There are many reasons why Anthony Flaccavento can’t stop talking and writing about the need to expand upon local “bottom up economy” success stories. The near collapse of Wall Street in 2008 precipitated a global economic recession that put millions of people out of work and forced local and state agencies into widespread cutbacks. The economic decline also demonstrated just how vulnerable most communities have become, particularly in Rural America. At the same time, mounting evidence of climate change surrounds us, from rapidly melting glaciers and Antarctic ice sheets, to prolonged droughts and other severe weather. And the problems aren’t just in the atmosphere: over the past 100 years, the amount of productive land available per capita has shrunk dramatically, from 14 acres per person worldwide to just over 3.5 acres.
Can we simply grow our way out of this, or do we need a new approach, a new vision of prosperity?
Many Americans equate democracy with the free market, believing that you cannot have political freedom without “free market” capitalism, and that any limits on the market, whether they are limits on consumers or on businesses and corporations, are an infringement on political liberty and democracy.
Yet from Arizona to Vermont, Anthony “Tony” Flaccavento and many, many others have helped foster the emergence of a very different reality, where the health of local communities and the prosperity of everyday people is the starting point. These emerging, bottom up economies recognize the power of the market, but also its limits and problems. The farmers, entrepreneurs, and activists in those communities are writing a new story, one that is unfolding something like this:
“The economy” is made up of scores of smaller, regional economies, which in turn are built on the economic activities of households, neighborhoods and communities. New economies are emerging to make people’s lives better, fuller, happier and more secure, because the economy after all is for people, not the other way around. This is the transition from consumptive dependency to productive resilience.
These local and regional economies are built around a diverse array of businesses, from the most traditional to the newest and most experimental, but all with strong links to their local communities. There is a growing recognition among these businesses that they must not only serve their customers and workers, but also respect the places where they reside, finding ways to conduct business utilizing the gifts and respecting the limits of the ecosystem of which they’re a part. This is the transition from trickle down problems to bottom up, living solutions.
These emerging economies are building upon the strengths and assets of their particular places, including the culture, the unique skills of the people, the built environment and the natural world. In this way, businesses and the economy develop distinctly rather than generically, and cannot easily be replaced or outsourced. The ownership of these businesses is primarily in private hands, though increasingly they are also owned by the workers, the producers, the customers or the community. This is the transition from concentrated wealth to worker ownership and community capital.
In seeking to solve problems and build community wealth through the economy, they are also building regional and national networks of learning and exchange, of public discourse and policy, to strengthen and magnify their work. This is the transition from a thousand flickers of light to networks linked together for learning, doing and change.
While respecting their histories and traditions, these increasingly vibrant communities are also cultivating social entrepreneurship and supporting economic innovation, new forms of media and the arts, community design and civic engagement. They are reinvigorating the public sphere as well as the private. This is the transition from concentrated corporate media to energizing civic conversations.
Most fundamentally of all, these emerging economies and energized communities are beginning to ask not “How are we going to create jobs?” but “What is the work that needs to be done?” In this way, fundamental economic choices are becoming fundamental public choices, based on the health and well-being of people, on the prosperity of communities. This is the transition from a politics of lobbyists and money to a community-based politics of engagement.