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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Getting Back to the Basics as We Seek the Attainable

AMHERST — Some call it the return of tested wisdom. All who are part of it agree that the common factors are greater community self-reliance and control over the production and distribution of the necessities of life.

“It” is an emerging culture form that is more than a series of slogans and euphoric thoughts. “It” is hard work, bold thought and the pragmatic testing of local solutions to energy, food, health, housing, education and transportation needs and problems. Here in western Massachusetts much of this ac­tivity was brought together a few weeks ago through a unique kind of fun and learning festival called “Toward Tomorrow Fair.”

For three days in late June on the University of Massachusetts campus, over 30,000 people visited some 400 exhibits covering the spectrum from solar energy to land trusts to local food production to a pedal power system that provides exercise while grinding grain. There were lectures and entertainment with the same message — you can live better and cheaper if you take an active role in defining and creating the good life. Some old New England values were at the root of much that was shown and said that weekend: Thrift, self-reliance, Yankee ingenuity, use of local resources and dis­trust of remote control over their lives.

MANY PAMPHLETS, newsletters and articles were available at the various booths. One pam­phlet quoted the words of the great American psy­chologist, William Janes, almost a century ago:

“I am done with the big things, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny invisible forces that work from individual to individual creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets or like the capillary oozing water, yet will, if you give them time, rend the hardest monuments of man’s pride.”

This counsel for a more human scale operation is falling on more receptive ears. There is some­thing stirring in parts of New England that is hard to describe in terms other than the slow shaping of a new way of life and thinking. The region suffers from a stripping of its self-sufficiency. Where once it provided much of its own food, it now imports three-quarters of its food needs, especially from -California. The textile industry, bred from the enterprise and capital of New England, has long gone to the South, leaving the factory on the stream as a quaint relic. In its place has come the defense industry which relies on Washington’s dis­bursements.

THE REGION PAYS the highest prices for food, electricity and fuel in the nation. Its once proud railroad system is virtually extinct. Buses are few and far between for more and more towns.

There are some of the further erosions of self-sufficiency leading more New Englanders to ques­tion the centralization of giant corporations and bureaucracies with creativity instead of grumbles.

They ask, Why can’t New England grow more of its own food? The Massachusetts Department of Agriculture and a number of rural and urban citi­zen groups have a plan to do just that.

Why can’t New England generate more of its own energy? It has strong winds and the sun along with vast renewable waste wood sources. Hundreds of small, unused dams could once again generate electricity economically.

The right questions asked lead to a quest for the attainable by people for people. There is little role here for either Madison Avenue, The Fortune 500 or federal handouts. The leaders of this movement — scattered throughout farms, villages, towns and cities — are not unmindful of the need to blend new and old knowledge. But they want human values to shape what is feasible rather than the reverse ethic of the mega-industrial network.

COULD THE GROUPS and individuals repre­sented at the “Toward Tomorrow Fair” be the vanguard of a more widespread shift in American values that ante seeking ways to find concrete ex­pression? Pollster Louis Harris thinks so. His soundings of opinion show “a deep concern about the environment, an aversion to ‘bigness’ and a suspicion, rather than an automatic acceptance, of technology as a solution to all problems.”

“It seems,” Harris says, “that the idea of ‘voluntary simplicity,’ a return to basics . . . has taken hold of the public more extensively than one would have dared imagine only a short ten years ago.”

A value change, without instruments of change, can mean little, however. A first step is to develop a broader educational and communication mech­anism. Rick Beebe, Director of the “Toward Tomorrow Fair,” would like to encourage similar fairs all over the country in the next few years with millions of Americans participating.

Readers interested in more descriptive informa­tion about the fair can write Beebe at the Public Information Office, University of Mass., Amherst, Mass. 01002.