Putting the Heart Back in Local Economies: a look at cooperatives in Canada's Pacific Northwest.

Kathryn Molloy is a happy environmentalist in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Along with her artist husband Jeff and their three children, she has always used her bike to get where she needs to, and avoided owning a car. Now she is a member (and manager) of the Victoria Car-Share Co-operative. This gives her a part-share with 20 other people in the ownership of a car and a truck, and allows her to get out into the woods to go hiking with her family while honouring her need to `live lightly', ecologically. Car-sharing is a new thing in western Canada, but in Europe, more than 20,000 people belong to car-share co-operatives. It's community economic development applied to private ownership.

Lisa Lorimer is a happy baker in Vermont, USA. She heads the Vermont Bread Co., which produces 10 million pounds (about 4.5 million kg's) of bread a year and supplies most of the supermarket chains in the US northeast. She also cares about her community, and when she needed a bank loan to double her baking facilities, she wanted to know that the bank's profits would benefit the local community, not some distant tycoons. So she turned to the Vermont National Bank, which runs a Socially Responsible Banking Fund. The Fund started in 1989, and has 11,000 depositors whose accounts total more than $111 million - about 10% of the bank's assets. When the depositors put their money in, they can say how they want their money to be invested - in a local farm? Small business? Daycare centres? Or Lisa's bakery? The money stays locally, Lisa gets the loan she needs, and the investors get to keep the connection between their money and their hearts, and know that their money is being well used, instead of surrendering that connection to the anonymous `market'. It's community economic development applied to banking.

Hajeera Begum is a happy small farmer, in a village not far from Dhaka, Bangladesh. She was married off to a blind man because her father could not afford a dowry, and for years, she survived by cleaning houses - but she was never able to feed her three children properly. Then one day, she learnt about the Grameen Bank, which lends small sums of money to impoverished women (a practice known as micro-lending). Her husband disapproved, but she travelled secretly to a nearby village to attend an introductory session. After mustering up all her courage - for she thought she was worthless - she asked for a loan of 2,000 thaka ($55 US), and when she received it as part of a peer-lending group with four other women, tears ran down her face. She used the loan to buy a calf for fattening, and a share of the rice harvest to process and sell. Within a year, she had paid off her first loan, taken a second loan and used it to rent a piece of land, planted it with 70 banana seedlings, and used the balance to buy a second calf. Today, with a mortgage, she owns a rice field, and goats, ducks and chickens. 'We now enjoy three meals a day,' she says. 'I intend to send all three of my children to school and college, even university.'

The Grameen Bank serves low income women in 35,000 villages, and has a 98% loan repayment record. Grameen is now moving to establish village phone companies, Internet connections and solar energy installations. It's community economic development applied to third world village development.

Kathryn, Lisa and Hajeera have never met each other, but they all share something in common. They all want to progress economically, but they want to do so in harmony with their local community and its environment - not in conflict with them. Our existing practices of economics and business development are so distorted in favour of selfishness, exploitation and ecological abuse that unless you make a real personal effort, or are lucky enough to have a community economic group nearby, your personal efforts to make progress will often end up contributing to the destruction or impoverishment of communities and ecosystems elsewhere on the planet. The savings you carefully put away for your retirement are invested to support big business; in 1995 each of the 15 largest mutual funds in the USA invested in tobacco companies. The simple T-shirt you bought for your kid involved acres of land being sprayed with pesticides, where the cotton growers have an increased risk of incurring cancer. Even your phone company lays workers off as it invests in new technology, instead of moving everyone to a four-day week.

Economists have an easy explanation for it. They assume (as a fundamental premise of their work) that humans will always act selfishly and greedily, when it comes to money. `Homo economicus', they call us, assuming that we have no other motives, or values. Think of every business, every bank, every farm and multinational corporation, each acting selfishly to maximise their own personal gain, and it's easy to see why the world is in a mess. The ozone layer - who cares? The homeless? Not my responsibility. Third world poverty? It must be their own fault.

Community economic development starts with a very different premise. It starts by saying 'we care', and then extending that to the local community, the region, the ecosystem, the world. In the town of Mondragon, in northern Spain, 26,000 people work in a network of mutually supportive worker-owned co-operatives, running their own banking, their own colleges, their own welfare system. Commercially, they have been incredibly successful, but they have succeeded by co-operation and caring for each other, not by competition. When a co-operative needs to cut back by 10%, the workers all take a 10% wage cut, instead of firing 10% of the workers and disowning them, which is the normal practice in private business across the world.

Community economic development brings the heart back into business, banking and local economic development. It shows that there is a different way of doing things, which need not destroy the values we care about. It's not easy - nothing that is brilliant ever is. The Victoria car-share co-operative took 18 months of intensive planning to get going. The Vermont bank's Socially Responsible Banking Fund took several years of scrupulous planning. The Grameen Bank started with just 42 tiny loans to women in one village, back in 1976. The Mondragon network of co-operatives started in 1955 at the inspiration of the local Jesuit priest who asked himself the question 'What would the Jesuit approach be to local economic development?' It has grown steadily ever since.

But pause a minute. Fifty years isn't long, to transform a whole economy. Say it started in *your* community, with local people getting together, as they have done in so many places around the world, and asking 'What could *we* do to help our local economy foster community, co-operation and environmental harmony?' You might follow the example of the low-income neighbourhood of Stockyards, Cleveland, USA, where the local community development association is running a project to get computers into the hands of 33% of the community's households, in order to help their working class, blue collar community make the leap into the information age.

Or you might want to learn from the example of neighbourhoods in Scotland, where residents have set up community-owned businesses, creating jobs and generating local incomes, where the profits are returned to the community as a whole, to be used for more community benefit. You might choose to start your own local currency, or LETSystem, as 500 communities in Britain have done, giving people in your community the ability to work and trade among themselves even when they've no `regular' money in their pocket.

You might even - jumping to another dimension of community economic development altogether - want to sit down with local residents, planners and architects and plan for the redevelopment of an area of industrial wasteland as a car-free urban eco village, designed as a pedestrian area with solar housing, cycle routes, roof gardens, local community-run businesses and a community currency - as they are doing in the Halifax Project in Adelaide, Australia.

In 50 years, your town or community could be so transformed that if the members of the Chamber of Commerce were all to die and come back then, they would think they had landed in paradise. No-one would be out of 'work', local businesses would be co-operating to share resources, and work would all be meaningful and fulfilling. Local farms would be run organically, energy would be generated renewable by solar, wind and solar-hydrogen, and even sewage would be treated solar-aquatically, generating fish, snails and flowering plants as the water was purified, to be used again. These are the sorts of community futures I actively work for.

We don't need a future for our communities where we have to put up with unemployment: a combination of work sharing (the 4-day week), community economic development, the administration and distribution of welfare by local community trusts, and the expansion of work in the environmental sector could eliminate unemployment entirely within 15 years, if we put our minds to it. We just have to generate the will to do it, and the political vision.

It is all possible - it's all being done somewhere on Earth today. There are no laws that say that economies must always be run the way they have for the past 200 years, exuding selfishness, greed, ecological ruin and tax-evasion. When economists talk about `the invisible hand of the free market', as if it were some kind of sacred principle which should never be disturbed, all they are doing is displaying how little they know about real community-based economic development, where heart, spirit and environmental harmony are restored to business, and the local economy.

For me, spirituality is about honouring our connectedness, and the love, support and co-operation that flows from this connection as people, as a planetary ecosystem. This has effects as drops of water in the ocean - souls in a spiritual universe. Orthodoxy maintains that we are separate and selfish individuals, pushing and shoving each other in a greedy world. It's a deeply disturbing doctrine which becomes true if you believe in it. Community economics says that there is more to life than just making a profit. It says that the connectedness, relationship, community and environment also matter - and that it is possible to make the world work by honouring this connectedness, not rupturing it. It allows what the Buddhists call 'right livelihood'; it restores meaning to the world, and brings water into the valley.

Kathryn, Lisa and Hajeera know that it's possible - they're already living with the results. And so can we all.

Guy Dauncey would like to thank Alan Jolis for Hajeera's story, and Paul Bush (of the American News Service) for Lisa's story.

Guy Dauncey has been an activist for social change all his life, and is always immersed in various projects. He is author of `After the Crash: The Emergence of the Rainbow Economy' (Greenprint, UK, 3rd Edition 1996), which tells the story of community economic development around the world, including a full resources listing. He lives in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

This article appeared in New Renaissance,Volume 7, Number 4. Copyright © 1998 by Renaissance Universal, all rights reserved.`Posted on the web on 5 April, 1998.