Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Breathing life into your local economy


Bartering can help cash-strapped families make ends meet while building a local economy.

Within every crisis is the opportunity for growth, and the current economic crisis offers a chance to build our local economies after decades of building credit-bubble economics. Many of us are realizing the fallacy of globalism, as our country has slipped from an exporter to an importer and most of our manufacturing jobs have fled our shores. We are so deeply in debt it will be a miracle if we ever get out.

Our culture has come to value wealth in dollars and overlook what real wealth means: community, that sense of belonging to a certain place and calling it home. Most of us rather would live comfortably and know that our friends and neighbors have the same comfort level than feel that we are separated by wealth from our peers. Most people we think of as rich do not want their wealth to cause poverty for others.

Having real wealth and a functional economy means that we live happy and productive lives, in harmony with the Earth, and build strong, stable families and communities while keeping the ecosystems that sustain us intact. Real wealth is passing on a healthy planet to the next generation so that they will have what they need to survive.

Economists are beginning to see the wisdom in refocusing the economy from the global to the local and, by extension, revitalizing American communities. David Korten, who wrote "Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth," says: "As challenging as the economic meltdown may be, it buys time to build a new economy that serves life rather than money. It lays bare the fact that the existing financial system has brought our way of life and the natural systems on which we depend to the brink of collapse."

So how do we build an economy based on living within the natural limits of our planet?

Use only today's sunlight. Much of our current environmental crisis comes from our using stored sunlight in the form of fossil fuels. If we wean ourselves from the artificial productivity of oil and rely instead on capturing and using just today's sunlight, wind, tidal and other forms of energy, then we are living within our means and respecting our planet's natural limits and resources.

Foster cottage industry. So much of our current economy depends on our making money from money. We need to foster local industry and develop industry around local needs. For example, Berkeley, Calif., restaurateur Alice Waters pays local farms to fill her restaurant's needs rather than ordering meats and produce from outside the community.

Invest in the community. If a local farm or business is going under, perhaps we can save it by making modest investments. For example, in Morrisville, Vt., a community restaurant paid its investors with $90 worth of meals each quarter.

Most of us lost a great deal of the values of our retirement accounts. If those accounts were invested in local sole proprietorships instead of large-scale C-corporation global businesses, we would be reaping a rate of return three times higher. Local businesses also offer a benefit that global corporations cannot: They improve the quality of your community. You always can check on your investment when you pass it on your way home every day.

Barter. Money is a new concept compared with bartering. There are always things with which we can barter, such as homemade preserves, fresh eggs, baby-sitting and handyman services, and always things we need that we don't quite have the money for. People who have lost their jobs may feel awkward about asking for help. Bartering allows folks to keep their dignity by allowing them to give things in return, and it also creates local economic impact. It is an ancient and time-honored tradition that helps many people make ends meet.

Be a good neighbor. When we have to face the trials and tribulations of life alone, they are magnified. When we have the love and help of neighbors, our problems are diminished. Neighborly acts create economic value. If your garden is overflowing, leave a bag of zucchini on your neighbor's porch. If you have an extra pan of lasagna, bring dinner to an elderly neighbor. We all appreciate homemade and homegrown things, and it may make a world of difference to someone who has just lost his job.

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