David Morris: Self-reliance and community


David Morris has been visiting West Marin for 20 years or more, mostly from either Washington, D.C., where he co-founded the Institute for Local Self-Reliance 45 years ago, or from Minneapolis-St. Paul, where he has been living with his wife, Harriet Barlow, most of the time. He has written four books about local self-reliance, including “Neighborhood Power: The New Localism” and “Seeing the Light: Regaining Control of Our Electrical System.” David has been watching closely as our patch of the planet, whose communities he has observed with the eye of both an academic and a community organizer, has become what he calls “a unique and in some ways astounding place.” We chatted recently in his tiny bungalow office behind the house many of us know as the former home of Jonathan Rowe, a lifelong friend of both David and Harriet whom many of us remember fondly as part of local and global movements to preserve the commons. —Mark Dowie


MD: You, a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and lifelong observer of communities, have been visiting West Marin for many years and have now lived here full time for two. Your impressions? 


DM: I am deeply impressed.


MD: When you think about your new home as a community, do you think of all of West Marin or just your resident village of Point Reyes Station?


DM: Mostly Point Reyes Station, where I spend most of my time. It is a fascinating “village city,” an unusual combination of small town and full-service city.  


MD: A unique “village city.” How so?


DM: The railroad made Point Reyes Station a working town, partly tourist-based but largely catering to a productive agriculture region with significant processing and manufacturing capacity. It is a village of only 800 people, yet is home to a remarkable diversity of businesses and services. Indeed, it has a full-service economy: a large grocery store, a large hardware store, a vibrant bookstore, a post office, a fire station, a school, a radio station, a marvelous local newspaper, a pharmacy, a medical and dental clinic, an automobile repair facility, a gas station, a senior citizen housing facility, a feed barn, and a vibrant community center. An impressive number of creative artists of all stripes inspires, enriches and strengthens the sense of community. There is a highly developed volunteer-based service system. I don’t know how many 501(c)3 organizations Point Reyes has, but West Marin has over 100. Moreover, a very high percentage of Point Reyes’s economic and service institutions are locally owned, making it even more unusual.


MD: Is it possible to think of all West Marin, with its 16 villages, numerous public parks, 85 ranches and 50 smaller farms as a single community, much the way the West Marin Fund sees the area it serves and supports, or do you think of West Marin as a dozen or more detached communities?


DM: West Marin is a community, defined by its unique rural character and the frequent personal interaction of its residents. But within that coastal community there are separate self-defined and self-conscious communities. Point Reyes Station is its own distinct entity that could be looked at separately when thinking about local self-reliance.


MD: What is your definition of “local self-reliance?”


DM: The capacity for self-sufficiency, but not self-sufficiency itself. Even nations are not self-sufficient. But they are self-conscious. They are informed about the flow of resources through their borders and strive to maximize the value of local natural, human and capital resources.


MD: Why should a community strive for local self-reliance?


DM: There is the obvious reason: people want to have some control over their lives and the shape and nature of their surroundings. And there are less obvious reasons. By nurturing mutual aid and a high level of civic participation, local self-reliance reduces loneliness, improves public safety and creates physically and mentally healthier communities. A diversity of locally owned businesses strengthens the local economy by allowing more of the dollar to circulate locally and adds, dare I say, a businesslike perspective on local decision-making. Finally, local self-reliance is an environmental strategy. The more self-reliance, the less we import, the more we rely on local resources, the less we pollute, the more lightly we live on the planet. 


MD: What about political self-reliance? Can a community with no local political power besides one district representative be truly self-reliant—or anything but self-reliant? Do you believe that incorporating Point Reyes Station would enhance its self-reliance?


DM: Incorporation might be beneficial, but in and of itself doesn’t ensure local self-reliance. Indeed, it could undermine civic participation by institutionalizing a decision-making process that channels energy into electing representatives rather than directly proposing and effecting changes. And whether incorporated or not, the vast preponderance of authority will still rest in the hands of higher levels of government—county, state and federal.  


MD: What do you believe should be our next step toward local self-reliance?


DM: I see two next steps, both of which are in progress. One involves energy self-reliance. We have long realized that to be sustainable we need to change how we fuel our economy. The fires and power outages teach us that we need to change the distribution system as well. New and improved technologies like solar and batteries and fuel cells enable the generation and storage of power on-site or at the community level. Already the blackout has prompted a demand for backup generators and the installation of transfer switches to allow rooftop solar to power the house or car even when the grid system goes down. Microgrids are a possible next configuration of the electrical system.


MD: What is the other step?


DM: The other involves the Coast Guard property. Indeed, in some respects it is a perfect example of local self-reliance in action. The property could house 100 to 150 people, a significant addition to the town. The community, through the steadfast four-year effort catalyzed and galvanized by CLAM, convinced state and federal officials to get the Coast Guard to agree to sell the property to the county at a modest price. 

Earlier this fall, I testified with many others at the county Board of Supervisors meeting to urge them to buy the property and was intrigued by the delight expressed by several supervisors about seeing a community coming forward to propose affordable housing, when normally a proceeding about affordable housing finds a bitterly divided community and sometimes a solidly opposed community. The county purchase is a huge step, but only the first on the path toward local self-reliance. The next step is for the county to designate community-based CLAM and its partner, Eden Housing, as the project’s developer. If that happens, will the county transfer significant control over the property to the community and allow the land to become a trust? 

Finally, there is the question of whether, assuming they meet the federal and state income and other requirements for affordable housing, people in the community who are being forced out of their houses by rising rents or people who work but cannot live in the community can be given special consideration.  


Mark Dowie is a journalist living and working on the outskirts of Willow Point.