Sunday, December 20, 2009

Building a Solidarity Economy

"Other Economies Are Possible!": Building a Solidarity Economy
Published on Grassroots Economic Organizing (
By Ethan Miller, GEO Collective

Consider this: thousands of diverse, locally-rooted, grassroots economic projects are in the process of creating the basis for a viable democratic alternative to capitalism. It might seem unlikely that a motley array of initiatives such as worker, consumer, and housing cooperatives, community currencies, urban gardens, fair trade organizations, intentional communities, and neighborhood self-help associations could hold a candle to the pervasive and seemingly all-powerful capitalist economy. These "islands of alternatives in a capitalist sea" are often small in scale, low in resources, and sparsely networked. They are rarely able to connect with each other, much less to link their work with larger, coherent structural visions of an alternative economy.

Indeed, in the search for alternatives to capitalism, existing democratic economic projects are frequently painted as noble but marginal practices, doomed to be crushed or co-opted by the forces of the market. But is this inevitable? Is it possible that courageous and dedicated grassroots economic activists worldwide, forging paths that meet the basic needs of their communities while cultivating democracy and justice, are planting the seeds of another economy in our midst? Could a process of horizontal networking, linking diverse democratic alternatives and social change organizations together in webs of mutual recognition and support, generate a social movement and economic vision capable of challenging the global capitalist order?

To these audacious suggestions, economic activists around the world organizing under the banner of economia solidaria, or "solidarity economy," would answer a resounding "yes!" It is precisely these innovative, bottom-up experiences of production, exchange, and consumption that are building the foundation for what many people are calling "new cultures and economies of solidarity."

Origins of the Solidarity Economy Approach

The idea and practice of "solidarity economics" emerged in Latin America in the mid-1980s and blossomed in the mid to late 90s, as a convergence of at least three social trends.

First, the economic exclusion experienced by growing segments of society, generated by deepening debt and the ensuing structural adjustment programs imposed by the International Monetary Fund, forced many communities to develop and strengthen creative, autonomous and locally-rooted ways of meeting basic needs. These included initiatives such as worker and producer cooperatives, neighborhood and community associations, savings and credit associations, collective kitchens, and unemployed or landless worker mutual-aid organizations.

Second, growing dissatisfaction with the culture of the dominant market economy led groups of more economically privileged people to seek new ways of generating livelihoods and providing services. From largely a middle-class "counter-culture"-similar to that in the Unites States since the 1960's-emerged projects such as consumer cooperatives, cooperative childcare and health care initiatives, housing cooperatives, intentional communities, and ecovillages. There were often significant class and cultural differences between these two groups. Nevertheless, the initiatives they generated all shared a common set of operative values: cooperation, autonomy from centralized authorities, and participatory self-management by their members.

A third trend worked to link the two grassroots upsurges of economic solidarity to each other and to the larger socioeconomic context: emerging local and regional movements were beginning to forge global connections in opposition to the forces of neoliberal and neocolonial globalization. Seeking a democratic alternative to both capitalist globalization and state socialism, these movements identified community-based economic projects as key elements of alternative social organization.

At the First Latin Encuentro of Solidarity Culture and Socioeconomy, held in 1998 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, participants from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Colombia, and Spain created the Red latinoamericana de la economía a solidaria (Latin American Solidarity Economy Network). In a statement, the Network declared, "We have observed that our experiences have much in common: a thirst for justice, a logic of participation, creativity, and processes of self-management and autonomy." By linking these shared experiences together in mutual support, they proclaimed, it would be possible to work toward "a socioeconomy of solidarity as a way of life that encompasses the totality of the human being."

Since 1998, this solidarity economy approach has developed into a global movement. The first World Social Forum in 2001 marked the creation of the Global Network of the Solidarity Socioeconomy, fostered in large part by an international working group of the Alliance for a Responsible, Plural, and United World. By the time of the 2004 World Social Forum in Mumbai, India, the Global Network had grown to include 47 national and regional solidarity economy networks from nearly every continent, representing tens of thousands of democratic grassroots economic initiatives worldwide. At the most recent World Social Forum in Venezuela, solidarity economy topics comprised an estimated one-third of the entire event's program.

Defining Solidarity Economics

But what exactly is this "solidarity economy approach"? For some theorists of the movement, it begins with a redefinition of economic space itself. The dominant neoclassical story paints the economy as a singular space in which market actors (firms or individuals) seek to maximize their gain in a context of scarce resources. These actors play out their profit-seeking dramas on a stage wholly defined by the dynamics of the market and the state. Countering this narrow approach, solidarity economics embraces a plural and cultural view of the economy as a complex space of social relationship in which individuals, communities, and organizations generate livelihoods through many different means and with many different motivations and aspirations-not just the maximization of individual gain. The economic activity validated by neoclassical economists represents, in this view, only a tiny fraction of human efforts to meet needs and fulfill desires.

What really sustains us when the factories shut down, when the floodwaters rise, or when the paycheck is not enough? In the face of failures of market and state, we often survive by self-organized relationships of care, cooperation, and community. Despite the ways in which capitalist culture generates and mobilizes a drive toward competition and selfishness, basic practices of human solidarity remain the foundation upon which society and community are built. Capitalism's dominance may, in fact, derive in no small part from its ability to co-opt and colonize these relationships of cooperation and mutual aid.

In expanding what counts as part of "the economy," solidarity economics resonates with other streams of contemporary radical economic thought. Marxist economists such as Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, for example, have suggested that multiple "modes of production" co-exist alongside the capitalist wage labor mode. Feminist economists have demonstrated how neoclassical conceptions have hidden and devalued basic forms of subsistence and caregiving work that are often done by women. Feminist economic geographer J.K. Gibson-Graham, in her books The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It) (1998) and A Postcapitalist Politics (2006), synthesizes these and other streams of thought in what she calls the "diverse economies perspective." Addressing concerns that are central to the solidarity economy approach, she asks, "If we viewed the economic landscape as imperfectly colonized, homogenized, systematized, might we not find openings for projects of noncapitalist invention? Might we not find ways to construct different communities and societies, building upon what already exists?"

Indeed, the first task of solidarity economics is to identify existing economic practices-often invisible or marginal to the dominant lens-that foster cooperation, dignity, equity, self-determination, and democracy. As Carola Reintjes of the Spanish fair trade association Iniciativas de Economia Alternativa y Solidaria (IDEAS) points out, "Solidarity economy is not a sector of the economy, but a transversal approach that includes initiatives in all sectors." This project cuts across traditional lines of formal/ informal, market/non-market, and social/economic in search of solidarity-based practices of production, exchange and consumption- ranging from legally-structured worker cooperatives, which engage the capitalist market with cooperative values, to informal affinity-based neighborhood gift networks. (See "A Map of the Solidarity Economy," pp. 20-21.) At a 2000 conference in Dublin on the "Third Sector" (the "voluntary" sector, as opposed to the for-profit sector and the state), Brazilian activist Ana Mercedes Sarria Icaza put it this way: "To speak of a solidarity economy is not to speak of a homogeneous universe with similar characteristics. Indeed, the universe of the solidarity economy reflects a multiplicity of spaces and forms, as much in what we would call the â??formal aspects' (size, structure, governance) as in qualitative aspects (levels of solidarity, democracy, dynamism, and selfmanagement)."

At its core, solidarity economics rejects one-size-fits-all solutions and singular economic blueprints, embracing instead a view that economic and social development should occur from the bottom up, diversely and creatively crafted by those who are most affected. As Marcos Arruda of the Brazilian Solidarity Economy Network stated at the World Social Forum in 2004, "a solidarity economy does not arise from thinkers or ideas; it is the outcome of the concrete historical struggle of the human being to live and to develop him/herself as an individual and a collective." Similarly, contrasting the solidarity economy approach to historical visions of the "cooperative commonwealth," Henri de Roche noted that "the old cooperativism was a utopia in search of its practice and the new cooperativism is a practice in search of its utopia." Unlike many alternative economic projects that have come before, solidarity economics does not seek to build a singular model of how the economy should be structured, but rather pursues a dynamic process of economic organizing in which organizations, communities, and social movements work to identify, strengthen, connect, and create democratic and liberatory means of meeting their needs.

Success will only emerge as a product of organization and struggle. "Innovative practices at the micro level can only be viable and structurally effective for social change," said Arruda, "if they interweave with one another to form always-broader collaborative networks and solidarity chains of production-financedistribution-consumption-education-communication." This is, perhaps, the heart of solidarity economics-the process of networking diverse structures that share common values in ways that strengthen each. Mapping out the economic terrain in terms of "chains of solidarity production," organizers can build relationships of mutual aid and exchange between initiatives that increase their collective viability. At the same time, building relationships between solidarity-based enterprises and larger social movements builds increased support for the solidarity economy while allowing the movements to meet some of the basic needs of their participants, demonstrate viable alternatives, and thus increase the power and scope of their transformative work.

In Brazil, this dynamic is demonstrated by the Landless Workers Movement (MST). As a broad, popular movement for economic justice and agrarian reform, the MST has built a powerful program combining social and political action with cooperative, solidarity-based economics. From the establishment of democratic, cooperative settlements on land re-appropriated from wealthy absentee landlords to the development of nationwide, inter-settlement exchanges of products and services, networks of economic solidarity are contributing significantly to the sustenance of more than 300,000 families-over a million people. The Brazilian Solidarity Economy Forum, of which the MST is a part, works on an even broader scale, incorporating twelve national networks and membership organizations with twenty-one regional Solidarity Forums and thousands of cooperative enterprises to build mutual support systems, facilitate exchanges, create cooperative incubator programs, and shape public policy.

Building a Movement

The potential for building concrete local, national, and even global networks of solidarity-based support and exchange is tremendous and yet barely realized. While some countries, notably Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Spain, and Venezuela, have created strong solidarity-economy networks linked with growing social movements, others have barely begun. The United States is an example. With the exception of the Rural Coalition/Coalicion Rural, a U.S.-Mexico cross-border agricultural solidarity organization, the United States has been nearly absent from global conversations about solidarity economics. Maybe it's harder for those in the "belly of the beast" to imagine that alternatives to capitalism are possible. Are alternative economic practices somehow rendered more invisible, or more isolated, in the United States than in other parts of the world? Are there simply fewer solidarity-basedinitiatives with which to network?

Perhaps. But things are changing. An increasing number of U.S. organizations, researchers, writers, students, and concerned citizens are questioning capitalist economic dogma and exploring alternatives. A new wave of grassroots economic organizing is cultivating the next generation of worker cooperatives, community currency initiatives, housing cooperatives and collectives, community garden projects, fair trade campaigns, community land trusts, anarchist bookstores ("infoshops"), and community centers. Groups working on similar projects are making connections with each other. Hundreds of worker-owners from diverse cooperative businesses across the nation, for example, will gather in New York City this October at the second meeting of the United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives (see p. 9). In the realm of cross-sector organizing, a broad coalition of organizations is working to create a comprehensive public directory of the cooperative and solidarity economy in the United States and Canada as a tool for networking and organizing.

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to picture, within the next five to ten years, a "U.S. Solidarity Economy Summit" convening many of the thousands of democratic, grassroots economic projects in the United States to generate a stronger shared identity, build relationships, and lay the groundwork for a U.S. Solidarity Economy Alliance. Move over, CEOs of the Business Roundtable!

Wishful thinking? Maybe not. In the words of Argentinian economist and organizer Jose Luis Corragio, "the viability of social transformation is rarely a fact; it is, rather, something that must be constructed." This is a call to action.

Ethan Miller is a writer, musician, subsistence farmer, and organizer. A member of the GEO Collective and of the musical collective Riotfolk (, he lives and works at the JED Community Land Trust, a land-based mutual-aid cooperative in Greene, Maine.


Marcos Arruda, "Solidarity Economy and the Rebirth of a Matristic Human Society," World Social Forum, Mumbai, India, January 2004, www.

Jose Luis Corragio, "Alternativas para o desenvolvimento humano em um mundo globalizado," Proposta No. 72, 1997

J-K Gibson-Graham, The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It), Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006

J-K Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006

Ana Mercedes Sarria Icaza, "Tercer Sector y Economia Solidaria en el Sur de Brasil: caracteristicas y perspectives,"

Latin Meeting on a Culture and a Socioeconomy of Solidarity, "Letter from Porto Alegre," Porto Alegre, Brazil, August 1998,

Euclides Mance, "Construindo a socioeconomia solidaria no Brasil," Report from the First Brazlilian Meeting on a Culture and Socioeconomy of Solidarity, Rio de Janeiro, June 11-18, 2000

Ethan Miller, "Solidarity Economics: Strategies for Building New Economies from the Bottom-Up and the Inside-Out," Greene, Maine. May, 2002,

Carola Reintjas, "What is a Solidarity Economy?" Life After Capitalism Talks, World Social Forum III, Porto Alegre, Brazil, 2003,

Harriet Fraad, Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff, Bringing It All Back Home: Class, Gender and Power in the Modern Household, London: Pluto Press, 1994

Workgroup on a Solidarity Socioeconomy, "Exchanging Visions of a Solidarity Economy: Glossary of Important Terms and Expressions," November, 2005,

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Imagine Green Future

What Are Sustainable Communities?

"Sustainable communities are those communities which support the dignity of families and individuals and in which the quality of life is renewed and enhanced within the context of responsible environmental practice through collective decision-making and action. Sustainable communities depend upon the existence of a social infrastructure which provides for the basic needs of shelter, jobs/income, health, education and social support."

"Sustainable development can be defined as development that delivers basic environmental, social, and economic services to all residents of community without threatening the viability of the natural, built, and social systems."

You are probably aware of the condiments company, Newman's Own. Newman's Own ( is a company started by Paul Newman that donates all profits and royalties after taxes to educational and charitable purposes. I believe that this concept --using private enterprise for public good-- can be applied to many other applications. Before I explain how I propose we utilize this concept, I will offer a view of the landscape as I see it.

Wall St wobbles waiting for Main St. to find it's footing and Main St. is scared. Noted conservative journalist and commentator David Brooks put it this way in a New York Times article;

"If there’s a thread running through the gravest current concerns, it is that people lack a secure environment in which they can lead their lives. Wild swings in global capital and energy markets buffet family budgets. Nobody is sure the health care system will be there when they need it. National productivity gains don’t seem to alleviate economic anxiety. Inequality strains national cohesion. In many communities, social norms do not encourage academic achievement, decent values or family stability. These problems straining the social fabric aren’t directly addressed by maximizing individual freedom."

It seems that everyone is treading water waiting for meaningful positive change. Meanwhile, firms are laying off, businesses are failing, families frayed, communities are stressed, and people are suffering. The ebbs and flows of economic cycles always involve some pain, free markets are constantly weeding out marginal players, this is par for the course. Yet, we may be in uncharted territory as we face severe challenges domestically and from abroad. Because of war commitments, huge and growing entitlement programs and a citizenry hammered by a low tax mantra, policy makers have extremely difficult choices to make. Education budgets are being cut even when studies show that investments early on save expenditures down the road. Public safety costs are escalating and recidivism as well. We are increasingly paying more and getting less.

Essentially this is a method to use the power of the free market, volunteerism and self-help to build beauty, self-sufficiency and sustainability from the ground up in areas of society that are now a drain on public resources and often resistant to current remediation methods. The impulse to do good works, the need for social justice and the quickening wave of excitement about green energy creates an elegant community project generating a synergy greater than it's parts.

This project will not raise our taxes. This project will not force government regulation on overburdened business or people. This project will facilitate our working together to create a green Delray, bringing capital and income to areas of historic deficits. Please keep an open mind and have a look. As presented it functions in a municipal context. I can show how the framework can be utilized in for-profit and non-profit organizations as well, including your own business. Using this method business owners may enhance recruitment, retention and job satisfaction for their valued team members and support Social Ventures through an innovative funding mechanism.

Adam Smith saw the invisible hand of the marketplace as using selfish motives to work to the greater good. This is good as far as it goes but as my dear 'ol dad used to say in answer to my libertarian rants, "Billy, in the long run the free market solves all problems. But in the long run, we are all dead." We currently have a global economy that can produce far more than consumers have money to buy. In the past several years our economy has been running on paper profits, home equity, credit cards, Chinese financed debt, Internet and Real Estate bubbles, smoke and mirrors and fumes. We are also spending our natural capital, our children's inheritance, with our devil-may-care, winner-take-all policies. Wages have stagnated, benefit costs, most especially health benefit costs, are rising along with the cost of food and other essentials.

The path to a green future is from the ground up. If we are to meet the goals of a sustainable future, then we must find ways around the inertia, politics and left/right conflicts of government, and, the real or perceived, heartless, short-term, bottom-line focus of business. We need to find ways of engaging and exciting the bottom half of society and providing tangible benefits to them for joining efforts to mitigate climate change.

The methods that we use should allow a broad cross-section of people to work together in building a mutually beneficial green future. Organizations and individuals working on behalf of social and economic justice and green initiatives, need to create vehicles for cooperative ventures between their communities and enlightened entities in the private sector. By building communities of practice and cooperative networks around shared goals and using the network to create funding mechanisms, we can bypass the pitfalls of being dependent on taxpayers to fund critical needs in our community. Working together we can accomplish much.

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it."
~Upton Sinclair

"If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst."
~Thomas Hardy

Let's be honest. Alternative Energy is the ultimate Disruptive technology. The primary impediment to wider implementation of climate friendly technology is the same impediment to many needed social advancements; powerful corporations and the decades of carbon-based wealth behind them and over our government.

American society is a consumption-based economy. We are a get rich quick at any cost society. We are a live for today and "who gives a hoot about tomorrow" society. We are a "me first" society. For our type of social system, "all of nature is not enough". We need systemic change but the power and influence of status quo money makes meaningful political change that truly empowers people and honors the Earth a difficult if not Quixotic goal.

Systemic change in the political realm will happen when we strengthen the social bonds between our divided people. When the people lead, the leaders will follow. When individual people move beyond our comfort zones and build common ground with those beyond our ideologies, races, cultural grounding, personal orbit and life experiences, we will find the means and the answers to meet our most difficult challenges.

Much of everything else we do is further dividing us, destroying any remaining hope, wasting our treasure, burning up our time and spinning our wheels. We have the appearance of progress because we vote for candidate A over candidate B, or demonstrate against the war or for climate change legislation, or when one lower-class group moves forward at the expense of another or when our words sound so noble and impressive and we excite and inspire our "team", but if we can not see the road towards common ground, if we can not find unity of purpose between our divided people, we implicitly support the status quo. We can do better.

Discretionary incomes are flat if not falling and we are in a slash and burn jobs spiral with consequent family breakdown, loss of much middle-class wealth and increases in crime and other unforeseen consequences for our society. I believe that purpose and profit can work to the benefit of each other. I believe that people have the capability to craft cooperative structures that allow for the unleashing of our collective civic energies. I believe that if we are able to use our imaginations, willing to take small risks and trust one another we can together do some amazing things.

Possible positive outcomes include;
Green our Neighborhoods
Create Green Jobs
Increase the municipal tax base
Lower the costs of crime and social disorganization
Mitigate the foreclosure crisis
Create a green consumer base
Build a green political constituency
Increase racial reconciliation
Strengthen our non-profit sector
Raise levels of trust between citizen and government
Increase trust between business and consumers/workers
Cure cancer and turn sand to gold

Well, maybe not the last one. At least not this time around. LOL

Let's look at a concrete example of how our project will work in the example of an architect. We will need architects to create design elements that can be retrofitted onto existing structures that will allow for maximum use of prevailing winds, and other innovative architectural applications to conserve energy thereby lowering energy costs to struggling homeowners and reducing our carbon footprint.

Working with habitat for Humanity, our local CDC's, the TED Center, Workforce Development, private staffing agencies, and forward thinking architectural, construction and building supply firms, we can retrofit existing homes, build new high efficient, off-the-grid, housing stock and mitigate our rapidly masticating financial crisis with this project. The magic is in the fact that we will be mounting a project that is beneficial community-wide, it runs on voluntary energy financed by market forces and it targets it's resources in areas of most need and maximum ability to stimulate the moribund economy.

Furthermore, since the capital aggregated and the income paid out will be funneled through TBL (Triple Bottom Line) metrics, we will build a sustainable and durable foundation for the future. More magic is found in the novelty of the idea and the way we are turning on it's head a business model more known for enriching folk with superior sales and marketing skills and the stamina, initiative and moxie to make those skills pay. Once public perceptions of the motivations of many in the business are turned upside down and the capital generated is used in ways that are clearly and demonstrably socially useful, then the image of the Network Marketing business model will also evolve and the conventional business model as well. In a best-case scenario, we will maintain the capital aggregation power of free markets within a consumer driven context of social justice and environmental sustainability.

Working Together for a Green New Deal

By Van Jones

The article excerpted below appeared in the November 17, 2008 edition of The Nation.
October 29, 2008

This article is adapted from The Green Collar Economy, by Van Jones with Ariane Conrad.

Society faces some huge challenges. The individuals, entrepreneurs and community leaders who will step up to make the repairs and changes are going to need help. They require and deserve a world-class partner in our government. The time has come for a public-private community partnership to fix this country and put it back to work. In the framework of a Green New Deal, the government would become a powerful partner to the problem solvers of the world--and not the problem makers.

Now, we cannot achieve the goal of a Green New Deal just by wishing for it. The first step in getting the government to support an inclusive, green economy is to build a durable political coalition.

To change our laws and culture, the green movement must attract and include the majority of all people, not just the majority of affluent people. The time has come to move beyond eco-elitism to eco-populism. Eco-populism would always foreground those green solutions that can improve ordinary people's standard of living--and decrease their cost of living.

But bringing people of different races and classes and backgrounds together under a single banner is tougher than it sounds. I have been trying to bridge this divide for nearly a decade. And I learned a few things along the way.

What I found is that leaders from impoverished areas like Oakland, California, tended to focus on three areas: social justice, political solutions and social change. They cared primarily about "the people." They focused their efforts on fixing schools, improving healthcare, defending civil rights and reducing the prison population. Their "social change" work involved lobbying, campaigning and protesting. They were wary of businesses; instead, they turned to the political system and government to help solve the problems of the community.

The leaders I met from affluent places like Marin County (just north of San Francisco), San Francisco and Silicon Valley had what seemed to be the opposite approach. Their three focus areas were ecology, business solutions and "inner change." They were champions of "the planet"--rainforests and important species like whales and polar bears. Many were dedicated to inner-change work, including meditation and yoga. And they put a great deal of stress on making wise, earth-honoring consumer choices. In fact, many were either green entrepreneurs or investors in eco-friendly businesses.

Every effort I made to get the two groups together initially was a disaster--sometimes ending in tears, anger and slammed doors.

Trying to make sense of the differences, I wrote out three binaries on a napkin:

1. Ecology vs. Social Justice

2. Business Solutions (Entrepreneurship) vs. Political Solutions (Activism)

3. Spiritual/Inner Change vs. Social/Outer Change

People on both sides of the equation tended to think that their preferences precluded any serious consideration of the options presented on the opposite side.

Increasingly, I saw the value and importance of both approaches. I thought, What would we have if we replaced those "versus" symbols with "plus" signs? What if we built a movement at the intersection of the ecology and social justice movements, of entrepreneurship and activism, of inner change and social change? What if we didn't just have hybrid cars--what if we had a hybrid movement?

To return to the metaphor of the slave ship Amistad, the question in my mind has become, What if those rebel Africans, while still in chains, had looked out and noticed the name of their ship was not the Amistad but the Titanic? How would that fact have affected their mission? What would change if they knew the entire ship was imperiled, that everyone on it--the slavers and enslaved--could all die if the ship continued on its course, unchanged?

The rebels suddenly would have had a very different set of leadership challenges. They would have had the obligation not just to liberate the captives but also to save the entire ship. In fact, the hero would be the one who found a way to save everyone on board--including the slavers. And the urgency of freeing the captives would have been that much greater--because the smarts and the effort of everyone would have been needed to save everyone.

For the sake of the ship--our planet--and all aboard it, the effort to go green must be all hands on deck.

We can take the unfinished business of America on questions of inclusion and equal opportunity and combine it with the new business of building a green economy, thereby healing the country on two fronts and redeeming the soul of the nation. We must.

What is the CSP?
The Community Sustainability Partnership is a coalition of businesses, community members, and city administrations to facilitate the sharing of information, combination of strengths, and to take advantage of opportunities.

Building Social Capital

What is it worth to have employees who feel fulfilled? What is the value of healthy communities? Of the three legs in sustainability, social capital is the most difficult to define and measure, and therefore has a tendency to be placed on the back burner.

From a business perspective, it is costly and time-consuming to attract, train and retain quality employees. A business committed to the triple bottom line will provide an environment for their employees that welcomes diversity and innovation, and provides a sense of fulfillment and pride. A sustainable business will treat their employees with respect, and offer a livable wage, fair health benefits, and a work environment that improves productivity, safety and well being. These types of organizations have a competitive advantage, as worker retention and productivity are certainly measurable improvements to the bottom line. In addition, investors and consumers are increasingly valuing this type of social responsibility

A business' employees are part of a community and they carry sustainable values with them, allowing social equity to spill into the other component of building social capital: building healthy communities.

Sustainable Community Design

To create a sustainable world, we must live in sustainable communities. People will need to decrease or eliminate their reliance on cars, fossil fuels, cheap goods from China, and vegetables grown in the deserts of California with the application of billions of gallons of water. Sustainable urban and community planning will produce a new symptom of healthy people living in walkable, bikeable communities. Community design that allows people to walk, bike or utilize public transportation to arrive at their local grocery, bank or workplace is the ultimate goal of sustainability.

The return to regional economies will systematically rather than technologically reduce transport miles, time wasted in traffic jams, unemployment, and environmental degradation. Imagine being able to once again purchase high quality goods that are manufactured within your community by your neighbors. Local resources will be utilized in the processes and the nutrients returned back to the earth upon disposal. Renewable energy will be generated on site or within the community, so as to decrease energy loss from transmission.

Sustainable communities are all about species 'belonging' to a community, with every sense of that word. Many people today believe that we can just leave our cities, states, country, or even planet if the environmental destruction becomes too severe. This way of living cannot be sustainably maintained into the future.

"Lets not make a big mess here and go somewhere else less hospitable even if we figure out how. Let's use our ingenuity to stay here; to become, once again, native to this planet" (McDonough & Braungart, Cradle to Cradle, 87).

The Next Green Revolution
How technology is leading environmentalism out of the anti-business, anti-consumer wilderness.
By Alex Nikolai Steffen

For decades, environmentalists have warned of a coming climate crisis. Their alarms went unheeded, and last year we reaped an early harvest: a singularly ferocious hurricane season, record snowfall in New England, the worst-ever wildfires in Alaska, arctic glaciers at their lowest ebb in millennia, catastrophic drought in Brazil, devastating floods in India - portents of global warming's destructive potential.
Green-minded activists failed to move the broader public not because they were wrong about the problems, but because the solutions they offered were unappealing to most people. They called for tightening belts and curbing appetites, turning down the thermostat and living lower on the food chain. They rejected technology, business, and prosperity in favor of returning to a simpler way of life. No wonder the movement got so little traction. Asking people in the world's wealthiest, most advanced societies to turn their backs on the very forces that drove such abundance is naive at best.

With climate change hard upon us, a new green movement is taking shape, one that embraces environmentalism's concerns but rejects its worn-out answers. Technology can be a font of endlessly creative solutions. Business can be a vehicle for change. Prosperity can help us build the kind of world we want. Scientific exploration, innovative design, and cultural evolution are the most powerful tools we have. Entrepreneurial zeal and market forces, guided by sustainable policies, can propel the world into a bright green future.

Americans trash the planet not because we're evil, but because the industrial systems we've devised leave no other choice. Our ranch houses and high-rises, factories and farms, freeways and power plants were conceived before we had a clue how the planet works. They're primitive inventions designed by people who didn't fully grasp the consequences of their actions.

Consider the unmitigated ecological disaster that is the automobile. Every time you turn on the ignition, you're enmeshed in a system whose known outcomes include a polluted atmosphere, oil-slicked seas, and desert wars. As comprehension of the stakes has grown, though, a market has emerged for a more sensible alternative. Today you can drive a Toyota Prius that burns far less gasoline than a conventional car. Tomorrow we might see vehicles that consume no fossil fuels and emit no greenhouse gases. Combine cars like that with smarter urban growth and we're well on our way to sustainable transportation.

You don't change the world by hiding in the woods, wearing a hair shirt, or buying indulgences in the form of save the earth bumper stickers. You do it by articulating a vision for the future and pursuing it with all the ingenuity humanity can muster. Indeed, being green at the start of the 21st century requires a wholehearted commitment to upgrading civilization. Four key principles can guide the way:

Renewable energy is plentiful energy. Burning fossil fuels is a filthy habit, and the supply won't last forever. Fortunately, a growing number of renewable alternatives promise clean, inexhaustible power: wind turbines, solar arrays, wave-power flotillas, small hydroelectric generators, geothermal systems, even bioengineered algae that turn waste into hydrogen. The challenge is to scale up these technologies to deliver power in industrial quantities - exactly the kind of challenge brilliant businesspeople love.

Efficiency creates value. The number one US industrial product is waste. Waste is worse than stupid; it's costly, which is why we're seeing businesspeople in every sector getting a jump on the competition by consuming less water, power, and materials. What's true for industry is true at home, too: Think well-insulated houses full of natural light, cars that sip instead of guzzle, appliances that pay for themselves in energy savings.

Cities beat suburbs. Manhattanites use less energy than most people in North America. Sprawl eats land and snarls traffic. Building homes close together is a more efficient use of space and infrastructure. It also encourages walking, promotes public transit, and fosters community.

Quality is wealth. More is not better. Better is better. You don't need a bigger house; you need a different floor plan. You don't need more stuff; you need stuff you'll actually use. Ecofriendly designs and nontoxic materials already exist, and there's plenty of room for innovation. You may pay more for things like long-lasting, energy-efficient LED lightbulbs, but they'll save real money over the long term.

Redesigning civilization along these lines would bring a quality of life few of us can imagine. That's because a fully functioning ecology is tantamount to tangible wealth. Clean air and water, a diversity of animal and plant species, soil and mineral resources, and predictable weather are annuities that will pay dividends for as long as the human race survives - and may even extend our stay on Earth.

It may seem impossibly far away, but on days when the smog blows off, you can already see it: a society built on radically green design, sustainable energy, and closed-loop cities; a civilization afloat on a cloud of efficient, nontoxic, recyclable technology. That's a future we can live with.

Alex Nikolai Steffen ( runs and edited the book Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century.

How can I be more green?
Three questions from the enviro frontier.
By Brendan I. Koerner

Should I ditch my old Toyota Corolla and buy a Prius? Hybrids get better mileage, but it takes energy to build a new car, right?
Right - but the green choice is still the Prius. Manufacturing accounts for approximately 10 percent of the energy consumed by an automobile during its life cycle. Gas burned by the engine makes up almost everything else. So if a 1993 Corolla gets 27.5 miles per gallon and a 2006 Prius gets 55 mpg, you should earn back the energy "investment" that went into making the hybrid in about four years.

Additionally, by purchasing a Prius, you help tilt the economies of scale in favor of hybrids. Toyota's hybrid technology is still relatively expensive, but production costs will come down as more Priuses are sold. And the more Priuses that fill the roads, the more consumers will view them as a legitimate option for their next car, rather than just trendy eco-boxes for Hollywood do-gooders.

What percentage of our nation's energy currently comes from so-called alternative sources?
Officially, 6.1 percent of our 2004 energy consumption came from renewable sources. But half of this energy is provided by hydroelectric power, which environmentalists usually don't regard as "alternative" (rare is the eco-warrior who loves the idea of damming up rivers).

Strip away the hydroelectric, then, and you're left with a less impressive figure that encompasses geothermal, solar, wind, and biomass (which includes everything from switchgrass and ethanol to "sludge waste") sources: a piddling 3.4 percent. Solar energy accounted for less than 0.1 percent of our 2004 total consumption.

Is eating organic food good for the environment, or am I falling victim to the hype every time I pay 79 cents extra for organic grape tomatoes?
The latest data from the Rodale Institute Farming Systems Trial, a 22-year comparison of organic-versus-conventional farming, firmly supports going organic: The chemical-free approach yielded the same amounts of corn and soybeans as the conventional method but required 30 percent less energy and produced less soil erosion and groundwater pollution. (The jury is still out on whether organic farming is better for crops such as cherries and grapes, which suffer from graver pest-control issues.)

Before you go patting yourself on the back, however, keep transportation costs in mind. A 2005 report in the journal Food Policy calculated the energy expended to truck produce from farm to market and concluded that consumers would do less environmental damage by buying locally grown conventional food than organic produce from across the continent. The ideal is to buy organic food from within 12 miles of your dinner table. For most of us, though, this is impossible, and inadequate labeling makes it difficult to know if a box of tomatoes came from a local orchard or from Chile.

- Brendan I. Koerner

Grading the Old Guard
By Josh Rosenblum

Here's a Wired scorecard rating the major green groups.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Natural Capitalism?

New Internationalist 329 November 2000

Sustainability / CAPITALISM

Can the free market be used to jump-start the switch to
Mary Jane Patterson has her doubts.

In the packed ballroom of a glittering downtown hotel, Amory Lovins is working his magic. Calmly and confidently, the mustachioed guru of eco-efficiency explains how ‘natural capitalism’ can save money and the planet both at the same time. An enthusiastic standing-room-only audience of businesspeople, environmental activists, municipal politicians and university students is lapping it up – hook, line and ‘powerpoint’ presentation.

Along with everyone else, I am swept up in the logic and common sense of it all. But I wonder why we haven’t been doing this before? And why aren’t we doing it now?

After the presentation there are questions and comments from the audience. The head of a national NGO exults that finally she won’t have to feel guilty about driving a car. A local councillor steps up to the microphone to share the city’s own efficiency success stories. The buzz in the air is palpable. It is an Amory love-in.

There is no denying the appeal of Lovins’ message. In his recent best-selling book Natural Capitalism (co-authored with his ex-spouse L Hunter Lovins and eco-entrepreneur Paul Hawken) he describes how an enlightened form of capitalism, retuned to seek eco-efficiencies, would save the environment, stimulate the economy, increase employment and bridge the gap between rich and poor.

What’s not to like? Similar concepts calling for ten-fold or four-fold gains in resource efficiency (‘Factor Ten’ and ‘Factor Four’) have been embraced in Europe as ‘the new paradigm for sustainable development’. It is an attractive vision of the future that is rare in its appeal to environmentalists and the business community alike.

There is no denying the credentials of the messengers either. The Lovinses are co-founders of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Snowmass, Colorado, a nonprofit think tank. They are also among Time magazine’s ‘Heroes for the Planet’ for Earth Day 2000. A dynamic speaker and writer, Amory Lovins has been a prominent critical voice in energy policy and resource use for more than 20 years. Co-author Paul Hawken is both an entrepreneur and an environmental activist – and a thoughtful writer on the nexus between the two worlds. Together these three have set out to save capitalism from itself – to ‘harness the talent of business to solve the world’s deepest environmental and social problems’.

The central premise behind ‘natural capitalism’ is that we have the technical capacity to use the planet’s resources much more efficiently, allowing us to maintain and even enhance our material well-being while sharply reducing resource extraction, waste discharge and associated damage. Businesses would operate more like biological systems, recycling waste into new raw materials and providing services rather than products. The motivation for ecologically sound ways of doing business would be economic rather than altruistic because efficiency measures would also save money. In effect, we could have our cake and eat it too.

Lovins illustrates his hypothesis with many real-life examples from the business world, where companies found that ‘greening up’ was good for the bottom line. His public presentation and the book abound with success stories: $2.8 million saved here, 81-per-cent reduction in resource extraction there. The stories are numerous and attractive.

But they are more the exception than the rule. Eco-efficiency is not what drives most of real-life capitalism. ‘Natural capitalism’ may be reasonable and desirable. And certainly it is a refreshing notion for environmentalists weary of being the continual bearers of bad news. But it is not the way the world runs at the moment. In general business has blithely ignored and vigorously denied its role in degrading the environment.

So how do we get the market to favour eco-efficiencies? How do we achieve a ‘natural capitalism’ that is also equitable, given the free market’s tendency to deepen the gulf between rich and poor? And given the rampant consumerism that dominates Western culture and is quickly spreading around the globe, how do we ensure that the savings from eco-efficiencies are not simply spent on more consumer trinkets?

The market is undeniably powerful and it does seek efficiencies. Traditionally the ‘efficient’ way of dealing with wastes was to dump them, cost-free, into the air or water. But if efficiency could be harnessed to reduce resource use and waste, capitalism could be made to work in the service of the environment.

Lovins and company are not alone in exploring this possibility. Eco-sensitive economists have long advocated the use of market mechanisms to encourage anti-pollution measures. And activists have for years lobbied for removal of the subsidies that support unsustainable energy projects and industrial agriculture. There is also a growing international movement for ‘green’ taxes. These would remove taxes from ‘goods’ (things like jobs and income) and instead put them on ‘bads’ (things like pollution and resource extraction).

Factory Pollution,Natural Capitalism
Photo: Ray Pfortner

Grains of sand
The question is not whether such steps are desirable or whether they could work, but whether the necessary political will to make it happen can be mustered. Can this be accomplished under the Lovins’ banner? Not everyone is persuaded.

‘It’s a mystification,’ says Joel Kovel, professor of Social Studies at Bard College in New York. ‘They are using a popular, easy-to-assimilate and apolitical definition of capitalism. The whole weight of evidence is that this is not what real capitalism is about.’

Kovel argues that virtuous small businesses can exist but that they play no role in the overall workings of society. ‘A couple of grains of sand on the beach’ is how he puts it. One should not imagine that the realm of exchange is neutral. ‘The real forces of society are dictated by the accumulation of capital. The inherent nature of capitalism is to expand, and it sucks everything into its orbit.’

There are examples of businesses saving money while operating in a more environmentally friendly manner. But this doesn’t mean that most businesses could follow suit. For most, absorbing the ecological and social costs of their operations would be expensive and perhaps suicidal, unless their competitors did the same.

To counter this, ‘natural capitalism’ boosters advocate ‘a fundamental rethinking of the structure and the reward system of commerce’. Only by overhauling the entire system can we ensure that it is competitive to be environmentally friendly. But where does this overhauling begin? And how far does it extend?

Photo: Ray Pfortner

Virtually any country would find it difficult to make these changes on its own. If Australia, for example, were to attempt such a turnaround it might conceivably find a way to equalize the increased costs for Australian business competitors in the domestic market. But an integral part of the present market system is the globalization of trade. With the increasing reliance on exports to international markets, encouraged by the World Trade Organization, Australia would find it impossible to attempt economic reforms such as these in isolation. Australian corporations would be immediately outbid in foreign markets by competitors from other countries with lower costs and fewer restrictions. Such a transformation could only be successful on a global scale, through international treaties and agreements imposed on the now virtually lawless world of global corporate finance.

Silent politics
This does not mean that reforms such as green taxes, appropriate subsidies and internalization of costs are not worthy goals. In fact, they may be the only way to turn around our self-destructive economic system. But the changes would require substantial political intervention into the market and extraordinary political will at all levels from the municipal to the international. And this is not something that the natural capitalists address. They are largely silent on the subject of politics, preferring to paint themselves as proudly and deliberately apolitical. The Rocky Mountain Institute website describes their work as ‘independent, nonadversarial, and transideological’. They’re careful not to rock the boat, trying to appeal to the widest audience (mainly North American) possible.

Maybe they do understand the US public well. And maybe they’re right to assume they’ll have more success if changes are wrapped in the cloak of neutral economic logic. But the reality is that the conditions for Lovins’ brand of ‘natural capitalism’ are unlikely to arise from the market itself. They will have to be imposed by co-operative, collective action – by governments and other organizations of civil society hip-deep in politics.

And that’s not all. If the market won’t deliver eco-efficiency without substantial political intervention, it certainly won’t deliver an equal distribution of the benefits or ensure that the savings aren’t squandered on more consumption. These changes won’t happen without strong government intervention in the workings of capital. Self-regulation, based on the record to date, just won’t do it.

An appealing package
There is much to admire in the ‘natural capitalism’ approach. It’s both innovative and positive, a more attractive image than the negative, we’re-going-to-hell-in-a-handbasket messages that come so often from environmental groups. It has the potential to galvanize the business and technology communities in a way that no other initiative has – if only because it affirms their modus operandi. And it pulls together some sorely needed economic and environmental changes into one appealing package.

That said, ‘natural capitalism’ is a programme for change that is at best partially developed. Very little that it advocates will emerge from capitalism as it’s currently structured. Both the core of its agenda – aggressive pursuit of eco-efficiencies – and the associated objectives of equity and overcoming consumerism, demand ambitious political action. When Lovins and company avoid discussion of political or cultural change they are not telling the whole story.

Maybe their restraint on the political aspects is strategic. Quite possibly the Lovinses and Hawken are trying to get North Americans to buy into the concept first. Then they will slowly introduce the scarier parts about political and cultural change.

Whether this strategy is appropriate or not is an open question. As Joel Kovel says, ‘natural capitalism’ presents lots of good technocratic ideas but ‘we shouldn’t think of it as a substitute for genuine political engagement’.

( is a masters student in environmental studies. This article was produced in consultation with Robert Gibson, an associate professor of Environment and Resource Studies. They are both at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.