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Back to Bedford Falls

| April 9, 2012

Waiting for a government man, or a guy from Bain Capital, to revive your town’s fortunes? How about investing in the world around you?

Clarinda is a small town in Page County down in southwestern Iowa, population of around 5,500. A long time ago, the big band era legend Glenn Miller grew up there – but not much has happened there since that made any major headlines in the New York Times.

Like the nearby Missouri River, Clarinda has kept quietly rolling along, and towns of its size will spend an average of $12.2 million each year on transportation fuel, these days. That’s Clarinda’s share of the wholesale US fuel bill.

Where does it go? Well, it eventually ends up in banks in a lot of places – Houston, Calgary, Riyadh, Dubai, Caracas – some times in cities with friendly faces, some times not.

Friendly or not, what do the bankers do with the money? The same thing that bankers do all the world over; they invest in the world and the people around them – things that are well suited for Riyadh, Dubai, or Caracas and the regimes that rule there.  Not much left over for Clarinda.

Now $12 million or so, may not sound like a transformative amount of money in this era of trillion dollar deficits, but over a generation, that’s more than $360 million.

A Marshall Plan for the home front

What could be done with $360 million in a single community of 5,500 people, by an enterprising banker, making loans from the deposits that are made in conjunction with fuel payments? It’s not just the loan repayments, or the wages and salaries, or payments for feedstocks to local farmers. You see, deposits are the lifeblood of loan activity, and every year, $12 million leaches out of the community and goes to building communities elsewhere. $360 million staying in local circulation? That’s like a Marshall Plan for a small town.

What could you do with it? You could make a world that looks a lot like Clarinda – a world made safe for friendly, hard working, thrifty people, and for small town community values.

In recent years, the thought has occurred to a handful of pioneering public officials and private citizens that, to use an image out of the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the world is looking increasingly like Pottersville instead of Bedford Falls. Or towns like Clarinda.

And that part of the reason for that is that we keep on giving energy dollars to all the strange, terrible Mr. Potters of the world, instead of investing in ourselves. In It’s a Wonderful Life, a local savings & loan banker convinces people to stick with the Bailey Brothers Building & Loan, which invests in the community and the people around him.

You look at the gleaming towers of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and then at communities like Clarinda that sometimes have trouble putting together money to resurface the community pool.

A world like Pottersville

And when you think about the prospect of living the rest of your life a world that looks more and more like Pottersville, you just might start to look around for a leader who can show you the way.

What can a leader do? He or she can help you to change your fate, through simple acts of investing your own energy money in your own community, through technologies such as biorefining and bioenergy.

Why are we investing in technologies that reward the lucky, who happen to find themselves sitting atop vast mineral resources? And, especially, thereby, investing in faraway cities and peoples? They are not investing in you. Nor should we expect them to – they have their own families, communities and dreams to invest in, and that is as it should be.

The town of Bodie, California stands in mute testimony to the results from trusting in mineral wealth

Ghost towns and ghost promises

And, further, even if mineral resources are close at hand, beware of them. The West is filled with ghost towns once dedicated to the extraction of mineral wealth. You will find a thousand friends to help your community when there is wealth below the ground worth pumping out. But you will find yourself mighty alone when the wells stop a-pumping. The bankers drift away, then the merchants, finally the children, and all but a few old-timers who grouse about the good times that went away.

But there’s a way to keep it flowing – those above ground oil wells that always prove, and never stop pumping.  Whether it is in Clarinda, Iowa, Bamako, Mali, or Piricicaba, Brazil:  why don’t we invest in the world and the people around us.

Moreover, why not invest in technologies that reward hard-working people who grow their way out of their troubles by tending to, caring for, and reinvesting in their land, investing in their community, investing in each other and in investing in a philosophy of renewal and a spirit of revival.

All it takes is a simple act to begin the process of reviving a town’s fortunes. You have to invest in the people around you.

As George Bailey said in It’s a Wonderful Life:

“Can’t you understand what’s happening here? Don’t you see what’s happening? Potter isn’t selling. Potter’s buying! And why? Because we’re panicky and he’s not. That’s why. He’s pickin’ up some bargain. Now, we can get through this thing all right. We’ve, we’ve got to stick together, though. We’ve got to have faith in each other.”

Healthy businesses make healthy towns, and in turns make healthy countries. Small towns can be an engine of recovery. Why not?

This article was adapted and expanded from remarks made by Biofuels Digest editor Jim Lane, in introducing a keynote speech by US Secretary of Agriculture Thomas J. Vilsack, at the 2012 Advanced Biofuels Leadership Conference.

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