Publications / Global Dialogue for Peace Gathering

A New Peace

This is a revised version of the comments made at the Global Dialogue for Peace Gathering on September 17-21, 2001.

I bring with me to this Global Dialogue the good wishes of many people in the United States who are concerned to find an image of a new peace while our nation is considering images of a new war. I also bring personal greetings from Robert Swann, founder of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, to Andrey Bykov, who convened this gathering. Bob regrets he cannot be here.

As we heard in his report yesterday, Andrey Bykov is able to unite his great vision for world peace with the practical skills needed to negotiate a limited nuclear disarmament. In much the same way, Bob Swann has united the visionary and practical in his own work. I would like to take this opportunity to tell you of Bob’s life and in so doing make him a part of this gathering.

Bob Swann served two and a half years in prison during World War Two as a conscientious objector. Much of that time he spent in solitary confinement, a punishment imposed because he refused to cooperate with the prison’s policy of racial segregation. The long hours in solitary gave him much time for contemplation. Prison was his monastery and his university. He read greedily and, when not in solitary, engaged in active debate about the issues of war and peace with other conscientious objectors. After much consideration, Bob concluded there were three root causes of war:

  1.  The commodification of land, enabling it to be sold on the market and resulting in the accumulation of land in the hands of a relatively few. This concentration of ownership prevents the poor from gaining affordable access to land to build their homes and earn their livelihood. The result is great wealth alongside unrelenting poverty. Without land it is hard to achieve even modest self-sufficiency and a sense of a dignity.
  2.  A system of nationally issued currencies that places the question of who has access to credit in the hands of nation-states which are driven to over-issue currency out of varied political agendas, including financing of war-related activities. This practice creates inflation and deprives regions of a powerful tool for place-based and culturally appropriate economic development.
  3.  The loss of community in the face of ever more powerful global economic interests, thus eroding the sense of responsibility to neighbors and to local ecology that comes with daily interactions.

When Bob left prison he earned his livelihood as a carpenter and designer of buildings while continuing to look for ways to create equitable economies. In the 1960s, as the civil rights movement grew ever stronger in the southern part of the United States, the old guard saw its own power diminishing and lashed out, burning African-American churches as a weapon of fear. Bob’s skills as a carpenter were welcomed to rebuild the churches, and he organized crews of black and white Americans to work together, forging the courage to struggle on toward peace and dignity. In the South Bob met Slater King, president of the Albany Movement in Georgia, and other civil rights leaders. From them he learned that African-Americans were being prevented from fulfilling their dreams because of their inability to gain access to land. It was a pressing problem that fueled the civil unrest.

Bob knew of the land-reform work of Vinoba Bhave, the trusted associate of Gandhi. Vinoba walked from village to village in India seeking a way to alleviate the widening social discrepancies he witnessed. Wherever he went, crowds gathered to listen to their beloved spiritual leader. Vinoba asked boldly, “Those of you with more land than you need, would you not give your excess to my brothers and sisters, who have no land to build their homes nor cultivate their crops?” Moved by the man and his appeal, wealthy villagers deeded their land to Vinoba so that he could reconvey it to the landless.

In this way the Bhoodan or Land Gift movement was born. But soon Vinoba saw that the poor, who did not have the money to buy tools to work the land and seeds to sow it, simply sold the land back to the wealthy. They then wandered into the even greater poverty of the cities; therefore, Vinoba changed the Bhoodan movement to the Gramdan or Village Gift movement. The land was given to the village, and villagers were given use rights. Now they were not tempted to trade the land for quick money. If they abandoned the land, it was redistributed to those who could use it.

Our Russian friends here at this meeting may recall how beautifully this concept is described in Tolstoy’s wonderful last novel Resurrection. Tolstoy outlines a process of redistribution of land in which estate owners return the land, not to individual peasants but to the villages. The villages then allocate land use, charging a rent according to quality of site and soil. The rent supports schools, health clinics, road improvement, and the general welfare of the villagers.

With Vinoba’s example in mind, Bob Swann worked with Slater King to create the first community land trust in North America to provide farmland for African-American farmers in Georgia. There are now more than two hundred and fifty community land trusts around the United States.

The Georgia group studied the lease agreements used by the Jewish National Fund to develop its own legal documents. A significant portion of the land of Israel is owned by the Jewish National Fund, which leases land to individuals and to intentional communities such as “kibbutzim.” The leases call for private ownership of buildings and other improvements on the land, but the land itself remains owned by the Fund. Bob called for a democratically structured, regional membership base for community land trusts so that they would remain accountable to the people and priorities of a particular place.

Turning his attention to the problem of credit, Bob felt that instead of nations having the power to decide who should have access to credit, it should again be regional communities. Self-regulated communities striving for self-sufficiency are best qualified to determine their own need for credit and the criteria for its issue. Out of this understanding Bob started what has become known as a local-currency movement in the United States.

A simple way of imagining how a community can issue money is to think of a farmer. Each spring the farmer needs seeds to sow the field. Members of a regional community who know the farmer and wish to support a local source of food can band together and issue credit to that farmer for the seeds. Essentially the community can create new money, based solely on its confidence in the future productivity of the farmer. Local residents recognize that the planting of those seeds will result in a harvest of crops worth fifty times the value of the original seeds. They trade in the local currency without reservation because its value remains sound as long as it is issued only for productive purposes. Small communities, thinking themselves dependent on the largess of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, can take back the power to issue their own credit and determine their own economic destinies based on local resources and local production.

Bob recommended that while the issue of currencies should be at the local level, their standard should be universal. He suggested using a kilowatt-hour of electricity as that standard. Energy is a component of all production; its cost is a factor in determining the price of goods. At the same time, energy in all regions can be produced from renewable resources, an unending source of wealth for a region. So while currencies may be created locally, based on factors determined by the particular needs of the region, these same currencies can be traded in other regions using a common international standard.

In addition to land reform and monetary reform, Bob’s third objective was to foster development of local economies and local communities that would serve as the foundation for an economics of peace. J. C. Kumarappa, the Gandhian economist, helped guide this initiative. In his beautiful book Why the Village Movement? is a chapter entitled “The Role of Women.” He addresses the women of the villages with these words: “You, my sisters, perhaps it is your husband who earns the money for your family, but it is you who are determining how that money is spent, and in so doing you are deciding the fate of your village. You may choose to buy the beautiful silk made in France or Belgium, or you may choose the khadi cloth made by your sister and your neighbor. When you choose the khadi cloth, you are investing in more than cloth, you are investing in your neighbor, her children, and your village. As you watch the children walking to school in the morning, fed by the earnings of their mother, you realize that you and they are woven together through the cloth. You and your village are richer in proportion to the number of such stories that unite you.”

At the Schumacher Center for a New Economics we are creating model ways for consumers to support local producers. Goods consumed in a region are best created in the region in full view and with full local knowledge of production methods. A strong local economy is dependent on cooperative social patterns and a rich local culture.

An example of this approach is the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement founded by our late neighbor, Robyn Van En, at Indian Line Farm. In the CSA model a group of families guarantees a yearly income to a farmer in exchange for a portion of the harvest. The families work together to create conditions that encourage a farmer to farm by sharing in the risk of the undertaking. There are now over one thousand CSA farms in North America alone, and the movement is spreading as consumers seek a local alternative to factory-farmed food.

These principles of community self-sufficiency and economic renewal are at the heart of the work of Malladi Rama Krishna, who is here with us today. Krishna is the new director of the J. C. Kumarappa Ashram in Hyderabad, India, founded by Michael Windey of the Village Reconstruction Organization.

To return to the purpose of this gathering: as the troubling consequences of the events of the past week continue to unfold, we are charged with how to initiate a Global Dialogue for Peace. Bob Swann’s life is instructive. He had the good fortune during his time in prison to read and discuss the writings of some of the world’s great cultural leaders on the topic of peace, and that led him to his life’s work of developing practical steps for economic reform.

At the Schumacher Center we are privileged to be stewards of Fritz Schumacher’s personal library, which has a similar story to tell. It is a library of books and papers, not on economics but on religion and philosophy, all carefully underlined and annotated. It took a thorough inquiry into life’s big questions—What is the role of the human being on earth? What is right conduct based on that understanding?—for Fritz Schumacher to develop a new, human-scale, place-based approach to economics. His now famous essays are collected in Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered, judged one of the hundred most influential books of the past century.

It is therefore appropriate that gathered here at this Global Dialogue for Peace are leaders representing all of our great religious traditions. Only when we are able to penetrate into that which is universal in religious thought, and then link that understanding to a practical knowledge and affection for local place and local community, can we build a vision for a new peace.

By all rights this founding of a new peace is a spiritual mission and at the same time an economic mission, an environmental mission, and a humanitarian mission. It will require a collaboration of individuals and cultural organizations working together to succeed. Its sign of success will be the renewal of local communities around the world. Both our own village and the Earth are our home and responsibility. Let us greet one another in this common citizenship, informed by the lessons we have learned from living well in a particular place.

Thank you.


Publication By

Susan Witt

Susan Witt is the Executive Director of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which she co-founded with Robert Swann in 1980. She has led the development of the Schumacher Center’s highly regarded publications, library, seminars, and other educational programs, which established the Center as a pioneering voice for an economics shaped by social and ecological principles. Deeply engaged … Continued

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