Can Victoria move forward into the past and leave the past behind, all at the same time? Maybe.
YESTERDAY MORNING, some street guy beat up my car. I was leaving the Pandora Street McDonald’s with a large, three creams/two sugars. He was crossing south on Mason Street, heading obliquely toward McDonald’s. We kind of made eye contact. I steered a slow, wide, respectful, you-too-sit-on-a-branch-in-the-tree-of-life turn around him toward Vancouver Street, and then he spun, lurched back into the intersection and beat on the hood and windshield with his fists, yelling something incomprehensible.
Surprising and disturbing, but not consequential—for me, my car or, I suspect, the street guy...unless he was using his fists to drum a message about the sheer human outrage of unequally distributed opportunity in this crapshoot life, his disappointment with US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s announcement that Quantitative Easing would continue because of the still-weak American economy, and the immediate imperative that I practice personal import replacement by making local economic investments (shoe leather, I guess) instead of supporting the German automotive economy.
Mind, he was headed straight for McDonald’s. What a hypocrite!
Okay, just the evening before (October 1) I had attended a presentation by Michael Shuman, the enormously smart and entertaining economist/lawyer who is a champion of the local economy/import substitution movement. In fact, he is, along with Bainbridge Island-based David Korten (When Corporations Rule the World, The Great Turning) a founding director of the important and influential US-based grassroots organization BALLE—the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.
The room at the Victoria Event Centre on Broad Street was packed with market lefties like me—good folks, “progressives,” people I love to talk, party and do good works with, though not the gang likely to join me for java at the Great Satan McDonald’s.
As I drove home with my coffee, the question I should have asked Shuman flashed into my adrenaline-quickened mind: “Michael (he’s one of those people with whom you are immediately on a first-name basis), it’s fine for you to give this pitch to the already converted and the ideologically susceptible, but what impact does your message have on the red meat crowd in business suits? Do they take you seriously? Do they find your arguments convincing?”
Clearly, Cameron A. Plommer, a reader who, on Amazon, gives Shuman’s Going Local: Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age only two stars out of five, doesn’t. Plommer writes: “Economies of scale, comparative advantage, specialization? Shuman ignores all these things. There are gains from specialization and trade that most people can’t conceptualize, so they resort to fuzzy feeling concepts like sustainable commu- nities. Going Local is going backwards.”
This is what you invite when you start your presentations or books by noting that the dominant economic system is in decline. Shuman, in advocating local economic development based on the concept of import substitution—local stores and services, not chains or mega-stores; local investment through the choice of local banks and credit unions; promotion of the principle of greater community (or city) self-sufficiency in food, energy, job- and wealth-generation; and so on—is definitely pushing against the conventions we have all been fed as economic gospel, and have grown up taking for granted. Cherry tomatoes in January? Yum! Who cares where they come from, or the shipping costs? Oroweat Oatnut bread 3 for $9.50 at Costco? Gimme dat!
In describing the “false economy” promulgated and dominated by big-box and category-killer stores like Walmart, Costco, Chapters and the rest, Shuman explains that money directed to local spending means more local income, wealth and jobs, and that roughly three times more dough—wages, owner income, business profits, business spending on services—stays and re-circulates in the local economy. He reminds his audience that local businesses—he dubs them a “relationship-driven economy”—significantly outperform nationals and multinationals in local job-creation and retention. Every analysis and statistical study undertaken has confirmed these facts.
He tells an interesting story: “A hundred years ago, when you spent a dollar on food at the market, something like 40¢ went to the farmer. But now, when you spend a dollar, 7¢ cents goes to the farmer and 71¢ goes to marketing (refrigeration, advertising, middle people, packaging, warehousing, shipping and distribution). Even if you allow for really inefficient local farming so that the farmer’s share rises, say, to 14¢, if you get rid of much of those costs associated with a global food system, you can deliver cheaper food.”
Shuman, author, as well, of The Small-Mart Revolution, adds that we bring the sensibilities of big-box consumers not just to our daily purchases but also in our municipal and regional behaviour. He argues that the blind, roving quest and the laydown policy accommodations and de facto bribes (oh, sorry, I mean incentives) by economic development offices hoping to lure major corporations to come to town and set up shop is another example of utter misdirection. He invokes the poor record of corporate performance in producing lasting local economic generation, and reminds us of the fickle loyalties of multinationals when Korea, China or other Asian entrepots come whistling.
Remarkably, two evenings later, life was whistling harmony with Shuman—a timely downstroke to his ideas—when ThisIsVIC took over the lobby of the Atrium on Yates and Blanshard. A glorified business mixer and nosh-fest with lots of young person accou- trements (music, pulsing lights and a high ambient noise level), ThisIsVIC aimed to expunge Victoria’s “expired vision” as a somnolent, newly wed/nearly dead town. While many believe that the “little bit of Olde Inertia” thing is fading, others sense that a dead hand still holds things at half-throttle; and Victoria continues to carry a reputation as “a place bright ideas come to die,” and as a hard place to “get to yes.” (One of my scallywag friends thinks a “Welcome to Victoria. The answer is NO” sign would be an informative addition to the Centennial Square landscape.)
At a guess, 200 attended ThisIsVIC, and conning the room you might well have asked yourself: “This is VIC?” It was a young, casual crowd, sprinkled with a business suit here and there. No Canadian flag in the corner, no framed photograph of the Queen on the wall. No sit-down. No wallflowers. No mayoral wand-waving. No long speeches. And a dance party starting at 10 featuring DJ Murge.
Walter Wheeler, interviewed many years ago in his home north of Burlington, Vermont on the occasion of his 100th birthday, was asked whether he thought there was more sex now than when he was a young man. Walter responded: “No-o-o-o, I think it’s about the same, but there’s definitely a different crowd doing it.”
There was a different crowd doing it (and doing it differently) at ThisIsVIC, driving another nail into the coffin of proper Victoria. Business cards, email addresses, Facebook and Twitter handles were being swapped in a frenzy of happy noise. Roaming, I heard restaurant ideas, tech ideas, small-business startup ideas, food truck ideas, online game ideas, local food production and farming ideas, funding and capital formation ideas, green business ideas. Who knows how much of this will see daylight, but that’s not the point of a fizzy, collaborative brainstorm like ThisIsVIC which, in an information card, describes itself not as an event but a “movement,” and notes, perkily “We are super lucky to have some amazing people in the room with us tonight—including yourself!”
I’m a super-amazing old bastard who came to Victoria in 1970, aged 27 and believing, as I took the measure of the place, that me against everybody else was a fair fight. With that perspective, I took heart from Michael Shuman’s hopeful news that economic localism is undergoing a groundswell resurgence, and from a visceral demonstration of that truth as I looked across a sea of 27-year-old faces at ThisIsVIC.
Leaves me with a hopeful feeling that now in Victoria the answer is MAYBE.
Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.