Rural America

Wednesday, Feb 10, 2016, 6:27 pm

Global Financial Fears, Community Resilience, the New Economy, Just Transition and Gig Workers

By John Collins

Email this article to a friend

BerkShares are a local currency for the Berkshire region of Massachusetts.   (pbs.org / courtesy of Lauren Fuller Photography)

The global economy is in a bit of a jam. As central banks juggle elephantine debts, some countries are nervously forecasting less economic growth than the insatiable system requires. To complicate matters, there’s more oil on the market than anyone knows what to do with. That means it’s cheap—currently around $30 a barrel. Apparently anything under $60 makes it tough for the industry to continue gouging people and places. At some point they may even be forced to keep the stuff in the ground. That unfathomable “crisis” would mark the end of a very long party. Long story short:

If oil producing governments don’t find a way to make oil more expensive, and corporations can’t convince legions of people to buy tons of things they don’t need, some very important people stand to lose a lot of money—again. As for everybody else? That raise will have to wait until next year…but, seriously, start driving more. 

Now let’s check in with the local economy movement—the people and organizations committed to community resilience and experimenting with new financial arrangements that might make more sense for both people and the planet. 

En·tre·pre·neur (noun) — a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so.

The Schumacher Center for a New Economics and BerkShares Inc. recently announced that, for the second year in a row, all seats in the class are taken for their 10-week Entry to Entrepreneurship course which is currently underway in Great Barrington, Mass. The program is designed to mentor young people,14-to-25-years old, and teach them how to start sustainable businesses in their communities. Our ability to buy inexpensive Chilean strawberries in one aisle and cheap Bangladeshi underwear in the next one over has had some unintended economic, ecological and human consequences, and many communites are embracing the concept of local production and consumption. But finding ways to make local alternatives profitable—competing in the shadow of mega-corporations—is easier said than done. It may even require a concerted effort on the part of entire communities. 

The Schumacher Center for a New Economics announcement puts it this way:

Ask anyone on your Main Street what products they would imagine made locally, what kind of businesses they would like to patronize, and what kind of services might be missing from their local economy. You will return with a suitcase full of suggestions informed by generations of local knowledge, accompanied by a list of individuals ready to share their experiences. What you might not find is a framework to capture those skills and that knowledge in a way that galvanizes citizens to shape their local economies.

For the full newsletter and additional background click here, but these are some of the particulars that make the course unique:

It’s crowd-sourced

Each lesson is taught by a different volunteer member of the community, who brings his or her own unique skills, experience and voice to our classroom. From lawyers and accountants to retired executives, shop owners, and food producers, the mentors, advisors and reviewers are all locally-based and offer a future support network for E2E graduates. For a cohort of 19 students, we have more than 30 teachers.

It’s focused on local production

Rather than starting the course by asking students about their personal passions, we instead introduce them to the concept of import replacement. The class then generates a list of what might be produced in the region that is currently being imported from elsewhere. This sets the tone for the course, and encourages students to think first about how they can meet the practical needs of their community. It allows students to start from an eco-centric rather than an ego-centric perspective.

It’s public

Jane Jacobs identifies import replacement as a key strategy for regional economic development and the course borrows liberally from her book. E2E is also informed by the thinking of Michael Shuman and Judy Wicks, who argue that every community needs “a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker.” In that spirit, we openly share the business plans developed in the course, which culminates in a public event on Tuesday April 12th. Each student who has completed a plan will earn a prize of 200 BerkShares to be spent in implementation or in frivolous exuberance. Plans not implemented will be shared on the BerkShares website, to serve as a starting point for future community entrepreneurs.

It’s crowd-funded

Donations in federal dollars and BerkShares, in-kind support, and volunteer time make it all possible. Partners include Berkshire Community College, the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Berkshire Regional Office, community banks and credit unions, Rotary, our State Representative, and The Triplex Theater. All are proud to help a new generation of entrepreneurs continue a Berkshire tradition of diverse and independent businesses.

The course is also a multigenerational collaboration, giving individuals with decades of business experience a chance to pass on what they know to the next generation.

“Perhaps our failing activism is built on one critical assumption: that we actually live in a democracy.” —Thomas Linzey

In other news, the Bioneers beat RAITT to it and their monthly newsletter features How to Legalize Sustainability: An Interview with Thomas Linzey. Linzey, co-founder of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), and Teo Grossman, director of strategic initiatives for Bioneers, discuss corporate personhood, climate change, the rights of nature, self-governance and what it will take to override a system of law currently suffering from a severe “democracy problem.”

Here are a few highlights from their interview:

Grossman: Has the work of CELDF changed, expanded or shifted in any significant ways? Any major success stories and/or hurdles to share?

Linzey: The community stories that we’ve shared over the years have begun to merge. People across different issue areas now understand that their work is the same as others, regardless of what the underlying issue is. Over the past three years, communities have joined together in Oregon, Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Hampshire to create statewide Community Rights Networks. Each of those state organizations is now proposing state constitutional amendments that would elevate community rights above corporate “rights.” In addition, those state networks have joined together to create the National Community Rights Network (NCRN), which has now proposed a federal constitutional amendment that would recognize the authority of community lawmaking. As the community rights movement grows, these organizations give the communities a louder voice at the state and federal level.

Grossman: You’ve said, “Even when working perfectly, [environmental regulations] simply regulate the rate at which we destroy our communities and our planet.” The competing view is that if we can get that rate down to a manageable level, it’s better than nothing (this is basically the Obama Administration’s approach to climate change at the moment, leveraging existing regulations to their maximum extent.) Given the time crunch we are up against with many of these issues, is it possible to “change the system” and “work from the inside” at the same time?

Linzey: Probably not. Almost all activist resources over the past fifty years have been focused on using tools that we’ve been given—like environmental regulations and regulatory agencies—to protect ourselves and the natural environment. There’s a belief that if we use those mechanisms enough, and if we change our own behavior enough, that we’ll be able to stop climate change in time and stop the other catastrophes that are bearing down on us. The problem is that we’ve been trying to use those tools for a long time, and we’ve been changing behaviors for a long time, but that simply hasn’t worked –things are worse now in this country than they were before the major environmental laws were adopted. “Working from the inside” means working with tools that the current system allows us to use, i.e., those tools which reinforce, and do not challenge, the basic operation of the existing system. As a colleague of mine likes to say, “If voting could actually change anything, we wouldn’t be allowed to do it.” The type of system envisioned by people at the Bioneers Conference–the type of system that will stop the planet from exploding–is so inherently in conflict with the economic system that currently exists that the two can’t cohabit the same space. One has to give way to the other, otherwise we’ll continue to accelerate our way off the cliff.

Grossman: Are there any particular efforts, campaigns or local/national news stories that we should be aware of, that may be flying under the radar or not getting the coverage or attention they deserve (domestic or international)?

Linzey: Yes. There’s an incredible fight happening in a small rural community in Western Pennsylvania. In 2014, the elected Supervisors of Grant Township, a municipality of about 700 people, adopted a community bill of rights guaranteeing clean air, clean water and a sustainable energy future to the people of Grant. The law banned frack wastewater injection wells within the Township, while removing certain powers and “rights” from oil and gas corporations within the municipality, and recognizing the rights of ecosystems. The Township was then sued, and they’ve been fighting the lawsuit ever since. In October of 2015, a federal judge overturned six sections of the law, and in response, the people of the Township overwhelmingly voted to become a “home rule” municipality.

By transforming their municipal government, the Township nullified most of the judge’s ruling, and they adopted a new municipal Charter, which again banned frack wastewater injection wells, while removing corporate “rights” and powers from oil and gas corporations, and recognizing rights for ecosystems within the Township. The oil and gas corporation has threatened to sue the Township again, and it’s pressing for at least half a million in damages as a result of Grant’s law. The Grant Supervisors have publicly declared that they will file for bankruptcy if a damage award is issued by the court.

The battle is a long way from being over, but it would be the first municipality in the United States to not knuckle under to a corporate challenge, but declare that the battle is important enough to bankrupt the Township.

Rural America In These Times will be keeping an eye on the Grant Township.

The search for sustainable employment

Meanwhile, the Our Power Campaign: Communities for a Just Transition (OPC) a is working to “move local and state governments to create millions of climate jobs—jobs that meet people’s needs while caring for natural resources and ecosystems.” The Our Power Campaign was established by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance of Richmond, Calif., "a national alliance of US-based grassroots organizing (GRO) groups organizing to build an agenda for power for working and poor people and communities of color."

The OPC echoes the growing consensus not just among those advocating community rights or a local approach to economics, but a common theme found in most contemporary social justice movements—the understanding that the economic and ecological crises facing many parts of the world are connected. They further agree that solutions can and ought to be implemented on the local level:

“We believe that we can address the root causes of the climate crisis while creating meaningful work and livelihoods for a majority of the 17 million unemployed people in the US. This will require a radical transformation of the economy. Communities are already beginning to implement real solutions to climate change that chart a path towards a more democratic, ecologically rooted economies. The Our Power Campaign will harness and amplify these community-led solutions while continuing to push for national leadership, especially in regions where “extreme energy” interests have disproportionately impacted communities as the crisis has continued to deepen.”

Their website explains the campaign’s two primary goals:

End the Era of Extreme Energy: We are creating transition pathways to end the era of extreme energy like fossil fuels, nuclear power, waste and biomass incineration, landfill gas, mega-hydro, and agrofuels, which pose extreme risks to human and ecosystem health, community resilience, economic equity and climate stability. This would reduce carbon emissions in line with what science says is necessary to avoid catastrophic climate change while preserving healthy local ecosystems and communities. Mitigation and adaptation must be practiced in tandem, and aligned to address the root causes of the problem.

Implement a Just Transition to Local Living Economies in which 10 million good, green, and family-supporting jobs are created for unemployed, and underemployed people, and workers formerly employed by extreme energy industries. The goal is to build a national “climate jobs” program in 5-10 years. Our re-localized economies will be ecologically grounded, produce community wellbeing, democratize decision-making, and promote local control of resources (including land, water, and food systems).

OPC has recently added three pilot communities in Texas, Mississippi and Kentucky—forging new alliances with community members and local organizations already working to protect the environment while attempting to create a more equitable economy.

Uncharted territory

Lastly, Technological Forecasting and Social Change (TFSC) is an international journal that provides a “forum for those wishing to deal directly with the methodology and practice of technological forecasting and future studies as planning tools as they interrelate social, environmental and technological factors.”

The journal is currently putting out a call for articles that explore the promises and paradoxes of the sharing economy. The editors explain:

While the sharing economy would involve major institutional and social transformations, so far the field is still in its infancy and replete with paradoxes and tensions. For example, some observers claim that the sharing economy marks the “end of hierarchies” (Laloux, 2014) and the emergence of new collaborative commons (Bauwens & Kostakis, 2014). In contrast, the development of Airbnb, Uber and Blablacar suggest that the field may give birth to new technological giants that use power asymmetries to capture most of the value created by contractual workers. The sharing economy is thus driven by a profound tension between market-driven logics and non-market alternatives to market capitalism.

This paragraph acknowledges something that any proposed alternative to the dominant economic system, theoretical or otherwise, must eventually confront: When building something new on top of something old, how much of the old should be kept? If the guts—the stripped down studs of capitalism—are still sturdy, can we squeeze by with a remodel? What if, like any honest contractor who discovered asbestos or lead pipes behind the walls, we cut out corporate cronyism from the economic superstructure? It's hard to imagine bulldozing the whole thing and starting over. Then again, this system of ours does occasionally appear hell bent on demolishing itself. The TFSC editors are seeking writers who will address a number of questions, including:

  • How (and by whom) is the field of the sharing economy framed and created? What is the history of the sharing economy and how can the dynamics of the field be described?
  • What are the promises and myths of the sharing economy? What are its ideological underpinnings?
  • What are the emergent business models and governance forms in the sharing economy?
  • How does the sharing economy redefine work-life balance and the boundaries between professional and private spheres?
  • How do sharing technologies enable new forms of organizational governance?
  • How do sharing technologies create new forms of work, identity and work relationships?
  • How do sharing technologies (such as algorithms, rating and trust systems) create new forms of power and social control? How is power distributed in the sharing economy?

There are perhaps no easy answers to these questions but, if we haven’t already, we will soon be reminded that necessity is still the mother of invention. The industrialized world has spent much of the last century out-sourcing its most destructive practices while working to innovate itself out of the need for living-wage labor altogether. In a fairly straightforward way, every under- or unemployed person looking for enough work to get by, regardless of their political leanings or increasingly loose party affiliations, is part of this so-called new economy movement. The ultimate question becomes: In 20 years, how will an estimated 360 million working Americans support themselves? Assuming for a moment that some semblence of a middle class still exists, what will it do all day? The nature of labor and what's valuable has fundementally changed. Who benefits going forward and our threshold for environmental destruction—how exchange happens—clearly needs to change also. 

For a look at other aspects of the New Economy Movement, including community currencies, projects supported by the Sustainable Economies Law Center and an interview with Gar Alperovitz about his book What Then Must We Do?: Straight Talk about the Next American Revolution, check out this RAITT article from November 2015. 



John Collins is the editor of Rural America In These Times. He lives between Minneapolis and La Pointe, Wisconsin, a village on Madeline Island in Lake Superior.

View Comments