With Washington not showing much leadership these days, states defaulting, and big companies laying off, we may all soon be relying much more on our local economies and communities to get us through hard times. I see that as a good thing. Here are six reasons why:
1. We live here, dang it! Yes, I'd love to ride a Greenpeace ship and save the whales, but I've got responsibilities and so do you. So let's leave all that high-profile stuff to some celeb, and focus on our daily lives: Clean up the yard. Make your surroundings more pleasant, nurturing, and earth-friendly. Dorothy got it right. There's no place like home.
2. Buy local, strengthen your community: In uncertain times, local businesses are more than your neighbors. They're your lifeline. I remember as a child, running to the corner store for my mom to buy essentials. If she didn't have ready cash I was instructed to ask the grocer, "Joe, would you put it 'on the cuff." Joe would always smile, nod, write down the amount in a loose-leaf book and ask if I wanted one of my favorite pears. Next time you're in Walmart, try doing the same with the cashier, and you'll quickly learn that economic security comes not from a box store, but from building personal relationships.
3. Eat local, eat well: With drought and deluge causing crop failures across America, it pays to support your local farmer. Also, it's a fact that the fresher food is - from iceberg lettuce to asparagus - the better it tastes and more nutrients it holds. I remember going to a farm for the first time and pulling a carrot from the soil. Dirt and all, it was tastier than the bitter roots on my dinner plate grown 1,500 miles away. Don't believe me? Do the taste test yourself with a hothouse supermarket tomato, and one locally grown. Eat local and your stomach, farmer, and community all thrive.
4. The new underground economy is us: Americans aren't dummies. We can read the labels on the goods we buy and know that the factories and jobs that produced them have moved overseas and aren't coming back. As family savings dwindle, we must again turn to friends and neighbors for what we need. Community newspapers, pennysavers, and websites like Craigslist and Uncle Henry's are devoted to barter and the exchange of goods and services. Bargains at the local Goodwill store, yard sale, or recycle shed are replacing the shopaholic's dream of a sale at Barney's. As my mom fondly used to say, "It's not used, just perfectly broken in!"
5. Volunteer to help others and help yourself: Offering a couple hours per week to a local charity or civic group forges strong new interpersonal relationships. It's also good for the soul. So rather than writing a check to fight cancer, volunteer to drive a patient needing chemo to the clinic. You'll get out of the house, find out what's happening locally, make new friends and become part of a real solution. Plus, those new friends will likely be there when you're in need.
6. Plant a garden. You can't get more local than replacing your lawn with a vegetable garden. Don't have a lawn? Grow greens in a container or window box, and harvest your own lettuce at home next New Years Day. In my old community of Quincy, Mass., immigrant Chinese use every scrap of space in tiny yards to grow the vegetables they love. It's become a joke on my old block that "keeping up with the Wu's" means creating an urban oasis that provides food, beauty, and community.
Recently, I saw a PBS documentary about the tree-planting women of Kenya who launched a national green revolution. The words of one toothless but dignified village elder grabbed me: "The little, little grassroots people make it all happen," she said. I knew then that our best hope abides not in an Act of Congress or a global initiative. It's here, it's now, and it's local! Reach out and grab it!
Karen O'Leary is a writer, amateur naturalist and former farmer. A Boston, Mass. native, she lives in Montpelier, Vt.