Amidst the array of storms challenging us ecologically, economically, socially, and spiritually in this winter of hardship, last week’s ice storm and its accompanying power outages offered many lessons in local resilience. “Resilience” is the term used by British author Rob Hopkins to describe a community’s capacity to absorb disturbances and reorganize itself in the face of change in a way that retains its own structure and identity. Resilient communities “engage with the wider world, but from an ethic of networking and information-sharing rather than of mutual dependence.” Resilient communities don’t isolate from the larger world, but become leaner and more self-reliant when they need to because they have prioritized the local over the imported.
The last two weeks here have certainly demonstrated this county’s resilience. Though more than 70 percent of us lost power and heat for days after the ice storm, though temperatures dropped to dangerous lows twice, though roads were blocked by downed tree limbs and covered with thick ice, blessedly the storm did not take a single life among us. Many forces worked together to produce this outcome: generous and skillful first responders, county and city leaders and staff, Red Cross volunteers, and the myriad family members, friends, and generous hearts who opened homes and hearths to those whose electricity was out. A huge help was the ample supplies of food available because so many here grow and preserve their food for the winter.
In an age when TV and radio bombard us daily about the superior flavor, quality, and choice available from franchised restaurants and globally owned box stores, this is a good moment to examine what we really believe about consumer choices. Was it national and international businesses who responded to our needs in our time of crisis? Was it city box stores who supplied the generators urgently needed when our power went out or necessary food supplies when hunger began to overtake us? Or rather, was it the ingenuity of local business people who figured out how to meet the most urgent needs of the community effectively when the chips were down?
Research shows that communities realize at least three times more financial benefit when their residents shop locally. Why? Because local businesses tend to bank locally, hire local accountants, attorneys, and other experts, and advertise in local media. Local businesses keep decision-making local, contribute more time and treasure to local causes, and fund city and county services through their taxes. Successful local businesses create more jobs in the community and often provide better wages and benefits than chains do. A variety of small businesses can provide healthier competition and more diverse products than the national box store.
Beyond economic benefits, local businesses protect and enhance the unique character of a community. We all know the disappointment of arriving for the first time in a town and finding it exactly like all those we’ve left behind. Restaurants, banks, shopping areas look so much like all the others we’ve known that we’re not even sure we’ve arrived in a new place at all. There’s no character in that kind of community.
Perhaps most important, shopping locally builds the fabric of community connections and reduces the volume of fossil fuel wasted to send thousands of vehicles scores of miles for simple errands. The more we show interest in buying locally, the more options there will be for new local business. Washington County, let’s increase our “resilience” for a more sustainable future by heeding our campaign: shop locally first!