American Great Again” is not simply a fearful response to the decline of white male supremacy, but also a cry of pain over the loss of something else, something that was beautiful—a way of life that gave meaning, self-worth, and a sense of belonging?
I believe we can address this loss, and at the same time end economic inequality and environmental degradation, by working together to build local economies that care for us all, and nature, too.
Is it possible to understand that “Make American Great Again” is not simply a fearful response to the decline of white male supremacy, but also a cry of pain over the loss of something else, something that was beautiful—a way of life that gave meaning, self-worth, and a sense of belonging?
I believe that the meeting place of the political right and left is community self-reliance. Local economies can merge the right’s emphasis on individual self-reliance with the left’s focus on collective endeavors. By building economies independent of corporate control, we can uphold the cherished American value of independence.
Production of basic needs—food, fiber, and fuel—provides an opportunity for many new businesses. We can turn local farm products into staples for our kitchens, textiles into clothing, fiber into building materials, and even use industrial hemp, a plant recently released from an 80-year ban, as a substitute for plastic.
In our transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, large scale production will again be sourced from rural areas, offering many opportunities for rural landowners and the creation of meaningful jobs.
We will engage local government and philanthropic communities, in both urban and rural settings, to proactively ensure that business ownership is spread broadly and equitably, uplifting communities that were denied prosperity in the old economy.
Cooperative ownership can play a big role in both rural production and processing and in urban manufacturing and distribution.
In these inclusive economies, our young people will envision ways to contribute their unique talents and skills, not as cogs in the wheel, not as serfs in corporations or on plantations, but as co-creators of an economy that has meaning and a secure future.
Local economies can merge the right’s emphasis on individual self-reliance with the left’s focus on collective endeavors.
Restoring self-reliant regional economies is not nostalgia for a time long gone; it’s about our very survival in the 21st century. Not only does local production reduce the carbons of long-distance shipping, but it also decreases our dependence on global supply chains easily disrupted by chaotic weather and social upheaval. What we do today to build resilient regional economies may determine the survival of future generations.
Building local economies creates a place for diverse communities to come together around shared goals, fostering trust and respect, as well as happiness. It’s a place where we can overcome individualism and once again feel the power of collective action.
We can celebrate a reunited America where each of us—farmer, entrepreneur, worker, student, artist, investor, and conscious consumer—can find a meaningful role in creating a just, restorative and caring economy.
A place we all, every one of us, can belong.
Judy Wicks is an author, activist and entrepreneur who founded Philadelphia’s iconic White Dog Cafe in 1983. She is founder of Fair Food Philly, the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, the nationwide (BALLE) Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and All Together Now Pennsylvania, working to unite urban and rural communities in rebuilding regional economies.Header photo by Aaron Blanco Tejedor / Unsplash