Tuesday, August 11, 2009

On Being Neighborly

I've been pondering this post for over a week now. I almost decided not to write it, but in the end, the oh-so-arduous part of me won out. So here goes.

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.


Farmer's Daughter said...

I agree that this planet is small, and we are all neighbors. I love having a great diversity in my classroom, because teenagers can be so self-centered. When my students from China talk about the coal emissions, or when my students from India talk about food shortages, or when my students from Mexico talk about being migrant farm workers, it broadens the horizons of my born-and-raised-here students. I think putting a face to the abstract is what really helps with empathy.

I also agree that I'm tired of the blame game, and it's not getting us anywhere with carbon emissions. I have to act locally (as in my own backyard) because my government refuses to act! That's the really frustrating part. So in effect, this has to be grassroots, but none of us want to to be that way.

ruchi said...

I agree that there are often more ways we CAN act locally and it is often harder to act globally. I completely support people growing their own food, joining the PTA or city council, shopping the farmer's market etc. There are many fewer ways the average person can get involved in our global community, aside from giving money.

I think the problem is when we prioritize the local over the global. When we try to protect local from big, bad global without considering the consequences.

Stephanie said...

You saw a lecture by Amartya Sen?! Whoa!

"Think global, act local" -- that's the saying, right? I admit I tend to think more local because it's simpler and easier, but you're right. We should be neighborly to the entire world.

ruchi said...

Yeah, I did. It was awesome.

kimberly said...

While I agree with a lot of what you've said, I'd like to perhaps offer a perspective that wasn't mentioned in this blog post. I'm not supporting the opinion of this person, I just think that there's a side that hasn't been touched on yet...

I think that a lot of the reason why some people are big on giving their business to local businesses (i.e. with this person basically saying that they would rather be giving their business to an American company than a foreign one) is because of issues of unemployment or instability in employment. It can be really difficult for some (especially in cities with high unemployment) to be sympathetic to this example of globalization. For example: Here in Ontario, the city of Windsor has been hit really hard by the recent economic troubles as the "Big 3" automakers have shut down plants and laid off thousands of workers. Unemployment in Windsor is over 14%, real estate is totally messed up, restaurants and local businesses have gone out of business. It's slowly turning into a ghost town, and it's really scary for the locals. I don't know what it's like firsthand, being from Toronto, but I've heard about it from a friend who went to university there. I can see why people who are struggling to find a job, pay their rent/mortgage and feed their kids, might be a little hesistent to give their money to large corporations based in other countries when they see their friends and family losing their livelihood down the street.

I think when that's happening in your hometown, it's just hard not to be sympathetic to your (literal) neighbours. And even if your job isn't at stake, there is an instability caused by these types of economic problems.

So yah, I mean, I hear what you're saying. I'm definitely not a nationalist by any stretch, so I hope that it doesn't seem that way in my response (and that's another issue entirely). I just think it's important to note the other side of the issue...

Stephanie said...

That sounds seriously awesome.

ruchi said...

Kimberly, I see your point, but I think that that's part of the issue. It's much easier to see how your local community is affected by say a global recession. It's harder to see how your global community is affected. However, given how interconnected we all are, and given how many of the crises we face today ARE global, it's important that we make the effort.

I would argue that one of the big reasons we are constantly in a stalemate over climate change negotiations is because we aren't really doing a good enough job of understanding things from a variety of perspectives. Does that make sense?

knutty knitter said...

How about balance? For example; I live in New Zealand. We don't have much in the way of industrial manufacture. We do have a lot in the way of sheep/dairy. To get the one we need to swap for the other. That is what trade means after all. The problem comes when one side demands more for its items than another even though the work input is about the same.

The result is a trade imbalance.

I'd like to see a system where all trade was fairly priced instead of just cheap or expensive or local or foreign. That way you get my grass fed products and I get my computer and both sides are happy (this is utopia of course).

Oh and ban money trading - it serves no useful purpose.

viv in nz

Joyce said...

I agree with you completely. As I've read about the locavore movement (mostly through blogs) I have had the feeling that what really drives it is the underlying longing for relationships. When you know the person who grew your tomato, and can greet them by name once a week at the farmer's market, it really isn't about the tomato, or the environment, it's about the relationship. When you're worried about the local people laid off from the assembly line, it's not about the cars, it's about the suffering neighbors you talk with at the Little League field. We need and care about each other. If we admit that, then we can quit demonizing the "foreigners" or "big corporations".

Amber said...

Hi Ruchi,

I thought of you and this post when I read this and this.

All the best,

Oldnovice said...

I think we tend to think homeward simply because thinking otherwise becomes too much for us to bear.

A while back I mentioned how charities were starting to contact my blog because I pimp them on occasion. There's SO MUCH need that individuals can't keep up with it.

Not so long ago, I remember questioning the "buy local movement" when I thought, "I don't have anything against Chile. Why shouldn't I buy fruits and veggies that were shipped here from Chile?
I still buy fruits and veggies that were shipped here from Chile on occasion, but the reason why I maybe shouldn't had more to do with how the stuff from Chile expended a bigger carbon footprint than the 20 minute drive in our not so energy efficient vehicle to get to the Farmer's Market where the "local" farmers charged me more by three times than the Chileans. So, it's a tradeoff even ecologically ... walk to Kroger to buy fruits/veggies from Chile or drive 20 minutes in a non-fuel-efficient car to pay three times that from local farmers. Not so sure xenophobia or even jingoism plays a role.

Bottom-line, though, IMO, is that we can't incorporate ALL (without driving ourselves crazy), so make choices on concentration.

Robj98168 said...

Good post Ruchi. I agree whole heartidly, but am a bit confused- In your last post you made this comment "Which lets face it, is a bit too white and a bit too male." As a white male, I must say I take a bit of offense to this. Now of course I know none was intended, but jeeze, why be so fast to start name calling. Especially when doing a post on being neighborly!

Lily Boot said...

I so absolutely agree with you. It is such a small step from fervent nationalism to aggressive jingoism. And I think it's an outdated philosophy that hasn't served us well up to now. Look at the state of the environment, look at wars we have suffered and the billions of people who have lost their lives because of people, neighbourhoods, cities, countries and their governments focusing on what THEY need rather than how they can fit in to this wonderful and fragile world.

Buy Tamiflu said...

Actually I am pleasantly surprised that there are people like this woman who take care about their customers, and not support foreign interests.