Strictly Business: There's much to gain in going small

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

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My 10-year-old niece, Elizabeth, tossed the pebble into the pond, and the ripples it made were impressive.

In fact, as Elizabeth — who always seems to have a book in hand or a drawing she's working on — remarked that the ripples were larger than you might expect from such a tiny object.

I had left town on the Fourth of July for a four-day family vacation. We stayed in cabins at a remote site in Eastern Oregon, where looming pines are plentiful, the lakes look like glass and dusty towns such as Granite and Ukiah serve as very modest reminders of civilization.

I had no access to the 24-7 media machine. No river of information to sift. I could hear myself think. And, as we stood on the banks of that pond, what Elizabeth said got me thinking a lot about our actions, their consequences and our responsibilities through all of the ripples we make.

Questions ensued: To what extent does the closeness, or lack thereof, of our relationships with people, businesses, governments and the planet influence how we act?

Have the systems we use to do everything from our banking and shopping to communicating and traveling become too big, too impersonal? Have those big systems made it easier for us to avoid considering the impacts of what we say and do?

Of course, people are capable of doing the right thing for its own sake. But we're living in the age of "too big to fail" or, as George Osborne, chancellor of the Exchequer — the British equivalent of the U.S. secretary of the treasury — recently put it, "the age of irresponsibility."

Wall Street certainly didn't consider how its treatment of the American economy as a casino would affect the lives of others. When you're "too big to fail" — and left unaccountable — you're also too big to care.

And do you know who really owns your mortgage? Would you be able to call or visit someone about it? These are nightmare questions for many homeowners who've had to go down the rabbit hole of mortgage-backed securities and missing legal paperwork.

I'm reminded of what John Nofsinger, a Washington State University finance professor, said at an event at WSU Vancouver in 2011: "We expect our financial institutions to be heartless."

There are some, however, who think the days of big systems and heartlessness are numbered. Bill McKibben, an environmentalist, is one of them.

"In fact, quite sober economists have begun to insist that, even in our seemingly globalized world, our economies are actually far more local than we realize," he writes in his latest book, "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet."

McKibben will participate in an onscreen panel discussion of the movement to strengthen local economies after a one-time screening of the documentary "Fixing the Future" at Liberty Theatre in Camas. It's at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. Admission is $5.

The film will highlight parts of the nation that are moving toward local business alliances, community banks, sustainable agriculture practices and local energy-efficiency projects.

All of this isn't to say that all big systems are inherently bad or that they haven't achieved profound successes. But it seems to me that there's plenty to be gained from going small. It requires building relationships on a local level, rolling up your sleeves and working together, big bureaucracies — both public and private — be damned.

Ultimately, it sees the value in creating large, lasting ripples from many small acts.

Aaron Corvin is a Columbian business reporter. 360-735-4518, Twitter: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://twitter.com/col_energy; http://www.columbian.com/weblogs/strictly-business, or aaron.corvin@columbian.com.