L269: Local Living Economy

As I wrote earlier this week, the money economy we all know should not be our only prototype for economic structure. Love as exchange – barter, lend or give is an unmeasurable, but powerful approach. Another aspect of redefining normal or recalibrating the defaults is to adjust the economy at a local level with maximizing profits NOT being the goal.

A friend from Philadelphia sent me the following article about Judy Wicks, owner of White Dog Café in Philadelphia. When I lived in Philadelphia eighteen years ago, I went to the White Dog Café with my friend. At the time I didn’t know about Judy Wicks. I would love the think my friend has met her or knows her now.
In addition to her for-profit endeavors, Wicks has founded two nonprofits — White Dog Community Enterprises, and the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia — as well as cofounded the national Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (balle). Wicks defines a “living economy” as one that promotes healthy natural life and vibrant community life, while supporting long-term economic vitality. Community wealth and self-reliance are built, she says, by producing necessities — such as food, energy, and clothing — as locally as possible. Her integrity, articulateness, and vision have made her a leader, and she travels extensively to spread the gospel of localism to groups around the nation and world. She is currently working on a book about the living-economy movement, Good Morning, Beautiful Business, to be published by Chelsea Green in 2009. She is also coauthor of The White Dog Cafe Cookbook.[snip]

Kupfer: The goal of traditional investment strategy is to maximize profits. Why are you working to change that?

Wicks: One reason that many people want a high return on their investment is that they’re afraid of not having enough money when they’re old. In indigenous societies, security in old age comes from the wealth of the community, not from individual income. If we felt secure in our communities, we wouldn’t be afraid of how we might end up. But our society often does not include elderly people in the community. We marginalize them. It’s no wonder we’re all afraid of being old and penniless. What could be worse in our society?

The alternative to the stock market is investing your money in your own community so that you receive a modest financial return and also a “living return,” which is the benefit of living in a more sustainable local economy and a healthier community. I made the decision to take all my money out of the stock market and put it into Philadelphia’s Reinvestment Fund. I get a straight financial return of between 4.5 and 5.5 percent, and the money I invest also benefits my community. For instance, it helped to finance the wind turbines that produce the electricity the White Dog Cafe buys. Money invested in the stock market, on the other hand, is just taken out of the community.
We’re taught that we’re suckers if we don’t make the highest profit or pay the lowest price. If you invest where you don’t make as much money, then you’re a loser. There’s no thought given to the effect our financial decisions have on the long-term well-being of our communities.

Kupfer: Has the notion of a living return caught on?

Wicks: Many people have been moving their money into socially responsible investment funds, which avoid investing in businesses that damage the environment and exploit workers. It was originally thought that you would get less return from these screened funds, but it hasn’t turned out that way, which shows that sustainable companies can be profitable. I see this as a first step toward community reinvestment, because it shows a growing mindfulness about the effects of investing. Community reinvestment is growing — the Reinvestment Fund in Philadelphia is constantly getting new investors — but not every city or town has such a financial vehicle. We need more local banks, credit unions, and funds that keep our investments in our community.

Kupfer: So far community reinvestment does mean lower returns. How do you convince people that it’s in their best interest to accept less financial gain in exchange for this living return?

Wicks: Investing in your community is in your self-interest. You’re investing in businesses that don’t pollute the air you breathe, and clean air is as much a benefit as monetary payback. I believe I get a more reliable return on my investments this way, because sometimes the stock market loses money. I feel confident that I’ll come out better in the long run than my friends who have invested in the stock market, and at the same time, I’ll be benefiting my community. So it’s not necessarily a sacrifice to invest locally and responsibly.

Also we should invest in enterprises we want to see grow. Do we want businesses that are beneficial to life, or ones that are harmful?

If your community does not have a reinvestment fund, you can put your money into a credit union or local bank, or invest in funds that benefit other communities around the world; they often let you earmark your investment for a particular region.

[snip] Kupfer: When Mahatma Gandhi fought British tyranny in India in the 1940s, he emphasized the need for Indians to produce food and other products locally.

Wicks: Exactly. Corporations today are controlling our lives the same way the British controlled life in India, and I’m basically using Gandhi’s methods to fight them. His vision was that a self-reliant population could throw off British rule nonviolently. So he advised people to grow their own food and make their own clothes. That’s why you see photos of him behind a spinning wheel, because he tried to teach the Indian people that, rather than send the raw materials to Britain to be made into clothing, they could make their own homespun clothes, which he always wore. The Indian people had gotten themselves into a situation of reliance on the British, who had turned all the family farms into plantations to grow cotton or flax or bananas for export.

The U.S. did the same thing to Cuba: turned the whole island into farms producing sugar and beef and tobacco for export, so that there were no community farms left. In India millions died of starvation and Cuba almost experienced famine when the Soviet Union collapsed. To survive they beat their swords into plowshares, training soldiers to become farmers. In fact, everyone became a farmer — at least, part time — even doctors and they turned every inch of available land into gardens. I went to Cuba five times during that period, and it was amazing to see the community gardens. One time I brought along an organic farmer from Pennsylvania, and he told me how amazed he was that the Cubans had such advanced organic-farming methods. They were organic by accident, because they couldn’t afford petroleum-based fertilizers and chemicals, or even gasoline to run tractors. But now they’re ahead of the curve when it comes to reducing dependency on oil and building a healthy, self-reliant food system. [snip]

Kupfer: Is there any way to build the movement without cynically hoping for a disaster that forces people to change their ways?

Wicks: People tend not to change if they feel comfortable and satisfied, but the truth is that we are not satisfied in a spiritual and emotional way. Studies show that Americans are less happy now than they were in the fifties. I think going local and sustainable is part of the pursuit of happiness. We have a craving for community. We want relationships with the butcher and the baker and the farmer who grows our food and the person who makes our clothes. As I said, there is no such thing as one sustainable household or business; it’s about being part of a community. Sustainability requires working together toward a common goal, and there is joy in doing that. If more people realized this, I think they’d get on board. Nevertheless, it will take a disaster to change some people’s behavior. I just hope that, as climate change makes life harder and harder and the price of transportation gets higher and higher, those of us who are working now to build sustainable local systems can provide an example that others will follow.

This is the story of our times. Reclaim our communities, take care of our neighbors, ourselves and our world.

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