As we consider the likelihood of long-term economic contraction, what can we do about it?
Like anything in the Transition movement, we need to consider the appropriate scale. In Part II of this series we examined what several thinkers had to say about our Big Picture economy, yet most of us have little-to-no ability to make an impact at that scale. Most of us are working within the Transition movement or other local groups because we understand that at the grassroots scale, we do have considerable ability to make a difference.
Rob Hopkins might have a unique opportunity to work at a much larger scale because he is in a smaller country where there are lots more Transition initiatives and his Transition efforts have already gained the attention of several Members of Parliament. But most of us, particularly here in the U.S., are not in those shoes.
Thus in this section we will leave the macro-econ transformation to those who have ability to teach and influence at that level, and we will turn to the grassroots level, where most of us are working. What can we do, at the grassroots scale, to address economics, and to build local resilience?
Our first task is to create a shadow economic, social and even technological structure that will be ready to take over as the existing system fails. -- David Ehrenfeld
Hopkins selected the Ehrenfeld quote for the margins of the Transition Handbook. When I first read it, the quotation was quite alarming. "Whoa, we're not setting out to take over the world!" I thought.
But as I contemplated it, I realized that what Ehrenfeld was talking about was creating the safety net -- creating highly resilient structures which will enable our local communities to survive, hopefully with a relative level of peace and security.
It’s perhaps easier to see how this safety net approach applies in the case of our food systems: By building up local, organic urban agriculture, we are better prepared for the point at which peak oil and climate change choke our massive-scale agribusiness and cause it to crumble and fail.
In our economic systems, too, we must create the safety net that will be ready in place as the existing system coughs, sputters, or fails. As all of this economic contraction unfolds – as globalized corporations struggle and panic, as today’s power elite are tumbled and replaced, as we all ride the wild rollercoaster – we, the little guys, will still need to feed our children, maintain a roof over our heads, and maintain a relative degree of order within our local hometowns.
If you freeze and worry at the thought of the economy, it’s no wonder, because we’ve made a horrible mess of it in recent years. We’ve made it hideously complex, to all of our detriment, plus most of us have become dependent consumers.
It might help to remind you of the simplicity, that what economics really boils down to is the sum total of transactions between people. Think of a simple barter transaction: You know your neighbor and he knows you. You swap some homegrown zucchini for a few backyard chicken eggs. That’s an economic transaction.
At this most basic scale, we feel secure: there will be food on the table. When we become producers -- particularly, producers of the basic stuff of everyday living -- we will always have something to exchange.
The posts that follow are a collection of ideas for how we might create a resilient local economics system, starting at the grassroots level. These are offered in a rather raw, unpolished form -- they are a work-in-progress, some early explorations. It seemed important to get these ideas out into wider circulation so that other communities might work with them as soon as possible.
A friend once showed me that everyone is doing a financial Dance. Some people are quite aware that they are doing it: they live rather “on the edge,” managing to pull in just enough to pay the bills, just in time. They do a perpetual Dance to assure that income will cover expenses. Many of them view money as a flow. They acknowledge the Dance, and some even regard it as a type of a game.
Other people have a very different view of finances. They plan years into the future and expect economics to be rock-solid. As my friend showed me, these people don’t realize they are doing the Dance, but they are participating in it nonetheless. When circumstances change, and people in this latter category are forced to live much closer to the edge, it represents major upheaval of expectations, since they never acknowledged to themselves that they were participating in the Dance.
Particularly in these times of great uncertainty, we are ALL doing the Dance. If we adjust our expectations to accept this, we’ll all feel a lot happier.
“If you are expecting something, then it doesn’t come as much of a shock and you don’t feel as much as if the rug has been pulled out from under your feet. You’re less likely to run around like a headless chicken. ... Traumatized people are likely to join movements of anger. I tell people, do not join movements of anger. It sucks all the energy out of you. Then you will not be in a position to help your friends, neighbors and family. It is better to say to oneself this has happened; get over it; and move on. Join something positive and constructive instead. That will matter more.”
-- Nicole Foss aka Stoneleigh
Resilience is like being a kid on a trampoline with the surface ever-changing beneath you. We have to remain lightly on our toes, and cultivate the ability to flex and adapt to whatever comes along.
As an individual, that means developing inner resilience -- the character and spiritual base to remain flexible and feel good about it. It means developing a supportive community circle around you to fall back on emotionally or more tangibly. It also means developing practical life skills and practices which will get you through challenges (More at bullets #3 through 6).
With regards to economics in particular, we have been trained to go it alone. But suddenly local neighbors are becoming an essential part of our survival network. This can bring up psychological and social questions for which we haven’t yet developed coping mechanisms.
Transition times will mean stretching and growing in ways you never have had to before. For one, it will mean working with others in ways you never had to before, because solo survivalism (particularly within our cities) simply won’t work. It takes a village, and since Americans are no longer familiar with what it takes to maintain village relationships, we each have a lot of learning to do.
For communities, developing economic resilience will involve all the things we’re putting in place through the Transition movement – cultivating local food sources/urban agriculture, developing the local skill base/reskilling, building up community resources such as water cisterns/rainwater harvesting, etc. Within the Transition movement we go at this building-up-of-the-local with great excitement (as well we should).
But there is a little-talked-about aspect within Relocalization which I have called decoupling. Think of it like unhooking the links of a chain. Or releasing the little escape pod from the Mother Ship.
As far as resilience goes, the deeper reason we’re building up all these Local things is to enable our local communities to decouple -- to make it possible to disconnect. We’re setting our local affairs in order such that our community is able to go it independently in the event of shocks to the larger system.
Decoupling doesn’t mean there will never be trade. As one writer put it, it’s not a matter of New Englanders never having oranges. But it is to say that a daily glass of Florida OJ in New England is ecologically inappropriate and that oranges in New England should rightly be rare and special.
Decoupling does however mean that the basics are handled locally. That if push came to shove and the ability to trade with other geographies became – however temporarily – unavailable, our local community would have the local framework in place; it would have local resources in sufficient quantity to survive. As we build the community gardens and install the rain barrels, we must set structures in place for economic decoupling as well.
This post is an excerpt from a longer paper, "Economic Resilience," which is being posted online in serial form. Part I explains the problems, because we have to understand what we are working with in order to begin to solve it. Part II critiques what several economic theorists see as possible routes forward for the “big picture” economy. But the central question of this document is what we can do at the grassroots level. Part III (approximately 70% of the document) offers a panorama of ideas for building local economic resilience. Links to the full document can be found here.
Joanne Poyourow is the initiator who brought the ideas of the international Transition movement to many areas of Los Angeles. She is actively involved in the Transition Los Angeles city hub. She was a CPA in public practice for more than 13 years and holds a degree in Business Economics from the University of California at Santa Barbara.