It's Time for a New Economics

Having worked on and off in the arena of sustainable agriculture for nearly fifty years in both the government and nonprofit sectors, I am asked/challenged most often with the question “When will the production of locally grown, nutritious food become economically viable?” 

For years I struggled mightily to find an honest and (very important in this “sound-byte era”) concise response to that needling question.  The struggle is finally over.  The answer came to me clear as a bell: It already is.  I came to this conclusion upon realizing that the question we should be asking is “Why is our current economic system incapable of meeting the basic needs of so many citizens?”

This epiphany is in large part a result of my recent experiences in Cuba. My first visit to the island was at the end of October 2014 – less than two months before presidents Obama and Castro announced that it was time for their two countries to take serious steps toward renewing diplomatic relations. I was part of a delegation organized by the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and supported by the Christopher Reynolds Foundation.  The delegation was seeking to learn more about what Cubans did to avoid starvation during their “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991. That singular event abruptly and forever severed Cuba’s major lifeline for agricultural exports and petroleum imports. The immediate results were the near implosion of its economy and looming starvation of its people.

A crisis of that nature leads to rapid no-nonsense prioritization. Priority number one for Cuba was finding ways to feed its people without petroleum or the economic support of the defunct Soviet Union. Cubans responded to this first challenge by developing an organic system of farming within a cooperative infrastructure. The Alamar Organopónico on the outskirts of Havana is one of the country’s premier agricultural cooperatives. The farm was created in 1997 to serve the surrounding neighborhood. Vivero Alamar is one of many organopónicos that have emerged since the early 1990s.  Employing seventeen workers, this 25-acre worker-owned organic farm provides 60-70 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed by the residents of Havana.

The other major challenge was finding a new economic system that acknowledges the value of Cuba’s crisis-driven strategy for sustainable food sovereignty. I was surprised by the animated and informed public conversations taking place during our visit around the economic failures of socialism.  The gist of those conversations boiled down to: Is there a system that can improve the overall economic condition of Cubans while preserving the significant social gains (health, education, agrarian reform) stemming from the Revolution?

A similar conversation is long overdue here in the United States.  It borders on the absurd to think that the reason for not supporting locally based strategies for producing nutritious food grown with environmentally sound practices is because they are deemed “uneconomical.”  In 1973 economist E. F. Schumacher wrote a seminal book entitled Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered.  Schumacher’s advocacy for a more ethical approach to economics resonates in 2016 as much as, if not more than, it did in 1973.  We are desperately in need of a new economics that prioritizes people’s needs over corporate greed.  Why not begin by demonstrating how such a system could deliver life-giving sustenance to all citizens?

This is not a utopian dream.  It is a goal that is well within sight if we are willing to adjust our vision.  Bernie Sanders is right on the mark with his call for a political revolution to get the U.S. back on track.  That revolution needs to be informed by what visionary polymath Buckminster Fuller called a “design science revolution” that would put the discoveries of science and technology to work on behalf of all humanity. The Buckminster Fuller Institute annually awards $100,000 to an individual or organization with the most comprehensive solution to a pressing global problem, helping “make the world work for everyone” while preserving – even enhancing – Earth’s overall ecological integrity.

A convergence of these two nonviolent, systemic revolutions provides the best hope of shedding light on alternatives to corporate trickle down as well as to government-planned economies and reveals pathways to economic systems that are truly for and by the people. Critical components of an equitable and just economics are already being implemented in communities where residents’ basic food needs are unmet in Cleveland, Detroit, Boston, and other cities across the country. Among the pieces of this promising economic puzzle are food banks, community land trusts, neighborhood markets, urban farms, urban farming zoning ordinances, worker-owned cooperatives, farmers’ markets, food policy councils, and regional food systems plans – all waiting to be assembled and complemented by pieces from other sectors such as housing, healthcare, education, and transportation. Local currencies are wonderfully disruptive innovations designed to support local businesses by keeping money circulating within communities and creating new value networks.  They are being incubated in communities as diverse as San Francisco, California, to Great Barrington, Massachusetts.  Taken together these social innovations, organizational strategies, and progressive policies are part of an evolving Community Systems Design Toolkit.

What we need now is proof of concept: one or more place-based pilots where a critical mass of these tools can be put into play and unleash the socioeconomic synergies (simultaneously eradicating so-called food deserts; providing new options for preserving open space; creating new job opportunities; generating civic pride; empowering citizens) that illustrate the true value of this approach to economic development.

As Manuel DeLanda points out in his remarkable book A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, there are historical precedents for the economic disruption that is imbedded in the structure of society:

The birth of Europe in the eleventh century of our era was made possible by a great agricultural intensification.  A series of innovations occurred which consolidated to form a remarkably efficient new way of exploiting the soil. These innovations (the heavy plow, new ways of harnessing the horse’s muscular energy, the open-field system and triennial field rotation) were mutually enhancing as well as interdependent, so that only when they finally meshed were their intensifying effects felt. 

Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century there’s a new opportunity for synergistic meshing; however, rather than exploiting the soils, this meshing seeks to nurture and co-evolve with them, with the emphasis on synchronizing our economics with Nature’s regenerative cycles.

The two scarcity-driven extremes (capitalism and socialism) have dominated our thinking regarding what is possible for far too long. We deserve an economics that is at once practical and fueled by hope. In order to bring this about, we must break free from the linear (left-right-centrist) approach to thinking about economics. It would be ironic to say the least if a collaboration between Cuba and the U.S. contributed in some small way to the creation of a transcendent, synergistic economic system.

It's Time for a New Economics by Greg Watson

 

To learn more about the Schumacher Center's work in Cuba, visit the Cuba-U.S. Agroecology Network's website.

 


Greg Watson is the Schumacher Center's Director of Policy and Systems Design.  

He served as the 19th Commissioner of Agriculture with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts under Governor Deval Patrick and also served as Commissioner (1990 to 1993) under then Governors Dukakis and Weld.  As executive director of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, he made urban agriculture a major focus of the community's revitalization plan, which featured community gardens, a farmers' market, and a 10,000 square foot community greenhouse.

In the 1990s he spent four years at the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, first as Education Director and later as Executive Director. The Institute was an applied research center that practiced organic agriculture as well as aquaculture and did pioneering work in bio-shelter design. While there, Watson gained hands-on experience in ecological design and environmental advocacy and organizing.  He also became a founding member of Cape & Islands Self Reliance – a nonprofit that continues to educate residents about energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies.

In 2006 The Boston Globe Magazine cited him as one of 11 "Bostonians Changing the World."