My Turn: The splendor of looking local

For the Monitor
Published: 11/14/2021 8:30:12 AM

The world is made up of stories, says scholar David Loy in his book by the same name, and I agree. Stories are the way we make sense of the world, teaching us what is real, what is valuable and what is possible.

The stories I heard growing up in the 1950s were about “heroic” white men like John Wayne, who brought law and order to the Wild West, killing as many Native Americans in the process as he could. It was the white man’s duty. That’s how progress came about.

It was part of the broader story I was told about human evolution, that humans existed in a “wild man” state, not much different from animals until we settled down and started cultivating crops. This was a turning point in our history. It was agriculture that made specialization, urban life and the existence of the state possible, “leading to the splendor of civilization.”

A contrary story, languishing in the background, was best personalized by Rousseau’s celebration of the noble savage over effete civilization. It came back into vogue again in the 1960s with my generation, who, at least in our hippy days, yearned to return to a natural way of being, hoping to cast off civilization’s corruption like dog poop off our sandals.

This new, revisionist story had legs. It gained status, at least in part, due to the efforts of two big-name public intellectuals. Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has denounced the agriculture revolution as the “worst mistake in the history of the human race.”

And Yuval Noah Harari, in his best-selling book Sapiens, called the agricultural revolution the turning point, “where sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation.”

Nevertheless, Diamond and Harari both sadly concluded we had no choice, that’s the price we had to pay for progress and all the babbles that come with it. As an inevitable result of settling down in cities, we became specialized, creating different classes of people, resulting in untold riches for a lucky few above and misery for the many below. Aside from the age-old moral and ethical problems associated with this kind of progress, now we face the additional existential threat of climate change if we do not change our ways.

But the story doesn’t end here. This week a new book came out, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, by David Graeber and David Wengrow. They demonstrate that our version of civilization is not the only game in town. There are other, better ways.

“Recent archaeological discoveries, they write, show that early humans, far from being automatons blindly moving in evolutionary lockstep in response to material pressures, self-consciously experimented with a carnival parade of political forms.”

From extensive research, the authors have unearthed countless examples over the last 4,000 years of people moving happily from tribal life to civilized cities. Examples of large cities, governed without kings, queens or all-powerful rulers, where everyone lived in spacious quarters without stratification or massive inequality. They also provide examples of once stratified cities with all-powerful rulers reversing directions to become more equal and self-governing.

Graeber and Wengrow give us all hope by showing we are not stuck with what we’ve got. Indeed, various models exist throughout history showing how folks have peacefully lived together in vibrant communities in a sustainable and equal manner without a coercive  government. Polls show that’s what Americans want.

And, according to a recent piece in the New York Times, the good news is that we may be gaining, “The technology to support less centralized and greener urban environments — appropriate to modern demographic realities — already exists.”

I’ve written before about a new day dawning around decentralized local control — Farmer’s markets, coops, CSAs and buy-local campaigns; communities developing their own internet platforms and producing their own energy in local solar farms; conserving open land in the spirit of the old New England idea of the town commons. For a recent example, we need to look no further than Concord’s ambitious plan to enlarge public trails, which, in essence, will become a new gigantic park for the people.

These are all promising embers we need to fan into bright flames to light the pages of our exciting new story.

(Jean Stimmell lives in Northwood. His blog can be found online at

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