If our common interest is to create more sustainable communities, then part of that effort will be to build more independent regional economies—ones in which, as economist Fritz Schumacher advocates in Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, the goods consumed in a region are produced in a region. Following Schumacher’s lead, the late Jane Jacobs, a brilliant regional planner and intuitive economist, argues in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the strategy for economic development should be to generate import-replacement industries. She would have us examine what is now imported into our regions and develop the conditions to instead produce those products from local resources with local labor. Unlike the branch of a multi-national corporation that might open and then suddenly close, driven by moody fluctuations in the global economy, a locally owned and managed business is more likely to establish a complex of economic and social interactions that build strong entwining regional roots, keeping the business in place and accountable to people, land, and community.
What then is the responsibility of concerned citizens in cultivating sustainable economies. An independent regional economy calls for new regional economic institutions for land, labor, and capital to embody the scale, purpose, and structure of our endeavors. These new institutions cannot be government-driven, and rightly so. They will be shaped by free associations of consumers and producers, working cooperatively, sharing the risk in creating an economy that reflects shared culture and shared values. Small in scale, transparent in structure, designed to profit the community rather than profit from the community, they can address our common concern for safe and fair working conditions; for production practices that keep our air and soil and waters clean, for renewing our natural resources rather than depleting them; for innovation in the making and distribution of the basic necessities of food, clothing, shelter, and energy rather than luxury items; and for more equitable distribution of wealth.
The building of new economic institutions is hard work. Most of us rest complacently in our role as passive consumers, not co-producers and co-shapers of our own economies. But it is work that can be done, and fine examples are being set.
One of these is in the Southern Berkshire region of Massachusetts, home of the Schumacher Center. A new organization, BerkShares, Inc. will launch a local currency on September 29th. Beautifully designed, the BerkShares honor historic figures of the area: the Stockbridge Mohican Indians, social rights leader W. E. B. Dubois, Community Supported Agriculture founder Robyn Van En, novelist and naturalist Herman Melville, and popular illustrator Norman Rockwell. They also feature the paintings of contemporary local artists and in so doing reflect the rich cultural traditions and natural beauty that make the Berkshires famous.
The Southern Berkshire region, with its economic hub in Great Barrington, is also known for a healthy mix of still locally owned businesses served by locally owned banks. It is these businesses and banks, their owners and staff and committed customers that make up the vibrant heart of the Southern Berkshire economy. And it is the same cast, led by the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and BerkShares, Inc that are the working together to shape a local currency to serve their local community.
Beginning tomorrow Berkshire residents can exchange federal dollars for BerkShares at participating banks. The exchange rate is ten BerkShares for every nine federal dollars. The BerkShares circulate at full value, keeping trade local, and consumers conscious of “what their money is doing tonight.” The federal dollars remain on deposit at the banks to redeem BerkShares for those who again need to make a trade in federal dollars.
Over 150 businesses have signed up to accept BerkShares and the number is growing. You can build a house with BerkShares, purchase auto parts, repair the car, incorporate a new business, buy next season’s CSA share, stay at a famous inn, dine at a fine restaurant serving locally grown food, shop for your family’s groceries, fulfill your gardening dreams, buy toys for the grandchildren, print invitations to your wedding anniversary and arrange for a caterer, make your home more energy efficient, find that new warm jacket in preparation for the winter ahead, see a movie, order a book by your favorite author, and get a massage (to name a few things).
Weekend launch activities begin with a musical celebration at the recently restored Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington. The Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce is hosting the event which begins at 7:00 PM, Friday night, September 29th. Admission is free. Tickets are available at the office of the Chamber or the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.
To see images of the BerkShares local currency, access a directory of participating businesses and banks, read about the local heroes honored on the currency, view works by BerkShares artists, join in thanking supporters, or sign up to accept BerkShares, visit the website.
The Schumacher Center is proud to be a sponsor of BerkShares.