Death of concept: beginning of the end of the local movement?

100-mile-diet-book Every trend comes with a ticking clock.  It may feel inevitable, but its days are numbered.  This too shall pass. 

Consider the Preppie/Yuppie trend that defined contemporary culture in the 1980s.  It was cultivated in the late 1960s by the editors of the Harvard Lampoon.

What an act of sedition this was.  Just as the "counter culture" was installing it with Maoist ferocity, these kids were imagining a trend that would be counter veiling in every way.  Hippies and politicos might be bend on constructing a world that was egalitarian, communitarian, anti competitive, experimental and innovative.  Preps and yuppies didn't care.  They were individualistic, mainstream, upwardly mobile, competitive, conspicuously consuming, status conscious, conventional, and conservative.

As cultural observers, as Chief Culture Officers, we want this warning early.  To know in the late 60s what would happen 20 years later, we would have been as gods.  Actually, we would have been time travelers.  We would have found ourselves surrounded by people making life bets on the current trend, even as we knew better.

This is tough luck for the CCO who also knows that the 80s regime would be repudiated in its turn by the 90s.  Poor CCOs!  They can't ever commit to the moment.  They see how arbitrary and unnecessary is the "inevitable."  Not so much gods then as those ghosts in Wim Wender's Wings of Desire.  If they haven't seen it all before, they soon will.

The question: is there a trend that feels inevitable at the moment but is beginning to lose its purchase on (and in) our culture.  I think one candidate could be the local movement. 

This came up as an assumption of the 1960s when people scorned corporate farms and went back to the land to grow their own.  Local food networks have flourished ever since, thanks in part to Alice Waters (Chez Panisse), Jessica Prentice ("locavore"), Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon (The 100-Mile Diet), and Barbara Kingsolver (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle).  The local movement has changed restaurants, markets, farming, and manufacturering.  It has changed what and how we eat.  It has transformed the lawn of the White House which thanks to the Alice Waters now sports a vegetable garden. 

Why do I think this might be passing?  I have very slender evidence.  I did an interview with a famous chef a couple of months ago, and it was clear that he had completely "moved on."  For most of us, the idea still hums with a little something, something.  It is odd and interesting.  It is engaging and endearing.  It still feels like it belongs.

But what I heard in the voice of this chef was utter disinterest, and the conviction that the idea was well and truly over.  This is a great moment for the anthropologist or the CCO, to hear someone talk about something in a way that says that its cultural potency is over.  It doesn't mean that a mass redefinition is upon us or even that it will arrive anytime soon.  But it does mean that its possible to think of the trend this way.  And this strikes with the power of revelation.  Wow.  We find ourselves gasping with surprise.  It's possible to be dismissive about something some many people care so deeply about?  Wow.

This isn't so much "proof of concept" as "proof of death of concept."  The idea that had captured our enthusiasm is shown to be just another idea.  We can see it without it's charisma attached.  (It's a little like that moment when we fall out of love with someone who has dazzled us.  Suddenly they are just another person.  Wow.  Really?)

The first condition of concept death has been satisfied.  Someone has seen through it, someone highly placed and influential.  They have stripped it of its charisma.  And now the second condition of death-of-concept can be set in train.  The diffusion wave can launch.  And for all we know its building even now.  This creek bed looks dry enough but well up the mountain there is perhaps a consensus gathering.  The smart CCO instructs his or her organization to "get out of way" and with any luck everyone is up and out of the way before the new is upon us.   

Yes, I know, the local movement is attached to other powerful trends, especially those that now seek to protect and repair the planet.  But this is always true.  All trends have friends in high places.  There are threats and dangers everywhere.  Other trends wait their opportunity.  Or it may be that what kills the movement is not a competitive idea.  It may simple too small an idea to sustain our interest.  It is, after all, mostly about "no."  And ideas that are mostly about "no" tend to leave as quickly as they come.  We like "no."  We like "limit."  But we don't like them for very long. 

Now it's time to keep an eye out for other faint signals.  Like this one from yesterday's Wall Street Journal in a treatment of Lynden B. Miller, one of the reigning designers of the public garden.  The WSJ says Miller "has little tolerance for fads such as gardens composed entirely of native plants."  And it quotes Miller as saying, "There's a big vocal movement but I do not feel pressured.  I will not be pressured."

Yes, yes, I know, its a different domain.  But here again is that sturdy, unstudied, disinterest in the trend that matters so deeply to others.  A flat denial.  An "I don't care what you say about it, it just doesn't matter."  Oh, this inflicts a terrible wound.  No trend survives it.  The zealots will protest their outrage.  The trend itself will struggle onward.  But the everyone else knows that this can only end badly.  And it's time for the CCO to construct an exit plan and when necessary to issue his or her most useful advice: "Get out of the way." 

References

Kaufman, Joanne.  2009.  She Creates Urban Edens.  Wall Street Journal.  October 20, p. D9.

Post script:

I don't honestly think the local movement is done for.  It just played out that way when I wrote this up.  My objective was to show that we want to see through current trends. 

12 thoughts on “Death of concept: beginning of the end of the local movement?”

  1. Interesting post, once again. I think your post script is telling. What happens when we hear a sign of the death of a trend, how do we know that this isn’t just a blip? It is the same situation in your example of Levi’s and baggy jeans.

    I guess that is when the real work begins, and observers have to track for evidence and counter evidence.

  2. I wonder about the analogy of the coming wave a little bit. As a CCO, what is the job really? Is it to get out of the way of the wave, or to get a boat that can ride the wave? It seems like getting out of the way will save you money, but getting a boat to ride it would make you money. If that’s the case, how do you ask the right questions to build a narrative for what replaces the old trend?

  3. Many movements and trends survive the loss of their original meaning by mutating and taking on new meanings. Or in some cases because trends pursued originally for meaning accidentally reveal that they have higher functionality separate from the cultural loading.

    In the case of local food, a lot of people have discovered that high-quality fruits and vegetables sourced nearby taste really good. So even if they stop caring about all the ideological stuff they may still want to eat what seems tasty. This implies, however, that technological solutions to freshness-over-distance would undermine the remaining “local food” trend.

  4. As a kind of amendment, perhaps, to your theory, we can also watch as the likeminded proponents of a trend move elsewhere. Trends seem to evolve into new trends, sometimes revealing major and minor trends only in their wake. Take a look, for example, at Michael Pollan’s new direction, which is guided by the simple dictum: “Don’t Buy Any Food You’ve Ever Seen Advertised”

    http://www.democracynow.org/2009/5/14/omnivores_dilemma_author_michael_pollans_new

    One of Pollan’s main points is that “local” has been co-opted, which is confusing the trend and derailing it. In his words, “Frito-Lay potato chips now is arguing that they’re local. Now, you have to remember, any product is local somewhere. Right? This food doesn’t come from Mars. But to think that Frito-Lay as a local potato chip is really a stretch.”

    This sounds to me a lot like a brand, Frito-Lay, that has jumped on to a trend in order to find a new audience for its chips or retain an audience that was leaving. What’s tricky about this is that “local” is tied up in a lot of issues, it’s an ethical trend, not just a fashion trend. An ethical trend really seems to require a lot more respect than most brands are willing to offer these ideas…

  5. Jason, exceedingly well said, I guess it depends, we need a surfers mind, some waves are best avoided, others are for riding, and yes, the difference between them is avoiding loss and pursuing gain.  I was being glib.  Best, Grant

  6. Sigh. The “local” movement is/was marginal. By “marginal,” I mean that only a very small portion of the population ever participated to begin with. Same with yuppies. Same with hippies.

    If you watch the movies, of course, you’d assume that everyone under 30 was a hippie in the 60’s and that everyone in the 80’s was runnning around yacking on giant cell phones making insider trades. It just ain’t so.

    You say that “local food networks have flourished,” but really what does this mean? Certainly we have more farmers’ markets and co-ops these days, but does a significant portion of the population get a significant portion of its food from “local food networks?”

  7. Ben raises a great point that anthropologists in the business world, as well as Grant’s CCO’s have to deal with daily. But at the same time, he sort of answers his own question. These groups are certainly marginal from a population standpoint, but in the world of everyday culture we find that regular people’s perceptions are oftentimes statistically incorrect, and sometimes wildly so. Cultural distortion is a social fact that we have take into account.

    Additionally, how could we possibly count the number of young people in the 60’s, or even today, who are “kind of” hippies, but not full-fledged members? For example, I am personally “kind of” a “locavore,” except I’m not going to go overboard.

  8. I hear what you’re saying, Michael. Cultural identities are not binary discrete states and they can’t be measured as such. In the world of mental health, we have to measure the “kind of/sort of” stuff all the time. None of the methods we use are perfect, but I think they give us a slightly better peek at reality.

    I haven’t read the entire blog archive here, but as far as I can tell, the CCO doesn’t seem to be all that concerned with gathering or analyzing data of any sort, whatever its quality.

    Is this true, or am I (ironically) being hypocritical and making assumptions in the absence of data?

  9. I think it’s more “The end of the trend – the beginning of the reality.” And, there’s far more to the “local movement” than local food.

    We are being forced to think more local in every aspect of our lives, if we wish our communities to be sustainable.

  10. I know many chefs – they can be fickle and get bored. Local is a restraint on their creativity. So chefs are not a good judge.

    The difference being that many of us are horrified by sickness, Type 2, wrinkles, lack of energy, all sorts of awful things brought on by overly processed food.

    And many moms are horrified that their children are being poisoned. (The organic movement is HUGE with moms. The same women who were slurping down the martinis a few years back and scarfing down the fat burgers.

    According to a report featured at The Green Business Conference 2 years ago, there are different types of “greenies”. The lifestyle types (read selfish) are the ones who buy organic and local because they don’t want to put crap in their bodies.
    The dark greens tend to be idealist — they buy local for political reasons. (Very small percentage of the population).

    It’s the mom’s who keep localvores and organic from being a trend.

    I’ve been shopping the Hollywood Farmers Market every week, for 18 years now. It gets bigger and bigger and fuller and fuller of little kids and their parents.

  11. The post misses because of its use of anecdote and decision to leave anecdote divorced from context.

    As an example, the native plants discussion has been ongoing in the U.S. a public way at least since the time of Jens Jensen and Frederick Law Olmsted. Debate about using native plants–and their broad use in public gardens–are “fads” stretching back more than 130 years. We see Jensen’s influence now in part in the large proposed prairie restoration projects in the US Midwest.

    Similarly, to the post, local foods are like an iceberg and the post sees only the part floating above the water. As a result, it overstates the idea of change to a local food “movement.” Plenty of people have kept on eating bananas, coffee, and chocolate, just as plenty of people are likely to continue to shop at the farmers markets they’ve been shopping at for the last 10, 20, or more years. Why stop with Alice Waters in the 60s? Why not consider victory gardens during WWII, or truck farming during the Depression?

    It’s interesting to have an idea–minor indicators that may indicate changes in trends–illustrated by a telling story, but given the examples used, the post inadvertently makes a different point: Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t worry about change, because the large group of people who are doing something are likely to continue to do it. There might be some froth on the margins, but it’s probably not significant.

  12. I agree the local movement isn’t over. In fact, it has barely started. Yes, fresh, local food grown in un-poisoned soil tastes better. That ought to keep most chefs engaged. Your celebrity chef sounds like a cynic. Food grown locally, particularly carefully, will also contribute to your improved health and energy levels. These features alone indicate local food is not a trend but a development. Like jogging. Or exercise. We are evolving into healthier, smarter creatures, hopefully. Some backwards and forwards on that front, but by and large I suspect we are an improving species. Perhaps a problem in the sustained popularity of the local movement are the extreme fanatics. But they are a problem in all areas, so easily discernible and ignorable.

    Just chiming right in here. Thanks for posting.

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