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.”
The “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.
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 She noted the number of entrepreneurial folks who have withdrawn from or left the community, discouraged by the lack of understanding about the need for economic sustainability.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 employing 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.
The 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!