Merging Institutions

Building sustainable local economies requires combining a number of new institutions. In Small is Beautiful E. F. Schumacher called for a plethora of diverse small-scale businesses, workers who own and manage the means of production, the use of appropriate technology, affordable access to land, cultural renewal, organic farming practices, ecological restoration, energy conservation, and renewable sources of energy production. In isolation these ideas supply needed changes to the current system. Applied together they provide a path to a more sustainable future.

Community land trust founder Bob Swann believed that at the heart of changing our current path is a reevaluation of the way we treat land. The speculative market that has arisen around land ownership is having a threefold effect: denying affordable access, tying up community capital, and limiting local employment. Alternately, creating a trust for land excludes the possibility of a profit from inflating land values, making productive use the most profitable venture. When land is no longer viewed as an investment in itself, capital is freed for other investment. Both of these processes, access to useable land and the release of investment capital, serve to create new employment opportunities. Our treatment of land is primary to how we treat all other systems.

What are the characteristics of a community that realizes the possibility of its resources? Here in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, the Community Land Trust is providing an affordable means to homeownership for forty local residents and land access to farmers who are providing organic food to numerous local families. We have embarked on a community currency program that is supporting local businesses and nurturing an environment for new business creation. We are engaging in energy conservation measures and discussions about the possibilities for renewable energy production. A new vision of land ownership results from the merging of these actions. There has been great progress, but there are still many options our community has yet to explore.

On Martha’s Vineyard, John Abrams is applying a number of Schumacher’s ideas with exceptional results. He is the co-founder and CEO of the South Mountain Company, which for over thirty years has designed and built homes using human-scaled, well-crafted, environmentally sound architecture. The company is democratically managed and worker owned, providing employees with a say in everyday practices and decisions.

Abrams is chairman of the Island Affordable Housing Fund, which has completed a first ever housing needs assessment of Martha’s Vineyard and helped thirty-three families move into affordable houses of their own. He is also vice-chairman of the Island Housing Trust, a community land trust “bridg[ing] the gap between the island’s increasingly high property values and the families and individuals who live and work here earning low and moderate incomes.”

John Abrams is a frequent speaker on affordable housing, socially responsible business, and ecological buildings. His articles about green building and workplace democracy have appeared in national publications such as Business Ethics and Fine Homebuilding. South Mountain Company and its work have been featured in The New York Times, Environmental Building News, and Solar Today. Abrams has contributed to How Buildings Learn (Viking Press), The Naturally Elegant Home (Little Brown), and The Healing House (Hay House).

His most recent book, The Company We Keep: Reinventing Small Business for People, Community, and Place, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, demonstrates that one can bring commendable personal values to the workplace, protect natural resources, uphold high standards of craftsmanship, control growth, and still run a successful (and highly collaborative) enterprise.

John Abrams is bringing his projects together in such a way that he is providing a framework for the sustainability of Martha’s Vineyard. He sees that planning for worker ownership and management, community ownership of land, green building and design, and affordable housing are all part of creating a just society that supports and cares for all its citizens. His work is building a better community for his neighbors and providing all of us with a vision of the integrated path we must take to achieve sustainable communities.

The Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires will be hosting John Abrams as part of its annual meeting at 4 pm on January 27, 2008, at the First Congregational Church in Great Barrington, MA. Tickets are 5 BerkShares at the door.

This event is co-sponsored by the Schumacher Center.