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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 04:59 AM
Original message
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas
The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas (Variations on a theme by William James) is a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin. It won the Hugo Award (in science fiction) for short stories in 1974.

In the story, Omelas is a utopian city of happiness and delight, whose inhabitants are smart and cultured. Everything about Omelas is pleasing, except for the secret of the city: the good fortune of Omelas requires that a single unfortunate child be kept in perpetual filth, darkness and misery, and that all her citizens should be told of this on coming of age.

After being exposed to the truth, most of the people of Omelas are initially shocked and disgusted, but are ultimately able to come to terms with the fact and resolve to live their lives in such a manner as to make the suffering of the unfortunate child worth it. However, some few of the citizens, young or old, silently walk away from the city, and no one knows where they go. The story ends with "The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

You can read the story in its entirety at http://harelbarzilai.org/words/omelas.txt . The following is a brief excerpt

In a basement under one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is.

The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room, a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is nearly ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect.

They all know it is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.


Le Guins commentary

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ones_Who_Walk_Away_fro...

"The central idea of this psychomyth, the scapegoat", writes Le Guin, "turns up in Dostoyevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and several people have asked me, rather suspiciously, why I gave the credit to William James. The fact is, I haven't been able to re-read Dostoyevsky, much as I loved him, since I was twenty-five, and I'd simply forgotten he used the idea. But when I met it in James's The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, it was with a shock of recognition."

The quote from William James is:

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torture, what except a specific and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?


Le Guin hit upon the name of the town on seeing a road sign for Salem, Oregon, in a car mirror. < People ask me> Where do you get your ideas from, Ms. Le Guin? From forgetting Dostoyevsky and reading road signs backwards, naturally. Where else?


We all are living in Omelas right now

Im sure that, given all the recent on-line debates over the current health care bill, its pretty obvious where Im going with this. According to the best of our American values, what we should have gotten was what citizens in every other part of the developed world take for grantedaccess to health care for all citizens, no exceptions. Apparently the best we can manage is eventual access to inadequate insurance for most of us, and what we got reflects our very worst values, chief of which is that your access to health care should depend only on how much money you have. Our brave new call to solidarity is An injury to one is, after all, only an injury to one. Just ignore it and count your blessings.

Yes, with more subsidized access to insurance, even inadequate insurance, fewer will die. Given that in nine years 35 million will still lack such access, instead of 46,000 dying a year, there will be 15,000 or fewer dying nine years from now. Kids with pre-existing conditions will no longer be denied coverage as of right now, but their parents will have to wait until 2014. Young adults 23-26 can remain on their parents plan, except for those whose parents dont have insurance, cant afford to add them, or kicked them out of the house years ago.

We have indeed made a start on emptying out our room full of non-persons, though we are nowhere near getting the number down to one as the fictional citizens of Omelas did. You see the big problem with the slowly emptying room, I hope. The lower the number of people still in it, the easier it will be for everybody else to ignore them permanently.

That has been our biggest political problem in trying to achieve universal health care all alongabout 85% of us are never going to get really expensively sick. 5% of the population in every age group accounts for 50% of the health care expenses for that group. 15% account for 85%, and line of least resistance for the remaining mostly healthy 85% is to just ignore the unfortunates hidden in the basement. The healthy majority remains free to think that such insurance as they have is probably pretty good, an opinion about as well-informed as their opinions about how good their fire extinguishers are. 46,000 dead is less than a tenth of a percent of the population; 350,000 bankruptcies amounts to only 1% of the population. According to the California Nurses, 21% of claims are denied, which means that four out of five are not denied. If most people are just fine, its very easy to ignore the small minority who are not.

No, I am not happy at all about reform, and even the batshit crazy sociopathology of its right wing opponents doesnt change that for me. Le Guins fictional solution of just leaving Omelas wont work for me either, though it has for people like one of the former chairs of Health Care for All-WA. Dr. Bramhall used to be the only MD psychiatrist in Washington State who would see Medicaid patients. Her reimbursments had dwindled for years. She gave up her car and moved to an apartment on Pill Hill near her practice to save money and keep helping the desperate people she worked with. Eventually, she could not afford health care for herself, a very bad situation for someone of late middle age to be in. Luckily for her, New Zealand was very happy to pay for her health care in exchange for making her professional skills available to their population.

Permanently breaking down the door to the basement room is the only thing that will get everybody out of our Room of Non-Persons. I truly believe that most of the people cheering in the streets for the release of some fully intend to go back down at some time or another for the rest. But, based on quite a bit of past history, if that were really likely to happen Le Guin would never have felt the need to write her story at all.
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Hannah Bell Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 05:11 AM
Response to Original message
1. kick. This is the fate of almost everyone who takes the cause of the poor seriously.
Le Guins fictional solution of just leaving Omelas wont work for me either, though it has for people like one of the former chairs of Health Care for All-WA.

Dr. Bramhall used to be the only MD psychiatrist in Washington State who would see Medicaid patients. Her reimbursments had dwindled for years. She gave up her car and moved to an apartment on Pill Hill near her practice to save money and keep helping the desperate people she worked with.

Eventually, she could not afford health care for herself, a very bad situation for someone of late middle age to be in.

Luckily for her, New Zealand was very happy to pay for her health care in exchange for making her professional skills available to their population.
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 05:13 PM
Response to Reply #1
3. Indeed. And permanently installing useless corporations as intermediaries
--between ourselves and our doctors is not going to change that.
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Richard Steele Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 05:17 AM
Response to Original message
2. "the easier it will be for everybody else to ignore them permanently." K&R
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MisterP Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 05:18 PM
Response to Original message
4. the conservative mantra is "Shut up! I don't care! Get over it! Life's not fair!" they're fiends
(regardless of party)
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Starry Messenger Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 05:23 PM
Response to Original message
5. This is one of the very best things I've ever read here
I've read that story and essay. You've nailed this.
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Starry Messenger Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 06:06 PM
Response to Reply #5
7. kick for more exposure
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LWolf Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 05:26 PM
Response to Original message
6. Le Guin is an extraordinary woman.
I got to hear her speak here in Oregon a couple of years ago. I look forward to reading this story.

"Permanently breaking down the door to the basement room is the only thing that will get everybody out of our Room of Non-Persons."

I'd like to see this happen in my lifetime.
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 09:29 PM
Response to Reply #6
12. Me too. But doing it via slowly lowering the number just means more dealth and misery
--for the few left behind.
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LWolf Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 11:00 AM
Response to Reply #12
23. That's true.
Which is why I didn't support the current "reform." I wanted something that would actually guarantee CARE.
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LWolf Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 11:00 AM
Response to Reply #12
24. Delete. Dupe.
Edited on Thu Mar-25-10 11:01 AM by LWolf
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amborin Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 06:14 PM
Response to Original message
8. K&R
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leftstreet Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 06:16 PM
Original message
K&R
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pitohui Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 06:16 PM
Response to Original message
9. i don't think that story means what you think it means
even tho you quote this passage:
they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child's abominable misery.


nowhere is it suggested that life is such that we can save everybody -- indeed, quite the opposite, which is probably why those too sensitive to endure this reality walk away rather than busting the child out of the dungeon

i actually agree that we need to get health care to everybody, but this story is not the story i'd cite as an argument in favor -- it seems to suggest in a pretty poetic language that some things simply can't be there for everyone
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 09:32 PM
Response to Reply #9
13. I think that it suggests that reducing the numbers of the suffering low enough to be invisible
--just means that they are more likely to permanently get consigned to non-personhood. I am suggesting that the only way to avoid this is with either single payer or direct government rule over private insurance so that no one is left out FROM THE START, and by design. The current reform leaves some out ON PURPOSE.
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Hannah Bell Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 02:41 AM
Response to Reply #9
18. I have a different read on the story. Omelas is glittering, happy, beautiful, secure - who wouldn't
Edited on Thu Mar-25-10 02:46 AM by Hannah Bell
want to live there?

But some choose not to, & leave the city -- because the apparent happiness is based on the misery of the child in the basement. And they choose not to partake because of that.

Which is a metaphor for our own system, & the function of the poor, the low-paid workers, the super-exploited in the third world, the prisoner, etc.

The story ends:

"They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not come back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas."

Suggests something entirely different to me than your read. Who are "the ones who walk away"? and what's "the place less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness"?
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kitkat65 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 03:19 AM
Response to Reply #18
19. My take on it is similar to yours, Hannah Bell
I see the ones who walk away doing so because they decide they can't, in good conscience, live with the misery of that one person in order to benefit themselves and the whole society. They see the beauty of Omelas as as a farce, tainted by that one ugly reality. The ones who do stay cannot describe where the leavers go because they are unable to realize the horror of the decision they have made. Interestingly, they see it as walking "into the darkness" when realization is usually described as "seeing the light." To walk into such darkness, one would have to have true conviction that it was the right thing to do regardless of personal consequence. Then I have to wonder, do the ones who walk away see it as darkness at all or something completely different?
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Hannah Bell Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 04:57 AM
Response to Reply #19
20. yeah, that's the ambiguous bit. I read the "unimaginable" as something
that doesn't yet exist, & the ones who walk away "alone" as "outsider," and "they seem to know where they're going" as some kind of deliberately chosen path - but "dark" & "know where they're going" could be contradictory -

unless it's a dantean "dark wood" or a johannine "dark night of the soul".... :?)
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hunter Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 06:28 PM
Response to Original message
10. Ursula K. Le Guin is one of my favorites and I enthusiastically recommend your post.
:applause:
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starroute Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 06:50 PM
Response to Original message
11. You know, I've always detested that story
In 1974, I thought it was arbitrary and self-sentimentalizing, and it doesn't strike me any differently now.

On one level, it's as ridiculous as the ticking time-bomb scenario. Nothing remotely like it occurs or could ever occur in real life -- so what's the point of even bringing it up?

But on another level, to the extent that you try to equate it to situations that do exist, walking away simply can't be the right response. Was walking away the proper response to slavery? Is it the proper response to suffering in Africa or Haiti?

If you suddenly learn that your own well-being depends on the suffering of others, doesn't that impose a moral obligation to try to change things?

The way the story is constructed, the most plausible conclusion is that the set-up is very much like that in Huxley's Brave New World -- that Omelas was created with a deliberate escape hatch to get rid of any potential troublemakers. And in that case, walking away is simply playing their game, far more than sticking around and trying to do something.

And if I wanted to get really snarky, I might suggest that this story provides a clue as to why the heart went out of progressivism right about the time it was published. Every since then, liberals have been doing their best to "walk away" instead of engaging with the struggle, and it's why they've been helpless to make any difference.

It's only now,when our own "Omelas" seems to require locking 80% of the population in that basement, that we may finally be starting to wake up and realize we've been sold a too-good-for-this-world bill of goods.

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leftstreet Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 09:36 PM
Response to Reply #11
14. Hmm...that's interesting, however one quibble
And if I wanted to get really snarky, I might suggest that this story provides a clue as to why the heart went out of progressivism right about the time it was published. Every since then, liberals have been doing their best to "walk away" instead of engaging with the struggle, and it's why they've been helpless to make any difference.


The problem lies in keeping liberals, progressives (pfft whatever that is), conservatives, independents, etc engaged when the ownership class is, and has been, aggressively REDEFINING the struggle.

We have a situation today, with an effectively dead Left, where citizens are told 'the struggle' is between two wings of one corporate political party.

Can we blame anyone for walking away?

:shrug:
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 09:55 PM
Response to Reply #11
15. Joanna Russ once said that when English departments started taking science fiction--
--and fantasy more seriously, she found that specialists in medieval literature seemed to "get" the field a lot better than those specializing in 19th and 20th century literature. I think she has a handle on why many people (but not all, as you can see from some of the other comments) just don't think that stuff like this is really "literature."

https://depauw.edu/sfs/backissues/6/russ6art.htm

I should like to propose the following: That science fiction, like much medieval literature, is didactic.

That despite superficial similarities to naturalistic (or other) modern fiction, the protagonists of science fiction are always collective, never individual persons (although individuals often appear as exemplary or representative figures).

That science fiction's emphasis is always on phenomenato the point where reviewers and critics can commonly use such phrases as "the idea as hero."

That science fiction is not only didactic, but very often awed, worshipful, and religious in tone. Damon Knight's famous phrase for this is "the sense of wonder." To substantiate this last, one needs only a head-count of Messiahs in recent science fiction novels, the abrupt changes of scale (either spatial or temporal) used to induce cosmic awe in such works as Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, James Blish's Surface Tension, stories like Isaac Asimov's "Nightfall" and "The Last Question," Arthur C. Clarke's "Nine Billion Names of God," and the change of tone at the end of Clarke's Childhood's End or Philip Jos Farmer's story "Sail On! Sail On!" (The film 2001 is another case in point.)

The emphasis on phenomena, often at the complete expense of human character, needs no citation; it is apparent to anyone who has any acquaintance with the field. Even in pulp science fiction populated by grim-jawed heroes, the human protagonist, if not Everyman, is a glamorized version of Super-everyman. That science fiction is didactic hardly needs proof, either. The pleasure science fiction writers take in explaining physics, thirtieth-century jurisprudence, the mechanics of teleportation, patent law, four-dimensional geometry, or whatever happens to be on the table, lies open in any book that has not degenerated into outright adventure story with science-fiction frills. Science fiction even has its favorite piece of theology. Just as contemporary psychoanalytic writers cannot seem to write anything without explaining the Oedipus complex at least once, so science fiction writers dwell lovingly on the time dilation consequent to travel at near light-speed. Science is to science fiction (by analogy) what medieval Christianity was to deliberately didactic medieval fiction.


I don't agree that the heart went out of progressivism in the mid 70s. What DID happen IMO is that progressives and the left collectively decided to blow off electoral politics and governance in general (except for a handful like Kucinich and Sanders who started their local careers in that decade) in favor of street action plus establishing alternative institutions. And that includes me as a prime example of the type. I didn't get over it until 2004, really. Amd I am not making the mistake of walking away twice.



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friendly_iconoclast Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 11:42 AM
Response to Reply #15
25. A lot of science fiction deliberately went politically regressive in the Seventies
SF went from stuff like "Bug Jack Barron" and "The Sheep Look Up" and "The Forever War" to
neo-Victorian dribble like "The Mote In God's Eye"


There's some left/progressive didactic science fiction to be had these days, fortunately

Most of it recently in films like "Moon" (which shares a *lot* of James's idea with 'Omelas', BTW), "Right at Your Door" (nuclear terrorism). "Gattaca", "District 9", "The Road" (way more accessable than the novel, IMO), et cetera.

The graphic novel "DMZ" (a new civil war in the US)
James Tiptree's (Alice Sheldon) "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", "The Girl Who Was Plugged In", and other stories.
Most of Connie Willis' work.
Ken McLeod's novels

Ironically, Russ's "We Who Are About To..." is damn near Rand in it's two-dimensional didacticism, albeit from
a far different political standpoint.
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Mar-26-10 12:34 AM
Response to Reply #25
27. Kim Stanley Robinson is pretty good. Try it--you'll like it!
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mars_trilogy

The Mars trilogy is a series of award-winning science fiction novels by Kim Stanley Robinson that chronicle the settlement and terraforming of the planet Mars through the intensely personal and detailed viewpoints of a wide variety of characters spanning almost two centuries. Ultimately, more utopian than dystopian, the story focuses on egalitarian, sociological, and scientific advances made on Mars, while Earth suffers from overpopulation and ecological disaster.

The three novels are Red Mars (1992), Green Mars (1993), and Blue Mars (1996). An additional collection of short stories and background information was published as The Martians (1999). The main trilogy won a number of prestigious awards.
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nightrain Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 11:37 PM
Response to Reply #15
26. oh wow. I don't think I've heard the name Joanna Russ in 20 some years, wasn't she at U Dub??
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Mar-26-10 12:35 AM
Response to Reply #26
28. Yes, she was. She's in Arizona now I think
Seems that too much gray isn't very good for someone having a lifetime battle with serious depression.
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nightrain Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Mar-26-10 01:01 AM
Response to Reply #28
30. wow, that sends me back some.... When I was there I had a friend in
the English Dept and I remember her mentioning Joanna Russ... That's just great!!

No kidding about the gray! But the late afternoon moments when the sky would break and Mt Rainier and the Olympics would peek through were just sensational. NOthing like it.

Thanks for the flashback!
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Blue_Tires Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 05:30 AM
Response to Reply #11
21. excellent insights
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asdjrocky Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 10:07 PM
Response to Original message
16. I've never read that, thank you.
K&R.
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Quantess Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Wed Mar-24-10 10:45 PM
Response to Original message
17. Interesting.
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maryf Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Thu Mar-25-10 05:53 AM
Response to Original message
22. Love LeGuin!!
Edited on Thu Mar-25-10 05:54 AM by maryf
haven't read this...great op, K&R
Error: you can only recommend threads which were started in the past 24 hours
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eridani Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Fri Mar-26-10 12:39 AM
Response to Original message
29. Dr. Bramhall, now of New Zealand, blogs on Alternet
http://blogs.alternet.org/refugee/2010/03/24/when-the-p... /

Rebuilding Local Communities and Economies

The reality remains that only about 50 percent of Americans have access to the World Wide Web. This means people who do have Internet access need to redouble their efforts to connect with neighbors, families and friends who dont. In many respects the movement (which has already started) to rebuild and re-energize local neighborhoods and communities is probably the single most important initiative to address not only our dysfunctional economic system, but rising energy costs and carbon emissions.

The great tragedy is that the total corporatization of the developed world has totally destroyed the economic base consisting of small neighborhood businesses that historically has underpinned community life in the US. When strip malls, maxi supermarkets and big box discount retailers like Wal Mart took over the retail landscape, they put many existing small retailers out of business. The big box retailers have flourished during an era of cheap imports manufactured with sweat shop labor which, thanks to ridiculously cheap oil, could be transported vast distances at very low cost. Due to high volume and low overhead, they easily undercut smaller specialty retailers.

In many communities consumers are already working to reverse this trend by making the conscious choice to keep their hard earned dollars in their local community. They bank with local, community owned banks (who dont engage in speculative derivative trading or risky credit swaps like the big boys) and where possible, frequent local retailers and farmers markets, as opposed than corporate chains.
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