Reading Wendell Berry’s The Gift of Good Land, I was struck by the simplest thought: that “local” is more than a philosophy; it’s a physical attachment to a particular piece of earth. In fact, that very attachment is what makes us “local” and distinguishes us from national organizations that don’t have the same allegiance. Those businesses untethered to place are generally more interested in financial gain than the long-term health of the community. If the location no longer serves their interests these parties can simply pick up and leave, to the further detriment of the city.
Take this example from Berry’s essay, Conserving Communities, quoting a New York Times report on logging in Montana:
“Throughout the 1980’s the Champion International Corp. went on a tree-cutting binge in Montana, leveling entire forests at a rate they had not been since the cut and run logging days of the last century.
Now the hang-over has arrived. After liquidating much of its valuable timber in the Big Sky country, Champion is quitting Montana, leaving behind hundreds of unemployed millworkers, towns staggered by despair, and more than a thousand square miles of heavily logged land.”
Champion’s initial proposal to the city probably cited increased sales and property tax revenue, the number of new jobs to be created, and all the other quantifiable benefits that would tempt any City Council to sign on the dotted line. From a balance sheet perspective, it’s a no brainer: turning undeveloped land into a revenue stream. Only when Champion leaves does the loss become apparent. Years of economic growth were but a temporary bubble exchanged for the community’s long-term environmental assets.
This economic reality was veiled from the start as a result of a tragic accounting mistake. In Berry’s example, Champion doesn’t make the land productive; they simply liquidate the asset of trees into cash. However, because these assets are not recorded on the balance sheet it has the appearance of money coming from nowhere. A new accounting is needed then to take the reality of these costs into account, and to help communities make better decisions for the long-term.
A city with a real commitment to living local should encourage its economic development department to build an inventory of “soft” assets (trees, air and water quality, etc.) with assigned values to get a more accurate sense of what the city has. The value system might be difficult to design at first, but here is a great opportunity for creativity and community input. Then the next time a developer comes calling with a proposal the non-financial ledger could be consulted for a more realistic conversation of costs and benefits, helping to answer the question, will this proposal improve our place and our quality of life as much as it improves our balance sheet?