Economy

"Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business."
- Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

 

Shared Cars, a Bakery and a Cow

Putting the Heart Back into Local Economies

Kathryn, Lisa and Hajeera represent three faces of a brighter future.

Kathryn Molloy is a happy environmentalist, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, along with her artist husband Jeff and their three children. She has always used her bike to get where she needs to, and avoided owning a car. Now she is a member (and manager) of the Victoria Car-Share Co-operative. This gives her a part-share with 65 other people in the ownership of a car, a truck and a family van, which allows her to go hiking in the woods with her family, while honouring her need to 'live lightly' on the Earth. Car-sharing is a new thing in western Canada, but in Europe, over 50,000 people belong to car-share co-operatives. It is community economic development applied to private ownership.

Lisa Lorimer is a happy baker, who lives in Vermont, USA. She heads the Vermont Bread Co., which produces 10 million pounds of bread a year and supplies most of the supermarket chains in the US northeast. She also cares about her community, and when she needed a bank loan to double her baking facilities, she wanted to know that the bank's profits would benefit the local community, not some distant tycoons. So she turned to the Vermont National Bank, which runs a Socially Responsible Banking Fund. The Fund started in 1989, and has 11,000 depositors whose accounts total more than $111 million - about 10% of the bank's assets. When the depositors put their money in, they have a say in how their money is invested. In local farms ? Small businesses ? Daycare centres ? Or in Lisa's bakery ? The money remains in the local economy, Lisa gets the loan she needs, and the investors get to keep the connection between their money and their hearts, and to know that their money is being well used, instead of surrendering that connection to the anonymous 'market'. It is community economic development applied to banking.

Hajeera Begum is a happy small farmer, who lives in a village not far from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She was married off to a blind man because her father could not afford a dowry, and for years, she survived by cleaning houses - but she was never able to feed her three children properly. Then one day, she learnt about the Grameen Bank, which lends small sums of money to impoverished women (known as micro-lending). Her husband disapproved, but she travelled secretly to a nearby village to attend an introductory session. After mustering up all her courage - for she thought she was worthless - she asked for a loan of 2,000 thaka ($55 US), and when she received it as part of a peer-lending group with four other women, tears ran down her face.

She used the loan to buy a calf for fattening, and a share of the rice harvest to process and sell. Within a year, she had paid off her first loan, taken a second loan and used it to rent a piece of land, which she planted with 70 banana seedlings, using the balance to buy a second calf. Today, with a mortgage, she owns a rice field, goats, ducks and chickens. "We now enjoy three meals a day," she says. "I intend to send all three of my children to school and college, even university." The Grameen Bank serves low income women in 35,000 villages, and has a 98% loan repayment record. Grameen is now moving to establish village phone companies, Internet connections and solar energy installations. It is community economic development applied to third world village development.

IT STARTS BY SAYING "WE CARE"

Kathryn, Lisa and Hajeera have never met, but they share something in common. They all want to progress economically, but they want to do so in harmony with their local communities and their environment - not in conflict with them. Our existing practices of economics and business development are so distorted in favour of selfishness, exploitation and ecological abuse that unless you make a real personal effort, or are lucky enough to have a community economic development group nearby, your personal efforts to make progress often end up contributing to the destruction or impoverishment of communities and ecosystems elsewhere on the planet.

The savings you carefully put away for your retirement are invested to support big business. In 1995, in the USA, each of the 15 largest mutual funds invested in tobacco companies. The simple T-shirt you buy for your kid involves acres of land being sprayed with pesticides, where the farmers, the cotton pickers and their families suffer from an undue share of cancer. Your phone company lays off its workers as it invests in new technology, instead of moving everyone to a four-day week.

Economists have an easy explanation for it. They assume (as a fundamental premise of their work) that humans will always act selfishly and greedily when it comes to money. 'Homo economicus', they call us, assuming we have no other motives or values. If you imagine every business, bank, farm and multinational corporation each acting selfishly to maximize its own corporate gain, it's easy to see why the world is in such a mess. The ozone layer ? Nothing I can do about it. The homeless ? Not my responsibility. Poverty in the developing world ? Must be their own fault.

Community economic development starts with a very different premise. It starts by saying "we care", and then extends that assumption to the local community, the region, the ecosystem, the whole world. In the town of Mondragon, in northern Spain, 26,000 people work in a network of over 200 mutually supportive worker-owned co-operatives, running their own credit union, their own colleges and their own welfare system. Commercially, they have been incredibly successful, but they have succeeded by co-operation and caring for each other, not by competition. When a co-operative needs to reduce its production by 10%, the workers usually agree to share a 10% wage cut, instead of firing 10% of the workers and disowning them, which is the normal practice in private business across the rest of the world.

COMMUNITY COMPUTERS, FARMS AND CURRENCIES

Community economic development puts the heart back into business, banking and local economic development. It shows that there is a different way of doing things which does not destroy the values we care about. It's not easy - nothing that is brilliant ever is. The Victoria Car Share Co-operative took 18 months of intensive voluntary work to get underway - I know, because I was one of the founders. The Vermont Bank's Socially Responsible Banking Fund took several years of scrupulous planning. The Grameen Bank started with 42 tiny loans to women in one village, back in 1976. The Mondragon network of co-operatives started in 1955 at the inspiration of the local Jesuit priest who asked himself the potent question "What would a Jesuit approach to local economic development look like ?"

But pause a minute. Fifty years isn't long to transform a whole economy. Say it started in your community, with local people getting together as they have done in so many places around the world, asking "What can we do to help our local economy grow in a way that nourishes community, co-operation and environmental harmony ?"

You might choose to follow the example of the low-income neighbourhood of Stockyards, Cleveland, USA, where a community development association is running a project to get computers into the hands of 33% of the community's households, in order to help the working class, blue collar community make the leap into the information age.

Or you might want to learn from neighbourhoods in Scotland, where residents have set up their own community-owned businesses, creating jobs and generating local incomes, where the profits return to the community to be used for more community benefit.

You might choose to start your own local currency, or LETSystem, as 400 communities in Britain have done, giving local people the ability to work and trade among themselves even when they have no regular money in their pockets.

You might - jumping to another dimension of community economic development - want to sit down with local residents, planners and architects and plan to redevelop an area of industrial wasteland into a car-free ecovillage, with solar housing, cycle routes, roof gardens, community-run businesses and a community currency - as a group of eco-planners are hoping to do at the Halifax Project in Adelaide, Australia, and as local citizens are planning to do in South East False Creek, in downtown Vancouver.

Over the next 50 years, your town or community could be so transformed that if the members of the Chamber of Commerce were to die and come back later, they would think they had landed in paradise. No-one would be out of work, local businesses would be co-operating to share resources, and work would be meaningful and fulfilling. Local farms would be run organically, energy would be generated renewably by solar, wind and solar-hydrogen - even the sewage would be treated solar-aquatically, feeding fish, snails and flowering plants as the water is purified.

We don't need to suffer continuing unemployment. A combination of worksharing (the 4-day week), community economic development, the distribution of welfare by local community trusts and the expansion of work in the environmental and renewable energy sectors could eliminate it within 15 years, if we put our minds to it, without resorting to the high stress, low income jobs that the US economy is generating as a solution. We just need the will to do it, and the political vision.

WE ARE ALL CONNECTED

It's all possible - and it's all being done somewhere on Earth today. There are no laws that say economies must be run the way they have been for the past 200 years, encouraging selfishness, greed, tax-evasion and ecological ruin. When economists talk about 'the invisible hand of the free market' as if it were some kind of sacred principle, they are only displaying how little they know about community-based economic development, where heart, spirit and environmental harmony are restored to business, and the local economy.

Spirituality is about honouring our connectedness to our fellow humans, to nature, to the wider spiritual universe, and to our own souls. Orthodox economics tries to shatter the connections by insisting that we are separate, selfish individuals, pushing and shoving against each other in a greedy world. This is a deeply disturbing doctrine, which becomes true if you believe in it. Community economics says that there is more to life than just making a profit. It says that our connectedness to community and environment also matter, that it is possible to make the world a better place by honouring this connectedness, not rupturing it. It allows what the Buddhists call 'right livelihood'. It restores meaning to the world. It brings water into the valley.

Kathryn, Lisa and Hajeera know that it's possible. They are all real people, and they are living with the results. So can we all.

***

First published in Renaissance Magazine, Germany, 2000

About the author

Guy Dauncey is an author, organizer and sustainable communities consultant who specializes in developing a positive vision of an environmentally sustainable future, and translating that vision into action. He is the author of Stormy Weather : 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change (New Society Publishers, July 2001), and ‘A Sustainable Energy Plan for the US’ (Earth Island Journal, August 2003). He is also the publisher of EcoNews (a monthly newsletter), co-founder of the Victoria Car-Share Cooperative, and a consultant in ecovillage and green building development. He lives in Victoria, on the west coast of Canada.

His website is www.earthfuture.com.