If you ever come visit me in Vermont, we are going to go to Ben & Jerry’s. My family has always done that with everyone who has never been to Vermont before. If it is a nice, summer day, we very well might go down the road to the Stowe Bike Path. Not only are these places that I am always looking for an excuse to go to, but they are things that are unique to my area. You cannot have these experiences elsewhere, so if you come to my home state, I want you to be able to check them out. If we have something that is good, I want to be able to share that with you.
Let’s imagine a scenario, however, that you come to Vermont, and I really want to take you to McDonald’s. I’m not writing this to necessarily bash McDonald’s, but you probably have a McDonald’s within five minutes of wherever you live. If you eat at the McDonald’s that is relatively near my house, it is probably going to be a lot like the one that is near your house. That can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about the mega chain, but if you were to eat at a McDonald’s in Vermont, you will have learned nothing unique about Vermont.
If you know anything about McDonald’s, you know that their food preparation procedures are extremely uniform. They have their work down to a very tight process, and because they are so committed to doing things the same way every time, the product is largely the same no matter which location you decide to eat at. The Vermont version will be ideally identical to any other location in the United States.
Our experience of a place is not only determined by what we eat naturally, but when you come to Vermont, you have the opportunity to do some things that you can only do in Vermont. Doesn’t it then make sense that while you are in different places, you should take advantage of these opportunities that you could not have in your own hometown or really anywhere else?
It is worth wondering why these experiences are different in different places though. There is no reason that a very fine ice cream factory could not be built in Toledo. There is no reason that you could not find a beautiful bike path in a different town with very similar scenery to what we have in Stowe.
We ignore geography in our normal lives because we have largely triumphed over any constraint that geography had even up to 100 years ago. We are no longer limited by distance. I could go to the airport today and practically go anywhere in the world in a day or two. While most of the European world never went to China and had to imagine what it was like through the stories they collected from people like Marco Polo, it would be really easy for me to book a flight to Beijing. China does not and certainly is not an unachievable destination in the modern age.
Shipping particular food is not necessarily a problem either. Consider what types of food naturally grow in a particular country and then remember that it is really easy to move just about any kind of food around the world. That’s what makes it possible for McDonald’s to operate everywhere. Even if beef cattle would not really be able to survive in a particular climate, it is quite easy to ship hamburger to wherever it needs to go. Our food is not limited by geography either. When I go to China, I can eat exactly what I have Vermont more or less (although I do understand that there are geographically different menus for chains like this, I have a feeling that hamburger is pretty universal outside India).
However, what do we lose by ignoring geography? What happens when I go to China and purchase the same hamburger I can get here?
On one hand, not very much. That is the beauty of a global economy. We have the ability to meet consumer demand anywhere in the world. If people in China want a McDonald’s, or if I want McDonald’s when I travel to China, I will not have a problem fulfilling that desire. I may not really be experiencing what is unique about China, but I am getting what I want, so some people would say that there is really no problem with this type of scenario.
On the other hand though, sticking with this culinary example even though it could apply to different elements of any culture, we lose a significant part of the adventure when we don’t take advantage of unique experiences that we can only find in certain places around the world.
My family was recently in Gettysburg, and for each lunch and dinner, we ate at a restaurant that was Civil War themed. Those are the types of restaurants that don’t exist in Vermont, so it was fun to be able to visit them. It is part of what makes a Civil War site like Gettysburg unique. They actually have attractions that are related to what makes their area different than my area.
We could have eaten at McDonald’s, but it would have not really seemed like we were anywhere different than here in our own town. It added to our adventure to try some restaurants we don’t have at home and enjoy a little bit of what makes Gettysburg in this case unique and different.
You might be sitting there and asking yourself what I am trying to aim at here. After all, it seems rather obvious. Let me try to wrap it up for you.
Until approximately 100 years ago, human history was experienced in the local area. While some people, like the aforementioned Marco Polo, went on adventures, most people spent their entire lives within a day’s journey of their immediate area. Travel was difficult, so you became very comfortable with the place that you lived. Those places began to develop their own character or culture if you will. Residents there were able to produce certain types of food because of the environment. They built their houses out of certain materials that were readily available. Their clothing was reflective of the temperatures that they had to endure. A person’s life was tied to his or her local area in multiple ways.
Traveling in that time meant that if you did have the privilege of going somewhere else, it was going to be a lot different than the place you were from. They had different conditions that shaped the formation of their culture, so you knew that you were in a different region without a doubt. Chain restaurants were not really a thing because it was not practical for them to be a thing. Wearing the clothing of the Eskimos in the Sahara Desert would make very little sense because of the different climates. We didn’t all shop at American Eagle back then.
When you went to that other place, you knew that you were somewhere different. That was not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but it was obviously a change from the norm. In that time, I would not travel to China and imagine it was just like Vermont. That would not have been the case in the way that I could find certain shared elements today.
What are the consequences of this type of transition?
First, we have lost our sense of local identity. We don’t identify with what makes our particular area unique because we are wrapped up in some type of giant cultural homogenization. When we lose our connection to the place where we are from, we are losing part of what it means to be human. We exist in a certain time and place for a reason, and we need to embrace that connection we have to the world right outside our door.
Second, we feel threatened by the world outside. Granted, we are not connected to our local identity as much as we should be because of this giant process of mass media and mass commerce, but we do cling to certain aspects of our local identity, and that can bring out really ugly parts of humanity. I never had this experience, but many of you may have moved when you were a child. From what I understand, it is hard to be the new kid in school. Why is it hard? There is a desire for familiarity that can cause children to ostracize those who just moved to town. Rather than root our identity in the time and place where we are, we define our identity as being against those who are from elsewhere. You can see this all over in a variety of different applications, but because we have less connection to the local, we still have this desire for our own time and space, but it manifests itself in keeping others out of our culture rather than inviting them into joining it with us.
Third, we lose a sense of adventure. Why do we bother traveling to new places? It is fun to see things we have never seen before. Those differences only come about because different areas have different cultures. If we entirely develop a blanket culture that is entirely the same everywhere you go, there is going to be no adventure. What is the adventure and finding out that everything is exactly the same?
For all of these reasons, we see a decline of community. First of all, we don’t connect with those around us. However, we also are afraid of those from the outside because we feel threatened that our weak connections are going to be diminished entirely by those from without. When you combine that with a reduced sense of adventure that result from cultural homogenization, I think that you can see why it matters.
These parts that make up local communities are important to the people who live there as well as the people who come to experience life there. What we do not need is more of the same. In fact, we need towns to develop their own identities. Communities have different characters, and that is not a bad thing. Rather than just look like every other town in America, it is better if the townspeople, based on their own talents and abilities create their own culture. They take ownership of the result and develop bonds based on these commonalities. When newcomers arrive, they are not a threat to the already strong local culture and are therefore not perceived as such. They may not assimilate immediately to their new culture, but people are willing to accept that diversity because of the strong local identity. They don't feel like a little bit of diversity is going to tear apart their identity. With a weak identity, a little diversity feels like danger. This is the beauty of local cultures and communities.
We hear a lot about buying local and slowing down the economy, but those are only symptoms of the deeper problem. The philosophical problem revolves around our divorcing people from their local communities. Once we bring that unification back together and restore a sense of identity based on geography, we will start to have those good things that we can share with each other. We will have more local favorites like Cheerwine or Big Red. People will be able to experience these great things when they visit other regions, and there will be a degree of adventure and newness about other places that is refreshing and desirable. We don’t do this to shut people out or build barriers, but we do it to build up from within so that those from our area and from other places benefit. It all works together in a giant symbiotic system.