The Great Retreat: How the eating local trend and Brexit are connected
The global trend of retreat from democracy, internationalism and globalism, with its corresponding swing toward populism, nativism and despotism, has been noted and discussed. I will call it the great retreat. And I will argue that it is not limited to politics.
Within my intellectual middle-class world, the local has climbed to an almost sacred status: local/”community” living, rediscovering local flora, eating local, and so on. In my hyper-international city of New York, the sign of good citizenship is “coming back to one’s community” and “serving it” after having left that very same community in order to escape its implied shortcomings; this sort of talk wins elections. My ultra-educated peers dedicate free time, of which they have precious little, to manual labor in neighborhood food co-ops or urban gardens in order to shop and eat local, and to forge a relationship with their surroundings that only manual work can achieve. Cities are busy rediscovering native flora. Los Angeles, for example, is finding that its iconic palm trees and subtropical vegetation are not natives; they were imported some two centuries ago in order to create a subtropical paradise that has come to define Southern California but to also be primary cause to increasingly severe droughts. And so the LA city council is actively considering replacing dying palms with eco-friendly native vegetation, and just think of the implications on the culture of the city despite those on the environment. Foraging in local vegetation to create haute cuisine is launching celebrity chefs’ careers. And so on.
The word “community” has been blown beyond its dictionary definition to signify something wholesome, desirable, and all-encompassing.
There was a time, and I remember it, when the greatest things came not from your “community” (read: neighborhood), but from across the world. The things that prior centuries’ handful of explorers discovered with a lot of time and effort finally became available to select masses in the mid-late 20th century. Unfamiliar things were exchanged, as they always were, and I grew up marveling at the rest of the world, wanting it all, as did most kids of my generation. My generation dreamed of escaping its neighborhood as much as this current one seems to dream of returning to it after a period of escape. We had no need or interest in the things from our own backyard because the things that grew thousands of miles away were so much more interesting. Globalization and the foreign were embraced. But look closely enough, and travel frequently enough, and the ills of the foreign also come into focus: refugees, bed bugs, STDs, exotic diseases.
And now, my intellectual middle-class world is looking in its own backyard, rediscovering something either lost or long ignored. And we are the very same people worrying about the great retreat from internationalism that is happening across the world, from Brexit to the rise of despotism in Turkey and the Philippines, to the return of far-right politics across Europe and America, to the 63 million votes cast for Donald Trump.
Western liberal education has a story of progressive enlightenment that it likes to tell, in which we (humans) started out in tribalism and despotism and gradually discovered internationalism and democracy, around the time of the Greek Empire (~600 BC), then chiseled and perfected it with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. History does not support that clean timeline. International trade and travel happened for many thousands of years. Starting at least 5 millennia ago, huge empires rose (Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, etc.) whose rulers savvily understood that tolerating different ideologies, customs and religions, rather than imposing any one of those things, was the only way to rule large territories. Inevitably, the tides of openness came to many ends, and the world reverted back to closed instincts across many geographies. This cycle happened time and again. History is made of swirls and swings, not forward leaps. It is made of waves.
Refugees, bed bugs, STDs and exotic diseases are as old as the world. But within our contemporary world, with air travel finally available to many, they’ve become increasingly visible to bigger numbers. Reactionary politics is the result. As is reactionary living. In other words, Brexit and “community” living are part of the same wave. This is the great retreat.
The great retreat is happening because we’ve all been lied to by the powers-at-be. Corporations, food conglomerates, politicians, world super-powers, NGOs have all lied. And depending on where the list we find ourselves, and who we perceive the liar-in-chief to be, we make up the corresponding part of the retreat wave. At its best, the wave brings introspection, making us stop to reconsider the things in our surroundings we ignored for too long; at its worst, the wave brings fear of the unfamiliar and retreat to origins real or imagined.
Internationalism, and the hunger for the exotic, will return, because it is simply the next logical wave. But first we need to get burned by this current one.