Is it possible to create an economy that prioritizes both human well-being and Earth’s natural systems? Two weeks ago, I attended a gathering in rural New York of some of the leading minds and practitioners on this question, and the answer was a resounding “yes!”
It’s clear that the current economic system—as well as high-level efforts to “green” this economy using the same old flawed strategies—fall far short in meeting the needs of both people and the planet. For the past decade and half, New Dream has worked to promote an alternative vision for society—a “new dream” that focuses less on growth-at-all costs, and more on what really matters: creating a meaningful life, contributing to community and society, valuing nature, and spending time with family and friends.
What’s encouraging about the recent “Strategies for a New Economy” conference, hosted by the New Economics Institute (NEI), is that this alternative vision is finally getting the attention it deserves. We need an economy that cares about people and is also capable of addressing the most serious environmental challenges of our times, among them rising resource depletion and climate change. The good news is that, as participants at the NEI event demonstrated, this alternative system is not only here, but it’s growing in leaps and bounds.
Here are 10 takeaways from the conference:
The United States is the biggest economy in the world, but we Americans have gotten ourselves into a sticky mess. The conundrum? Conventional economic wisdom says that our economy must grow—all of our metrics depend on rising GDP and ever-increasing material output. But the physical realities of our planet make it so we can’t continue to use resources like we are indefinitely, at least without unpleasant and dangerous consequences for Earth’s climate and ultimately our own well-being.
We need to find ways to achieve our goals for prosperous, high-achieving societies in less destructive ways, using new measures of progress and tapping into the wealth of creativity and innovation we have at our disposal. We also need to rethink our views about economic self-interest. For those ready to accept the challenge, transitioning to the “new economy” may in fact be the most self-interested action we can take.
Ready or not, system change is happening around us. We sense it when we see that, across America, conservatives and progressives alike are waking up and saying, “something is wrong” and seeking out solutions. Historically, societies go through periods of transition, and it isn’t always smooth (though it can be). According to political economist Gar Alperovitz, we are in a unique moment of “stalemate, stagnation, and decay.”
The good news is that this makes us more open to ideas and innovation: a rethinking is possible. This allows us to develop a new way forward, to institutionalize a new direction and a new system that we build together. But it doesn’t mean that change isn’t scary. Fortunately, we Americans are an innovative lot, and we know how to prepare for a challenge. As NEI president Bob Massie explains, “In moments of crisis, America has gathered up its best forms and extended them into the future.” There’s no reason we can’t continue to do this now.
Across the country, Americans are resisting the notion that our primary role in society is as consumers. Of course, we all need to consume to survive, but as writer and organizer Stephanie Mills so aptly puts it, “We can consume more elegantly” by reevaluating our “needs” and taking into account the broader impacts of our consumption. More and more Americans are realizing that living off credit and working long hours to acquire more stuff does not equal happiness, even though advertisers, economists, and our political representatives keep assuring us that it does. (“It’s kinda like when you’re no longer getting the flavor out of the bubble gum anymore but you’re still chewing,” says writer Vicki Robin.)
So what’s the alternative? Local, living economies that appeal to us as people, not as rational actors in an economic construct. Local economies offer us the chance to make human connections that we’re losing in an automated, mono-cultured world. Studies show that Americans have 10 times more conversations per visit at the farmers’ market versus the supermarket. “The real appeal of the local economy,” notes writer and activist Bill McKibben, “is its social superiority.”
In almost all aspects of society—whether it’s the energy we use, the food we eat, or how we invest our money—we know how to do things in ways that are not only smarter and more efficient, but also better for the planet and society as a whole. Inspiration and real-world examples abound. Take the Evergreen Cooperatives of Cleveland, Ohio, which are using an employee-owned, for-profit approach to address the stagnation and decay in America’s Rust Belt, pioneering innovative models of job creation, wealth building, and sustainability.
On a bigger scale, the state of Vermont is embarking on a bold experiment to pilot-test sustainability and localization, capitalizing on its diverse agricultural heritage and other assets. Across the country, we’re moving from landscapes of isolated sustainable food “projects” to sustainable food systems. Communities from coast to coast are recognizing the need to “innovate or collapse.”
As social strategist Alnoor Ladha puts it, the old economy, with its for-profit business model, is “so 20th century.” Businesses predicated on advancing the public good, not simply accumulating private profit, have an important role to play in building the new economy.
And young entrepreneurs, such as the founders of Etsy, an onine marketplace that is empowering very-very small businesses, may be our greatest asset. They are not stuck in old ideologies, and they are creating an alternative to corporate capitalism that is not “state socialism” but rather built on innovation and creativity, reflecting the best of American culture and harkening to our traditions. As these alternatives take hold, older, more established business forms may need to gracefully give way to new ways, new ethics, and new leadership.
Financial well-being is only a very small part of our overall well-being, but it gets undue attention in the current economic system. We need to look beyond money and recognize that knowledge, relationships, passion, skills, and many of the other assets we possess are also forms of currency—most of them far more useful than money. As Art Brock, co-founder of the MetaCurrency Project, explains, “We’re hiding a mountain of wealth behind a molehill of money.”
The question for us as individuals is, how do we disengage with money and invest it more freely so it’s useful to society, without experiencing the feeling of losing our safety nets? The answer lies in community, and in rebuilding the relationships that make us feel more secure and less isolated. We can also embrace tools that help us share our assets non-monetarily, such as time banks and barter networks. See New Dream's recent Guide to Sharing for more ideas and ways to build sharing in your community.
If we want to build wealth (of all types) in our communities, then we have to make sure that capital, businesses, and jobs stay local. This means favoring local enterprise over big-box stores, and home towns over “clone towns.” It also means leveraging the largest employers, purchasers, and builders in our communities—like schools, hospitals, and universities—to invest locally. Institutions, as well as individuals, should be rewarded for investing in the communities they serve, not deterred, as they currently often are.
Two encouraging models of this type of support are Syracuse’s Near Westside Initiative, a multi-institutional effort to revitalize neighborhoods through the use of art, technology, and innovations, and The Oberlin Project, a systems-oriented effort to create a new, sustainable base for economic and community development in Ohio.
Historically, economists and politicians predicted that as the U.S. economy expanded, Americans would have more time to pursue leisure activities. Reclaiming our time has been a primary focus for New Dream over the years. As John de Graaf, founder of the Take Back Your Time initiative, explains, the “leisure” side of economics has dropped out of the equation for most Americans, in favor of simply making more money.
We need to create an economy where people are able to shorten their work hours and enjoy a high quality of life, while still being able to support their families (and without consuming more and more stuff). New Dream co-founder Juliet Schor envisions a “plenitude” economy that entails a major shift to new sources of wealth, green technologies, and different ways of living. At the policy level, one model for change is the Netherlands’ Working Hours Adjustment Act, which enables employees to choose their desired number of working hours at the same wage level and with benefits pro-rated.
Our country is increasingly polarized, and based on politics alone it would appear that we are a country of vast difference. But within American society, there is remarkable convergence around many issues, if not on all proposed “solutions.” Looking at polls, it’s clear that most Americans don’t think the country is going in the right direction. They don’t trust politicians, and they aren’t confident in the current economic system.
Meanwhile, traditional American values endure. We value independence, innovation, creativity, hard work, opportunity, self-reliance, family, and “the little guy.” Notably, these are all hallmarks of the new economy. As many observers have noted, the new economy is in many ways a more all-American, “conservative” option than the system we’re currently operating in, which is not helping the majority of Americans maximize their strengths and reach their goals.
Farmers' markets. Car sharing. B Corporations. Impact investing. Barter networks. The sharing economy. Community supported agriculture. Local currencies. Worker-owned cooperatives. Local investment clubs. Heard of any of these? The reality is that the new economy, boosted by 21st-century communications and other technologies, is everywhere we look. America is awash with new models of wealth creation, new institutions, new ideas, and new cultural patterns—and together, it adds up to something significant. Certainly, there is much work to be done. But it’s clear that our local economies and communities wouldn’t be as strong as they are today without the incredible models of cooperation and resource sharing that are now emerging at all levels, taking people from hopelessness to hope.
For more on these themes, visit New Dream's website (www.newdream.org) as well as the website of the NEI conference, which includes a comprehensive list of resources as well as video of some of the speakers.
Also, check out the Global Transition to a New Economy map, an online tool that showcases innovative projects around the world that challenge business-as-usual and contribute to the systemic change to the economy that is so urgently required.
Lisa Mastny is Director of Communications and Online Media at New Dream.