Reimagining a Fair & Local Economy

Freeing Ourselves From Systems that Weaken & Divide Us

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this…We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality …whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. over 45 years ago as an impassioned call for “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution”, these words seem more relevant than ever to the linked economic, environmental and social calamities we face today. Our global economy and its effects on nearly every facet of our lives is increasingly seen as a root of these problems. With a warming climate and epic failures like the BP oil disaster and financial crisis, this system and its structures are looking catastrophically flawed and outdated. The “economic genius” of Frankensteinian creations like derivatives has turned our world economy into a shell game, with perhaps the worse yet to come.

Communities have become ground zero for a resource extraction model seeking to maximize short-term profits for distant stock holders while externalizing as many costs as possible. Those “externalities” include many of our own who are left behind as the divide between the haves and multiplying have-nots grows. Making matters worse, the reach and influence of the too-big-to-fail juggernauts responsible for these crises extends deep into our systems of governance, playing no small part in the recent government shut-down.

At the same time, a growing number of communities like our own are grappling with how to sustain basic civic infrastructure, including water, transportation, health, social services and educational systems. Put into place decades or centuries ago, many are now crumbling and we find ourselves without adequate means to maintain or replace them. Extreme events like Hurricanes Irene and Sandy, expected to increase in frequency, are also revealing a lack of resilience in our support systems and compromised landscapes.

We seem to be caught in a destructive feedback loop, unable to break free from a system that is continually reinforcing itself (with the help of bailouts and subsidies) while weakening our communities and endangering the planet. Some are wondering what alternatives might exist – how can we reinvent a new economy that serves, not consumes us?

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.  -Buckminster Fuller

Unseen by some, another great revolution, or “reimagining” is already occurring. It is rising from communities like our own, leveraging the power of We to solve intractable problems collectively.  Here are some signs of and guideposts for this emergent and hopeful movement.

Creating Systems Which Generate Value for All

Building Bridges is one group working on these challenges in Tompkins County, founded on a shared vision of a socially just and ecologically sound, sustainable local economy. As outlined in my previous ROI post, creating pathways and structures enabling a greater number of our community members to enter the ownership economy is one priority we’ve identified to achieve that goal. Two things holding us back: a lack of imagination, and the will as a community to prioritize the creation of new structures.

An excellent starting point for guiding us on this journey is a transformative social contract emerging from our own region many hundreds of years ago, bringing long warring nations into unity, peace, and brotherhood, sharing resources equitably. From the  Iroquois Nations (Haudenosaunee) Constitution, or Great Law of Peace (Gayanashagowa):

Look and listen for the welfare of the whole people and have always in view not only the present but also the coming generations, even those whose faces are yet beneath the surface of the ground — the unborn of the future Nation.

How might we honor and practically apply this wisdom to a new economy?

Helping light the way, Marjorie Kelly’s new book Owning Our Future: The Emerging Ownership Revolution explores ownership structures she calls generative, creating the conditions for life for many generations to come. She identifies essential patterns of ownership design that make these work: living purpose, rooted membership, mission-controlled governance, and stakeholder finance. Holding these together is a fifth design pattern, ethical networks, connecting firms with social and ecological communities in which they are embedded.

Cooperative enterprises are suggested by Kelly as most commonly embodying many of these design elements. Jessica Gordon Nembhard is a political economist whose research is also revealing the life-affirming power of coops, as mechanisms for community economic development and justice. Her forthcoming book, “Collective Courage: a History of African American Cooperative Thought and Practice“, brings to light an often hidden history of African American involvement with cooperative ownership structures.

Greenstar Cooperative is actively working to support these generative values and a healthy Tompkins County food system, a particularly fertile area of economic reimagining. Greenstar Community Projects through the Feeding Our Future networking group has been hosting community gatherings to explore and discuss our food system, and collectively identify what is needed to move it forward. These have revealed a common desire for greater communication and awareness across our region. Work is now underway to collaboratively develop systems and structures supporting this need.

Many working to transform our food system seek greater transparency and choice, or “sovereignty” in the way food is produced, distributed and accessed. Tompkins County is an epicenter for this movement, with a burgeoning number of innovative initiatives. Finger Lakes Fresh food hub  will soon be providing small and medium scale farmers hard to find access to wholesale markets, a topic highlighted in the latest issue of Orion magazine. Another important link in our foodshed is Regional Access, a community-oriented locally-owned distributor founded on a vision of providing ecologically sustainable food grown in Upstate New York. The Friendship Donations Network directs nutritious food that would otherwise be wasted to people who could not afford such a varied and healthy diet.

Value chains” offer a useful way of reimagining supply chains, providing social, economic and environmental value to all involved with and impacted by those chains. Key elements of successful value chains: communication and coordination up and down the chain, linking and aligning the needs, assets and insights of all participants. Rather than focusing on “pushing” products to market, producers respond to the pull of consumer need. And because of increased transparency, consumers are better able to understand production and supply limitations, and reward cumulative value delivered along the chain itself (e.g. via fair trade networks).

Earlier this year Shanna Ratner came to Ithaca to share her work helping communities develop value chains that leverage and protect community capital for collective benefit using the Wealth Creation approach. A new interactive online Wealth Builders game demonstrates its basic principles and potential. Ratner coauthored a Yes! magazine article with Marjorie Kelly on shared ownership as a social technology complimenting technologies like wind turbines, organic agriculture, or sustainably managed forests to create an economy in which prosperity is both sustainable and shared.

From Egosystem to Ecosystem -Becoming a Part of the Solution

A common theme at the recent Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) conference in Buffalo was shifting from an egosystem to an ecosystem. In her talk on Moving from Me to We: New Frontiers in Interdependence, Judy Wicks talked about business networks and relationships resembling the web of life. Otto Scharmer proposes new types of “innovation infrastructures” to build collective leadership capacities needed for such a transition.

In his book The Green Collar Economy, Van Jones shares a similar perspective, stating:

We are entering an era during which our very survival will demand invention and innovation on a scale never before seen in the history of human civilization… our success and survival as a species are largely and directly tied to the new eco-entrepreneurs—and the success and survival of their enterprises.

In Tompkins County, Local First Ithaca (a BALLE Local Business Network) and the Sustainable Enterprise & Entrepreneur Network (SEEN) are creating critical infrastructure supporting this work. The Natural Leaders Initiative and Building Bridges Community Educator Organizers (CEO) are helping develop leadership and networking skills complimentary to these efforts.

Interested in helping create a new economy?

Though all views (and errors) are entirely his own, Jeff Piestrak is a member of Sustainable Tompkins and the Building Bridges and Greenstar Community Projects Feeding Our Future Planning Groups, and serves as an Outreach & Engagement Specialist at Cornell’s Mann Library.

A more abbreviated version of this post appears as a Signs of Sustainability article on the Sustainable Tompkins website and 10/28/13 issue of Tompkins Weekly.

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