This past Labor Day, Paula and I did what so many Americans do over a sunny three-day weekend – we took a road trip. We had a wedding to attend in Austin and we thought we would make the most of it by dropping our kids off with the grandparents in San Antonio first. We had heard a few rumors floating around about a gas shortage following the devastation of Houston by Hurricane Harvey, but we noticed nothing unusual as we filled up the tank here in College Station and hit the road Friday evening for San Antonio. Now kid-free, we started out for Austin the following morning with half a tank of gas. We were surprised to see that the two gas stations on the corner were indeed out of gas but figured we would just stop further along the way instead. But the next station was out of gas too. And so was the next. And the next! After about an hour of this we started feeling a little panicky. If this continued on would we even be able to make it to the wedding? And what about the kids? How would we get back to them in San Antonio, let alone back home to College Station? And hey, if we can’t get gas then maybe delivery trucks can’t either. Will the grocery stores start running low on food? What had started out as a fun weekend away was suddenly beginning to feel more like a surreal nightmare. Everything about how we take care of our daily needs was suddenly called into question – our ability to travel, even just to stores, schools, and offices; our access to food and other necessities. All of this because of just one hurricane in Houston. We drove nervously onward, shocked at the fragility and dependence of the cities and economies we rely on each day.
Our local economies were not always this dependent. In fact, at the time of the American Revolution, 90% of the labor force was based on local farming, and the majority of other trades were provided and produced locally. At a time when goods were hand-made and their transport between cities and regions was slow, difficult, and often inefficient, this kind of self-reliant local economy emerged naturally. What happened next is what most people would call over 200 years of progress. Factories sprang up and produced larger quantities of product at cheaper prices than those local producers doing it by hand. Railroads, roads and then highways provided the transportation networks needed to get those mass produced goods from the factory to stores. Improvements to mass communication – from the telegraph to the telephone to the Internet – allowed information to flow faster, enabling rapid responses to local needs. Decades of government supported transportation infrastructure spending created a supply-chain distribution network that efficiently, effectively, and inexpensively gets goods to their desired destination. In short, all those natural barriers protecting a local economy – distance, etc. – were overcome. For producers this means the ability to more easily expand into new markets. For consumers it means access to a greater variety of goods and services competing on price.
Yet this same transportation infrastructure that gives us more choices from distant lands to our doorstep is also the process that squeezes out local producers from the marketplace – weakening local ownership, self-reliance, and resilience. Small, local producers, who make up for their lack of quantities of scale, and their higher labor and environmental standards with shortened supply-chain, now see their competitive advantage systematically wiped out with each transportation network investment. With both political parties supporting massive infrastructure spending, the market has adjusted to this new reality by focusing on educating the next generation to be specialists with a worldwide market that can support even the narrowest niche skillset rather than generalists who can flexibly serve local needs.
Like a cavity that starts at the enamel and eventually hollows out a whole tooth, so too has the larger economy been hollowing out the local capability to be self-reliant. On the surface everything looks the same: we still have grocery stores, hardware stores, and all manner of services. What we don’t see is the fact that ownership and production of those things are no longer local. Global economies are finding more and better ways to replace local capabilities with alternatives that require us to rely on distant, disconnected companies using efficient supply-chain deliveries. Even our own two feet have been replaced with cars as we have redesigned our cities to replace the 20 minute walk with the 20 minute drive. The result is that cities are physically spread out to the point that most of us are reliant on the products and deliveries of the global economy to gain access to basic needs.
So when do we notice this hollowing out? As long as goods still stock the shelves and we can easily access them, why does this phenomenon even matter? The answer is simple: we might not always be able to rely on these global supply chains, particularly in a real crisis when it matters most. As gas stations and grocery stores rely on multiple deliveries daily themselves, should the supply chain be interrupted for an extended or unknown period of time, such as in a wartime situation, it would not be long before the products we rely on disappear. In previous generations, these events might have been weathered because cities and economies were local and human scaled enough to provide for basic needs. But today, in the vast majority of places in our country, I fear we would quickly find ourselves in an unprecedented state of vulnerability and desperation. In such a situation, suddenly those people who panic and start stocking up on supplies seem a whole lot less crazy. For until we can be reconnected to the supply chain system, we’re on our own, a situation where it matters very much whether or not we can meet our own needs.
Returning to our ill-fated road trip, the good news is that Paula and I did eventually find a gas station with gas for which we gratefully lined up and waited, hoping that the gas would hold out long enough for us to get to the pump. Gas stations continued to be hit or miss that weekend depending on location and the story in the media was that there was no real shortage, just a run caused by those panicky people who should have just remained calm. And as the delivery trucks and supply and demand returned to normal, I could not help but wonder if we just missed an opportunity to have an important discussion about the value of local resilience and forming a human scaled economy in which locals can take care of locals. What a perfect opportunity it would have been to think about not being so reliant on delivery truck imports and instead develop local alternatives through import replacement. Or to discuss the tradeoffs associated with the ever-increasing transportation infrastructure which brings people and goods from further away closer together but also crowds out small, local businesses – and ask the questions is this really the economy we want and could there be a better balance? Sure there is and always will be a place for federal agencies like FEMA and for healthy, functional global supply-chains to supplement the local economy. But when the chips are down, if the delivery trucks don’t come for a few days or a few weeks, how do our local communities hold up? Are we completely reliant on global systems or do we have the local, human-scaled capability to handle disruptions and bounce back? Do we find ourselves in a desperate panic or are we merely inconvenienced? After this past Labor Day weekend, you can bet these are questions Paula and I are thinking about!