Building Regional Communities

Vision for a Sustainable Economy

The Schumacher Center for a New Economics was founded in 1980 to further and promote the vital work which Fritz Schumacher began and outlined in his book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered. His vision of a sustainable economy remains one of the most compelling arguments for the need to incorporate respect for human scale and the natural world into economic activities.

Schumacher believed that not only our quality of life but our very survival depends on our capacity to develop a new “orientation of economics, science and technology towards the gentle, the non-violent, the elegant and the beautiful.”  He was convinced that in order to accomplish this, our political, social and economic institutions would have to be scaled down to levels that would allow and encourage individuals to become effective participants in their destinies.

Schumacher argued that from a truly economic point of view, the most rational way to produce is “from local resources, for local needs.” Jane Jacobs, speaker at the sixth annual Schumacher Lectures, re-emphasized Schumacher’s point through her analysis of a healthy region as one creating “import-replacing” industries on a continuing basis. A fully developed regional economy, producing for its own needs, is possible, however, only when control of resources and financing lies within the region itself. At present, ownership of land, natural resources and industry as well as the determination of conditions for receiving credit have become increasingly centralized at the national level. As a result, all but a few large urban areas find that major control of their economic resources lies outside the region, with the attendant environmental and social decay.

This situation calls for a reorganization of economic systems so that they are responsive to regional needs and conditions, including the specific conditions of the regional eco-system. These new economic structures will, by their very form, decentralize control of land, natural resources, industry and financing in an equitable manner for the benefit of the people living in a given area, thus creating the infrastructure to facilitate full local production for local needs in an ecologically responsible manner.

12 Years of Building Regional Communities

These considerations constitute the economic rationale for the development of community land trusts, worker owned and managed businesses, nonprofit locally-controlled banks and regional currencies. Sustainable regional economies cannot be expected to flourish until all of these new, broadly democratic forms are implemented within each region and the old centralized forms are in decline.

The work of the Center continues Schumacher’s tradition. The Center’s projects, lectures and publications serve to inspire and motivate a concerned public to pursue a regionally based approach to solving escalating environmental and social problems.

The Schumacher Center’s staff works to develop, in theory and practice, model regional programs that implement a commitment to place, a long-term respect for the natural and human resources of a region, and the development of alternative economic structures that secure this commitment. These structures include: innovative financing tools such as SHARE (Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy) that encourage consumer involvement in small businesses producing locally for local consumption; the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires, a land tenure system that treats land as a limited resource to be allocated through community planning, rather than as a commodity to be bought and sold, and that facilitates residents’ involvement in solving the problems of affordable housing and affordable access to farmland; regional currencies that by their very nature ensure that the wealth generated in a region is reinvested in the production of import-replacing goods for local consumption, as exemplified by the issuing of Deli Dollars, Berkshire Farm Preserve Notes and BerkShares in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

The Center’s work locally represents an integrated approach to strengthening the regional economy, while at the same lime lessening its dependence on outside sources of production and financing. The programs appropriately work together and build on one other. They link people to people through an alternative economic system— people who later discover that face-to-face investment builds trust, involvement, commitment and a sense of community which is more than an economic relationship, which in fact becomes a cultural relationship sustaining the whole fabric of social, economic and biological systems of a region— both formal and informal.

Education for the Future

The Schumacher Center organizes seminars and lectures and provides a publication service to bring forward these programs as models for broader discussion and application in other regions. The Berkshire programs have earned national and international print and TV coverage because they provide simple stories of a region solving its own problems at a time when the scale of crisis seems insurmountable.

In an important step for the future of Schumacher’s ideas, members of the Center have donated labor, materials, books and capital to establish the E. F. Schumacher Educational Resource Center. At its heart is a well-catalogued collection of published and unpublished material that records a history of research and application in the field of regionally based community economics. This extensive collection provides a firm foundation of theory and precedent for activists wishing to start programs similar to those in the Berkshires. The Resource Center also houses an internship and study program and provides an important base for the Center’s newly emerging international work in countries experiencing rapidly changing economic conditions.

In sum, the concepts and case examples presented through the Schumacher Center’s programs describe a new way of thinking about economics, a new paradigm that is based on the shift from centralized power to empowerment of the community and is responsive to ecological and human needs through a democratic process. Furthermore, by putting a sense of place and a human face back into economic activities, a new cultural tone is set to encourage care for our neighbors and the Earth.