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Exuberant Episodes of Import-Replacing

Jane Jacobs died on Tuesday, just short of her ninetieth birthday, her son by her side.

The 1983 Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture program was my first introduction to the extraordinary intellect of Jane Jacobs. In her talk “The Economy of Regions,” she argued for regional economic diversity, complexity, and interdependence. She imagined a myriad of small industries producing for regional markets – small industries that depended on local materials, local labor, local capital, local transport systems, and appropriately-scaled technology to conduct business. She pictured the fruits of this regional industry spilling over to support a rich cultural life in the city at the hub of the region. This bustling creative energy would then foster new innovation and industry, filling in the “niches” of the economy.

Cities don’t work like perpetual-motion machines. They require constant new inputs in the form of innovations based on human insights. And if they are to generate [vibrant] city regions, they require repeated, exuberant episodes of import-replacing, which are manifestations of the human ability to make adaptive imitations . . .

In the question period following the talk, Jane Jacobs was asked how best to foster these regional economies. Her answer was “regional currencies.” She called regional currencies one of the most elegant tools for stimulating and regulating production and trade in a region.

Bob Swann’s eyes flashed and his knees trembled. He was a staunch advocate for local currencies. Was Jane Jacobs a partner with him in this advocacy? He could not wait to query her more.

He had his chance on the drive back to the airport after the lecture, talking eagerly about the role of regional currencies in shaping regional economies. We described the SHARE micro-credit program that the Schumacher Center had helped to launch in Great Barrington as a way for a citizen group to gain experience in making productive loans to small businesses. SHARE was our first step in an initiative to launch a local currency.

As she got out of the car, Jane Jacobs turned to Bob and to me and said, “You know that $500 honorarium for speaking? Would you take it and open a SHARE account for me? I want to participate and so stay informed about what you are doing.” She said it with a twinkle. She knew how it would delight us.

That was when I first experienced the great warmth of spirit of Jane Jacobs. She championed the “ideas that matter,” but she also championed the people putting the ideas into practice. In her book “Systems of Survival” one of her characters describes the details of the SHARE program, and in “Dark Age Ahead” she points to the Schumacher Center’s work with community land trusts as one of the positive indicators of the renewal of American culture.

During Bob Swann’s last years, as he struggled with his health, hand written notes from Jane Jacobs cheered him on. And unexpected phone calls have cheered and encouraged me.

The world has lost a great intellect. At the Schumacher Center, in addition, we have lost an advisory board member and a dear friend. I can think of no finer way to honor her than for us all to foster “exuberant episodes of import-replacing” in our local communities.

 


Excerpts from: The Economy of Regions by Jane Jacobs
Third Annual E. F. Schumacher Lectures, October 1983

Like most of you, I assume, I see much hope in the use of the small and intermediate technology Schumacher advocated. Furthermore, small and intermediate technology is quite as necessary, valuable, and constructive in the economic life of cities as it is in rural and village life and in currently rich countries as well as poor ones. The use of large and expensive capital-intensive equipment has become so mindless and rococo that it leads to mechanization poverty, meaning that it actually doesn’t pay its way in direct and indirect costs but makes us poorer. Nuclear power plants are an extreme example, but in principle so are many types of equipment now being used for agriculture.

The standard diagnosis of the trouble with supply regions, abandoned regions, and clearance regions as well as stagnated and declining cities is “not enough industry.” To be sure. But the standard prescription for the deficiency is “attract industry.” What are these industries that can be lured and hooked? Where do they come from and why?

For the most part they are industries that originally developed in cities or city regions but are no longer tethered there by localized markets or by everyday dependence upon multitudes of producers and services close by…. The very freedom of location that enables these industries to leave city regions for distant regions means freedom from local markets and freedom from symbiotic nests of other producers. Therefore, their presence does nothing, or little, to stimulate creation of other, symbiotic enterprises. This outcome becomes starkly obvious whenever these transplants pull up stakes and leave for yet a different location, perhaps one with still cheaper labor or still lower electric rates. What they leave behind when they move are merely economic vacuums, very different from what they left behind originally in the cities or city regions of their origin. And as long as they remain in a region with a transplant economy of this sort, they produce only little and only narrowly for the local economy itself. Their markets are distant. In effect, such transplants shape a kind of industrialized supply region incapable of producing amply and diversely for its own people and producers as well as for others….

Many of the processes at work in natural ecologies and in our own economies are amazingly similar. I shall mention only two, although many other similarities are obvious. In a natural ecology the more niches that are filled, the more efficiently the ecology uses the energy it has at its disposal and the richer it is in life and means of supporting life. Just so with our own economies. The more fully their various niches are filled, the richer they are in means for supporting life. . . .

In a natural ecology the more diversity there is, the more stability, too, because of what ecologists call its greater numbers of homeostatic feedback loops, meaning that it includes greater numbers of feedback controls for automatic self-correction. It is the same with our economies . . . .

Cities are the open-ended types of economies in which our human capacities for open-ended economic creation are not only able to establish new and initially tentative little things but also to inject them into everyday life in a practical way. Cities don’t work like perpetual-motion machines. They require constant new inputs in the form of innovations based on human insights. And if they are to generate city regions, they require repeated, exuberant episodes of import-replacing, which are manifestations of the human ability to make adaptive imitations…

Any region with an innovative and import-replacing city of its own becomes capable of producing amply and diversely for its own people and producers as well as for others, again no matter what its given natural attributes.

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The full text of Jane Jacobs 1983 Schumacher Center Lecture, “The Economy of Regions” may be purchased in pamphlet form for $5 from the Schumacher Center or may be read for free at the publications section of our website.

The Schumacher Center is a tax-exempt, educational organization. Membership donations support the Center’s programs.

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