A Living Economy
The primary purpose of a true market economy is not to make money for the rich and powerful. When Adam Smith conceptualized the idea of the market economy in his classic The Wealth of Nations, he had in mind economies that allocate human and material resources justly and sustainably to meet the self-defined needs of people and community.
When enterprises are locally rooted, human-scale, owned by stakeholders, and held accountable to the rule of law by democratically elected governments, there is a natural incentive for all concerned to take human and community needs and interests into account. When income and ownership are equitably distributed, justice is served and political democracy is strong. When needs are met locally by locally owned enterprises, people have greater control over their lives, money is recycled in the community rather than leaking off into the global financial casino, jobs are more secure, economies are more stable, and there are the means and the incentives to protect the environment and to build the relationships of mutual trust and responsibility that are the foundation of community.
Our quality of life would be stunningly different if we based economic decisions on life values rather than purely financial values—a natural choice if owners had to live with the non-financial consequences of their decisions.
Full-cost pricing of energy, materials, and land use could expose the real inefficiencies of factory farming, conventional construction, and urban sprawl and make life-serving alternatives comparatively cost-effective.
The ideal of a living economy might seem an impossible dream, except for the fact that so many of its elements are already in place. There are millions of for- and not-for-profit enterprises and public initiatives around the world aligned with the values and organizational principles of living economies. They include local independent businesses of all sorts, from bookstores to bakeries, community banks to independent media outlets. Indeed, independent, human-scale businesses are by far the majority of all businesses, provide most jobs, create nearly all new jobs, and are the source of most innovation.
So how do we get from a few million living enterprises that are struggling to survive at the fringes of the current global economy to a healthy planetary system of thriving living economies? The answer is, “We grow it into being.”
A system that no longer serves can be displaced only by a more powerful system. According to Margaret Wheatley, “This means that the work of change is to start over, to organize new local efforts, connect them to each other, and know that their values and practices can emerge as something even stronger.”
Making it happen
Those interested in helping to grow a living economy in their own community might start with a few simple questions. What do local people and businesses regularly buy that is or could be supplied locally by socially and environmentally responsible independent enterprises? Which existing local businesses are trying to practice living economy values? In what sectors are they clustered? Are there collaborative efforts aligned with living economy values already underway? The answers will point to promising opportunities.
Food is often a logical place to start. Everyone needs and cares about food, and food can be grown almost everywhere, is freshest and most wholesome when local, and is our most intimate connection to the land.
Countless local living economy initiatives are being launched all across North America and around the world. The greater the number and diversity of such initiatives, the more rapidly the web of an emergent planetary system of local living economies can grow, and the more readily each of us can redirect our life energy toward living economies in our shopping, employment, and investment choices. Through our individual and collective choices, we can grow into being the economic institutions, relationships, and culture of a just, sustainable, and compassionate world of living economies that work for all.
Adapted from "Economies for Life," by David Korten, YES! Magazine, Fall 2002.
The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, or BALLE, is the world’s fastest growing network of sustainable businesses committed to building local economies and transforming the community economic development field. BALLE is comprised of nearly 60 local networks of independent businesses in a variety of locales across the US and Canada, and represents more than 20,000 entrepreneurs
BALLE believes that local, independent businesses are among our most potent change agents, uniquely prepared to take on the challenges of the twenty-first century with a nimbleness, sense of place, and relationship-based approach others lack. They are more than employers and profit-makers; they are neighbors, community builders and the starting point for social innovation, aligning commerce with the common good and bringing transparency, accountability, and a caring human face to the marketplace.
BALLE believes in the power of bottom-up, networked change. In the age of the Internet and social networking and the emergence of “glocalism” as a new form of social consciousness, we believe that never before have communities possessed as much power to determine their futures as they do today and in ways that are good for people, places and the planet.
By catalyzing and connecting local business networks dedicated to Living Economy principles, we are movement builders, growing an ever-expanding constituency for sustainable businesses and sustainable communities, from Main Street to the world.
By strengthening these networks, we are field leaders, deepening our understanding of community economic development frameworks and practices while experimenting with innovations aimed at building thriving local economies.