Re-imagining our Economies

As we work together to re-imagine our economies following the current shut-down, the writings of the late Jane Jacobs offer solid direction.

In her Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jane Jacobs brilliantly argues that the best strategy for economic development is to generate import-replacement industries. She would have us examine what is now imported into a region 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 is the role and responsibility of concerned citizens in building such re-imagined regional economies?

An independent regional economy calls for new regional economic institutions for land, labor, and capital to embody the scale 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, 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.

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 beginnings are being made in the development of local currencies, community-supported farms, regionally-based equity and loan funds, worker-owned businesses, community land trusts, and business alliances for local living economies.

These initiatives are motivated by the affection that the citizens of a region have for their neighbors and neighborhoods; for the fields, forests, mountains, and rivers of their landscapes; for the local history and culture that binds these all together; and for their common future.

What you can do: join regional economic projects in your own communities or create them anew. Inventory the multitude of human, natural, and financial resources available for local production. Support existing businesses. Share information. Apply the genius of local knowledge to shape new enterprises. Celebrate successes!

Jane Jacobs’ 1983 Annual E. F. Schumacher Lecture “The Economy of Regions” may be read here.