Why Localism is a Bigger Deal Than You Think

Personal Blog Post – By Jason Murphy – August 14th, 2018

Building Authenticity

The ‘Localism’ idea is almost certainly already on your radar, and probably has been for a while.

Proponents have been extolling the virtues of farm-to-table, independent producers, and the virtues of the farmer’s market for a few years, and, for those who can afford it, localism tends to come with a price premium. It is an enjoyable and accessible way to improve your life and do something ethical, support local communities, quality food and higher standards of sustainability.

I enjoy food and while I’m not qualified to call myself a foodie - making a perfect omelette still eludes me – as a consumer of ideas and ways to make my life better, localism is something that goes pretty much directly to my “things we should do” list.

“Artisinal” has become a cliché. We need a new word less freighted with hipsterism, but behind every cliche there is a truth, and the truth here is that localism embodies a kind of authenticity that many crave in a world dominated by the global supply chain.

It will come as no surprise that the localism idea applies just as much to seafood as anything else. Listen to farm-to-table hero Dan Barber talk about falling in love with a fish and you will be left with little doubt.

Traveling around the coast of BC has only served to underscore this. Local, by-and-large, means quality food provided by people who care about what they are doing because they are members of the community that they serve, and it means jobs and other sources of income for the people from the area in which they are located.

The Rise of the Disenfranchised Consumer

I’ve had a few conversations around this idea, and there was a moment when it became a persistent component of Sealives’ learnings. It happened with the link between effective conservation efforts and the need for vibrant coastal communities. The broad strokes go like this:

Genuine conservation efforts require people in the affected areas who are connected to that place and care deeply about it, because those people form a community that provides the necessary context for good behavior. In order to have people who care living in these areas, you need the right socio-economical conditions such that people are not pressed into damaging environmental practices to survive. It naturally follows that local, independent producers should be supported as keystone players in such communities.

I still firmly believe this to be true, but have since come to a new place on the issue.

I now believe that localism is even more important than the above, and the reason has to do with much broader issues of environmentalism, the complexity of the issues that affect the environment, and consumer choice.

People who know me know that I am a capitalist. To me, the power of putting money to work to create a better future for myself and others is self evident. Those who know me also know that I believe that anyone who thinks that capitalism is a purely selfish enterprise is mistaken, for the simple reason that capitalism can only exist within a functioning society with laws that ensure a level playing field, quality education and universal health-care.

Where all these things exist you have prosperity, peace and relatively good governance. There is always room for improvement.

For many, this brings along with it the idea that the customer is king, and that this is also a positive thing.

I tend to agree. 

I believe that people will, by and large, maintain values that are beneficial not only to themselves but also to society and the world in general, as long as they are well educated and healthy and prosperous enough to have the freedom to do so, and that they will express these values eloquently via their spending habits.

This is an empowering world-view. It underscores the freedom and power we all have to influence society as a whole through our purchasing decisions: To choose the more sustainable product, the less polluting product, the less carbon-emitting product.

As soon as you look at it through the lens of environmentalism, the challenges of this idea quickly become apparent though.

Firstly, it assumes prosperity on behalf of the consumer, but for many in our society this is not the case.

People with money have the luxury of choosing the more expensive products that are made with more care for the environment, but many do not have that kind of money and are disenfranchised as a result.

Secondly, it assumes that good choices are available.

Consumers are only empowered by their choices to the extent that those choices include good environmentally focused options, and picking out those choices from the less worthy options is a practical exercise. A choice between two (or, it seems, as you walk down the isle of many supermarkets, 100) products that are equally detrimental to the environment or impossible to distinguish from each other from an environmental perspective is not empowering, it is mind-numbing.

Thirdly, and perhaps worse of all, the sheer complexity of the issues and the opacity of the supply chain makes it functionally impossible for the consumer to ever know if he or she is making choices that are in line with their values regardless of how well-meaning and privileged they are.

I am devoting the rest of my life to understanding issues of sustainability, the environment and stewardship of the ocean.

I am not a scientist, but I am one of the lucky few who can spare the the time. And I care.

But even for me, the difficulty of understanding how to make my dollar speak for my values – particularly living the life I am, on the road for the Initiative – is thrown into stark relief. 

The Only Effective Message

I had a great, in-depth conversation a few days ago with someone who works in the NGO space and has devoted a life-time of work to sustainable fisheries and catch monitoring.

The subject of gill-netting came up in the context of a local fishery that she is working hard to keep alive and sustainable for the good of the community, and, by association, if you agree that good communities matter to the conservation, the good of the environment.

Like many who care about the ocean, the idea of gill-netting, the practice of hanging a net across an area of water to catch anything swimming in a particular direction, immediately raises questions. What else gets caught in those nets? To what degree is the practice simply taking everything it can and leaving nothing behind?

The answer is straightforward and it has to do with scale: The impact of a strictly controlled, locally owned and managed near-shore gill net fishery is tiny compared to industrial scale fishing of any kind.

I have also spoken with local owner operators who have explained to me how they use carefully selected mesh sizes to target only specific fish.

This prompted me to ask the question, “Is it true to say that small-scale, locally-owned fishing is, for practical purposes, always the more environmentally-conscious choice?” After some thought, the person I was speaking with responded, “Yes.”

Unsurprising perhaps, but put into context of the challenges of a consumerist society where the consumer has been disempowered from making meaningful choices, and therefore having meaningful influence, due to expense, lack of product availability or visibility, and the complexity of the issues involved, the power of localism get elevated into a different league.

What it means is that “buy local” is simply the most direct, the most compact, the most actionable message to send to consumers if you want to make positive environmental change.

It elevates localism from being a very good idea when it comes to empowering consumer choice, to being the only message that anyone can really act upon.

So my thinking right now is this, at least for those of us who live in the West: If you are one of the lucky people who can afford a choice, and it has to be recognized that many can’t, don’t try to understand if gill-netting is any worse than long-lining, or if that can of tuna is really “dolphin safe” or is labelled with some kind of certification that you may not ever fully understand; just look for freshly caught wild fish and locally harvested seafood (not farmed fish,) that comes from independent operators, and if that can’t be obtained, start asking why.

The issue of how to make those choices more available and more affordable then becomes the next challenge, but challenges that may be surmountable if localism, the one clear message that might actually work, is something that enough people insist upon.

Because, as every good capitalist knows, it all starts with demand.