David Morris

“Wherever possible, we should shrink the distance between those who make the decisions and those who feel the impact of those decisions,” says David Morris, describing the mission of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a think tank with offices in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis that he has helped guide for the past 25 years. His statement sounds so sensible, so indisputable, so all-American–who could be against it? A lot of powerful interests, it turns out.

“Right now, society is going the other direction,” Morris notes. He can point to an avalanche of economic and political trends threatening the vitality of self-reliant communities, from megamergers that consolidate financial power in faraway boardrooms to international trade agreements that strip authority from democratically elected leaders and give it to international bureaucracies.

“Politicians gargle with the word community,” Morris says, “but they spit it out as soon as they walk offstage. The policies they pursue drive us away from community.”

Yet Morris remains a strong-willed optimist. “Small, local enterprises need not simply tap into our nostalgic yearning for a simpler and more rooted yesteryear,” he declares. “They can make a powerful case that humanly scaled institutions are the most effective way to go.” Always armed with real-world evidence to back up his beliefs, Morris notes that the savings and loan institutions that stuck close to home in their lending during the 1980s did not generally get into financial trouble. It was S&Ls who strayed from the mission of working in local regions who stuck taxpayers with the multi-billion-dollar tab for the S&L bailout.

He recently launched the New Rules project, dedicated to showing public officials, business leaders, and citizens that communities are best served when people draw upon local resources–both human and natural–to run their economy and make the decisions affecting their lives.

Unlike some in the anti-globalization movement, Morris is an unapologetic advocate for new technology, which he sees as an important tool for keeping things local and small. Take his plan to replace petroleum, which causes global warming and keeps us captive to oil imports, with plant-based fuels and plastics. Outlandish? Not at all, he explains. In 1941, Henry Ford unveiled a prototype of a car made entirely of plant products: a fuel tank filled with ethanol made from corn, a body fabricated from plastic made from soybeans, tires fabricated from goldenrod. We have stuck with fossil fuels, Morris says, not because of their innate superiority, but because of political deals favoring petroleum interests.

Though the forces of globalization seem to pull us ever farther from the brand of radical common sense Morris offers, he can claim significant victories. His book on what’s wrong with electrical deregulation and what we can do to fix it, Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electricity System, presaged the devastating California energy crisis. So it would be a mistake to dismiss his other ideas, like substituting grain fields for oil wells or thoughtfully redesigning society’s rules to enhance community. What’s radical today may become the conventional wisdom that shapes the course of the next century.

From the book Visionaries: People and Ideas to Change Your Life ($17.95 Utne Reader Books/New Society Publishers). Call 1-800-880-utne or visit your local bookstore.

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