The Buying Game

‘Shop Local’ isn’t just a slogan. Our survival depends on it.

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

Illustration by Jameela Wahlgren

Question: Why should I “Buy Fresh, Buy Local”?

The Right Question: What is a local economy, anyway?

Most of us tend to think of “the economy” as the process of exchanging our money for goods and services, and of receiving wages for our labor, which gets plowed back into buying more goods and services. 

We might imagine this as two circles running in opposite directions—money circles one way, goods and services the other way—and often we think of them as having equal value. But in our modern industrial human economy, only money, the medium of exchange, actually cycles. 

The goods that come into our economy are on a one-way, generally very rapid, trip from extraction from nature, processing into something we want (perhaps even something we need) to disposal in a landfill or incinerator. Our large economy is geared toward making that trip faster and faster, and toward consuming more and more. Whether that makes us healthier or happier is an idea we’ve explored in other columns.

Note “extraction from nature” above. The human economy is only a small part of the global natural economy, which provides us most of our critical needs—air, water and a livable climate outside of the human, money-based economy. The natural economy works very differently. All material resources are continuously recycled, and energy is on a one-way trip—it arrives in very concentrated form from the sun to our planet, where it drives both organic and atmospheric processes, and is eventually dissipated back into space, so diluted as to be incapable of further work. 

When we think of “local economy” we generally mean exchanges that begin and end with the material resources and money never leaving a geographical region. One hundred and fifty years ago, our local economy was the dominant economic unit. Most of Philadelphia’s food and other material resources came from Pennsylvania and New Jersey. However, the explosion ofpetroleum-powered transportation has, for the moment, integrated economies over vast regions. Nevertheless, taking steps to rebuild and strengthen our presently minuscule local economies is the best investment we can make in a secure future, when the energy that powers the global economy wanes.

How do we do that?

The most fundamental way is by supporting our local food economy. That’s why I buy 90 percent of my vegetables, fruit, dairy and meat products from producers in southeastern Pennsylvania, in addition to what grows in my garden, and why flour, pasta and apple juice are about the most highly processed foods I buy. I can find Pennsylvania flour for my bread, but for rice, spice and the occasional orange or date, I have to get transcontinental. 

All of the farms that produce this food use gasoline- or diesel-powered equipmentand spend a significant chunk of their budgets on equipment and technology that comes from all over the world. The electricity running their freezers and coolers comes from a grid that covers several states. Many of those purchases are made in stores that survive by selling highly processed goods from all over the world, such as figs from Turkey and pasta from Italy. (Likely made with wheat imported from the U.S.) Still, my practices reinforce loops, create jobs, reduce energy consumption and preserve necessary skills in our region. Local thrift stores are my source whenever possible for clothes and household items, because that also recycles goods and money within the area, slowing down the conveyor belt of goods on their way from a Chinese factory to a landfill or incinerator in Pennsylvania. (I would be ecstatic if the thrift store had to close because no one was discarding still usable items, but that’s a good ways off.)  And, of course, Philadelphia has wonderful libraries and used book stores.

I pay cash at these local merchants. The cornerstone of the global economy is the financial sector, and to the extent we minimize our transactions with them, the better.  (No, my savings are not in my mattress, they are in a credit union, whose participation in the global economy is radically circumscribed by its nonprofit status and rules of operation.) 

Supporting our local economy is about accepting the limits of the resources and energy available to us, challenging the prevailing idea that we are entitled to whatever we want if we can afford it. It means that I won’t have another strawberry or asparagus spear till next spring, and I am gorging on peaches because they will only be around another month or so… but then the apples start!  

This will be the last regular “The Right Question” for the time being. I thank Grid for the opportunity to have written this column, congratulate the magazine on its 100th issue and stand in anticipation of many more. I hope you have found these columns challenging and stimulating. I would be glad to discuss what I have written and to receive any feedback you might like to share via email. Thank you for reading.

Jerry Silberman is a retired union organizer who now devotes his time to negotiating a resilient future for all of us. He can be reached at ajs805phila@verizon.net.