Local In Ann Arbor

Exactly ten years ago today,  the world financial system received a shock whose impact is still affecting the course of history.  This was, of course, the demise of Lehman Brothers. (For an excellent history and analysis of the effects of the financial crisis, see this recent article in the New Yorker (September 17,2018.)  I was not particularly surprised, though the roller coaster of those days affected me much as it did most people. But I had been anticipating disaster.  I read The Black Swan when it was first published in 2007. This is a complicated and difficult read, but its basic message is that simplistic predictions are likely to fail. Events can follow a chaotic path, which doesn’t mean jumbled, but obeying a mathematical course explained in the science of complexity (chaos theory). Taleb explains this at great confusing length, but he has one memorable metaphor (paraphrased below).  He suggests that we (were) due for a surprise.

If one uses past behavior to predict the future, consider the turkey. All is going well. He is protected from predators, fed well, given shelter and room to run. Day after day brings nothing but good news. Then comes Thanksgiving.  

Straight-line growth. It just keeps going!


This was especially meaningful to me because as a Washtenaw County Commissioner (1997-2004), I was exposed to numerous budget meetings in which the budget director continually pronounced that “the best predictor of the future is the past” and presented graphs showing that the County revenue would grow continuously in a straight line!  The early 2000s were the period in which we were battling sprawl – unrestrained development in rural areas.  The tax base was growing hugely and the resulting revenue was making the County look very rich indeed.  The message was that we could spend freely since the money would just keep coming and coming.  It became clear to me that we were addicted to growth. But growth must by its nature be limited and the rate of growth we were experiencing seemed unsustainable.  And indeed, by 2007 Michigan was in a severe economic slump.  (The period of 2000-2009 is now called Michigan’s lost decade.)

Meanwhile, there were other troublesome economic indicators. The price of oil had been rising steadily over the decade, reaching a price of over $160 per barrel in June, 2008.  As I confessed later, I had been a subscriber to dystopian thinking (including the peak oil concept) for some time. My response was to focus on concepts of sustainability (the classic concept, not the self-serving development concept).  I expanded my vegetable garden, began promoting the local food concept (see my Ann Arbor Observer article, Meet the Locavores), and began a blog, Voltaire’s Garden.  This is a reference to the French philosopher Voltaire’s often-quoted recommendation to “cultivate our garden” as a response to hardship and cruelty in the world abroad. This post, May You Live in Interesting Times, explains that history.  Note the emphasis on creating an island of survival and prosperity in the midst of scarcity and disruption.

Localization as an Academic Subject

The semester following the financial meltdown, I gained access (through my activities on local food) to an informal seminar series that was being conducted by some graduate students at the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE) at the University of Michigan.  I don’t recall the title, if it had one, but there were many speakers, both invited and student participants, on subjects ranging from how to fight food deserts in Detroit,  to the futurist Nicole Foss, and others discussing everything from the coming energy crisis to how local farms might be established. (The pioneering farmer Richard Andres was a strong influence.)  It was a heady time, with the sense of a beginning revolution.  To me, the outstanding moment was a lecture by UM professor Thomas Princen on the subject of localization.  Dr. Princen’s field of specialization is economic and ecological sustainability and he has written several books.  Here is my review of one of them, The Logic of Sufficiency. It posits many of the same concepts of classic sustainability (with an equilibrium rather than growth) that I find so attractive.

Here is the handout that he passed out that day in February.  I found it electrifying.  It is a response to the evident financial stresses of the moment, as well as the impending energy crisis.  This is shown by the definition:

Localization is a process of social change brought on by unavoidable declines in available energy, as well by diminishing natural resource and waste sink capacities. Attention, individual and collective, is oriented toward direct relations, social and biophysical.

At the time I didn’t understand how controversial this might be. It pushes back against so many of the trends that we have come to accept in an age of globalization.

Each locality should solve as many of its own problems as possible and do so in ways suited to its own biophysical and social conditions. (and) Localizers should organize their own local food and water supplies before re-organizing the country or the world. If higher levels of authority are needed to ensure local provisioning, then one organizes at those levels. Otherwise, one looks inward to local capacities, local infrastructure and local needs.

This is basically the principle that the resilient communities movement adopts.  For a time, the international Transition movement was similarly oriented toward a self-sustaining community.  Here is my account of a local Transition organizing meeting (April 2009, in the same time frame as the discussion I have been relating).

And here is the recommendation that I truly took to heart.

Place-based Decisionmaking Principle: When critical life-support systems are at risk, key decisions should reside with those who demonstrate a connection and commitment to place, not with those who are placeless. This “residential” principle says that people who live and work in a community are more likely to represent community values, be dependent on the coherence and durability of the community in place, and know that place.

In today’s environment with the emphasis on equity and accommodation, this is likely to raise eyebrows, if not blood pressures.  And yet it is based on a “lifeboat” view of how a community may survive when the world is unfriendly. In its own way it echoes Voltaire’s island against the world.  If we once again experience food shortages and lack of sufficient resources to carry on a minimal standard of life, it may seem to be the only course.

Princen went on to teach a course in Localization for several semesters, using a textbook that a colleague, Raymond de Young (also an instructor in the course), and he wrote, The Localization Reader. Most chapters are by other authors, and some, like the essays by Wendell Berry, are classics.

Self-governance and the City of Ann Arbor

Note that the emphasis in the conceptual discussion of localization is on the ability of local populations to make decisions for themselves.  Thus, I determined to support the concept of localization in my writing and politics.  This was the reason for beginning Local in Ann Arbor. The neighborhoods are simply organs (in a biological sense) of the local community and its residents.  They have been fighting a rearguard action against those who would instead use Ann Arbor as a means to wealth, even if it means displacement of long-time residents.  (This was explained at length in my August 2018 pre-election post, The Primary Struggle for the Future of Ann Arbor.)  Here is the plea I made in that post (emphasis added):

Some have accused the Neighborhoods of being elitists and implied that they are worse. But actually, the shoe is on the other foot.  The whole thrust and focus is to wealth creation at the expense of long-time residents, many of whom are not particularly well off. Who owns the city? Current residents and businesses, or a future populace who are not here yet? Should a small group of elected and appointed officials make all the decisions and determine the course of the city? Or should the citizenry be empowered to help set the course?

As I indicated in that post, the problem is that Ann Arbor has become so attractive a place to live that property can essentially be mined for “gold”.  Wealth creation is a powerful drive.

On to the Future

Conditions have changed since 2009.  Oil prices have gone down (but are going up again) and there have been a number of adaptations (renewable energy taking the place of fossil fuels even in commercial generation; a robust local food economy) that make our current state less perilous. But the rapid advance of climate change and global warming make worldwide, if not local, economic and resource availability uncertain.  We have an unpredictable chief executive in the White House and there are many changes occurring and more likely in the Federal structure that we have come to depend on.  There are skirmishes, humanitarian disasters, and migration surges everywhere.  Water shortages and infrastructure failures are an increasing concern.  I don’t think that cultivation of our garden (or our resilient local community) is yet uncalled for.

Still, I think that I have said enough in the support of localization (which was, after all, the purpose of Local In Ann Arbor).  I have a couple more things to get off my mind, and then I will be closing this blog and moving on to another project.  I’m grateful for the readership I have enjoyed over the last decade.

UPDATE:  Today (September 17, 2018) the Local in Ann Arbor scene took a couple of blows. Mary Morgan, the former publisher of the Ann Arbor Chronicle (an invaluable local news site) and founder of the CivCity Initiative (a nonprofit devoted to encouraging citizens to be involved in local government), has announced that she will be relocating and the nonprofit will be terminated.  Both of these highly estimable projects failed to attract sufficient monetary support from the public to make them feasible over the long term.  She will be missed. Bouquets, Mary, and I hope there is a good donut shop where you are going.

Steve Bean, who has been part of our local scene for many years (read about his run for Mayor) also mentioned as an aside on Facebook that he is relocating to parts unknown.  Here’s hoping he finds a suitable person to take over his permaculture garden.  Ann Arbor will be just a little less interesting.


Explore posts in the same categories: Basis, Local Food

4 Comments on “Local In Ann Arbor”

  1. Timjbd Says:

    God help us as the Ned Staeblers replace the Mary Morgans.

  2. varmentrout Says:

    I think I understand what you are trying to say, Tim, but this is not happening. Ned Staebler will be an active player into the indefinite future, but he is not likely to run a newspaper.

  3. James Says:

    Vivienne, I hope you are able to make sure all your past posts remain available. Your attention to local goings on and your efforts to make things known and available have been invaluable. I despair of Ann Arbor residents knowing of things and their backstory without you putting in the time for us. Our local source of “news” is far from comprehensive or objective. I wish you well in your future endeavors, and many, many, many thanks and sincere gratitude for what you’ve done for all of us for so long. I have never meant it more when I say you will be missed.

  4. varmentrout Says:

    Thank you, James. Yes, I plan to keep this blog up indefinitely as an archive, until that no longer seems useful. I have made an effort to include many references and I’d like to make them accessible.

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