The following is an interview by David Cayley of CBC Radio’s Ideas series with Susan Witt and Robert Swann in November 1990. Transcription is by Hedy Muysson.
Lister Sinclair: Good evening. I’m Lister Sinclair and this is Ideas on Redefining Development.
“Growth is perhaps the second greatest mystery. The greatest mystery is the mystery of the cessation of growth. You know, that a thing can grow at all is wonderful, but that it knows when to stop, that is even more wonderful.”
-E. F. Schumacher
Lister Sinclair: Dr. E. F. Schumacher speaking on Ideas in 1975. Two years before, he had published Small Is Beautiful, the book that made his name and put his philosophy before a wide public. In his book, Schumacher argued that scale is a critical consideration in development, that all tools and institutions have their appropriate scale and turn destructive when they exceed it. What the world needed, he claimed, were the simple, non-violent technologies, which he called “intermediate technologies,” technologies that could fit into their social circumstances without destroying them. Today the legacy of E. F. Schumacher is expressed in the work of the American Schumacher Center. Located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, the Center has tried to devise the economic institutions that would allow Schumacher’s dream of a renaissance at a small scale to be realized— institutions like community land trusts.
Robert Swann: The basic idea behind a land trust is to return to the community the value which is created by the community. Land appreciates in value generally not because of what individuals do for the land. They may improve it some, surely. You know, they may improve the soil, they may add buildings and so on, and those are definite improvements. But the land itself, the basic land, appreciates in value not because of what they do, but because the community itself becomes a valuable place to live, because of other people that are there. So the land trust idea is to return to the community the value which is created by the community.
Lister Sinclair: Tonight on Ideas we profile the work of the Schumacher Center in the fourth and final program of our series on redefining development. The series is written and presented by David Cayley.
David Cayley: In 1939, a young Austrian refugee called Leopold Kohr addressed an audience at the University of Toronto on the subject of social size. He argued against a popular book of the time, called Union Now, which proposed that a lasting peace could only come about through political unification. Kohr claimed that the salvation of the world lay not in uniting the nations, but in dismembering them. The chief evil of the age, for Kohr, was paralyzing bigness, a cancerous overgrowth which dwarfed the human scale, drowned the individual voice, and annihilated local character. More than thirty years before The Club of Rome, he entitled one of his early articles “The Limits to Growth.” Later he summarized his approach in a book called The Breakdown of Nations. Leopold Kohr was the first contemporary thinker to recognize the close link between form and size. The biologist J.B.S. Haldane, in a wonderful essay called “On Being the Right Size,” had drawn attention to the narrow range of sizes within which a given form can exist. A horse can only be a horse at a certain scale. Kohr applied the same argument to society. Beyond a certain size, he argued, societies will atomize and disintegrate. Only in small, bounded, and peculiar places can we really be human.
Kohr’s ideas made a deep impression on E. F. Schumacher when Schumacher encountered them in the 1960s and through Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful they eventually gained a much wider audience. Today there are Schumacher societies in both Britain and the United States, which continue to develop these ideas. In tonight’s program, you’ll meet Susan Witt and Robert Swann of the American Center. Bob Swann has devoted his life to the same quest for an ethical economics which animated Schumacher’s last years. It began, he told me, during World War II.
Robert Swann: I became a conscientious objector at a time when that wasn’t so easy to do. World War II was a very popular war and for good reasons with someone like Hitler, and yet I found myself unable to go along and shoot and kill people. I just could not do that. So the result of it was that I spent quite some time in jail. Jail is a great place to get an education if you really take advantage of it and we had some good opportunities there because we had a lot of men like myself that were also conscientious objectors, with a lot of background and interest and ideas of their own. So we had some excellent discussions, seminars, and so on, and prison became a kind of a post-graduate course for me.
And particularly, what was going on in the world with people like Gandhi in India, I became very interested in Gandhian ideas. So that was a major influence in my life and I think that ever since that I’ve been committed in a certain direction that hasn’t changed at all really.
David Cayley: One of the thinkers by whom Swann was most impressed was an American original called Ralph Borsodi. He became Swann’s teacher and later his friend and collaborator.
Robert Swann: I would say Borsodi was the first American decentralist of a very significant kind. He was an economist by background and training, though he was pretty much self-taught. Never went to college. I don’t even think he went to high school; he was an entirely self-taught man. But he became a very influential adviser in Wall Street. He advised some of the largest corporations on Wall Street in the twenties—this is going back to the early 1920s—until he became totally disillusioned with the whole Wall Street picture, because he was basically a philosopher and realized that the values and so on were not the values that he wanted to promote. And so he set up a small homestead in Long Island. He and his wife just bought a couple of acres of land and he began to experiment with how you could live as self-sufficiently as possible, with his wife baking bread, for example, and having a small garden to furnish all their own food, and so on. He wasn’t aiming at total self-sufficiency, but he wanted to see how far you could go and what the efficiency was relative to the mass production of the going concerns.
And so he spent a lot of his time developing these kinds of small-scale gadgets that might be workable, for instance, inventing a small machine that would grind wheat in the house, so you didn’t have to go and buy the flour. You could buy the wheat and grind it yourself and make the bread, you know, this kind of simple machinery and equipment that later on Schumacher picked up and began to call “appropriate technology” or “intermediate technology,” small-scale technology that could be worked at the home or nearby. That’s the same kind of thing. So Borsodi was an early inventor and an early promoter and philosopher of the idea of decentralization.
David Cayley: Behind Borsodi stands the figure of Henry George, a nineteenth century American journalist and economist. His book Progress and Poverty sold millions of copies—perhaps the Small Is Beautiful of its day—and attained a wide influence. George was a friend of Borsodi’s father and Borsodi imbibed from him an idea which remains central to the Schumacher Center today.
Robert Swann: George put forth the idea that land should be taxed but not the improvements on it, to make it clear that it’s the land where the real value is created by the community. The community creates that value, not the individual. The community deserves the appreciated value in land, not the individual. So therefore a tax should be put on land and not on the improvements. You don’t want to penalize people for improving building houses and improving their life, but the land is something different.
David Cayley: Land was also a central preoccupation within the Gandhian movement in India, another contributor to the thought and practice of the Schumacher Center. Schumacher spent time in India with Gandhi’s successors. So did Borsodi. And it was in the light of the Gandhian movement’s experience that Borsodi began to imagine the institution that Bob Swann would eventually name “a community land trust.”
Robert Swann: After Gandhi’s death in 1947—this is something a lot of people don’t understand—a man by the name of Vinoba Bhave became the recognized leader of the Gandhian movement. Gandhi had said himself that he thought that Bhave would be the leader after his death. And Bhave took on the problem in India of the landless, the problem of many, many millions of people in India who live in the villages but who own no land, who have no access to land and are at the mercy of the landowners and so on. So he began a pilgrimage, walking from village to village and talking to the people in the village. Because he was so recognized as a saint in India, it was easy. All the villagers would gather around. And he would say, “My brother here has no land, but you may have some land. You other people may have some land that you don’t need so badly. Could you give my brother some land?” And many people would stand up and say “yes,” amazingly. I mean it was unheard of that anybody would give up land in India, because land was the next thing to gold in terms of value.
But over time, walking from village to village over a period of several years, Vinoba actually accumulated several million acres of land. But then what happened was that the people who were assigned to this land, this land that was given, found out that the land was valuable but they had nothing to work the land with. They didn’t have a plough or oxen or anything, you know, just minimal things, minimal tools. And so some of them then, because they had the title to the land, the ownership now, turned around and sold the land because it gave a cash return, which they then took with them to Calcutta or somewhere, and then gradually became beggars on the street after the money ran out. So Vinoba realized that there had to be a different way and that’s what was incorporated in what was the gramdan approach in India, which means “village gift of land.”
In the gramdan program, instead of the individual being given a piece of land as previously under what had been called the boodan land-gift approach, under the village gift approach the village was given the land and the elders of the community that already exist as a council, sort of, in India, were given the oversight of the land and they would give the right of use to individual landless farmers and they would try to help them to get that equipment and so on that they needed. But the farmers didn’t have the ownership of the land. That was the difference. The ownership resided with the community and they had the right of use, so it was like a community land trust. It was the same form, in effect, as a community land trust.
David Cayley: The community land trust is an institution which builds on the heritage of both Henry George and the gramdan movement. The term itself was coined by Bob Swann when he and Borsodi began a sort of American gramdan movement in the sixties. A community land trust vests ultimate ownership of land in the community, while extending to those who live on the land most of the traditional prerogatives of owners, like long-term security of tenure, the right to make and benefit from improvements, and so on. Following George’s distinction between the value a community gives its land by being a community and the value an individual gives it by his labor, the community land trust creates a sort of socialist-capitalist hybrid in which the just claims of the individual and the just claims of the community are harmonized. The first American land trust was created near Albany, Georgia, in the late sixties. The civil-rights movement by then had accomplished its legislative aims, but rural blacks remained poor and landless. This was the issue Borsodi and Swann tackled in collaboration with Slater King.
Robert Swann: Slater had been well recognized as one of the strong leaders in the civil-rights movement, but he was also a businessman. He was actually in real estate—that was his business. So he was in a position to know about land and where land could be found and so on and shortly after we began this process, he was able to locate a tract of land, a 5,000-acre former plantation not far from Albany that could become and did become eventually the first community land trust in the United States. It was an expensive piece of land. It was over a million dollars to buy the land. Five thousand acres is a lot of land and it was a cliffhanger at the very end because the last fifty thousand that we needed to make it possible didn’t come in till two minutes after the deadline—not before, but after the deadline—and it was an interesting scene.
I can describe it a little bit. The lawyers for the owners of the land—who didn’t want to sell the land at that point because they saw that this was going to go into black hands and they were white and they hadn’t realized it up until very recently—were hoping that we wouldn’t be able to get all the money. And so there was a fifty-thousand-dollar check that was due through a bank, that was due to come in and it didn’t come before the deadline. So the lawyer stood up and said, “I’m sorry, we’re leaving. Too bad, but you didn’t make it.” The lawyer that represented our side, who happened to be the brother of Slater King, said, “I want to talk with you,” (the lawyer). They had a little huddle in the corner and when they were through the huddle, their lawyer said, “We’ll give you twenty minutes more.” At that moment the man from the bank walked in the door with a fifty-thousand-dollar check in his hand. So everybody said, “What did you say? What did you say to the lawyer?” And, I’m sorry I can’t remember his first name, but Mr. King, the lawyer, said, “Well, I happened to know something about some things that he’s involved in and he had a conflict of interest in this and I threatened to take him into court if he didn’t give us some more time.”
So, that’s the way we finally got the land. It was a cliffhanger. It really was a cliffhanger. But that was the beginning and from there on it’s been a development process. The institute that we started, which eventually became the Institute for Community Economics, then took on the role, I should say, of technical assistance to groups. We wrote a book, the first book on community land trusts, back in 1972 and that began to promote the idea around the country. So we provided technical assistance to many, many various groups starting community land trusts. Today there are about sixty-five community land trusts in the country and many others that are forming or don’t call themselves community land trusts but are essentially the same thing.
David Cayley: Did a farming community establish itself on that land in Georgia?
Robert Swann: Yes it did.
David Cayley: And is it still there?
Robert Swann: It’s still there. Yes, it’s still going. I haven’t been in touch with them in the last few years, but they are still going, as I understand it, very well.
David Cayley: At the same time that Bob Swann and Ralph Borsodi were building the Institute for Community Economics, a new magazine appeared in England called Resurgence. It presented the writings of Leopold Kohr and E. F. Schumacher. Schumacher in the fifties had been a relatively orthodox, Keynesian economist, but his faith in conventional development economics had been badly shaken by a trip to Burma.
Robert Swann: He said that when he was invited to go to Burma he thought he’d better do some homework and find out what the income and so on was in Burma and he discovered that it was sixty dollars a year. He said, “I thought, `My God, this will be the most poverty-stricken place I can imagine. It must be a terrible place to be.'” So he went to Burma and, when he got there, he was amazed because he found that people were very happy. “Happier than they were in England,” he said. And he said, “I was really baffled what was going on here,” and it gradually began to eat at him, you know. And he realized that the ideas that he was about to give to the Burmese at that time of the conventional wisdom of development just weren’t appropriate. They wouldn’t work. So he began to revise his whole thinking.
David Cayley: Schumacher’s reflections on his Asian experiences eventually informed one of his most beautiful and best-known essays, called “Buddhist Economics.” This was one of the essays from Resurgence eventually collected in Small Is Beautiful. The book was published by Harper & Row in the early seventies, but gave no signs at first of its eventual popularity.
Robert Swann: It wasn’t selling. I mean typically book-publishing companies don’t put a lot of money into a book until they think it’s going to really go. So I wrote to Fritz and said, “Why don’t you come over and we’ll put you on a lecture tour and we’ll promote the book and get the thing going.” So that’s what happened in 1974. He came over for his first trip to this country, where he would lecture. And we had some wonderful help from a lot of people, like Hazel Henderson, and so on, to help get his story into those places where it could really make some impact, like getting him on many of the radio programs and lots of other projects. So that began to promote the book and the book began to sell and became eventually the best non-fiction seller that Harper’s have ever published.
David Cayley: Schumacher became known principally as an exponent of what he called “intermediate technology”—affordable, appropriate, non-violent tools, which would enlarge a society’s possibilities without undermining its social relations. Bob Swann’s interests are complementary, but slightly different. He’s interested less in the technology as such, than in creating the kinds of economic institutions within which such a new technology would make sense. When he undertook the presidency of the Schumacher Center, he undertook to create these new institutions, like land trusts.
Robert Swann: The community land trust is a non-profit corporation which owns the land, holds the land, without any possibility of any individual benefitting from that corporation, and it leases the land out to the individual families or individual persons, according to the use-value of that land. Now when I say use-value, I mean there’s a difference between, say, housing as a use and farming as a use. If you’re a farmer, you obviously can’t pay as much for land as you can if you are a builder of houses or a seller of houses or whatever. You obviously can’t.
For instance, in this area here that we live in, if you want to build a house here, you will pay thirty thousand dollars or more per acre for a building lot, for a place that’s suitable for a building. But if you’re a farmer, if you pay more than five hundred dollars an acre for farming, you would probably go broke, because you can’t afford it. You just can’t afford it. So there’s a vast difference in the value of land for one use as against another use, with commercial land being always the highest value, or being in an urban area always the highest value. So the community land trust is an effort to capture that value that’s created by the community and bring it back to the community, rather than the individual reaping the value of that.
David Cayley: Land trusts are only one of the institutions which Swann believes will be necessary to support just and prosperous local economies. The Center has also established a credit fund, which makes low-interest loans available in the region and built affordable housing. The next phase, according to Bob Swann’s colleague Susan Witt, is thinking about a regional currency, thinking which has been stimulated and encouraged by the pioneering work of Toronto’s Jane Jacobs.
Susan Witt: She was the speaker for us at the Schumacher Center Lectures and did a wonderful talk about regional planning and regional growth and developing fully each region, rather than creating these “elephantine cities,” as she calls them. She would rather see each region develop fully and in a variety of ways on its own, and has done a lot of thinking about how this can happen. Her book Cities and the Wealth of Nations addresses this issue. She gave her talk just before her book came out, so we didn’t have the advantage of reading her book before the talk. In the question-and-answer period, she said, “Of course, I don’t think any of this can happen without the development of regional currencies.” Well, I did think I’d have to pick Bob Swann off the floor and afterwards he said, “Jane, how did you come up with this?” And she said, “Well, it’s just reasonable and rational,” and she said, “When I first realized the necessity for it, I was a bit frightened, because I didn’t see how it could be done. I didn’t understand how it could be done.” And Bob said, “Well, let us tell you about our BerkShares program that we’ve been thinking about.” So that started a mutual collaboration and interest and love affair between the Schumacher Center and Jane.
Robert Swann: Regions have different needs for money that are not taken into consideration by our centralized system of banking that we have today. A centralized system takes a look at the nation as a whole and says, “Ah, well, we better issue more money.” That is, we better, through the federal reserve system or whatever the system is, put some more money out because it looks like the economy needs more money. It’s going down a little bit. We’d better feed it some more money. But it may not be true that the economy of this particular region needs more money. It might not need more money at all, whereas over here there may be a great need for money. So, as Jane Jacobs is pointing out, there’s no way of controlling where that money goes from the national level. It just goes out into the economy as a whole and it does not work within the necessities of the region. So what we want to do is create regional currencies that only work within those regions, so the currency can be expanded or contracted according to the needs of the region. And to do that, we’ve begun some experiments, and that’s all I can call them right now is experiments. The first one we’ve initiated is having a couple of local farmers who have farm stands, where they sell their own produce, sell at this point what amounts to a gift certificate or a certificate of indebtedness, which they sell for nine dollars, a certificate which will buy ten dollars’ worth of produce at a later date when the produce comes in. They’ve been selling these since last October, I believe.
And the certificate will be redeemable. That is, the certificates will be redeemable for produce next July, August, September, when the harvest begins to come in. Now from the farmer’s point of view, this is simply a loan. It’s a simple way of getting your customers to lend you money. Right? And you’re paying back in produce, which is much easier for a farmer to do than to pay back in cash. So from the farmer’s point of view, it’s a very good way of helping to tide him through the winter and provide an income, or provide the necessary cash that he needs to survive over the winter, because most farmers’ income goes up and down—in the summer it’s high and the winter it’s down—and this way he can provide…. Now that’s from the standpoint of the farmers. From our standpoint, from where we’re looking at it, we see it as the beginning of a process whereby a currency could be created that would circulate locally. Now that will only happen if these notes that farmers are issuing actually do begin to circulate in the local area, so we’ve been encouraging local merchants and businessmen and so on to accept them in trade, just as they would dollars, and the more we can get that idea across that these… after all, everybody needs food and there’s no reason why you couldn’t accept this and go get your food with it, because many, many people deal with these farmers. They’re the only two large farm stands in the area. They’re the largest farm stands in our whole Great Barrington region, so they service an awful lot of people with local produce, and this way they will be able to provide better services for their customers, the farmers feel, and the customers will be receiving real value for their money. And that way, if we can get it circulating around, we will begin the process of initiating local circulation of currency.
David Cayley: So in effect the farmer is issuing money, which is backed by vegetables.
Robert Swann: Yes, basically that’s what it is, that’s really what it is. Exactly. He’s getting dollars because he needs dollars right now, but in the long term, he might not even need dollars, he might be able to deal entirely with local currency at some point in the future, that is. The other thing that’s important about this is that this currency will only circulate locally. It’s not going to get out of the local region. When people bank their money today, if you put your money into the bank, a commercial bank primarily, what does it do with the money you put in the bank? Well, it usually buys bonds in Wall Street or it buys CD’s someplace and it goes out of the community. So your money goes out of the community, it doesn’t stay there, it doesn’t work within the community. As any economist knows, there are two factors in the value of money: one is the face value that it has when you present it at the store, but the other is the number of times that it changes hands, what’s called “velocity” in economic terms. The more times that money changes hands within a given area, the more work it’s doing and the more valuable it is because it’s helping everybody that much more, you see.
An example of that is a little town in Germany. Going back to the depression period of the 1930s, this little town, like every town in the country, was flat on its face. I mean twenty-five per cent unemployment or more, nothing happening. The town was flat. So what they did was the mayor of the town decided to issue their own currency, which was good for paying taxes and other things. So they began issuing currency in the town and the way they helped to increase the velocity of the circulation of it was to attach a tax to the currency. Every month you had to put a stamp on the back of the currency that you bought for two cents. It was in effect a two per cent tax per month. That stamp had to be on there and if you went to the store, you couldn’t use it unless the stamp was on there. And what this had the effect of doing was to step up the velocity, the number of times it circulated in the community. They actually made a test of it and discovered that, compared with other national currencies which they’d been dealing with—shillings at that time—the local currency was circulating three times as much locally, three times the velocity, in other words, which meant, in effect, it was doing three times as much work and therefore was three times as valuable. So there’s another very important reason for local currency because it will continue to stimulate local business and local development.
David Cayley: Bob Swann’s experience with local currencies goes back to 1972, when he participated in an experiment designed by Ralph Borsodi in Exeter, New Hampshire. Borsodi was already in his nineties at the time and interested more in proving a point than in actually establishing a permanent currency. So he put into circulation, for a short period, a local dollar which he called “a Constant.”
Susan Witt: Ralph had participation from the beginning from a local bank in Exeter. The actual place where you went to trade your Constants was at the corner bank, and the merchants gladly used it. In New England they’re such individualists and the idea of freeing yourself from the federal government, in any form whatsoever, is greatly loved and enjoyed. So the merchants took it on. In our own town in Great Barrington the merchants have been interested in the proposal of a local currency, because they see it as a trade dollar that would just bring publicity and attention to their shops. Also the merchants in Exeter knew that if someone had Constants in their pocket, they couldn’t shop through Sears’ catalogue. In a rural area there’s a lot of catalogue shopping. They would have to come downtown to Exeter and, in fact, that’s exactly what they did. When newspapers came and said, “But isn’t this illegal, Mr. Borsodi?” He said, “Well, just ask the government yourself. Call the U.S. treasury and ask yourself.” And the reporters would call and they would say, “We don’t care if he’s issuing acorns up there, as long as there’s an exchange rate with the U.S. dollar,” so that presumably the transactions can be taxed, recorded and taxed.
I happened to be a student at the time at the University of New Hampshire. I had no interest in economics; I was a literature major. But rumors went around that something was going on in Exeter and that those shops that had the Constant were the good shops. They were for the people and for new ideas and we would actually travel from Durham, where we could have gotten the products that we needed, fine, just to go to Exeter and use this new currency, because it seemed such an unusual thing that the people could make their own money. It was a powerful, powerful image, of tremendous visual power, the idea of an independent currency. It’s just a statement of our being able to do it for ourselves.
David Cayley: Local currencies have a long history. The single, standard federal dollar hasn’t always had its present monopoly. So when the Schumacher Center started planning a new currency, Susan Witt began to hear stories about other successful experiences with local currencies in her region.
Susan Witt: Back in the thirties when the banks collapsed, the publisher of one of the Springfield papers at that time issued a note to pay his employees. The name of the publisher was Samuel Bowles. He was working with the Springfield Union Leader and he paid his employees in a scrip that was redeemable at the stores that advertised in the paper, so the idea was that the employees could at least go out there and purchase goods. However, this man told us what actually happened was that other people would come into the store, the storekeepers would have Bowles’ money in the drawer and would say, “Do you want the federal dollars or do you want Bowles’ currency?” And the customer would say, “Well, I see Bowles every day. I have more confidence in him. Give me Bowles’ money any day.” And so, in fact, that issue of currency, that issue of scrip by Bowles kept circulation of trade going even with the banks closed.
David Cayley: Today the Schumacher Center is working towards launching a new currency. There’s already a name, “the BerkShare,” and a plan for establishing and backing the new currency’s value.
Susan Witt: The standard would be tied to cordwood. Cordwood is a product that, if you as an individual aren’t using it in the Berkshires, your aunt uses or your sister-in-law uses, and if you haven’t actually been out there and cut down a cord of wood and stacked it, you’ve probably at least moved a cord of wood from one spot to another when you’ve been at a friend’s house. So it’s known in the body what is the worth of a cord of wood. It’s in the psyche of the area. Wendell Berry said, “Oh yes, I understand. In Kentucky it’d be based on chickens.” Actually, there’s very little need for redemption, just as when the federal government in fact had gold as the backing, there was very little need for redemption. And, in fact, the government always even used a fractional reserve. Not many people actually want to come in and claim their cordwood. It’s rather a measure. And as wood is an energy, we assume that energy prices will go up, so as the federal dollar, the federal funny money, devalues, the value of the cordwood note will remain constant in its buying power. So it will be seen to go up in value in comparison to the federal dollar, which would go down in value. So we hope that it would be the currency of preference in the long run.
David Cayley: All the initiatives of the Schumacher Center converge on the goal of regional development. The Center sees its work, Bob Swann says, in the context of its own bioregion, meaning by bioregion an area defined by its natural, rather than its political, boundaries.
Robert Swann: We think of ourselves as a bioregional organization, bioregional group, which means in our area, for instance, that the Housatonic River defines the central artery—it’s like the backbone of our region—and on both sides of the Housatonic you have the Berkshire mountains on the east side and on the west side you have the Taconic mountains. And the river flows north and south and the mountains run north and south, so that they go into Connecticut, but because there’s a political boundary called Connecticut, we don’t see that stopping the region. The region is quite independent of any political boundaries and that’s true in the north in the same way, though in the north we think of ourselves as somewhat bounded by the turnpike, which tends to act as a divider of a certain kind. It’s a sort of quasi-natural feature. Then south into the Connecticut area, down through maybe Kent or somewhere in that area where again the terrain begins to change. You have a different kind of region developing, so it’s that rather long region. That’s what we think of as our region. What it means is that, in terms of, say, membership in the land trust, if someone from Albany, New York, which is out of our region, wants to join the land trust or maybe wants to even give us some land and have us use it for our land trust, we say, “No, that’s out of our region. We want you to develop that there in that region and we encourage you to do so.” So we will provide assistance. We will provide technical assistance or whatever we can do to help them get something started there, but let them define their region then as a separate region. So these are the kind of restrictions that we tend to operate on. In a general way a fifty-mile radius is all we can handle.
David Cayley: Insisting on the regional scale allows Bob Swann to harmonize a feeling for nature with a life-long passion for economic justice. At the national scale, the demands of economic justice and environmental protection are usually in conflict. At the local scale, with the right economic institutions, they need not be. The change of scale and the change of institutions, Susan Witt believes, offers a way beyond the paralyzing contradictions of a society based on mass markets.
Susan Witt: It’s a practical approach to living more gently on the land in the community. Instead of saying “no” to things, which is a major part of the environmental movement, I think, right now—a lot of energy is spent saying, “No, don’t do that. Let’s stop that,”—we’re saying “yes” to a different type of development and showing how it can occur and how a community can help that occur. So instead of saying “no,” we’re saying “yes.” We’re putting energy into a new approach of working and living and creating economic development on the land, rather than just saying no more development at all. What Schumacher always called for was local production for local consumption. That’s how you’re going to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, on large-scale eating up of the environment, but in order to achieve that vision you’ve got to work in your own region. It’s going to be regional development. That’s what Jane Jacobs calls for. So in order to work on the solution, rather than just living in this schizophrenia of “No, no, don’t do any more there, but let me have my car and the second car and third car,” there needs to be a positive solution and approach to solving some of our real social problems at the local level in a way that works within the environment, with that environment of that area. And we’re trying to take those steps.
Robert Swann: If people are exploited, land will be exploited. If a farmer, for instance, is loaded down with a mortgage on land, which requires him to meet payments, because the price of the land has gone up so high that in reality he can’t really afford it, but he’s trying to, as many, many farmers are. Thousands of farmers are struggling under the weight of borrowed money to pay back the price of buying the land and therefore are only able to farm that land in a way that maximizes their income from the land. And what does that mean? If you’re going to maximize your income, it means you’re going to do things which are bad for the land.
You’re going to over-farm it, you’re going to restrict yourself more to corn and other kinds of crops, which are the major cause of soil erosion, for example. It’s just a known fact that that’s what happens. Any kind of land which has been overpriced to the farmer is going to be exploited. The farmer can’t help it. It’s not because he wants to. He might, but he probably doesn’t. He’s got to do that in order to meet his mortgage payments and that’s where all this comes together, because it’s the interest on the money that in large part is causing his major trouble. This is where the two aspects of what we work with come together: the need for access to land that everyone has, and at the same time access to capital, access to the funds that are needed to make it work. Those two have to have a marriage. There has to be low-cost money, as well as low-cost land, for a farmer to produce good-quality food, you know, the best-quality food, and to not exploit the land.
Those two have to come together. And in our present institutional system that doesn’t happen. That simply doesn’t happen. So there is a natural exploitation that takes place.
The real question behind all this is, “What are we about?” Are we mainly interested in building production or in building society? If we’re mainly interested in building production maybe we can get more production by becoming more and more highly specialized and, to use the agricultural term, going in for more and more monoculture, so that a huge province produces nothing but wheat. Well, if there’s nothing but wheat production, life becomes very, very dull and it isn’t a real society. It’s really a sort of colonial status where you work on one thing for the benefit of the big town, not for the benefit of the community who are actually doing the work. Now, we have been building this system of production for the last two hundred years, but the society seems to become tottering more and more, incurring bigger and bigger risks of a real breakdown, where we’re no longer debating whether it’s five per cent more profitable or less profitable, to do this or that, but we’re debating our survival. Think of it!
-E. F. Schumacher
Lister Sinclair: E. F. Schumacher speaking in 1975. His words conclude tonight’s program, the fourth and last of our series on redefining development. Heard on tonight’s program were Susan Witt and Bob Swann of the Schumacher Center in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. The series was written and presented by David Cayley. Technical production by Lorne Tulk; production assistants: Gail Brownell and Faye Macpherson. The executive producer of Ideas is Bernie Lucht.
Transcription by Hedy Muysson.
David Cayley is a Toronto-based Canadian writer and broadcaster. Over the course of his career, he has interviewed some of the leading environmental experts, scientists, philosophers, and activists of our day. For more than thirty years (1981-2012) he made radio documentaries for CBC Radio One’s program Ideas, which premiered in 1965 under the title The Best Ideas You’ll … 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
Robert (Bob) Swann was the founder of the E. F. Schumacher Society, now the Schumacher Center for a New Economics. In 1974 E. F. Schumacher asked Robert Swann to start a sister organization to his own Intermediate Technology Development Group, but it was not until 1980, when prompted by Resurgence editor Satish Kumar, that Swann organized the E. F. … Continued