In recent years, increasing attention has been paid to the emergence of a new economic system that prioritizes people and the planet over profits and GDP growth. Through the development of the New Economy movement, policymakers, nonprofit leaders, and academics alike are exploring ways to wedge new solutions into widening cracks in the Old Economy.
They’re sketching a beautiful vision. Communities host markets rich in social and economic capital, dissimilar people share common connection, and the Earth swells pleasantly under the new attention paid to its well-being. Mechanisms for achieving behavioral change appear daily, both online and on the ground, with examples ranging from car sharing to clothes swapping. The tributaries flowing away from the powerful river of the “business-as-usual” economy are inching westward and eastward, even as the Mississippi of market life rushes north to south.
If you’re already tapped in to the New Economy, the less-charted waters of alternative economic arrangements—such as local currencies, babysitting co-ops, and yard sharing—probably don’t feel as alien to you as they might to your more conventionally minded neighbor. Good: We need courageous navigators to direct our communities’ courses. You’re easy—well, easier. You’re already sold on the morality underpinning the movement.
But what about the rest of America—those hopeful millions, swirling in the center of the economy’s current, who prefer steak to tofu, football to yoga. Those who are scuffed and bruised by business-as-usual but who are unwilling to stop treading water for fear of drowning in an accelerating current.
Think of this post as a friendly fireside chat entreating your most staunchly conservative Uncle George to “give this stuff a shot.” Let’s start with two examples from the field:
Two strangers are engaged in crisp small talk—“Yes, this is a humid spring!”—at a Cambridge, Massachusetts, coffee shop lined with ferns in milk-glass vases. One extends a paper bag brimming with pants in need of mending to the other. The exchange is brief. Cordial. Two weeks later, the pant-owner hovers on the sidewalk outside the same establishment, waiting to be reunited with her clothing. Waving, the other party approaches, precisely hemmed pants stacked in the same crinkled bag. Smiles broaden. Thank yous and you’re welcomes cascade simultaneously. It worked. The two former strangers upheld the trade’s agreement. The “recipient” confirms the timebank hours for exchange with the “provider” before parting. Both walk away—more connected, yet somehow lighter.
A retired postal worker circles a suburban Boston neighborhood in her 2001 Honda Accord, shadows stretching into sunset’s gray. She slows outside a beige, three-story home set on an neatly trimmed lawn. There, a young mother balances her two-year-old son on her right hip; heaping laundry baskets extend in a semi circle around the pair. The driver rushes up the sidewalk to assist. Soon, the car is loaded, the ride to the laundromat passes, and jokes are folded into t-shirts and shy toddler giggles. In this case, the trade is less formal—a ride to the laundromat for two hours of companionship for an empty nester.
Pretty idyllic, right? The best part is that these arrangements are real. Both are examples from my year of fieldwork studying time banking and “connected consumption” as part of economist Juliet Schor’s MacArthur Foundation project dedicated to investigating the movement.
Who, you might ask, wouldn’t want to live in a community where these warmer, gentler versions of economic exchange are the norm? It makes sense to me, too. But it's still a hard sell for much of America.
Though few would contest the ideals of expanding social capital, many might have trouble with the way the initiatives described above are packaged. Seemingly liberal, progressive, and even "hipster" alternatives are often uncomfortable options. And when you’re living with economic insecurity, everyday optimism can become a rare commodity.
Paradoxically, challenges to developing the mutual faith that facilitates timebank trades (and other "sharing solutions") increase proportionately with a person's vulnerability. I’d argue that the weight of living with daily economic insecurity fosters distrust. When time, energy, and cash are in short supply, the stakes escalate. There’s something about insecurity that makes the level-headed person irrational, the strong scrappy, and the scared selfish.
I make these claims after several decades of living and listening in my hometown of Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a once-vibrant textile mill town just upstream from the birthplace of the American industrial revolution. The community is a gorgeous but casually decaying semi-urban shell that spent this summer flirting with bankruptcy. It is here, in the Woonsockets of America, where the movement for the New Economy could make significant gains with the most conservative and vulnerable naysayer.
How? By translating its ideals into the language of quasi-religious American lore.
Connection and trust are the structural supports of the New Economy. It is crucial to respect and effectively communicate the movement’s position at the elbow of economics and faith. After listening, digesting, and theorizing the best way to present the movement for national adaptation, I’m left shaking my head at the relative silence on the fundamental underlying, unifying, and potentially problematic principle in all this.
There. I said it. As an apprehensive agnostic, I personally don’t have any ideas about a specific figurehead or religious tradition. But I also know that, without a spiritual motivation, asking vulnerable people to step away from the capitalistic structure that makes them feel safe by granting them a slim chance at “making it” will not work. End of story.
Maybe some of us find spiritual reserves in the secular togetherness of town hall meetings or community potlucks. But the reality is that this kind of spiritual expression is in the extreme minority in America. The majority of our country talks about God, capitalized.
Collaborative consumption evangelist Rachel Botsman just gave a talk at the TEDGlobal 2012 conference about a thorn in the movement’s optimistic soft side: online trust. (How can we guarantee that a stranger we connect with via the Internet really will return our pants or drive us to the laundromat?) And historian Gar Alperovitz has challenged New Economy thought leaders to move beyond “projects” to institutional paradigm shifts. To do this, we’ll need to siphon a sizable volume of the Mighty Mississippi into those alternative routes.
Sure, many New Economy initiatives are based on connection, exposure to others, and the solidarity that comes from working toward a shared goal. And they do require a radical departure from the Horatio Alger “rags-to-riches” myth. There’s also that pesky media rhetoric of individual insecurity to contend with, and the persistence of President Hoover’s call for rugged individualism. And don’t forget that as the potential for sizable wealth accumulation has slipped away from the majority, our country has developed a compensatory love affair with conspicuous consumption.
I don’t need to explain that emotional mysticism runs parallel to economic reality. Even if dear Uncle George may be wrong, his allegiance to winner-take-all capitalism is staunch. Elbows crunching into a rent-to-own faux granite kitchen table, he’s not budging until the presented alternative makes emotional sense. Holding on to the dream of hitting the capitalistic lottery is as seductive as it is insidious. It sticks. Set against capitalism’s roar, it feels like the only buoyant option.
There is a great missed opportunity for the New Economy, lost amid the tambourine percussion of progressive circles. If they’re able to stomach it, then conservative, moderates, and liberals can all rejoice in the reality that the mechanisms propelling the New Economy are completely apolitical. The plasticity of these mechanisms should not be understated. We, the surveyors of new economic topography, must go guerilla on spirituality to develop participation that spans political and class borders.
If you’re unconvinced, sit down with your most fiscally conservative acquaintance. Make the argument for the New Economy from an economic perspective; explain the value of slowing markets, reducing ecological damage, and sharing instead of owning. Then, shift tactics, and talk instead about God, Allah, Jehovah, or even plain old community values.
Whatever the conceptual vehicle, explain honestly why you believe that the New Economy is the moral economy. Discuss equalizing opportunity, diffusing access to services, and growing social capital from the authority of personal experience. Give examples from your life that help your friend feel (not reason) his way into the movement. Flavor this part of the pitch with pinches of historically grounded patriotism mingled with a spiritual calculus that allows value to take on a life outside its economic reduction.
Make the case for fellowship through the New Economy with empathy. We stand to lose the great American myth in capitalism’s retreat. It is uncomfortable. Fortunately, we stand to gain a new American reality. To do it, though, we’ve got to stop trying to convince everyone to be progressive. We’ve got to abandon the vision of the New Economy as by and for educated liberals alone. It is a partial dream at best. If we’re as morally motivated as we claim, then we’ll meet people exactly where they’re comfortable—both politically and spiritually.
Emilie Dubois is a sociology graduate student at Boston College who is working with New Dream board member Juliet Schor on a multi-year project to map the field of “connected consumption,” funded by and part of the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Connected Learning.