Who’s at the Bottom of the Bottom-Up Revolution?

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Back in high school, I briefly dated a girl who was exceptionally smart and a talented musician. Our relationship was so short-lived I have few memories of it. What I do remember is that we spent hours on the phone reading the dictionary together. Hey, do you think that’s why our relationship was so fleeting? Go figure.

What can I say, I’m an incurable word nerd. As a writer, words are not only a tool, they are my constant companions. I play with words, contemplate words, wrestle with words. Thus, I explore the etymology of words with as much curiosity as I do my own genealogy. Learning the history of a word is a way of taking a term that’s become dull and overused, and making it fresh again—the way soaking an old penny in lemon juice and salt makes it shine like new.

One example that may be of interest to many Strong Towns readers is the word “economy,” which comes from Greek oikonomia. It literally means the law or management (nemein) of the household (oikos). This ancient understanding changes how I think about the economy of my town and country; I weigh financial decisions based on whether or not they will put our house in order. As the economist Herman E. Daly has written, oikonomia compels us to refocus on community, frugality, efficiency, and the long-term stewardship of particular places.

As you know by now, this is Member Week at Strong Towns. Twice a year, we pause our usual stream of articles and podcasts. We take a moment to thank our Strong Towns members, and we invite others to become members for the first time. We talk about the Strong Towns movement as a bottom-up revolution to rebuild American prosperity. The “bottom-up” part is key. We believe the way to build enduring strength and resilience in our cities isn’t through orderly-but-dumb mandates coming from on high, but rather through the chaotic-but-smart initiatives that well up from below, that respond to the real needs of real people, that don’t put public funds (our household funds) at risk and yet have the potential to create significant change.

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