This letter appeared in the Vermont Commons (Issue 10, February 2006) as a Guest Editorial.
Dear Readers of Vermont Commons,
If our common interest is to help establish a more independent Vermont Republic, then part of that effort will be to build a more independent Vermont economy—one in which, as economist Fritz Schumacher advocates in Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, the goods consumed in a region are produced in a region. Therefore, as Jane Jacobs, the brilliant regional planner and intuitive economist, argues in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, the strategy for economic development should be to generate import-replacement industries. She would have us examine what is now imported into the state 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 then is the responsibility of concerned citizens to help build a sustainable Vermont economy? An independent regional economy calls for new regional economic institutions for land, labor, and capital to embody the scale, purpose, and structure 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 right here in Vermont in the development of local currencies, worker-owned businesses, community land trusts, and business alliances for local living economies. To honor the achievements already made and to encourage additional citizen participation in these innovative programs, this issue of Vermont Commons is focused on economics.
In his essay “Economics of Scale vs. the Scale of Economics,” author Kirkpatrick Sale reminds us to “take the economic scale that is optimum for the earth’s systems” in shaping our new economies. He shows us how to plan our economic activities in terms of the capacities of watersheds and bio-regions, choosing limits to consumption. He then goes on to describe eight principles of a bioregional economy, imagining an economics formed by implementation of conscious values rather than by market forces.
Judy Wicks was a single mother and anchored in her Philadelphia neighborhood when she started The White Dog Café. She knows that the success of the restaurant is due to her understanding of and commitment to her customers and a set of values they support. Her essay describes the spreading of that ethic to businesses around the country, “an alternative to corporate globalization—a decentralized global network of local living economies composed of independent, community-based businesses.”
Peter Barnes, who was a journalist before becoming the entrepreneur behind Working Assets Long Distance Company, has spent his whole working career considering the role of land in the economic system. “From Common Wealth to Common Property” is only one part of a long musing on how to free our common inheritance (land and other nature-given assets) from private ownership by individuals and convert it to shared ownership by all citizens of earth.
In an essay written for the Poverty and Race Research Association Council, Gus Newport describes the community land trust (CLT) as a model for securing community ownership of land while enabling private ownership of homes and other buildings on that land. In my January 2006 interview with Gus, which follows, he shows how this concept can be applied in the hurricane-ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast. There the CLT has become an organizing tool for African-American citizens to retain control over future land-use decisions in their neighborhoods in the face of massive government and corporate redevelopment efforts.
Through her writings and public appearances, Hazel Henderson has devoted her life to helping us understand the role of money in the economic system so that we can change it. “The Politics of Money” is no exception. Witty and fast paced, it references other contemporary thinkers and activists in the field of local currencies/community currencies/ complementary currencies and in so doing, honors them. Hazel honors us all with the inclusion of her essay.
Together with Herman Daly, Robert Costanza is known as a co-founder of “ecological economics.” Now part of the core faculty of the Gund Institute at the University of Vermont, Costanza brings intellectual leadership to the application of new economic programs in and for Vermont. His essay “The Real Economy” outlines a vision for an “economics of permanence,” to use Schumacher’s phrase.
Gar Alperovitz’s new book, America Beyond Capitalism, is one of the most important records we have of achievements that have been made in creating new economic structures. In his chapter on worker-owned businesses, reprinted in this issue, he reminds us that “[o]ne factor which has contributed to the rise of employee-owned firms is that multinational corporations often must seek the very highest profit they can make on invested capital—whereas workers living in a community are happy with substantial profits (rather than the highest possible) since the other benefits of keeping a plant in town far outweigh differences in profit rates.”
This certainly touches on the core of the matter. Local currencies, community land trusts, worker owned businesses are all important tools for shaping economies. Yet ultimately the health and vitality of a local economy will depend on 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. The future of Vermont’s economy is in the hands and hearts of its citizens.
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