Susan Witt has served as the Executive Director of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics since its founding in 1980. The Schumacher Center promotes and supports grassroots initiatives to develop more self-reliant regional economies. It conducts lecture, seminar and publication programs, and develops practical economic tools that have been applied in communities all over the world.
Merrian Fuller (MF): What drew you to the work of strengthening local economies?
Susan Witt (SW): I have no formal background in economics, in fact, I was a literature teacher in a small Waldorf High School in New Hampshire and I deeply love the world of great literature. However, I came to believe that the world’s most pressing social and environmental problems could only be solved through fundamental changes in the economic system. I heard Robert Swann on the radio talking about E. F. Schumacher’s work Small Is Beautiful, and my course was set. Three years later we founded a North American Schumacher Center in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts.
MF: What insight did you find in Schumacher’s work that moved you to change your life’s course?
SW: In his book, Small Is Beautiful, Schumacher offered us a fundamentally different approach to conducting our economic life. To arrive at this understanding, he was not reading books on economics, he was studying the great esoteric literature from all the world’s religious traditions. His essays begin in spiritual principles and then lead to economic practice. This seemed to me the correct progression. At the same time such thinking is not dogmatic but allows the practitioner to explore his/her own solutions.
MF: How would you characterize Schumacher’s new economics?
SW: Schumacher offered a positive and locally-rooted way to respond to the problems of a global economy in which the processes of production are hidden from the eyes of the consumer, separating people, land, and community. He advocated human-scaled economic systems, appropriate technology, cooperation between consumer and producer, and a re-thinking of the institutions of land and money.
MF: Why do we need to re-think our relationship to land?
SW: We’ve commodified land, enabling it to be sold on the market and resulting in the accumulation of land in the hands of a relatively few. 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. In the Berkshires we face the problem of rising land prices mostly due to demand from second home owners, making home ownership and farming less and less affordable for local people.
MF: How can we make housing more affordable?
SW: One tool we’ve developed is a Community Land Trust. The Land Trust concept offers a practical way to take land off the market, preventing speculation and artificially-inflated housing prices, and place it into a system of trusteeship on a region-by-region basis. The goods created by an individual as a result of labor applied to land-the harvest from a garden, the home built of wood from the forest, the sweater knitted from spun wool-is rightfully private property and may appropriately be traded as commodities. However, the land itself and its resources, which are Earth-given and of limited supply, should be held in trust by the regional community and their use allocated on a limited basis for present and future generations.
MF: What about farmland, is there any way to help farmers stay on the land?
SW: A Community Land Trust can also be used to make farming possible in place like the Berkshires, where land is expensive. As with creating affordable housing, the Land Trust can purchase the land for the community and give the farmers a renewable 99-year lease and the right of ownership over the buildings and any improvements they make to the land. The farmers can make it work if they aren’t burdened by inflated land values, and the community gets both fresh, local produce and the ability to make sure that the farmers use ecologically-sensitive practices.
MF: How easy are these models to replicate in other places?
SW: Hundreds of Land Trusts have sprung up all over North America in the last 20 years—so they are obviously replicable and filling an important need. We also provide all the legal documents and background materials needed to start a Community Land Trust on our website so that people don’t have to start from scratch.
MF: You also mentioned the need to re-think our relationship to currency, can you say more on that?
SW: Right now we have a system of nationally issued currencies that places the question of who has access to credit in the hands of nations that 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.
MF: So we should get rid of the national currency?
SW: I don’t advocate getting rid of the national currency, but local areas can be better served by a combination of local and regional currencies that complement the national currency.
MF: Can you give some examples?
SW: In one region you can have a paper scrip that works like a US dollar, but can only be spent within the region so that wealth continues to circulate and doesn’t leave the community. You can also exchange time in hours with your neighbors – one program for doing that is TimeDollars. Local currencies can also be used to get farmers through the winter by selling vouchers for their products in advance, or to capitalize local businesses. One example is a delicatessen that raised funds through the sale of “Deli Dollars” to its customers. These notes, dated so that redemption was staggered over a period of time, were good for meals at discounted prices. This scrip financing enabled the delicatessen to relocate to new quarters without having to increase bank debt.
MF: Do you think the world is ready for these sorts of innovations on a larger scale?
SW: Well, the nature of much of the work we do is locally-rooted and not intended to grow to a “large scale.” However, many communities are looking for ways to respond to problems of globalization, the monoculture of large corporations and growing economic dependence. More and more local communities are adopting these solutions, so it is growing larger in that sense—village by village.
Merrian Borgeson is a Senior Scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Merrian champions stronger climate policies by providing analysis and strategic guidance to help us shift to efficient, renewable energy. She works closely with policymakers and stakeholders at the state, regional and national levels. Prior to joining NRDC, she worked as a team leader at … Continued
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