Economics–Why It’s The Short Leg of the Stool

On Friday morning, March 15, with lots of lively group engagement and drawings on the whiteboard, we were treated to a two-hour seminar on basic economic realities by Earthaven member Lee Warren.

“An economy is the interactions and exchanges between people that manage the flow of resources among them,” she said, “and this implies having expenses.”

stool-copyThe “three-legged stool of sustainability” — with economic, environmental, and social values — is distorted in mainstream culture which primarily emphasizes economic rewards but not so much social and environmental aspects of societal well-being. And in a pendulum swing away from this, Earthaven culture primarily emphasizes social and environmental values and tends to discount economics.

Lee told us her economic premises:

Premise A. Everyone needs an economy.

Premise B. The closer your economy is tied to an exploitative system that externalizes costs, the better off you do economically.

Premise C. The more your economy comes from a land-base or from women’s work, the more you struggle economically.

Premise D. “Idealism increased in direct proportion to ones distance from the problem.” a quote by John Galsworthy

Hence folks who’ve earned or inherited money from mainstream economy sources and have no actual experience in say, starting a rural land-based business or a “women’s” service work business, can believe that spiritual values and economic sustainability are somehow mutually exclusive. Or can have strong ideas about what people “should” do to earn an income in ecological or spiritual ways, without realizing that doing so can actually make the person too poor to stay in business.

Knowing how each Earthaven member earns or receives income, Lee created an “economic snapshot” of our current village economy: 14% are self-employed; 38% have retirement or other passive income; 5% do offsite work; and 43%  “piece it together” with multiple part-time jobs and small income streams. We observed that except for retirees and those with outside or family money-based passive incomes, most Earthaven members are challenged economically.

village-lower-res

Lee listed current or former onsite member-owned businesses and noted that the majority have gone out of business, moved off the property, or are struggling. She noted the number of entrepreneurial folks who have withdrawn from or left the community, discouraged by the lack of understanding about the need for economic sustainability. She  demonstrated the economies of scale with an analogy about finding food on a tropical island — including guerilla-theater help from several seminar participants — and why we reduce our effectiveness if we each try to create self-reliant homesites, as some permaculturists advise. She advocated specializing instead, with some of us supplying, say, eggs, and others supplying, say, blueberries.

“To create a sustainable economy when we finally become our envisioned village of 150,” she said, “we’ll need at least 10 small businesses build-the-roademploying at least five Earthaven people.” We concluded by listing ways to support onsite businesses, including buying member-made products (which we already do quite well), induce experienced entrepreneurs to move here (and entice those who have left to return), raise funds to kickstart existing businesses up to the next level, offer community work credit for labor that helps onsite businesses, support specialization, subsidize the cost of clearing forest land for agriculture or businesses, and perhaps most important, allow and encourage members to experiment in their businesses and farms — rather than regulating and suppressing experimentation, as we’ve sometimes done in the past.

leewithdexterThe presentation was well received, and in fact was one of the best events I’ve seen at Earthaven. Two members started an ad hoc committee to find ways to better support onsite businesses. Lee said she’d realized her goals for the presentation — to be slow-paced, participatory, fun, and smart.”

Many of us are clamoring for her do it again!

Earthaven’s New Decision-Making Method

Because increasing numbers of members over the last several years have been dissatisfied with our consensus decision-making method, in October 2012 Earthaven agreed to modify its consensus process. For 18 years we used consensus-with-unanimity, which requires 100% agreement (not counting stand-asides) to pass a proposal. We also had no recourse if someone blocked — no criteria for what constituted a valid block, against which blocks could be tested, nor a requirement that blockers meet with proposal advocates to draft a new proposal.

“Blocking potentially gives tremendous power to one or a few individuals, and the only way for that to function successfully is with a check and balance,” advises consensus trainer Tree Bressen (Communities magazine, Summer 2012). “In my experience, every successful consensus system . . . restricts blocking power in order to guard against tyranny of the minority,” she adds (Fall 2012 issue).

Here’s how Earthaven’s new “check and balance” method works:

  1. To choose officers in our annual meeting, we adapted a technique from Sociocracy: a series of “go rounds” to nominate and choose people for these roles. We used this method successfully in annual officer elections in our November 25th and December 9th Council meetings.
  2. To approve incoming new members we retained our previous consensus method.
  3. For all other proposals we added criteria for a valid block and a way to test blocks against that criteria (i.e., a block is declared invalid if 85% of Council members present say it’s invalid).

For any remaining blocks that have been declared valid, we use an adaptation of the N St. Consensus Method, in which blockers and several proposal advocates participate in up to three solution-oriented meetings to co-create a new proposal that addresses the same issues as the first proposal. If they cannot, the original proposal comes back to the next Council for a decision using consensus-minus-one (meaning it takes two blocks, not one, to stop the proposal).

Founding Day Parade 2011

On Sunday, September 11, I heard music and drumming in the distance on Another Way, the road in front of our house.

The Founding Day parade was marching down the road from the direction of our front gate. Banners, flags, drums, people smiling and waving.

Every year we celebrate our birthday — September 11, 1994 — with a parade. This is the day Earthaven’s 12 original founders pledged money at an afternoon tea party to buy our 320 acres.


Forest Garden Neighborhood, July 20

Chioke, Amakiasu, & Ayo in Forest Garden Neighborhood

On her next-to-last day at Earthaven, our Forest Children’s Collective tutor Amakiasu (center), and her kids Chioke, 17 (left) and Ayo, 13 (right), sheet-mulched the slope between Greg’s homesite and our place with cardboard and straw. You can also see one of our water-catchment tanks, the greenhouse (with a shower inside for lodgers and neighbors), and in the far left, Greg’s apartment and workshop, and his solar panels.

Chioke near the greenhouse

Another view of our cleaned-up slope. Our lodging units and greenhouse are at the top, and our row of compost bins below. Thanks to the sheet-mulching, people driving into Earthaven, our lodgers, and Greg won’t have to look at a jungly mass of pokeberries, sumacs, tiny poplar trees, blackberries-on-steroids, horse-thistle (eek!), and other assorted “please-don’t-grow-here!” plants. (For about 6 months anyway.) Someday this slope will grow berries!

Thank you, Amakiasu, Ayo, and Chioke. Goodbye . . . and . . . come back soon!