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Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability

In an increasingly vulnerable world, we’re searching for rooted communities—and what we can learn from them.

Banaue, Philippines, photo by Gabo Halili

Banaue, a municipality in Ifugao Province, Philippines.

Photo by Gabo Halili

It seems that almost everyone we know is feeling vulnerable these days—whether they are rich or poor, employed or unemployed, their lives are feeling fragile. So we are setting out to discover places where people are finding ways to counter that vulnerability, creating more secure paths of living based on a concept we are calling "rootedness." We are learning from communities in the United States and also abroad—in the Philippines, Trinidad, and El Salvador.

Fifty years ago, when our parents deposited money in the bank, it was almost certainly a local bank, which then lent the money to people and businesses in that very community. Today, money goes to giant financial institutions that partake in casino-like activities that undermine local economies. Fifty years ago, most farmers grew a variety of crops from traditional seeds and most regions were largely self-sufficient in food; today, most farmers produce a single crop with seeds purchased from global firms.

We are setting out to discover places where people are finding ways to counter that vulnerability, creating more secure paths of living based on a concept we are calling "rootedness."

Indeed, today, so much of what we eat, invest, borrow, and purchase is the product of global assembly lines. As a result, all of us are vulnerable to external shocks. So when the 2008 Wall Street crash spread like wild fire around the world, it hit families and communities everywhere, accelerating unemployment, suffering, inequality, and uncertainty. That same year, billions of people in poorer nations found that wildly fluctuating prices of wheat, corn, rice and other key food products increased their chances of going hungry. And extreme weather events related to climate change have been hitting people hard, in all parts of the globe.

In the United States and around the world many people and some governments are working to reduce their vulnerability to these global shocks by becoming more rooted.

This year, the two of us are taking a pause from our other work to dig into a fascinating array of communities and countries that are finding rootedness in this “age of vulnerability.” We are discovering the same yearning for roots and community in such far flung places as the Philippines, Trinidad, and El Salvador that we are seeing in communities across the United States. We feel it ourselves in our community of Takoma Park, Maryland.

We plan to share our musings with you through a regular blog. We are also exploring these concepts in the United States with a New Economy Working Group that has emerged through the collaboration of the Institute for Policy Studies, YES! Magazine, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, and the People-Centered Development Forum. The work we do on this blog, plus your reactions, will help us write a book on finding rootedness in the age of vulnerability.

But how does one define and measure rootedness? There are, we would suggest, several ways:

  • There is economic rootedness, which focuses on producing as much as possible locally, then nationally, then regionally, and only then globally. This notion is sometimes called subsidiarity, and it is very different from old-fashioned protectionism.
  • There is environmental rootedness, wherein communities control their water, their forests, and other natural resources, and hence have a vested interest in managing them sustainably.
  • And there is social rootedness, wherein (among other things) a society is more healthy if it is more equal and it also has a stronger sense of community.

To write this blog, we will visit Filipino rice farmers who are abandoning chemical farming in favor of organic farming, and finding that their finances, their health, and their environment are all benefiting. We will travel to Trinidad, where fisherfolk are fighting to protect their local fishing grounds against giant shrimp trawlers and oil drilling. We will visit communities in El Salvador that have rejected the get-rich-quick promises of gold mining firms in order to preserve their fresh water and their communities. And, we will report on several U.S. communities that are re-rooting different aspects of economic life, such as the rapidly expanding “slow food” and “slow money” movements.

We will also pay attention to nations like Mexico that were overly dependent on global markets and, as we are discovering, are faring the worst in this crisis—exactly the reverse of what mainstream economic theory predicted.

Our insights build on 30 years we have both spent taking on conventional economic wisdom. In particular, we have fought the myth that most community economic activity is inefficient, and that most communities and nations should specialize in a few things they do well and trade widely for the rest. We have always thought that “rooted” communities and nations made more sense than ones that are vulnerable to the whims of global markets.

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Our world views have been shaped by the extraordinary range of people from diverse walks of life whom we have met during 35 years of traveling and living in different communities. We have had the privilege of living in some of the world’s poorest communities and visiting the halls of wealth and power in several countries, and we have gotten to know insightful people in both spheres. Imagine: We just spent a month in the Philippines and half of it was living with three different communities where farmers are shifting to planting organic rice. Then, we spent the other half in the Philippine Congress discussing with lawmakers how to speed the transition from chemical to organic farming, and how to reduce the country’s dependence on call centers and electronic exports.

We were lucky to begin our travels decades ago. Just out of college, Robin spent a year living with indigenous people in the southern Philippines who were fighting against a pineapple agribusiness firm. At the same time, John landed a job in Geneva working with some of the best minds from poorer nations at a UN agency whose mandate was to close the gap between rich and poor. We then met in graduate school, married, and we are raising a son, who is now 13.

We know that many of you have experienced the downside of economies made vulnerable by their reliance on globalization.

Robin is a professor at American University and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John has worked at the United Nations in Geneva and, for the past quarter-century, at a leading multi-issue progressive think tank: the Institute for Policy Studies. We have written books on the grassroots environmental movement, global corporations, the global justice movement, and rethinking progress.  

We know that many of you have experienced the downside of economies made vulnerable by their reliance on globalization. We invite you to share your own experiences as you travel with us on a search for rootedness in this age of vulnerability.


John Cavanagh and Robin BroadJohn Cavanagh and Robin Broad wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Robin is a Professor of International Development at American University in Washington, D.C. and has worked as an international economist in the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.S. Congress. John is on leave from directing the Institute for Policy Studies, and is co-chair (with David Korten) of the New Economy Working Group. They are co-authors of three books on the global economy, and are currently traveling the country and the world to write a book entitled Local Dreams: Finding Rootedness in the Age of Vulnerability.

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