About a week ago, there was a really thought-provoking and incredibly interesting guest post at the Green Phone Booth. The writer's family owns a local restaurant, which happens to be a franchise. She argues that though their restaurant may be seen as a "chain," they still support the local economy by buying local food and supporting local vendors. She implores us all to open our minds and to not simply assume chain=bad.
I was happy to read this post, because I happen to agree with the woman. In fact, I've written about this issue before. While yes, there are some evil chains out there, there are also chains out there that are using their clout to improve environmental, health and labor conditions out there for many, many people. Just as there are small businesses out there that are exploitative. Hell, I've worked for a couple exploitative small businesses in the past!
My feeling is that it's silly to label small as good and big as bad. Most big chains started out small, and grew because they were successful. Why should we penalize success? Sometimes, buying a franchise instead of striking it out on your own is just more business savvy. Considering the rate at which new restaurants close, what new business owner wouldn't want some help with marketing?
So, like I said. I really appreciated the post and the perspective. And most of the comments were fairly sympathetic to this woman. But one comment, fairly cut me to the core.
This commenter argued, "I will also point out that, here in [redacted], most franchises are owned by foreign interests. I do not want to send my money overseas or support foreign business any more than I can help. I mean, would you want to support Indian businesses by choice, when US-owned businesses are doing it hard? Or Chinese? Most people would support their own first."
I can't really express the range of emotions I felt after reading this. Sadness, a lot of sadness. Frustration, anger, more sadness.
I've always been sort of reluctant about the locavore movement. On the one hand, I completely agree that local food usually tastes better and is often better for the environment. I love shopping at farmer's markets, I love supporting local farmers, I love finding the abundant variety of English apples.
But I've always been nagged by the idea of what happens when you take the local movement to its logical extreme ... protectionism, nativism, xenophobia.
It seems odd to me, that in this digital age, we still insist on placing such importance on geographical closeness. I mean, why? I recently went to a lecture given by Amartya Sen. And he was talking about this issue of neighborliness. He said that some people say that you should only help your neighbor. But what does that mean, really? Let's say you were in a car accident and some stranger from far away helped you? Well, he argued, that person would BECOME your neighbor.
For what are our neighbors but those willing to lend a helping hand when we are in need? In that case, I have neighbors in California, in New York, in Illinois, in Turkey, India, all across the world. I also have neighbors right next door to me. But just because some are geographically closer to me doesn't make them BETTER.
Yes, by all means, support local food. Buy from the farmers' market. Strike up conversations with the local farmer. Patronize restaurants that use local produce and local vendors. But if that restaurant is owned by someone in China, well, so much the better I say! Because then, you'll not only be supporting your local community, but your global community.
In this era of increased globalization, migration, and inter-ethnic, faith, and race marriage, it's meaningless to talk as if there are some people who are our own, and some people who are other. At the end of the day, we are all humans. And if we are to build a better world, well, we can't just focus on our local communities. We need to make the world better for all people, everywhere.
As some of you may know, my dissertation spends a lot of time examining the conflicts between Northern (i.e. industrialized) and Southern (i.e. third world) countries as it pertains to climate change negotiations. Anyone who has followed the coverage of the pre-Copenhagen summits knows that this is a thorny issue. The sad thing is, these issues have existed in much the same form for over 15 years.
I believe that we will never, ever solve our current climate crisis as long as we maintain an attitude that places greater importance on our geographically local community. We are right now caught in a cycle of selfishness and blaming others. The global North bemoans China and India for their large populations and their new coal plants. The global South demands reparations from the North for the North's past carbon emissions. Each side refuses to bend, insisting on protecting "their own."
Meanwhile carbon emissions continue to ratchet up.
Consequently, when applied to global warming, the slogan "Think Global, Act Local," has gone from stupid to downright dangerous. As we all try to deal with a global phenomenon by focusing on our own geographical back yard, we have produced stalemate after stalemate after stalemate.
What we need is more dialogue. More willingness to help others. Even those far away. Especially those far away. More empathy and less blame. We need to be just as furious about a starving child in Africa as we would be about a starving child in our back yard.
Because, as Van Jones pointed out, climate change is going to affect those already vulnerable countries most. Land locked African countries, small island nations, those are the ones that will feel the greatest suffering. We need to be charging to their aid, not dragging our heels.
I still remember after Hurricane Katrina, how countries around the world big and small offered to help the United States. Even Sri Lanka, which was still recovering from the great tsunami, offered aid. Sure, the US didn't really need Sri Lanka's aid, but the point is, they were happy to give it to us. They were willing to come to America's side when disaster befell us.
In other words, they were our neighbors.