Saturday, February 27, 2010

Feeding the Village First

(A Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society position paper on the global economy)
Principle author: Frederick Kirschenmann

"But we have to feed the world . . ."
---A North Dakota farmer

"Why are American farmers investing so heavily in expanding ag export markets, when the richest, most valuable market in the history of mankind---and the market the rest of the world's farmers want access to through upcoming free trade talks---is right here in the US? Can both strategies be right? Simultaneously?
--Alan Guebert


In this paper we provide an analysis of the role of agriculture in the global economy, using sustainability as the measure. We argue that as a first priority we should begin rethinking our food system in terms of local, self-reliant, value-added, value-retaining foodsheds, that supply a region's food needs, instead of relying totally on industrial production factories designed to supply raw materials to the global market, leaving local communities to import all of their food needs.

International trade would be based on surplus production, not vital production, making local communities self-reliant, and therefore truly "free" to trade. Finally, we offer a few strategies for beginning the journey toward this new food system.

I. The Global Economy: Myths and Realities

Herman Daly, the well known former World Bank economist, is fond of quoting John Maynard Keynes (one of the founders of the World Bank) with respect to world trade:

I sympathize therefore, with those who would minimize, rather than those who would maximize, economic entanglement between nations. Ideas, knowledge, art, hospitality, travel--- these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible, and, above all, let finance be primarily national. (Daly, 1996)

These words have taken on a special significance in our time. In the current climate of economic deregulation (sometimes called neo-liberalism) the prevalent notion among economists is that the evolution of a global economy is inevitable, necessary and highly preferable. But it is important to remember that not all economists share this judgment and that that judgment is not based on scientific certainty. Indeed, critics like David Kortan argue that it is based on "ideological extremism". (Mander and Goldsmith, 1996)

Economic neo-liberalism, which has crafted the intellectual justification for a global economy, is based on a belief system. It is a "story" that describes one way of organizing our economic lives. It is not the only story available to us, however. And, of course, it is not the only economic future we can choose.

Economic liberalism's story is similar in many respects to the economic belief system of Karl Marx. Marx also believed that it was economics that determined history. He believed that the economic system inherent in capitalism would inevitably cause capitalism's demise. Most economists today contend that it was a flawed belief.

Economic neo-liberalism's belief is similarly flawed. The problem with theories of economic inevitability (like those of Marx and neo-liberalism) is that they are based on assumptions that are hardly self-evident. For example, neo-liberalism's assumption that individuals always act in their own rational financial self-interest cannot be substantiated from human experience. If that assumption were true, no one would affiliate with a religious organization that requires sacrifice. No one would have children. There would be few great works of art. And there would certainly be even fewer farmers.

The reason it is important to recognize these false assumptions is that it is only when we entertain the possibility that the current predominantly held views regarding the global economy are not inevitable, and that economics is not the only determining factor that shapes human society, that we can begin to think critically and creatively about the economic welfare of our communities and choose alternative futures.

It is also important to recognize that taking a stand against the development of a global economy does not necessarily mean that one is anti-trade or "protectionist", or that one has a callous disregard for the world's hungry and homeless.

International and inter-tribal trade is as old as human history. In the last half century archaeologists have found evidence of international trade among ancient societies that was much more extensive than historians had previously believed possible. For example, archaeologists in North Dakota recently discovered that a particular type of flint rock that lent itself especially well for making spear and arrow heads, can only be found in North Dakota. Yet spears and arrow heads made from this flint can be found all over North and South America. Indians living in what is now North Dakota traded them. They apparently also extensively traded food stuffs. But the interesting thing about the trade policies of these indigenous people is that they insisted on meeting the needs of the village first. Trade was based on surplus production.

We contend that these ancient trade policies were wise. Accordingly, while we support international trade, we question whether our local economies ought to be made dependent on, or victims of, a global economy which seeks to fit all cultures and communities into a one-size-fits-all economic system. We question the wisdom of forcing all cultures and countries, each of which have emerged out of different histories and different economic situations, into one economic straight jacket.

Could it be, for example, that Russia, now suffering from one of its most severe depressions, needs a Roosevelt-styled 'new deal" economy, instead of the Herbert Hoover-style free market economy that the G-7 nations are trying to impose on it? The global community needs a diversity of economic systems, not a single homogenized one.

In particular, we question the wisdom of a homogenized economic system where food and agriculture are concerned. We believe that in the case of food and agriculture it is particularly important (as it was among ancient societies that practiced international trade) to "feed the village first".

Feeding the village first is a concept which suggests that local community economies are healthiest when they are as self-reliant as possible, especially where food and agriculture are concerned. Self-reliant communities are healthiest because they are free to pursue their own course, shaped by cultural norms which evolved in those communities to maintain the local public good. For this reason it is also important to maintain a diversity of cultures, as these ancient societies did. Each local culture must be free to evolve so that it can protect the unique ecology and public good of each local community.

The global economy, by contrast, makes local communities vulnerable to the economic health and well-being of distant communities and of "owners" over which they have little influence.

Herman Daly has reminded us that trade is only free when we are free not to trade. (Daly, 1996) What Daly recognizes is that when the economy of a local community or region is dependent on distant communities to supply its needs and buy its raw materials, then its own economy becomes extremely vulnerable to economic forces over which it has no control. The effect of the collapse of the Asian and Russian economies on Northern Plains farmers in the United States in recent months has clearly demonstrated that phenomenon.

We can, for example, see this principle at work as we watch the agricultural economy of North Dakota collapse. The globalization and industrialization of agriculture has reduced farmers in North Dakota to raw materials suppliers of a few specialized commodities---primarily wheat and beef cattle. That means that almost no local resources are devoted to producing locally needed value added products for local consumption. That, in turn, means that we export all of our cheap raw materials and import all of our needed, expensive value-added products. This drains both, the wealth of the region's income, and the wealth potential of the region's raw materials out of our local communities. Such an economy is reminiscent of colonial economies.

Of course the proponents of economic neo-liberalism will argue that while all this may be true, it is still to the overall economic advantage of local communities to be part of a global economy so we can avail ourselves of the benefits of "comparative advantage".

The theory of comparative advantage was first espoused by David Ricardo, one of the great classical economists. To put it simply, the theory of comparative advantage suggests that each country (or region) should produce what it can produce most efficiently and import those things that others can produce more efficiently. And no trade barriers should be erected to "protect" the less efficient local production systems. This is the classical argument advocated by free trade proponents.

But as Daly points out, Ricardo's theory was based on a very specific set of assumptions, including the expectation that capital would remain "immobile between nations." Daly argues that since capital is now no longer rooted in local communities, Ricardo, were he alive today, "would not support a policy of free trade." Given the fact that capital today is controlled primarily by transnational corporations (TNC's) who are not held accountable to any local community, we no longer accrue the benefits of comparative advantage to the communities in which we live. Most of the benefits accrue to shareholders of TNC's who generally live in distant communities.

Consequently, Daly suggests that we need to ascertain whether or not trade is really mutually beneficial before we engage in it. We should determine whether or not "the gains from international trade and specialization are not canceled by the immediate disadvantages: higher transportation costs, increased dependence on distant supplies and markets, and a reduced range of choice of ways for citizens to make a living." We should also determine whether or not trade will cause a deterioration of natural ecosystems, destroy local natural resources or reduce quality of life before we trade.

But proponents of economic neo-liberalism will argue that even if these negative consequences occur, the globalization of agriculture is still necessary to feed an expanding human population. We have to feed the world!

That assumption is based on at least three flawed propositions. First is the assumption that people are hungry because we are short of food---that farmers are unable to produce enough. That assertion is totally false and repeatedly proven to be so. (Kirschenmann, 1997, Lappe` and Collins, 1986, Sen, 1981, 1987)

Second is the assumption that we can solve the population explosion problem simply by intensifying food production, especially the production of cereal grains. But ecologists have raised disturbing questions about that proposition. They argue that such intensification itself creates serious obstacles to meeting those goals. The obstacles include:

* the destruction of the very genetic resources needed to develop transgenic technologies;
* the degradation of the very ecosystem services needed to increase production;
* the environmental and human health consequences of intensive agricultural practices;
* the extreme climactic changes that accompany global warming which will likely jeopardize food production capacity. (Daily, et. al., 1998, Baskin, 1997)

Third, is the assumption that the only way to produce enough food for future human population growth is by intensifying our mass production of a few specialized commodities with new technologies. But we know from several thousand years of observation that small-scale, labor-intensive, local food production systems, wherein local people have access to production resources, are by far the most productive.

For example, under the ecological management of the Anasazi Indians, a small region near Dolores, Colorado in the desert Southwest, supported a population of over 100,000 citizens around 1,000 AD. That same region today supports less than 15,000. The Anasazi raised dryland corn that produced an average 40 bushels per acre. Today with all the modern technologies at our disposal, farmers can only obtain 14 bushels per acre average dryland corn production in that same region. (Anazasi Museum, Dolores, Co)

Once and for all we should acknowledge that hunger is caused by social inequity and the lack of access to food producing resources, not lack of production. As E.F Schumacher pointed out so eloquently 25 years ago, what we need to keep the world fed is not mass production, but production by the masses. (Schumacher, 1973) What Schumacher understood all too well, was the fact that when small, local farmers are pushed off the land (as Mexican farmers will be en mass in the next decade, due largely to free trade policies (Brandon and Franklin, 1998) the land gets concentrated in the hands of large land owners, and then the land gets used to mass produce commodities for export, rather than feeding local populations. And that usually creates surpluses of raw materials which end up putting farmers all over the world out of business. That exacerbates, rather than solves the problem of "feeding the world".

II. Industrial Agriculture and Unsustainable trends.

The global food system is fed by an increasingly industrialized agriculture which cannot be sustained. Industrial agriculture is based on three principles: specialization, standardization and centralization. These principles grew out of the factory model of industrialization. This factory model has proven very efficient in the production of many manufactured goods.

However, many business leaders are now questioning these principles because they largely fail to calculate the importance of the human factor in production. They also increasingly recognize that since these principles tend to externalize social and environmental costs, they put much of society, and sometimes even the industry at risk. When hamburger gets contaminated with E coli in a huge centralized beef packing plant, for example, the losses and liabilities connected with the recall of millions of pounds of hamburger, as well as the number of people at risk, is far greater than if a similar contamination were to occur in a locally owned, diversified butcher shop.

More important for agriculture, however, is our failure to recognize that farms are not factories and that the effort to impose these three principles on farms has created an agriculture that is headed for collapse. These principles create huge monocultures that have numerous adverse effects. They make farmers vulnerable to the economic fortunes of a very narrow band of commodities. Farmers who have specialized in the production of hogs or wheat, for example, are currently being forced out of business due to the record low prices of those commodities. Farmers who have diversified farms, on the other hand, have also diversified their risks.

These industrial principles also impose a system of agronomic practices that dramatically increase costs and destroy the habitat of many species that are critical to efficient production. Our monocultures, for example have largely destroyed the habitat of indigenous pollinators, and have placed imported pollinators (like European honeybees) at great risk. The fact that one out of every three mouthfuls of food that we all eat is dependent on pollinators (Buchmann and Nabhan, 1996) requires us to ask what impact industrial farming practices actually have on our ability to keep the world fed.

The three principles of industrial agriculture are also largely responsible for farmers' increased production costs. A recent University of Minnesota Plant Diversity Task Force concluded that our vast monocrop systems in the Red River Valley have now revved up disease and pest cycles to such an extent that there is no way the research community can keep up with resistance technologies to stay ahead of the curve---no matter how much money we allocate for research.

Given the ever increasing need for inputs to support this system of agriculture, ND Extension Service calculated that it now costs North Dakota farmers $117 an acre to produce wheat. Most county-wide average wheat yields in North Dakota run below 30 bushel an acre. That means farmers need to consistently get at least $4 per bushel just to break even on their input costs. But given global-wide surplus production in 1998 prices hovered at $2.50 per bushel. So farmers find it impossible to generate the cash to repay loans or purchase inputs for the next crop cycle.

Furthermore, standardization is based on the assumption that the environment is predictable and controllable. It assumes that one can take an isolated phenomenon (like corn borer pressure) and apply a standard therapy, like an insecticide or Bt seed corn. But every high school biology student knows that nature is complex and always evolving, and that therefore nature's response to applied technologies will vary from place to place and year to year. Accordingly, standardization is fundamentally contrary to nature's functioning.

But perhaps the greatest fallacy of industrial agriculture is the assumption that one can abstract a few agronomic principles and then develop standardized farming techniques to be applied universally. From experiments with hybrid seeds, for example, we concluded that hybrid seeds were superior in all places under all circumstances. In point of fact hybrid seeds are only superior when soil, climate and synthetic inputs are optimized. As one farmer put it---"you buy expensive seed and fertilizer and if you don't get rain, its like throwing money into the wind."

Since farming is an activity that takes place in living, local ecosystems, it simply makes more sense to craft farming systems that continually adapt to the local ecologies in which the farm is located. Ironically such adaptation suggests principles that are diametrically opposed to the three industrial principles. Ecological farming requires that we employ the principles of diversity, variability and integration, rather than the principles of specialization, standardization and centralization.

If we managed our farms by these ecological principles they would look very different from the industrial farms that now dominate the landscape. Instead of huge wheat farms and cattle ranches in North Dakota, for example, we would have more moderate-sized diversified farms which grow five or more crops and have two or more animal species. The crop and livestock systems would be fully integrated. The waste from the cropping systems would be fed to the livestock and the wastes from the livestock would be used to fertilize the crops. In some locations crops and livestock would both be rotated through the system. In other locations, due to the ecology of the land, livestock would be grazed on native prairie and crops would be grown in the "niches" of the prairie landscape. In all cases the diversity would keep diseases in check and provide for natural habitat that would harbor the species that help control insect pests.

The central operating principle of such a system would be "to manage nature so that she doesn't have to be managed." (Eisenberg, 1998) In other words a farm would be a production system in which nature's own ecosystem services would provide the majority of the fertility and pest and disease control that optimizes production.

A few USDA scientists are now actively promoting this kind of alternative agriculture. They argue that the "therapeutic" interventionist strategies of industrial agriculture, wherein the prevailing pest control strategy has been to kill pest organisms with toxic chemicals, has created a classic treadmill. The solution becomes the problem. That treadmill has actually increased crop losses due to pests. On a world basis crop losses due to insects, weeds and disease were 34.9% in 1965 and rose to 42.1% in 1988-1990.

These same USDA scientists argue that the more recent substitution of new classes of chemicals and the technologies of molecular biology has not changed the problem since these new technologies still conform to the same paradigm. (Lewis, et. al. 1997)

III. Strategies for Developing Sustainable Local Communities.

In his thoughtful book Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Larry Rasmussen suggests that we should stop talking about sustainable development and start thinking about sustainable communities. The global economy will not help us here. Building sustainable communities, as Rasmussen argues, requires an ethic. (Rasmussen, 1996)

What kind of production ethic do we need to develop sustainable communities? Rasmussen points out that "the scientific discovery of the twentieth century" is the fact that the earth is a community. As Thomas Berry put it, the earth is a "community of subjects", not "a collection of objects". (Berry and Swimme, 1992) And the earth community is not a single, homogenized global ecosystem, but a complex array of many diverse, interconnected local ecosystems. (Eldridge, 1995)

This scientific discovery suggests that if we want to live on the earth in a sustainable way we have to begin to understand the "place" of the earth community in which we live, and learn how to interact with that place to preserve it as a healthy local community. And that place includes all the species with which we co-evolved. It follows that if we want food and farming systems that sustain local communities we really do have to "consult the genius of the place" as Alexander Pope advised us some years ago.

Accordingly, local community life shaped by a culture that is rooted in the wisdom inherent in each local ecology, is the core requirement of sustainability. Living and farming in accordance with those principles must be the cornerstone of our new production ethic. Developing such an ecological consciousness as the proper context for farming, is the new challenge facing agriculture.

This new ecological consciousness is beginning to penetrate the fields of medicine, nutrition, forestry, and fishing, as people in all walks of life are recognizing that the human species is not insulated from the rest of earth community. It is that new consciousness that will shape the ecological farming revolution.

What are some of the strategies we need to implement to effect the transition from an industrial/global to an ecological/local food and farming system?

First, it means recognizing that changing from a global economy to sustainable communities, will require that we rethink the whole food and farming system. Simply getting farmers to rethink their farming systems, or to "go organic", won't work.

Today's farms are part and parcel of the global, industrialized economic system. The global market only demands a very narrow band of commodities. Just fifteen plant species are used to produce 90% of the calories consumed on this planet. (Soule,, 1990) In the grain sector the market is largely limited to corn, wheat soybeans and rice. 80% of the 220 million acres planted to annual crops in the US are devoted to corn, soybeans and wheat.

Consequently there are no markets for the diversified crops that must be grown on ecologically managed farms. That, in turn, insures that without changing the entire food system the market will continue to force farmers into monoculture production, producing cheap raw materials for the global economy.

So we need alternative marketing systems as well as alternative farming systems. As a first priority we need to begin rethinking our food system in terms of local, self-sufficient, value-added and value-retained foodsheds that supply all of a region's food needs. Most food processing and packing operations must be locally owned, retaining the value that is added by such processing in local communities.

This would be a clear alternative to the industrial production factories designed to supply cheap raw materials to the global market, which forces producing communities to import all of their local food needs, and to export the value of their locally produced raw materials. International trade would be based on surplus production. In other words, it would be a marketing system that feeds the village first and truly makes local communities "free" to trade.

Admittedly, changing our whole food system will be a mammoth undertaking and we will not accomplish it in the next few months. But the new system is, in fact, already being developed so we also don't have to start from scratch. Direct marketing schemes and locally owned value-added processing enterprises of various kinds are already in place and many of them are very successful. (Welsh, 1997)

But to expand these ventures, many of them small and largely isolated, into a comprehensive food system alternative, will require a systems dynamic approach that begins to systematize this sustainable alternative to the industrial food system. We will need to inaugurate new initiatives in education, public policy and market reform.

Following is a beginning list of things we can do:


1. Initiate dialogs throughout farm communities that help farmers to understand that recurring farm crises are not due to low prices, unfair trade practices, timid export promotion, deficient safety nets, insufficient research or inadequate technologies. Economic farm crises are, in fact, inherent in the global economic system which operates on the principles of cheap labor, cheap raw materials, and externalized risk. So as long as farmers are suppliers of raw materials of a few specialized commodities, requiring intensive inputs that put farmers on treadmills, and force them to absorb most of the risk involved in producing those commodities, they will never be economically empowered. That is the first lesson every farmer has to learn.

2. Land Grant University systems need to begin helping farmers to understand the ecological neighborhoods in which they farm, and then provide assistance in developing natural systems farming technologies that mirror those ecologies. In the Northern Plains that means learning to understand the complexity of prairie ecologies, breeding seeds that produce food plants which thrive in such ecologies, and creating habitats that produce symbiotic relationships between native species and farming systems.

3. Develop media exposure that helps international communities to recognize that "feeding the world" is not a solution to the chronic problems of hunger and homelessness. We must create media scenarios that show practical alternatives to ADM's "supermarket to the world". Those scenarios would represent individuals and governments working together to eliminate hunger by promoting local cultural norms that bring human populations in line with other earth species in each ecological neighborhood. (Norberg-Hodge, 1991) Those efforts would include the education of women in every community. Those scenarios must include practical strategies for making adequate nutrients available to all people. Those strategies would include, but not be limited to,

* more efficient animal agriculture, cutting grain-based diets for ruminants at least in half, thereby making more nutrients available for humans;
* restoration and preservation of seafood ecologies. (While cereal production accounts for 50% of the energy intake of the world's poor, 60% of the world's population depends on seafood for 40% of its protein);
* international debt restructuring that would allow developing nations to use local production resources to feed local populations; and
* restoration of soil quality throughout the world to preserve and increase the yield potential of appropriate new technologies. It is now generally agreed that the reason crop yields have leveled off or declined despite new technologies is that declining soil quality prevents the yield potential of such technologies from being realized.(National Research Council, 1993)

4. Reconnect eaters with the ecological cycles of food production. No one should be considered properly educated without having first hand knowledge of where food comes from and how to produce and prepare it. Such knowledge should be considered as "basic" as reading, writing and math. Everyone should grow at least some of what they eat, regardless of where they live.

Public Policy

1. Gradually reduce the public subsidies that support industrial agriculture and shift part of those subsidies to programs that would help farmers transition to ecologically sound farming systems. In 1997 the Dutch Institute for Research on Public Expenditure prepared a report for the Rio+5 Forum which revealed that "subsidies from the public purse" in just four sectors (water, energy, road transportation and agriculture) amounted to $700 billion annually, more than the entire international expenditure for arms. They noted, further, that of the $335 billion in annual agricultural transfers, only 20% actually ended up as "additional farm income" (Renske van Staveren, INTERNET:

It is precisely the subsidies in these four areas that enable industrial agriculture to survive and largely contribute to the unlevel playing field on which local ecological farming systems must compete. If a small portion of these subsidies were redirected toward research to develop natural systems pest management, nutrient cycling systems, the reintegration of crop/livestock systems, and the development of locally-owned food processing enterprises and direct marketing, it could dramatically expand sound, locally based ecological farming systems that would benefit farmers, local communities and the environment.

2. Encourage state and local governments to establish tax policies which require that a percentage of local food needs purchased with public money be purchased from local farmers. If local governments required that 25% of the food purchased for prisons, state universities, county and state hospitals, and school lunch programs (all purchased with public funds) must be purchased from local farmers, it would create a substantial market for locally produced foods. Such local purchases would create an infrastructure for local production that the private sector could build on to create substantial markets for locally produced food.

3. International policies should be established through the United Nations that would focus on empowering the masses to produce their own food, rather than relying on transnational corporations to mass produce a few commodities to feed the world. The TNC strategy jeopardizes food security, pushes small, local farmers off the land, and appropriates food producing resources for profit- making, and for debt reduction in developing countries. As Martin Kimani, a leading agriculturist from Kenya puts it, it leads farmers to "producing food they didn't eat, and eating food they didn't produce." (INTERNET:

Simultaneously it overproduces the few commodities for which there are markets, forcing independent farmers all over the world out of business. This process concentrates food production resources in the hands of a very few people, jeopardizing global food security.

4. Firmly enforce anti-trust laws and enact appropriate economic and social regulations (Castle, 1998) in the food and agriculture arena to insure free and open markets for farmers. The unprecedented mergers and buyouts in the food and agriculture industry are not designed to insure greater efficiency and lower costs for consumers. They are designed to concentrate economic power which will ultimately harm the interests of both producers and consumers, and surely will not feed the world.

5. Begin a comprehensive review of international energy policies and develop plans for an energy efficient food system in the post-petroleum era. Some oil industry analysts now predict that the world has about one decade of cheap oil left. (Campbell and Laherre`re, 1998) By the year 2010 we will begin to see oil prices rise dramatically. We need to establish policies now, that will prepare for that future to insure a continued supply of affordable food to all people on the planet. And that means food and farming systems that are much less petroleum dependent than the industrial farming systems of today.

Market Reforms

1. Encourage public/private partnerships to develop direct marketing systems, local entrepreneurship, and locally owned, value-added, value-retained food processing operations. North Dakota's public/private partnership arrangement, which has developed numerous locally owned value-added processing cooperatives and companies, could be expanded and used as a model for other regions. The North Dakota experience demonstrates that such partnerships don't necessarily require public subsidies since the increased tax revenues from such newly created locally owned enterprises often return the public's investment with interest.

2. Study the evolution of Farmers Markets, CSAs and other direct marketing institutions, and use them as models to explore additional direct marketing opportunities. There are numerous opportunities to develop direct marketing arrangements in various components of the farming sector. Mobile meat processing units, for example, could dramatically increase the direct sale of locally produced meat products.

3. Explore the possibility of establishing commodity "pools" (or other collective bargaining strategies) to give farmers additional bargaining power in negotiating fair prices of the raw materials they continue to produce. Such collective bargaining strategies would serve to help keep farmers on the farm while we transition to a local, community agriculture future.

4. Exploit the weaknesses of large firms as a means of insuring the sustainability of smaller, locally owned enterprises. Large industrialized operations do not possess the flexibility to adapt rapidly to changing market demands or the diversity to meet the quality requirements of market niches. Such weaknesses create market opportunities that smaller, innovative, local farmers and food processing enterprises can exploit. (Castle, 1998)

These strategies are not simply schemes to "save the family farm" or to "preserve our agrarian lifestyle" or to provide "safe, wholesome food" to well-to-do middle class Americans, important as those goals may be. The question which this transition from a global to a local food system seeks to address is one that was eloquently raised by Harold Breimyer and Wallace Barr. The question facing us all is. . . whether some version of a dispersed farm production and marketing organization is to prevail or whether the control of U.S [and world] farm production and marketing will be concentrated in a relatively small number of large firms. (Breimyer and Barr, 1972) The answer to that question has grave implications for every citizen of the planet.

Clearly the suggestions proposed in this position paper are a very meager beginning to getting us on the path to a transition from a global food system to one that feeds the village first. And it invites a dialog on these important issues among everyone invested in international food systems designed to keep the human species fed, while enhancing the ecological neighborhood that we share with the rest of earth's species.

As we engage in that process it might be well to be guided by some over-arching principles. We think that the late Stanley James Hallett, minister and renowned national community organizer gave us three principles that might serve us well on our journey. Hallett suggested that when it comes to human systems that are suppose to serve people

* small is better than big
* simple is better than complex
* and local is better than distant (McCarran, 1998)

The other bit of wisdom that we might put into our saddle bags as we go down this path of reorganizing our food system comes to us from Rick Welsh, policy analyst with the Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture. We must understand, he writes, that the structure of agriculture in this or any other country is not an evolutional or inevitable process, but a socially constructed arrangement of institutions, rules and relationships. The organization of agriculture today has resulted solely from decisions made by people, and can be altered and reorganized if enough people wish to alter or reorganize it. (Welsh, 1997)

We believe enough people do!



Anazasi Museum, Dolores, Co. (See Agricultural display)

Baskin, Yvonne. 1997. The Work of Nature. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Berry, Thomas and Brian Swimme. 1992. The Universe Story. New York: Harper Collins.

Brandon, Karen and Stephen Franklin. 1998. "Free Trade's Growing Pains," Chicago Tribune, November 29.

Breimyer, Harold F. and Wallace Barr. 1972. "Issues in Concentration versus Dispersion" in Who Will Control U.S. Agriculture? North Central Regional Extension Publication 32, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cooperative Extension Service Special Publication 27.

Buchmann, Stephen L. and Paul Nabhan. 1996. The Forgotten Pollinators. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Campbell, Colin J. and Jean H. Laherre`re. 1998. "The End Of Cheap Oil," Scientific American, March.

Castle, Emery N. 1998. "Agricultural Industrialization in the American Countryside," Greenbelt, Maryland: Henry A. Wallace Institute for Alternative Agriculture, Policy Studies Report No. 11. October.

Daly, Herman E. 1996. Beyond Growth. Boston: Beacon Press.

Daily, Gretchen et. al. 1998. "Food Production, Population Growth, and the Environment. Science, Vol. 281, August 28.

# Eisenberg, Evan. 1998. The Ecology of Eden. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Eldredge, Niles. 1995. Dominion: Can Nature and Culture Co-Exist? New York: Henry Holt & Co.

Kirschenmann, Frederick. 1997. "Can Organic Agriculture Feed the World? And is That the Right Question? in J.Patrick Madden and Scott G. Chaplowe, For All Generations. Glendale, CA: World Sustainable Agriculture Association.

Lappe, F.M. and J. Collins. 1986. World Hunger: Twelve Myths. New York: Grove Press.

Lewis, W.J. 1997. "A Total System Approach to Sustainable Pest Management." National Academy of Sciences, Proceedings, Vol. 94, November. Available online at

Mander, Jerry and Edward Goldsmith. 1996. The Case Against the Global Economy. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books

McCarran, John. 1998. "Stan Hallett's Quiet Crusade for Simple Solutions Will Live On," Chicago Tribune. November 30.

National Research Council. 1993. Soil and Water Quality. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Norberg-Hodge, H. 1991. Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books.

Rasmussen, Larry L. 1996. Earth Community Earth Ethics. New York: Orbis Books.

Schumacher, E.F. 1973. Small is Beautiful. New York: Harper and Row.

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Sen, Amartya. 1987. Ethics and Economics. Oxford: Blackwell Press.

Soule, Judy 1990. "Ecological Impact of Modern Agriculture." in C. R. Carroll et al. (ed.) Agroecology. New York: McGraw Hill.

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A New Deal for Local Economies

December 9, 2009 at 9:50 am

New Rules Project
This lecture was delivered on October 17, 2009, at the Bristol Schumacher Conference in Bristol, England. The conference was chaired by the New Economics Foundation and organized around the theme, “FROM THE ASHES OF THE CRASH: Rebuilding the new economics.” More information and DVDs of the event are available from The Schumacher Society.

Let me begin by sharing some good news. Scattered here and there, in my country and in yours, the seeds of a new, more local and durable economy are taking root.

Locally grown food has soared in popularity. There are now 5,274 active farmers markets in the United States. Remarkably, almost one of every two of these markets was started within the last decade.(1) Food co-ops and neighborhood greengrocers are likewise on the rise.
Some 400 new independent bookstores have opened in the last four years.(2) Neighborhood hardware stores are making a comeback in some cities. More students graduating from pharmacy school report that they would rather open their own drugstore than work for chain. In April, even as Virgin Megastores prepared to shutter its last U.S. record emporium, more than a thousand independent music stores were mobbed for the second annual Record Store Day. This celebration of independent record stores drew hundreds of thousands of people into local stores, was one of the top search terms on Google, and triggered a 16-point upswing in album sales.(3)

Driving is down in U.S. over the last two years, while data from a dozen metropolitan regions show that houses located within walking distance of local businesses have held value better than those isolated in the suburbs where the nearest gallon of milk is a five-mile drive to a superstore.(4)

In city after city, independent businesses are organizing and building an increasingly powerful counterweight to the big business lobby on issues as varied as tax policy and global warming. Local business alliances have now formed in over 130 cities and collectively count some 30,000 businesses as members.(5) These alliances are calling on people to choose independent businesses and locally produced goods more often and making a compelling case that doing so is critical to rebuilding middle-class prosperity, averting environmental catastrophe, and ensuring that our daily lives are not smothered by corporate uniformity.
There is growing evidence that these initiatives are succeeding. Last winter, as the economy spiraled downward, many big retail chains reported double-digit sales declines. Some filed for bankruptcy. But a survey of 1,100 independent retailers found that revenue was down just 3 percent on average.(6) What accounted for this relative good fortune? Many of those surveyed said that more people are deliberately seeking out locally owned businesses.
But here’s what is perhaps the strongest — and, undoubtedly, the most bizarre — evidence to date that people’s priorities are changing: Many massive, globe-spanning corporations are now trying to figure out how they can be “local” too.

Hellmann’s, the mayonnaise brand owned by the processed-food giant Unilever, is test-driving a new “Eat Real, Eat Local” marketing campaign. Frito-Lay is using farmers to pitch its potato chips as local food. Barnes & Noble, the world’s top seller of books, has launched a new campaign under the tagline, “All bookselling is local.” Winn-Dixie, one of the largest supermarket chains in the U.S., has a new slogan: “Local flavor since 1956.” The International Council of Shopping Centers, a global consortium of mall developers, is pouring millions of dollars into television ads urging people to “Shop Local” – at their nearest mall.

Most astounding of all, Starbucks, a company that has spent untold millions developing one of the most recognizable brands on the planet, is now beginning to un-brand some of its outlets. The first of these just reopened as “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” in Seattle and, unless you read the fine-print on the menu, you would quite easily assume it was an independent coffee house.

Corporations desperately want to turn the local economy movement into nothing more than a cheap marketing trick they can appropriate for their own ends. These attempts at imitation are unnerving. But in the end I think this new variation on corporate green-washing — let’s call it local-washing — will backfire. In the meantime, I’m heartened by what it says about the current consciousness. After all, these companies spend enormous sums on market research and they would not be doing this unless they had detected a sizeable shift in public attitudes.


While signs abound that people are rediscovering the benefits of an economy rooted in community and small-scale enterprise, all of this activity, though widespread, is still quite modest. It exists largely on the margins and is unlikely to coalesce into a wholesale reorganization of our economy unless we change the rules.

We tend to imagine that our economic system is the product of a kind of natural evolution, the inevitable result of forces as innate and inexorable as the weather. But in fact our economy is largely the consequence of public policy. We have made rules that privilege the global over the local, concentrate ownership, and undermine democracy.

The corporation itself is an invention of government, and the more you study its origins and structure, the more peculiar and artificial you realize it is. The first corporations were established in the 15th century by monarchs eager to maintain their power against a rising merchant class. These chartered corporations were endowed by their royal creators with monopoly rights to control trade and exploit various regions of the world, backed by the full legal and military power of the state.(7)

This unholy alliance between central governments and powerful corporations has continued right on down to the present day, but with a few noteworthy setbacks along the way. One was the American Revolution, which, you may recall, got underway in earnest when a group of colonists forced their way onto three ships docked in Boston Harbor and dumped more than 90,000 pounds of tea into the sea. The colonists’ actions that night were as much a challenge to corporate power as they were a rebellion against King George III. Those ships were owned by the East India Company, which had been losing money in the colonies in part because of growing competition from local tea merchants. Parliament stepped in and passed the Tea Act, which exempted the East India Company from the taxes that its small rivals had to pay. The assumption was that the lure of cheaper tea would outweigh any loyalties the colonists had to their local merchants. But Parliament and the East India Company misjudged. The Boston Tea Party and the Revolution itself were thus acts of both civil disobedience and corporate sabotage.(8)

In the decades following the war, Americans remained highly suspect of economic concentration. Thomas Jefferson even proposed making “freedom from monopolies in commerce” part of the Bill of Rights. Although his proposal failed, the early republic still placed strict limits on the power and longevity of corporations.

But the corporate form waited in the wings and made a comeback after the Civil War, when a series of court rulings and new laws endowed the modern corporation with extraordinary power, including most of the rights of citizens plus several superhuman powers, notably limited liability and unlimited life. In the words of David Morris, co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, “We gave business the tools to grow beyond our capacities to control it. And one hundred years later these creatures of the state have come to dominate states.”

From bailouts for big banks to tax breaks for superstores, we have rigged the system with policies that underwrite corporate expansion and undermine local economies. A handful of companies now dominate every sector of our economy.

This is not the world of Adam Smith. It is not about people creating and exchanging real value. Corporations exist not to create value, but to extract it. Their roots in colonialism are very telling. When mega-retailers, like Wal-Mart or Tesco, move into a community, their aim is not to enrich the local inhabitants. Their aim is to eradicate local businesses and to sever the web of economic relationships that link the people of a community together – from the local banker making a loan to the shopkeeper, who sources goods from a local manufacturer or farmer, who in turn hires the local accountant, and so on. In place of this robust system of local trade and mutual benefit, the big superstores erect a single-track economy in which wealth flows in only one direction: out.

How is it that we have so willingly accepted such colonization? We acquiesce in large part because we long ago stopped conceiving of ourselves as citizens, with all of the authority and responsibility that role entails. Instead we adopted the highly circumscribed role of consumer. This is how we are referred to by corporations, the media, our elected officials, and even ourselves. We have internalized the logic of corporations.

This consumer identity is actually a relatively modern invention. It was created in California in the late 1930s by one of the first big chains, a company called A&P. At its height, A&P operated about 4,000 supermarkets. It is often referred to as the Wal-Mart of its day, although its market share was in fact much smaller. When A&P, and other early chains like Woolworth’s, were first expanding in the 1920s and 30s, they were met with fierce resistance. People organized against them in hundreds of cities, half the states passed anti-chain store taxes that grew progressively larger the more outlets a chain had, the federal government launched several antitrust cases against A&P, and by 1939 Congress itself was debating a national chain store tax that was so steep that, had it been enacted, it would have dissolved A&P.(9)

It’s fascinating to read this early debate because it’s so different from the discussion we have today about chain stores. People at that time reacted to A&P as citizens, as independent economic actors, as stewards of their communities. And from all of these perspectives, they saw A&P as a threat, to both their livelihoods and democracy itself. A&P responded by hiring a very clever ad agency and launching a sweeping public relations campaign that reframed the terms of the debate and repositioned people not as citizens, but as consumers. It worked. People began to see a new supermarket not as a threat, but just another shopping option. The national chain store tax was defeated, antitrust took a back seat, and our consumer identity was born.(10)

When we became consumers, the pursuit of happiness — to use Thomas Jefferson’s lovely phrase — ceased to be a collective, public endeavor. It was no longer about seeing friends at the pub, or strolling the high street on a warm evening, or joining with one’s neighbors to address a community need. Instead the pursuit of happiness became confined to the narrow realm of individual consumption. People no longer relied on their neighbors so much as competed against them. “A life devoted primarily to the pursuit of material ends,” Fritz Schumacher observed, “necessarily sets man against man … because man’s needs are infinite and infinitude can be achieved only in the spiritual realm, never in the material.” Consequently, today we find ourselves not only on the brink of environmental catastrophe, but increasingly alienated and unhappy.

Einstein was right that “no problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” And so we must begin by reclaiming our citizenship.

About ten years ago, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance launched the New Rules Project to develop and advocate for policies that would democratize ownership, refashion the economy for long-term sustainability, and nurture strong self-conscious and self-governing communities. Today I would like to highlight three areas of policy reform that I think are especially critical.

The first is that we must resurrect and embrace a vigorous anti-monopoly policy.
If we were to boil the financial crisis down to its root cause, we could sum it up rather succinctly as the “curse of bigness,” to use former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s phrase. The crisis was caused by massive industry consolidation, which invariably leads to destructive corporate behavior, because the decision-makers at these vast institutions are so far removed from the impacts of their decisions.

Perhaps the best way to understand the problems inherent in an economy that separates actions from consequences is to look at its opposite. Last fall, not long after Lehman Brothers collapsed, I was speaking on a panel alongside a community banker. He said his bank did not offer mortgages that people could not afford or that would balloon in cost a few yeas out for two simple reasons. One was that the bank did not sell mortgages to Wall Street, but kept these loans on its own books. The bank’s financial well-being, therefore, was directly tied to the well-being of its customers. The other reason was that he invariably knew or got to know the borrowers. “I don’t relish the idea of foreclosing on a family I regularly see at the grocery store,” he explained.

Arguably even more troubling than the financial crisis itself has been the government response. So far it has resulted in even greater concentration, as failing banks have been ushered into shotgun marriages with other banks, while massive injections of public money have enabled giants like Goldman Sachs to speculate their way into even bigger profits. In the U.S., just four banks now control half of all bank assets, issue half of all mortgages, and account for two of every three credit cards.

The only reasonable path forward is that banks that are Too Big to Fail must be deemed Too Big to Exist and broken up into smaller components more responsive to their communities and customers. We must place strict caps on the market share that any one bank can amass, and we must reinstate rules adopted during the Great Depression and foolishly discarded a decade ago that prevented banks from engaging in both ordinary retail banking and speculative investment.

The deference to bigness that has guided policymakers’ response to the banking crisis has long infected our government. A generation ago, with Reagan and Thatcher telling us there was no alternative, we dismantled anti-monopoly laws on the grounds that bigger is more efficient. Competition policy became concerned solely with short-term impacts on prices and abandoned any consideration of the corrosive long-term consequences of concentrated power.
Regulators have been especially blind to the problems caused by firms that exercise their power not so much to raise prices, at least in the short-run, but to gut suppliers and destroy smaller competitors. Thus we have the unchecked growth of Tesco, which now has one-third of the British market, and Wal-Mart, which captures nearly one in four dollars Americans spend on groceries and is the largest seller of a staggering array of goods, from toys to clothing, books to home furnishings.

These power buyers now control so much of the market that suppliers have only two options. They can shun them and try to survive by selling to a shrinking number of other retailers. Or they can submit themselves to the chains, which will lead to more revenue but ever thinner margins to the point that there’s not a dime left for product development and innovation, much less for taking care of their employees. Of Wal-Mart’s top ten suppliers in the mid 1990s, four have sought bankruptcy protection, while others have merged in desperate bids to stay afloat.(11)

All of this has led to a profound loss of economic flexibility as the entire global system of production is refashioned to serve Wal-Mart and Tesco. The food, drugs, clothing, and other goods we rely on are now made in a relatively small number of places and transported over long and highly centralized supply lines. As Barry Lynn has written, we are “slowly freezing our economy into an ever more rigid crystal … that every day is more liable to collapse from some sudden shock.”

Given the ecological challenges we face, we can ill afford an economy that is the biological equivalent of a monoculture. We need the inherent creativity and adaptability of a multitude of small-scale enterprises that can evolve quickly and better respond to the unique circumstances of their own regions. Competition policy must embrace diversity as its primary aim. It must return to the idea the measure of a competitive economy is not some abstract notion of efficiency, but rather a competitive economy is, by definition, one made up of many competitors.


My second proposal is that we need to adopt planning policies that support local economies.
I live in a 19th century neighborhood in a small New England city. My mother-in-law, who grew up in this same neighborhood, often talks about what it was like during her childhood in the 1940s. What I find most striking about her description is how many businesses our little section of town once had. There was a grocery store, hardware store, two drugstores, a tailor, and more.

All of those businesses disappeared in the following decades. Families acquired cars and shopping migrated out to supermarkets and, later, malls and big-box stores. When I moved to the neighborhood in 2003, there were no businesses left save one lone corner store. Meanwhile, scores of big-box stores and massive shopping centers had grown up on the edge of town.

This transformation was not natural or inevitable. It was engineered by government policy. After World War II, federal and state officials poured money into highway construction, dismantled public transit, guaranteed mortgages in the suburbs but not in the city, and enacted planning rules that insisted on a rigid separation of residential and commercial uses. All of this created a landscape ideal for chains and big-box stores, but inhospitable to local businesses. In recent decades, municipal governments have gone even further, doling out hundreds of millions of dollars a year in subsidies and tax breaks that directly underwrite the construction of shopping centers and superstores.

Most Americans, as well as a growing number of Europeans, now find themselves living in a built environment that is ill-suited to a post-carbon world, in part because it fails to support a local economy and in part because it demands an extraordinary amount of driving. Between 1987 and 2007, total miles driven in the U.S. rose 60 percent.(12)

And this problem is self-reinforcing, because the landscape that the car has created only entrenches us ever more firmly in our role as consumers and erodes the social capital that enables communities to innovate and solve complex problems like global warming.
To understand how planning policy affects civic life, all you need to do is spend time watching people in a neighborhood business district or on a high street. What you see is lots of interaction. Business owners know their customers. People run into neighbors on the sidewalk or while waiting in line at the bakery. This is an environment that slows the pace of life and encourages people to loiter and converse.

Then undertake the same observation in the car-park of a big out-of-town shopping center and watch how differently people behave in this setting. You see very little interaction. This is a landscape built for cars, not people. The stores are sized to serve regions, not neighborhoods, so there’s much less chance that you’ll bump into someone you know. And even if you do, the store itself is designed to facilitate speedy consumption and deter loitering. This is an environment that fosters separation and disengagement.

Indeed, studies show that, in places with many small, locally owned businesses, people are much more engaged in community life than those living in towns dominated by big businesses. Residents of communities with a vibrant local business district are more likely to know their neighbors and to join civic and social groups. They attend public meetings more often and even vote in greater numbers than their counterparts in towns overrun by superstores.(13)
This brings me to a theory I have about the growth of farmers markets. The conventional explanation is that people are rediscovering local food. That’s certainly true. But I think people are as hungry for the community experience as they are for the fresh broccoli. Several years ago, a group of sociologists from the University of California-Davis followed people around as they shopped in a supermarket. They found that your chances of having a conversation with another shopper are about 1 in 10. They then tracked people at farmers markets and found that your odds of having a conversation in this setting are nearly 70 percent.(14)

It’s this social pleasure that I think is driving the very modest, but noteworthy, regeneration of local businesses in some communities. In my neighborhood, things began to change last year. First a restaurant opened and then a teashop. And then, like a gift from heaven, a small food market opened. Stop by in the early evening and you’ll find a row of bicycles parked out front and the store’s narrow aisles packed with people pondering their dinner options and chatting with their neighbors.

This little store is not only a hub of social activity. It’s also an economic engine of surprising proportions. Studies show that spending a dollar at an independent business generates about three times as much benefit for your local economy as spending a dollar at a chain. The reason is that, unlike chains, which siphon money out of a community, local businesses spend much of their revenue buying goods and services from other local businesses. They bank at a local bank, hire a local accountant, get their printing done at the local print shop.(15)

My local food market stocks an extraordinary amount of food produced nearby – not only vegetables, but also locally made cheeses, yogurt, sauces, jams, biscuits and breads. Because it’s run by a local owner, this store can source from dozens of small producers much more efficiently than Tesco or Wal-Mart, saddled as they are with global distribution systems and a top-down command structure. Local ownership enables a face-to-face economy. It closes the distance between customer and owner, farmer and eater, manufacturer and user.
Lastly, this little store is quite significant from a climate standpoint. One study in Seattle found that families living in neighborhoods that integrate small businesses with homes drive 26 percent fewer miles on average than those living in areas that lack nearby stores.(16)

But this local store and the others like it that have managed to survive are like little green shoots growing up in the cracks of a sidewalk. They are defying the odds in a planning system rigged against them. If we want to grow a whole new crop of these kinds of businesses, we must rethink our planning policies. We need to stop favoring the automobile at the expense of other forms of transportation and stop green-lighting superstore development.

A growing number of cities in the U.S. are indeed prohibiting the construction of superstores, and some, like San Francisco, are restricting the proliferation of all types of chains. At the very least, we need to adopt a kind of precautionary principle that places the onus on big retailers to demonstrate that their stores will be a net benefit, both economically and environmentally. We have enacted a policy like this in my home state of Maine, where large stores no longer have the right to open, but may do so only after their economic impacts have been independently evaluated and the community has determined that the benefits outweigh the costs.(17)


Third and last, we need new mechanisms for channeling our investment capital in directions that nurture community and rebuild local economies.

The financial crisis has provided us all with a crash course on how much of our economy is based not on the creation of real value, but on speculation. Over the last year, we have learned that the speculative economy — the one that trades in exotic derivatives like credit default swaps and makes short-term, bubble-inducing bets on assets like real estate and tech stocks — is vast and highly rewarded. We have learned that the speculative economy undermines and consumes the productive economy. And we have learned that money made by speculation is often treated much more favorably by tax systems than money earned through real work.

We have also learned how entangled we all are in the speculative economy. If you think about it, there are very few opportunities for you and I to invest our savings in ways that would strengthen our local economies. Most of us, whether we like it or not, have our retirement and other savings invested in funds composed of stocks, derivatives, and other speculative vehicles.

This de-linking of money from place and productive investment is not the inevitable result of economic evolution. Money is a human invention and the rules that control its dynamic are also a human invention. The rules in place today favor mobility over community, speculation over productive investment, volatility over permanence.

How can we reconnect capital with community needs? Global warming has created an urgent need to retool much of our infrastructure, develop regional food systems, retrofit buildings, reestablish neighborhood enterprises, and so on. And yet our system for pooling and deploying capital is completely ill-suited to this task, oriented as it is to maximizing short-term gains rather than building long-term community capacity.

One way we might begin to reorient the financial system is to establish a modest tax on all financial transactions, including international currency trades. This would lessen the appeal of high-frequency speculative trading. It would also generate a stream of revenue that could be used to establish a publicly owned wholesale bank or fund that would channel capital to Community Development Financial Institutions. These in turn would finance small businesses, cooperatives, and social enterprises.

We might also consider funding, as the New Economic Foundation has suggested, a Green Industrial Bank to provide long-term financing for green infrastructure and renewable energy development. At the local level, cities are already pioneering ways to finance the transition to renewable energy. The city of Berkeley, California, for example, is using its bonding authority to provide long-term, low-interest loans that enable homeowners to become electricity producers by installing solar cells on their rooftops. The debt, which stays with the house if the owner moves, is repaid over a 20-year period through a fee added to their biannual property tax bill.

Another useful model, which relies on a mix of public and private investment, is Pennsylvania’s Fresh Food Financing Initiative. This $120 million fund has provided low-interest, long-term loans to finance over 60 locally owned food markets in neighborhoods and small towns that lacked places to buy fresh food. All but one of these stores has succeeded, demonstrating that the reason “food deserts” exist in so many low-income communities is not that grocery stores are not viable in these areas, but rather banks have been reluctant to finance these ventures. We ought to build on this model by establishing similar funds to capitalize a new generation of neighborhood stores, small-scale farms, and other enterprises that can expand the capacity of communities to meet more of their needs locally.

In the private sector, we should look to reform the banking industry by both breaking up big banks and adopting policies that favor independent banks and credit unions. These smaller institutions have generally been much more responsive to their local communities. And, while big banks have focused on the needs of big business, small banks operate at a scale better matched to the needs of local economies.

Financial institutions are not the only way to link local capital with community enterprise. A growing number of local businesses are being financed directly by their customers. In the U.S., Community-Supported Agriculture schemes, or CSAs, which enable people to fund the operations of a farm in exchange for a share of its harvest, have multiplied to well over 3,000. Hundreds of independent bookstores, restaurants, and other local businesses in both the U.S. and the U.K. have raised capital from their customers to sustain or expand their operations. Earlier this year, more than 100 customers of the Busy Bee Toyshop in Greater Manchester put up £32,000 to take over the store, which had recently closed, and operate it as a cooperative. In Brooklyn, a similar initiative made hundreds of customers investors in their local bookstore. People have come together not only to save or grow local businesses, but also to start them. Six years ago, in Powell, Wyoming, over 800 families invested $500 each to capitalize a new community-owned downtown department store.(18)

Many political and corporate leaders are eager to put the financial crisis in the rearview mirror and return to business-as-usual. But we should not let them. More than ever, we need a new economics fashioned from the wisdom of Schumacher. We need a bold new deal that reorients antitrust, planning, and financial policy to shrink the power of corporations, resurrect citizenship, nurture local enterprise, and build a sustainable future.

Thank you.

Stacy Mitchell is a senior researcher with the New Rules Project, a program of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance that challenges the wisdom and inevitability of economic consolidation and works to advance policies that build strong local economies and communities. Her latest book, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses (Beacon Press, 2006), was named one of the top ten business books of the year by Booklist.

© 2009 Institute for Local Self-Reliance

1. United States Department of Agriculture, Farmers Market Growth: 1994-2009.
2. “Indie Bookstores Open Across the Country in 2008,” Bookselling This Week, Jan. 22, 2009.
3. Stacy Mitchell, “Death of the Category Killers,” Hometown Advantage Bulletin, Jun. 23, 2009.
4. Nate Silver, “The End of Car Culture,” Esquire, May 6, 2009; Joseph Cortright, “Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in U.S. Cities,” CEOs for Cities, August 2009.
5. See “Map of Local Business Alliances” at
6. “Independent Retailers Outperform Chains Over Holidays, National Survey Finds,” New Rules Project Press Release, January 15, 2009.
7. Douglas Rushkoff, Life Inc. (Random House, 2009).
8. Thom Hartmann, Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights (Rodale, 2004).
9. Stacy Mitchell, Big-Box Swindle: The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America’s Independent Businesses (Beacon Press, 2006) p. 205-210; Richard C. Schragger, “The Anti-Chain Store Movement, Localist Ideology, and the Remnants of the Progressive Constitution, 1920-1940,” Iowa Law Review, 2005; Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumers’ Republic: The Politics of Consumption in Postwar America, (Knopf, 2003).
10. Helen Woodward, “How to Swing an Election,” The Nation, Dec. 11, 1937.
11. Barry C. Lynn, “Breaking the chain: The antitrust case against Wal-Mart,” Harper’s Magazine, July 2006.
12. United States Department of Transportation.
13. See the “Community Life” chapter in Big-Box Swindle, as well as: Charles M. Tolbert, “Minding Our Own Business: Local Retail Establishments and the Future of Southern Civic Community,” Social Forces, June 2005, 1309-1328; T.A. Lyson, R. J. Torres and R. Welsh, “Scale of Agricultural Production, Civic Engagement and Community Welfare,” Social Forces, 2001, 311-327; and Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961.
14. Robert Sommer, John Herrick, and Ted R. Sommer, “The Behavioral Ecology of Supermarkets and Farmers’ Markets,” Journal of Environmental Psychology, (1981) 1, 13-19.
15. See Civic Economics, “Thinking Outside the Box: A Report on Independent Merchants and the Local Economy,” September 2009; Civic Economics, “The San Francisco Retail Diversity Study,” May 2007; and Institute for Local Self-Reliance, “The Economic Impact of Locally Owned Businesses vs. Chains: A Case Study in Midcoast Maine,” Sept. 2003. Additional studies can be found under “Key Studies” at
16. Lawrence Frank in collaboration with the Center for Clean Air Policy, “A Study of Land Use, Transportation, Air Quality, and Health in King County, WA,” commissioned by King County, Sept. 27, 2005. See also: Stacy Mitchell, “Neighborhood Stores: An Overlooked Strategy for Fighting Global Warming,” Grist Magazine, Aug. 19, 2009.
17. For more information about these policies, including San Francisco’s formula business ordinance and Maine’s Informed Growth Act, go to and follow the policy links on the right.
18. James Alexander, “Communities saving cherished stores,” BBC News, July 10, 2009; Stacy Mitchell, “Community-Owned Stores,” National Trust Forum, May 2008.

Friday, February 26, 2010

From ocean to ozone: Earth's nine life-support systems
18:00 24 February 2010 by Fred Pearce, New Scientist,

We have already overstepped three of nine planetary boundaries and are at grave risk of transgressing several others


UP TO now, the Earth has been very kind to us. Most of our achievements in the past 10,000 years - farming, culture, cities, industrialization and the raising of our numbers from a million or so to almost 7 billion - happened during an unusually benign period when Earth's natural regulatory systems kept everything from the climate to the supply of fresh water inside narrow, comfortable boundaries.

This balmy springtime for humanity is known as the Holocene. But we are now in a new era, the Anthropocene, defined by human domination of the key systems that maintain the conditions of the planet. We have grabbed the controls of spaceship Earth, but in our reckless desire to "boldly go", we may have forgotten the importance of maintaining its life-support systems.

The demands of nearly 7 billion humans are stretching Earth to breaking point. We know about climate change, but what about other threats? To what extent do pollution, acidifying oceans, mass extinctions, dead zones in the sea and other environmental problems really matter? We can't keep stressing these systems indefinitely, but at what point will they bite back?

Last year, Johan Rockström, director of the Stockholm Environment Institute in Sweden, sat down with a team of 28 luminaries from environmental and earth-systems science to answer those questions. The team included Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen, NASA climate scientist James Hansen, Gaia researcher and "tipping point" specialist Tim Lenton, and the German chancellor's chief climate adviser Hans Joachim Schellnhuber.

They identified nine "planetary life-support systems" that are vital for human survival. They then quantified how far we have pushed them already, and estimated how much further we can go without threatening our own survival. Beyond certain boundaries, they warned, we risk causing "irreversible and abrupt environmental change" that could make the Earth a much less hospitable place (Ecology and Society, vol 14, p 32).

The boundaries, Rockström stresses, are "rough, first estimates only, surrounded by large uncertainties and knowledge gaps". They also interact with one another in complex and poorly understood ways. But he says the concept of boundaries is an advance on the usual approach taken by environmentalists, who simply aim to minimise all human impacts on the planet. Instead, he says, boundaries give us some breathing space. They define a "safe space for human development". And here they are.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Acid oceans

Boundary: Global average aragonite "saturation ratio" no lower than 2.75:1
Pre-industrial level: 3.44:1
Current level: 2.90:1

Diagnosis: Safe for now, but some oceans will cross the threshold by mid-century
This is a relatively new issue, rarely discussed until 10 years ago. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere means more is absorbed by the oceans, creating carbonic acid. Since the industrial revolution, the pH of the ocean surface has fallen from 8.16 to 8.05, equivalent to a 30 per cent increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions.

Acidification per se isn't a problem, but it has serious knock-on effects on other aspects of ocean chemistry. The most important of these is that it lowers the amount of calcium carbonate dissolved in surface waters.

This doesn't matter much right now. But a critical point will be reached if waters become too low in aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate used by many organisms, including corals, to build their shells. Below a certain threshold, aragonite shells and coral dissolve in seawater.

So far, the average aragonite "saturation ratio" in the oceans has fallen from a pre-industrial level of 3.44:1 to 2.9:1. That means, on average, that there is still almost three times as much aragonite as is necessary to keep shells from dissolving. There are wide regional variations, however, and recent studies suggest parts of the Arctic and Southern Oceans could drop below the crucial aragonite saturation ratio of 1:1 by 2050.

Nobody knows quite what would happen then. Some species might be eaten away by the acidic water. It could be the coup de grâce for many corals already poisoned by pollution and bleached by warming waters. Emptier oceans would be able to absorb less CO2, accelerating global warming. To prevent any ocean waters from entering this parlous state, Rockström proposes keeping the average global aragonite saturation ratio above 2.75:1. That would mean keeping atmospheric CO2 levels below about 430 parts per million, which is lower than the 450 ppm that scientists say is the safe upper limit for global warming.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Ozone depletion

Boundary: Average concentration of stratospheric ozone no lower than 276 Dobson units
Current level: 283 Dobson units

Diagnosis: Safe, and improving

The ozone hole that formed in the stratosphere over Antarctica in the 1970s was a classic example of an environmental tipping point. Ozone-destroying chemicals built up in the frigid stratosphere until they abruptly - and unexpectedly - caused the ozone layer over the Antarctic to shift into a new state, with ozone all but absent in the spring. Nobody saw it coming, as nobody understood at the time that the chemistry of polar stratospheric clouds makes ozone-destroying chemicals more potent, leading to runaway ozone destruction.
The world acted quickly to heal the hole. With most of the culprit chemicals now banned, the worst of the danger has passed.

It is not over entirely, however. One concern is global warming. Trapping more heat close to the Earth's surface leaves the stratosphere colder. This means that the Arctic stratosphere could get cold enough in coming years for the remaining ozone-eating chemicals in the atmosphere to open up an ozone hole over the northern continents.

Away from the poles we look safe, unless there is some unknown quirk of atmospheric chemistry waiting to trip us up. Rockström and Paul Crutzen of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany - who won his Nobel prize for ozone-layer chemistry - recommend preventing stratospheric ozone concentrations outside the polar regions from falling by more than 5 per cent, or below a global average of 276 Dobson units (a measurement of the density of stratospheric ozone). With the concentrations of ozone-eaters still falling, it seems likely that we will stay within this planetary boundary.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Fresh water

Boundary: No more than 4000 cubic kilometers of fresh water consumed per year
Current level: 2600 cubic kilometers per year

Diagnosis: Boundary will be approached by mid-century

Humans now control most of the world's rivers, damming and diverting many of them to death. Thanks to us, a quarter of the world's river systems no longer reach the ocean for at least part of the year. This is drying out swathes of the landscape, emptying wetlands and destroying fisheries.

Excess water use threatens humans in three ways: shortage of drinking water, loss of irrigation for agriculture, and changes in climate. Over the past 50 years, dams on rivers in central Asia have dried up the Aral Sea. Without the influence of the sea on climate, the entire region has become hotter in summer, colder in winter and more arid all year.
We need to limit the consumption of river water to around 4000 cubic kilometers per year, but we have a way to go before we hit that limit.

Meanwhile, as rivers run dry, we are pumping out ever more of the underground reserves held in the pores of rocks, many of them fossil reserves that will never be replaced by the rains. And we are disrupting other parts of the hydrological cycle by draining wetlands and razing forests. Deforestation of the Amazon will reduce evaporation rates in the tropical Americas, potentially changing weather patterns in the northern hemisphere, including the Asian monsoon.

Rockström, who is a hydrologist, suggests that preventing regional water crises from disrupting our global life-support systems will require limiting the consumption of river water to around 4000 cubic kilometers per year. That is roughly one-third of the flow down accessible rivers, excluding remote untamed rivers in rainforests and the Arctic. We have a way to go before we hit that limit. Current use is about 2600 cubic kilometers. But the excess is "largely committed already" for irrigating the crops needed to feed the growing world population, says Rockström. To keep within the boundary while feeding the world, we might have to curb irrigation of non-food crops like cotton or biofuels.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Biodiversity

Boundary: Annual species extinction rate no more than 10 per million per year
Current level: At least 100 per million per year

Diagnosis: Boundary far exceeded

Humans are driving species to extinction by plowing up or paving over their habitats, by introducing alien species like rats and weeds, by poisoning them with pollution, by hunting them for food and, increasingly, by changing the climate. Individual species may not matter much on their own, but collectively they form ecosystems that provide a range of vital "ecosystem services", such as recycling waste, cleaning water, absorbing carbon and maintaining the chemistry of the oceans.

Although we know that high levels of biodiversity are essential to healthy ecosystems, it is not yet clear how much can be lost before ecosystems collapse, nor which species are the key players in a given ecosystem. So Rockström's team settled on crude extinction rates as the best "interim indicator" of the state of ecosystems. They put the current extinction rate at more than 100 extinctions per million species per year, and rising. That compares with a natural "background" extinction rate of around 0.3. Up to 30 per cent of all mammal, bird and amphibian species will be threatened with extinction this century.

This cannot go on safely. Current rates may even mirror those of the "big five" mass extinctions of the past half-billion years, including the meteorite strike that did for the dinosaurs. While the world carried on after those events, it was massively transformed. To avoid a repeat, they suggest a safe long-term annual extinction rate of no more than 10 per million species per year. By that measure, they say, "humanity has already entered deep into a danger zone... if the current extinction rate is sustained".

Earth's nine life-support systems: Nitrogen and phosphorus cycles

Boundary 1: No more than 35 million tons of nitrogen fixed from the atmosphere per year
Current level: 121 million tons per year
Diagnosis: Boundary far exceeded and effects worsening
Boundary 2: No more than 11 million tons of phosphorus to flow into the oceans per year
Current level: 9 million tons per year
Diagnosis: Boundary not yet exceeded

Nitrogen is an essential component of all living things, yet only a small amount of the planet's stock of nitrogen is in a form that living things can absorb. This is "fixed" out of the air by bacteria in a range of leguminous plants. But you can have too much of a good thing. So other microbes "denitrify" ecosystems, converting the element back into forms not available for living things. This is the nitrogen cycle.

Farmers have always interfered with the cycle, because nitrogen availability often limits the fertility of soils. They have boosted production by planting more leguminous crops, like clover.

Then, a century ago, the nitrogen cycle changed forever when Fritz Haber, a German chemist, invented an industrial process for fixing nitrogen from the atmosphere to make chemical fertilizer. Today, 80 million tons of nitrogen is fixed from the atmosphere in this way each year and poured onto the world's fields.

But farming inefficiencies mean that most of this nitrogen runs off the land into rivers and oceans. Much of the nitrogen that does get into crops is later excreted by humans into sewers. We further fix nitrogen by cultivating legumes and burning fossil fuels, timber and crops. Put all that together, and we fix around 121 million tons of nitrogen a year, far more than nature does - and nature cannot cope.

The excess nitrogen is acidifying soils, killing vulnerable species and saturating ecosystems so that they lose the ability to recycle the nitrogen back into the air. Meanwhile, some over-fertilized lakes and seas in heavily farmed regions fill with "blooms" of aquatic life which then die and decompose, sucking all the oxygen out of the water in the process. The legacy of such blooms is anoxic "dead zones". At the last count there were more than 400 such zones in the oceans, covering 250,000 square kilometers, including parts of the Gulf of Mexico, the Baltic Sea and waters between Japan and Korea.

Rockström tentatively sets the safe level for human additions to the nitrogen cycle at about 35 million tons a year, one-quarter of the current total. Reaching that figure while continuing to feed the world is, to say the least, a tough ask.

Phosphorus, also used as fertilizer, is potentially part of the same problem. Around 20 million tons of phosphorus is mined from rock deposits annually and about half of this ends up in the ocean - about eight times the natural influx - where it contributes to blooms and dead zones. Rockström's team estimates that we can add up to 11 million tons of phosphorus per year without serious repercussions.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Land use

Boundary: No more than 15 per cent of ice-free land to be used for crops
Current level: 12 per cent

Diagnosis: Boundary will be approached by mid-century

The spread of farming into natural ecosystems, especially tropical forests, continues apace. Half the world's tropical rainforests are gone and large areas of grasslands once open to wildlife are now fenced in for livestock ranching. According to Rockström, the expansion of agriculture is the major driver behind loss of ecosystem services and threatens to both exacerbate climate change and damage the freshwater cycle. Meanwhile, urban areas are spreading across more densely populated regions like east and south Asia, Europe and North America.

Rockström sets his land-use boundary at the conversion of no more than 15 per cent of global ice-free land to growing crops. But he says how safe that will prove depends a lot on how we use the land. Will biologically rich and hydrologically important ecosystems be protected? Will farms be allowed to empty rivers and fill the wider world with nitrogen? Will cities contain their pollution?

Currently we have converted around 12 per cent of ice-free land to farming - about 16 million square kilometres. The boundary will likely be reached in the next few decades. To avoid going beyond it will require, above all, concentrating farming more intensively in the most productive areas, while containing its wider impact.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Climate Change

Boundary: Atmospheric CO2 concentration no higher than 350 parts per million
Pre-industrial level: 280 ppm
Current level: 387 ppm

Diagnosis: Boundary exceeded

This is the big one. Voluminous historical evidence shows that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is the planet's main thermostat, and that raising CO2 concentrations warms the planet. We have done that in spades by burning fossil fuels, raising atmospheric levels from a pre-industrial 280 parts per million to the current 387 ppm. Politicians still debate what a dangerous level might be, but Rockström's team, advised by James Hansen, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, says we passed the danger threshold more than 20 years ago, when we exceeded 350 ppm.

Why choose 350 ppm? After all, we have passed that already, and we are still here. The answer is that we haven't yet experienced all the warming from that amount of CO2, not by a long chalk.

Every degree of warming caused directly by CO2 is amplified by feedback processes. Melting sea ice exposes dark ocean, which means that the planet absorbs more solar heat. Warmer temperatures increase evaporation and so raise atmospheric levels of water vapor, another potent greenhouse gas. These feedbacks are the basis for the IPCC's warning that a warming of 1 °C due to CO2 will escalate to around 3 °C.

It may get even worse. Some climate scientists, notably Hansen, argue that there are other "slow feedbacks". For example, warming will eventually destabilize natural reserves of CO2 and another greenhouse gas, methane, stored in soils and permafrost. If so, warming of 1 °C due to CO2 could eventually escalate to 6 °C.

This is far too much to handle, says Rockström. To keep the big polar ice sheets largely intact and prevent massive flooding will require limiting warming to just 2 °C. The widely-accepted target to achieve that is 450 ppm, but if the slow feedbacks are correct we will have to pull CO2 levels back under 350 ppm to reach that target.

The good news is that we may have a bit of time, because those long-term feedbacks will take a while to kick in fully. Probably.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Aerosol loading

Boundary: Not yet identified
Diagnosis: Unknown

Human activity churns up the earth, creating dust, while burning coal, dung, forests and crop waste fills the atmosphere with soot, sulphates and other particles. We have more than doubled the global concentration of these aerosols since pre-industrial times. That haze influences the climate and is a threat to human health, so "aerosol loading" should be considered a potential planetary boundary.

The impacts are highly variable, though. Some aerosols, like sulphates, reflect solar radiation, causing cooling. Others, like soot, absorb and re-radiate it, causing warming. The global balance of these heating and cooling effects is unclear.

Aerosols also affect the climate in other ways. For example, the near-permanent brown haze across southern and eastern Asia is a subject of intense research as it appears to influence both the timing and the positioning of the monsoon.

Meanwhile, aerosols reduce crop yields by falling on fields, and also clog up human lungs, contributing to millions of deaths from lung and heart disease.

The damage from aerosols can be great, but their highly variable impacts left Rockström's team unable to put a number on safe limits.

Earth's nine life-support systems: Chemical pollution

Boundary: Not yet identified
Diagnosis: Unknown

There are approaching 100,000 different human-made chemical compounds in use around the world today, in millions of different products. Additional compounds are created as by-products of manufacturing.

Chemicals are mainly a worry because of their impact on the health of humans and wildlife. Among those of greatest concern are toxic heavy metals like lead, organic pollutants that accumulate in tissues, and radioactive compounds.

A handful of these are already controlled. For instance, the "dirty dozen" persistent organic pollutants - which include DDT, PCBs and dioxins - are controlled under the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Compounds. But the impact of most others remains undiagnosed. And even apparently benign chemicals may combine to produce toxic effects greater than the sum of their individual effects.

One idea considered by Rockström's group is that autism and ADHD in children may result from the widespread exposure to low concentrations of cocktails of these chemicals in the environment, creating what they call "a silent pandemic of subtle neuro-developmental disorders in children, possibly on a global scale".

An all-encompassing "chemicals boundary" could be valuable. But, say the authors, it is too early to say how or where it should be set.


However you cut it, our life-support systems are not in good shape. Three of nine boundaries - climate change, biodiversity and nitrogen fixation - have been exceeded. We are fast approaching boundaries for the use of fresh water and land, and the ocean acidification boundary seems to be looming in some oceans. For two of the remaining three, we do not yet have the science to even guess where the boundaries are.

That leaves one piece of good news. Having come close to destroying the ozone layer, exposing both ourselves and ecosystems to dangerous ultraviolet radiation, we have successfully stepped back from the brink. The ozone hole is gradually healing. That lifeline has been grabbed. At least it shows action is possible - and can be successful.