Everyone’s Talking about Detroit
By Grace Lee Boggs
YES Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions, has just posted The Tale of Two Cities, an article contrasting the localization of Detroit’s economy with the urbanization and globalization of Beijing’s by Helena Norbert-Hodge who directed the documentary film “The Economics of Happiness.”
“About 15 years ago,” she writes, “I visited rural China, and found that despite decades of Maoism, the people I encountered were able to meet most of their basic needs locally, using their own labor and ingenious small-scale technologies. In the villages, we were greeted with spontaneous laughter and humor, simple but delicious food, and examples of vibrant, intergenerational cooperation.
“When I visited China again a few years ago, while shooting footage for The Economics of Happiness, much had changed. Thanks to global trade agreements, Western corporations and banks had moved their operations there, in search of cheap labor and lax environmental standards.
“As a result, China’s cities had grown at a furious rate: Beijing’s population alone to about 20 million. Many villagers had been drawn into the cities by the siren song of a ‘modern life’ offered by these supposed opportunities. Among those with ‘good’ jobs in a TNC-linked factory, the work week ran 80 hours or more; the rest struggled to feed themselves and their families on meager and inconsistent wages. According to GDP, people had prospered, but living amid Beijing’s grimy streets, gridlocked traffic and choking pollution, their quality of life had actually declined. Meanwhile the gap between rich and poor was widening dramatically.
“This wasn’t good news for the environment either. Far from being more efficient, urbanization causes per capita resource use to rise dramatically. When people are concentrated in a high-rise world of cement, steel and plastic, every need—food, water, building materials—has to be met from outside, requiring massive investments in infrastructure, along with huge amounts of fossil fuel for transport.
“On the other side of the planet, the city of Detroit is moving in the opposite direction. Having tied its economy to the fate of the auto industry, Detroit suffered a steady loss of jobs as global competition and outsourcing led to factory closures—another symptom of globalization. But when our film team went there five years ago, we found a grassroots revolution underway. Tucked into streets lined with empty houses and crumbling factories, nearly 200 community gardens had sprouted up. These green oases provided a gathering place for community members, encouraging a sense of sharing, cooperation and belonging, and providing a vital link to the natural world. Today Detroit boasts more than 2,000 urban agriculture projects, each one helping to bring life back into the heart of the city.
“In villages, towns and big cities throughout the industrialized world, a whole host of initiatives are helping to rebuild local economies, reconnecting people with each other and the earth. The importance of this fledgling movement should not be underestimated: while the Occupy activists are asking fundamental questions about the nature of our economic system, these locally-based projects are beginning to demonstrate a tangible alternative: localization.
“Localization doesn’t mean ending trade or producing everything we need at the village level; it simply means meeting as many of our needs as close to home as possible. This not only reduces energy use and greenhouse gas emissions; it also fosters well being. The smaller scale of local production means less pollution, and a healthier living environment. Localization also builds a foundation for psychological wellness by providing a sense of belonging to place and community.
At the Boggs Center we are also receiving enthusiastic responses to Krista Tippett’s report of her visit to Detroit. For example: “I was just listening to your On Being interviews. Detroit as a city right now intrigues me. I am very interested in your placement as a community on the verge of something new and maybe unprecedented in American History.
‘I would like for my children to see it, this thing you are building. My husband and I have four children ages 16, 14, 9, and 8. They are three boys and a girl. Do you have any suggestion for a good way for us to structure a visit as a family that would include volunteer work and lodging/meals in your community? My husband has computer skills. I have midwifery training. All of us would be willing to help build or garden, clean or cook. I love to read and would be happy to teach/tutor. All of the children are very interested in Science and would enjoy helping other kids with projects, etc. We may be available in March for a few days (2 or 3) during spring break or in the summer for a longer visit.
See Boggs Center website/ boggscenter.org, for Bergmann HTSP