When attending meetings with peace and justice activists, I often find myself the only business person in the room. Inevitably, someone makes a comment about the evils of business, or greedy capitalists, or some other negative comment that implies business people are the enemy.
I couldn’t agree more about the harm done by profit-driven multinational corporations, but what about businesspeople like me who are working to build a new economy, one that is more just and sustainable?
Because they view all business in a negative light, many activists don’t seem to think it matters where they spend their money. This experience showed me the wide gap that exists between the peace and justice movement and the local economy movement. Just think how much more powerful we would be in changing the world for the better if we worked together to build a peace economy.
Our Economic Choices Have Consequences
Most economic transactions we make in our daily lives ultimately contribute toward building a peace economy or a war economy, a world of compassion and well being, or a world of indifference and violence. Have you ever imagined that we consumers have such power? Likely not.
Materialism teaches us simply to spend without thinking. But there are consequences to our everyday economic decisions that cumulatively build an economic system that has tremendous impact on other people, and our entire planet.
Materialism and militarism are closely related. Along with racism they form the giant triple evils that Dr. King called upon us to defeat. Each of the three leads us toward cruelty and war, and each depends on a complacent citizenry. By becoming informed about the impact of our decisions and learning to use our economic power mindfully we have the ability to co-create an economy that works for all and bring into being the world we want to live in—one that is healthy, just and peaceful.
Protecting Corporate Interests
Since the rise of colonialism, the global economy has been built on exploitation of indigenous populations and their natural resources, and continues today under the guise of economic development. Profit-driven transnational corporations with a grow-or-die mandate have an ever-expanding need for more and more natural resources, cheap labor and new markets in which to sell their products. As nation-states have done throughout history, the U.S. government deploys our military, or its surrogates, to ensure access for U.S. corporations, whether it's oil in the Middle East, cheap labor in Central America or new markets in Asia.
“The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist,” quipped Thomas Friedman. “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15."
Not only do they use the fist of the military to protect their interests, these powerful corporations also wield alarming control over most important aspects of our daily lives: the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the news we hear, and even the government we rely on to protect the interests of its citizens.
Where does corporate power come from? We consumers hand it over when we purchase their products, deposit our money in their banks and invest in them through the stock market. It would be one thing if these corporations had our best interests in mind, but they too often make decisions to increase short-term profits, with little regard for the long-term impact on people and planet.
Numbed by pervasive advertising that equates happiness with consumption, citizens are often oblivious to the harm being done by our corporate-controlled global economic system. Meanwhile, we are losing our freedom to corporate control, creating the conditions for continuous war and the destruction of the natural systems that support life on Earth.
Another Economy Is Possible
There is an alternative to corporate domination and the violence and ruin it brings. By building a new global economy in which every community has food and water security and locally produced renewable energy, we can create the foundation for world peace. The British economist and author of Small Is Beautiful, E. F. Schumacher, puts it simply: “People who live in highly self-sufficient local communities are less likely to get involved in large-scale violence than people whose existence depends on world-wide systems of trade.”
Don’t be overwhelmed by the enormity of rebuilding our global economy. Begin at home in your own community. Working together, local entrepreneurs, conscientious consumers and local governments can build regional economies that produce food, clothing, building materials, renewable energy and other supplies locally, using fair and sustainable practices.
Decreasing our dependency on corporations increases opportunities for local ownership and meaningful job creation. Locally owned businesses hire local workers and purchase their supplies and services from other local businesses to produce the products needed by their communities.
Excess production can be exported to other communities and products not available locally can be imported through fair trade relationships that provide a living wage in the communities where the products originated.
We can develop products unique to our region for exchange in the global marketplace, be it a fashion design, fine wine or cheese, works of art and music, or an entrepreneurial innovation. In this way, we can connect to other local economies through win-win economic exchange, and gradually build a new global economy; one that is a network of sustainable and just local economies.
The Localism Movement
Over the past 15 years, the modern-day local economy movement has grown and strengthened. It is supported by nationwide organizations, but primarily catalyzed by countless local efforts dedicated to building regional food systems and supporting local manufacturers and retailers.
Maybe there is an effort underway in your own community that you could help support. “Think Local First” campaigns encourage citizens to buy first from local businesses, which keeps money circulating within local economies rather than be siphoned off by a corporation, which is what happens when you shop at chain stores. Shopping local is even more impactful when local retailers sell products that are grown or manufactured locally.
Consumers can become producers by leaving corporate jobs and starting businesses needed by our communities and by making products to sell or use at home in the growing do-it-yourself and makers movements. Decentralizing business ownership moves economic power from distant boardrooms to our own communities, increasing community wealth and strengthening our democracy.
Climate change adds urgency to the need for a local economy movement. Environmentally sustainable local production of our basic needs reduces the amount of carbon from shipping that is contributing to climate change. It also prepares our communities for the consequences of climate disruption, so that we are not reliant on supply chains that can be affected by extreme weather, social instability, rising fuel costs, and fluctuating prices in the global marketplace.
The localism movement is not only a peace movement, it is also a pro-democracy movement. Though U.S. citizens fear centralized state control, we often neglect to see that centralized corporate power is the other side of the same coin. Today, the collusion of corporate and state power threatens our democracy. Lobbying and unbridled campaign finance by corporations and the very wealthy has resulted in policies that support corporate control. Getting money out of politics is crucial to saving our democracy.
Ultimately, the localist movement seeks to build a global system of human-scale, interconnected local economies that support just and democratic societies and meet the basic needs of all the world’s people while protecting and restoring the local ecosystems on which our lives depend.
The Role of Fair Trade
When goods are not available locally, such as coffee, tea, spices, sugar, or bananas, fair trade importers offer local retailers the opportunity to stock their shelves with products that are certified fair trade to insure that workers make a living wage in the communities where products originate. Some of the most egregious violations of workers' rights, including modern-day slavery and child labor, take place in developing countries where U.S. corporations seek low-cost production of food and textiles. The chocolate industry, for instance, is notorious for using slaves to grow cocoa beans in Africa.
Local Energy Security
Oil is the life-blood of corporate globalization. It is important for both environmental reasons and equality to wean ourselves off using fossil fuels to power our homes and vehicles, and to build energy security based on locally produced renewables such as solar and wind. Reputable scientists now all agree that burning fossil fuels, mainly coal, oil and natural gas, is the root cause of climate change.
Sources for oil and gas are no longer easily accessible. More drastic and dangerous methods of extraction are being used such as deep-sea oil drilling and fracking for natural gas. Increasing numbers of oil spills are devastating coastal populations from the tropics to the arctic, killing untold numbers of birds, fish and other sea life and disrupting natural systems.
Fracking for natural gas has poisoned local aquifers in mostly poor, rural communities and disrupted life with loud equipment and heavy trucks on country roads. To protect the most vulnerable and to keep the planet viable for future generations, we must all work to break our addiction to oil and gas and move to a low-carbon lifestyle. In most states, there is the option to switch electric providers to buy from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass, rather than coal, gas, oil and nuclear. No matter how the electricity is generated, the electrons are mixed together in the grid and delivered through the wires of the local electric utility company, so no rewiring is needed.
Another option is rooftop solar installations. These supply renewable electricity directly to a household rather than through the grid. There are programs available in many communities to partially or fully fund the installation of solar panels through grants or loans. Solar installations pay for themselves over time. After paying off loans for the installation, households can actually make money by selling excess solar-produced electricity to the grid to be used elsewhere.
Phasing out natural gas and oil and relying totally on sustainably produced electricity to heat, cool and run our households and vehicles is the path to a planet-saving lifestyle. Additionally, when we stop buying oil, gas and coal, we are shifting economic power from concentrated wealth to broadly distributed wealth and power. “Green power to the people” has two meanings!
The first step toward energy savings is to make sure our homes are well insulated and that doors and windows are not drafty. Having an energy audit is a good first step. In many communities, there are services for low-income communities to provide assistance in weatherizing homes and increasing energy efficiency.
Slowing down and changing our means of transportation is another important way to gain energy security and address climate change. Using public transportation, biking, walking or driving an electric car run on renewably generated electricity, as well as limiting or ending air travel, are important ways to eliminate carbons.
As Pope Francis points out, climate change is most harmful to the world’s poor and disproportionately to people of color. Many populations which rely directly on farming and fishing are seeing their livelihoods be disrupted by droughts, storms and new climate-induced infestations of destructive insects and disease.
The disaster in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is a good example. Without the resources to move from areas of rising sea levels and flooding rivers and rebuild after increasingly extreme and destructive weather patterns, the world’s poor are bearing the brunt of catastrophic climate change.
Local Food Security
Across the globe, farmland is being confiscated from indigenous farmers by corporations who impose an industrial system of monocrops, chemical fertilizers, toxic pesticides and hideously cruel animal factories that destroy rural communities, degrade the soil, and pollute the air and water. Food bred for long shelf life on these industrial farms is less flavorful and nutritious than locally and sustainably raised fruits and vegetables grown for immediate consumption. Meat and poultry from animal factories contain unhealthy drugs and hormones and come from animals who endure unspeakable deprivation and pain.
Developing a sustainable regional food system is vital to taking economic control of our daily lives. The local food movement is gaining strength in the effort to decentralize our food system so that small, diversified farmers, who are proper stewards of the land and farm animals, feed their local communities. A growing number of communities now have access to local farm markets and stores that offer fruits, vegetables, and humanely produced meat, dairy and eggs from local farms.
The consumer’s role is crucial in this effort to build regional food security. Rather than buying food from chain stores and restaurants, it is important to spend our dollars at farmers’ markets and locally owned stores and restaurants supplied by local farms whenever possible so that the local farms and food enterprises can increase their capacity.
In many communities, CSAs—Community Supported Agriculture—are available. These are programs where households invest in farms in the springtime and receive a box of fruit and vegetable every week during the growing season. Food cooperatives owned by consumers provide lower-cost groceries and usually include local produce and fair trade products.
Consumers are also becoming food producers. In urban areas, food is grown in containers and raised beds, on rooftops and in community gardens where land is shared among multiple households. In the suburbs, lawns are being transformed into gardens.
Economically viable urban farms use raised-beds and hydroponics on once vacant land—often brownfields contaminated by former industry—to feed a neighborhood and supply local restaurants and stores. This also provides job opportunities to inner city residents. Consumers are becoming entrepreneurs, starting small food enterprises that turn local produce into pickles, sauces, soups, jams and jellies, canned fruits and vegetables, energy bars, and many other products that can be consumed year-round. Milk from local grassfed cows, sheep and goats is being used to make cheese, yogurt and ice cream.
Local Water Security
Struggles over control of clean water are increasing across the globe. Because of pollution and misuse, as well as increasing droughts, clean water is becoming scarce in many places and is expected to someday be more valuable than oil. In many communities there are battles over who controls the water: a corporation or the public. Of course, when corporations gain control, the cost of water to citizens goes up to increase corporate profits rather than sustain a public utility.
In some communities, aquifers that supply local drinking water are being drained by bottled water and soda companies or by corporations to irrigate mega-farms or cool nuclear reactors. In the U.S., tap water is regulated and inspected by local government, while bottled water is not. Studies have found tap water to contain fewer contaminants than bottled water.
Citizens can help by joining local fights to preserve public ownership of water. But on a daily basis we can all make a difference by using tap water in reusable bottles rather than buying bottled water or sodas. Bottled water and soda not only increase the waste of plastic and aluminum containers and burn carbons by shipping liquids long distances, but they also increase corporate control of water.
The soda industry is immensely profitable to corporations while providing an unhealthy and in some cases addictive product to consumers, adding to the epidemics of obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
The fashion industry is one of the world’s worst polluters due to the use of toxic dyes and fabrics produced with extensive use of pesticides. The industry is also known for sweatshops and egregious labor practices. Shopping at locally owned boutiques that carry locally made and sustainable clothing is ideal. For communities that don’t have such boutiques there are some responsible manufacturers who sell fair trade, sustainably produced fashion nationwide.
Clothing swaps and shopping at thrift stores for pre-owned clothing is not only less expensive but better for the environment. Wearing homemade and thrift shop clothing is a fashion statement admired among localists and environmentalists. Americans recycle only 15% of our used clothing and toss 10.5 million tons into the landfill, yet we continue to buy more and more clothing. Let’s start by buying less and save our money to buy locally and sustainably made.
Banking and Investing
When we invest in local businesses, we get not only a financial return, but also a living return: the benefit of living in a more sustainable and healthy community. When we invest in the stock market, we are perpetuating a system driven by profit that is increasing inequality and environmental destruction.
Publicly traded mega banks have enormous power, draining capital from local communities that could be invested locally. Banking through local banks and credit unions strengthens local borrowing power and keeps banking profits local. Some communities have community reinvestment funds that provide a vehicle for local investment in small businesses, affordable housing, wind turbines and other community needs.
In recent years, crowdsourcing through online vehicles such as Kiva Zip have allowed for investments as small as $5 to support small local businesses. A growing number of local investment clubs have provided a vehicle for community members to invest collectively in local businesses through loans or capital investments with risk shared by the group.
Reduce, Reuse, recycle
Consumerism encourages us to buy things we don’t need. One of the first steps in living sustainably is to buy less. Think twice before making a purchase to determine if it is necessary.
The next most important step is to reuse products multiple times. For instance, wood harvested from demolition sites can be reused in new construction and renovations. Similarly, textiles can be reused to make new clothing, slipcovers or curtains.
When we must throw something away, it’s important to recycle as much as possible. Most communities have programs to recycle paper, aluminum, plastic, and even electronics. It’s important to sort these materials carefully and put them out for pick up.
Composting fruit and vegetable food waste is an important part of the food cycle, which returns nutrients to the soil. Putting food waste into plastic trash bags destined for the landfill is a waste of this valuable resource. Many communities have compost pickup and it is also possible to do one’s own composting for use in home gardens.
A Revolution of Values
In 1967, when Dr. King expressed concern about the triple evils of materialism, militarism and racism, he suggested that we need a “revolution of values” to defeat them.
In our society, we continue to measure success in both business and in our individual careers largely by money and accumulation of material possessions. To build a peace economy, we must change our measurement of success to value life above money. Localists measure success not by continual material growth, but by the growth of healthy communities and ecosystems.
When we make economic decisions, rather than focusing on getting the cheapest price when we buy, the highest price when we sell, or the largest return on our investments, we must ask ourselves how those decisions will ultimately effect what we care about most—our communities, our natural world, our democracy, our children’s future.
In the business world, measuring success not simply by profits, but by the impact a business has on the lives of people and nature is often referred to as the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit. Rather than maximizing profits, triple-bottom-line businesses maximize relationships with all the stakeholders – employees, customers, suppliers, community members and the natural world.
Localism is moving our economy from a competitive mindset to a cooperative one, from measuring success by how much we have to how much we share, and from a feeling of loneliness and despair to the joy of community. Ultimately, we are moving from “me to we” by embracing a worldview of interconnection and love rather than one of separation and fear.
An important vehicle for cooperation and sharing are cooperatively owned businesses, which include worker cooperatives that are often manufacturing businesses, consumer cooperatives typical of food co-ops, and producer cooperatives such as farmer or artisan cooperatives.
Land ownership is a crucial issue in building a new economy and cooperatively owned land or community land trusts provide a means for people to own farms or housing when they cannot afford the cost of land. Some cities are forming land banks to provide land for small businesses and affordable housing. Also rural and suburban areas are offering land preserved for open space to young farmers who cannot afford the high cost of buying farmland.
Natural resources such as clean air and water are part of the commons that we must protect by enforcing existing environmental laws too often disregarded by powerful corporations. The cultural commons includes publicly owned art and cultural sights that are part of our common heritage and must also be protected from profiteering.
Adopting Gandhi’s Strategy
The strategy Gandhi used in his nonviolent revolution to overthrow British tyranny is a good one for overthrowing corporate tyranny in today’s world. The conditions are similar. When India was colonized by the British, all the fields were planted with cash crops for export. As a result, the Indian people lost their food security and millions starved to death.
Gandhi told the people of India to plant community gardens so that villages could feed themselves. He also suggested they spin their own textiles. Rather than ship the Indian-grown flax and cotton off to London to be made into clothing and then shipped back for the Indian people to buy, they could make their own clothing within their local economy.
While the British believed in centralized, industrialized and mechanized modes of production. Gandhi envisioned a decentralized, homegrown, handcrafted mode of production. In his words, “Not mass production, but production by the masses.” He said mass production is only concerned with the product, whereas production by the masses is concerned with the product, the producers and the process.
Gandhi’s vision for a decentralized, small-scale economic structure in India comprised of interconnected self-reliant villages governed by participatory democracy is one we can work toward today. In this sense, Gandhi is the grandfather of the modern-day localist movement.
Gandhi knew that with the globalization of the economy, countries would go to war to protect their economic interests—military war as well as economic war. He said we cannot have real peace in the world if we look at each other's countries as sources for raw materials or as markets for finished industrial goods. "There is enough for everybody's need, but not enough for anybody's greed," said Gandhi.
Where do we begin?
Like the Montgomery Bus Boycott and Gandhi’s salt march, social change begins with non-cooperation with the existing system. Once you make the choice to stop cooperating with the system you find immoral, you can begin to build an alternative.
Everyone of us can start with something we care most about – refusing to eat meat produced in factory farms, refusing to buy clothes made in sweatshops, refusing to buy chocolate that uses slave labor, refusing to buy dirty energy. Once we make a commitment to stop cooperating with a system we oppose, we can begin to build a new one that expresses the values we care most about.
When we decentralize our economy, beginning with our food and energy systems, we decentralize ownership, wealth and power. Decentralization creates more owners. The more owners the more equality.
By working collaboratively, the peace and justice movement and the local business movement can build a new economy that serves all of us, while protecting our natural environment. Cooperation, generosity, and compassion for one another, as well as for other species, will assure our survival in a world at peace.
American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA)
American Sustainable Business Council
Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE)
Fair Trade Federation
Institute for Local Self-Reliance
New Economy Coalition
Public Banking Institute
Schumacher Center for a New Economics
Judy Wicks is the author of Good Morning, Beautiful Business. She is the founder of Philadelphia's White Dog Cafe, a pioneer in the farm-to-table movement, and co-founder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies.