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Archive for May, 2011

Are we making progress individually?

  • Our family?
  • Our community?
  • Our region?
  • Our planet?

How do we know?

In order to tell, to compare, to decide how to use scarce resources, we have to measure in some way, and every measurement is going to contain cultural biases, be incomplete and contain some emphasis that becomes self-fulfilling.

For those of us that accomplish more than we rebel, the phrase “what you measure is what gets done” applies.

So, what do we measure and how does it relate to making real wealth, a real good experience with the prospect of real good experience for others in the future?

I’ll be attending the “Slow Living Summit” in Brattleboro, VT this week – June 1, 2, 3  (http://www.strollingoftheheifers.com/slow-living-summit). Come.

I know quite a few of the presenters. Many are visionaries, and doing practical work, trying to cobble together a coherent effort to achieve a sustainable society. To work together rather than disparately, to make something real and dependable rather than utopian and speculative.

Much of it is against the grain of conventional urban/global economy.

(Geography affects our vision of utopian. Specifically, that north of Hartford, CT, on the Connecticut River there are distinct cultural shifts. Hartford and Springfield house the global insurance centers of the world, serving global literally. The global commercial market vision is the utopia.  Springfield and Holyoke house the formerly regional industrial center of New England. When one reaches Brattleboro, the site of the “Slow Living Summit”, the inaccessibility of the stream watershed hollows define a world of rural self-dependance more than community inter-dependance, more than regional economy, or global economy. The shift in worldview in that short 80 mile stretch is distinct, profound, divisive.)

The ruralist consciousness of Brattleboro is the host of the Slow Living Summit. The global economy is what you read about in the New York Times and on cable television. Not surprising.The sustainable rural economy is the content of the summit, and is actually another vibrant source of future visions.

The concepts of living well in nature has gone far (actually cyclically given the degree of wealth and social complexity that Indian society was able to achieve). We have the integrated thinking of permaculture that integrates practical and efficient food and shelter services with aesthetics with personal liberty and with the ecological world beyond our immediate experience and affects.

The rural/urban dichotomy will be a conflict (or negligence) of the summit, inevitably. The rural sustainable solution is more anarchic. The urban sustainable solution is more designed.

That dichotomy will infuse the question of “how do we tell?”, as the question includes the assumptions of differing social values, and particularly which ones are relevant and/or controllable.

As the measure of our success is our experience, my feeling is that the  metric of social welfare must be results based and not preference or strategically based.

In a nutshell, we can tell if we are making progress if we achieve:

1. Current survival and functional minimum necessities for all in the geographic scope that we are investigating. Food, shelter, water, warmth, clothing, health care, transportation, education.

2. Confident survival and safety in the foreseeable future

3. Interpersonal connection, love, friendship, family (society)

4. Work and service accomplishment and basis of earned respect

5. Spirituality in action, spirituality in contemplation/aesthetics

How do we know we are succeeding? What do we measure? How?

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Anybody remember Michael Dukakis theme song in his run for president in 1988 (from a song by “Timbuk3?”)

The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades.

What’s important?

  • Surviving
  • Relationships/friendships
  • Accomplishment/respect
  • Justice
  • Ecology
  • Spirituality

How’s your present? How’s your future look?

  • Health
  • Happiness
  • Good work
  • Relationships

Your family’s present? Your family’s future?

Your community’s present? Your community’s future?

  • Participatory culture
  • Public health
  • Employment
  • Ecology
  • Governance

Your region’s present? Your region’s future?

  • Integrated economy
  • Ecology
  • Governance

Our planet’s?

By how we live and the work that we do intentionally, we make a world in which “the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades”.

We are  co-creators, the leading edge of all evolutionary and cultural tradition.

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In the late 80’s and 90’s,  farmers, food manufacturers, distributors, retailers asserted that their products were “organic”. There were multiple standards that were voluntarily adopted and hopefully posted as the basis of assertions on product labeling (sometimes).

In the 90’s, the USDA finally realized that distinctly  “organic” food was desired, demanded, by many consumers, and that there was a great deal of doubt in consumers’ mind whether a particular product was in fact “organic”.

They organized stakeholder discussions to formalize a coherent standard. There was a great deal of argument, compromise, and now after the standards have been published and applied, there is a great deal of lobbying and fudging.

Does the term “organic” on a package mean the same thing to you as you imagine, that you desire as a standard. In the 70′ and early 80’s, the rage word was “natural”, and there even was some basis of standards for a time, based on the principles of accuracy in advertising. (“Natural” is no longer assessed. It is just an assertion at this point.) “Organic” assertion was considered special, an unusual degree of care in growing and processing, really natural.

That standard is dissolving as the standards are asked to be relaxed to accommodate industrial organic farming, industrial in method, industrial in supply path (not local), industrial in distribution, industrial in retailing and mass communications/branding.

Currently, there is a great deal of interest in local food (and even some interest in decentralizing economy as a whole, not just food). But, noone knows what the term “local” means.

In conducting test evaluations in preparation of the use of the “locus” designation, many have discovered that they do use a considerable amount of non-local ingredients and packaging to the extent that it is difficult to confidently state that the food is local, if 100% of inputs are incorporated into the assessment (especially if packaging is included in the assessment).

What do consumers think is meant by the term local? If a locally sited company making a corn salad uses locally grown sweet corn, locally grown peppers, imported salt, imported spices, glass packaging from China, lidseals from Chicago, and the non-local components comprise 45% of the cost, is that a “local product”?

If only the food components are considered, and the average sourcing of the product adds up to 100 miles away, is that a local product? If the most local 95% of ingredients adds up to 50 miles away, is that a local product?

Where is it a local product? If a product that is prepared and packaged in Northampton, MA and is a local product in Northampton, is sold in Philadelphia, is that a local product in Philadelphia? How about New Haven?

I want to know, and I’m hoping that other consumers want to know.

There is good reason to emphasize local food and local value addition. And, there is good reason for consumers to be aware of where their food and products/services come from.

The options for disclosure include “off/on” measurements like organic certification (though within three categories of what is “organic”). This product is either local or it is not. (That is misrepresentative to put on packaging as products are sold in other places than where they were prepared.)

Another option is to describe the geographic center of gravity of processing, but that leads to sometimes absurd and incomprehensible results. An example is a food product prepared in Brattleboro, VT with produce from various points in the Connecticut River Valley (near Brattleboro), but other ingredients from Oregon and California. The numeric computation adds up to somewhere in upstate New York, that doesn’t resemble anything coherent about the products. (its a hypothetical example, not real).

In contrast, the option that locus adopts is to define a region in which a product can be sold in which it complies with “100-mile” certification and another larger circle to comply with “500-mile” certification for general products.

If locally made is an important assertion for consumers to consider in their decisions, then the criteria should be clear to consumers, consistently assessed, and rigorously enforced. Otherwise the term “local” will go the way of “natural”, just an assertion, not something that can be relied on.

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Last weekend, I reviewed all of our spending for the past six months, identifying where the money went. I hoped that I would discover that my family’s spending was primarily local, but it wasn’t.

Less than 10% was spent within 5 miles. Less than 20% was spent within 25 miles (even as my mortgage is to a local bank). And just around 30% was within 100 miles.

This was an unusual six months, granted. I flew to Florida three times, spent a couple thousand dollars (on credit), to move my mother from Florida to Amherst, MA.

But still.

How did I conduct the survey you ask?

1. On a spreadsheet with six columns, date, payee, amount, latitude, longitude of zipcode paid to (company headquarters, not the PO box), distance in miles from my home. (There are web services to find the latitude and longitude of a zipcode, and other services to compute the distance from a point. It can be automated, as in the job search queries – “within 25 miles of…”, but I haven’t gotten there yet).

2. Construct a “pivot-table” (I can show you, call me if you know me), to compute the total paid to each vendor.

3. From the pivot-table results, compute the average latitude and longitude, proportional to spending by vendor.

Mine was somewhere in Pennsylvania, NOT even within 500 miles. I support a different economy on average than my local.

4. Then also from the pivot table results, other columns for “true/false” for less than 5 miles, less than 25 miles, less than 100 miles, less than 500 miles applied to each vendor.

That will give you the percentage of spending that occurs within 5 miles, within 25, 100, 500.

I’ll help you through it if you are interested. It is sobering.

And, from sober and collectively understood results, benign responses are possible.

The same analysis applies to companies.

There is in Western Mass a “local hero” campaign conducted for food, by CISA (communities INVOLVED in sustainable agriculture. They do some great things), but to be a designated “local hero” for them is a very very low bar. (Basically, anyone that applies.)

We need an objective measure.

At 5 miles (local), 25 miles (micro-region), 100 miles, and 500 miles. Green if 80% of spending is local, blue if 60%, orange if 40%, yellow if 20%, and red if less than 20%.

Any companies willing? Any courageous enough to see even?

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The title of this blog is “Loving Home in Practice: Person, Family, Community, Region, Macro-region, Planet”.

The determination of which scale is the primary fulcrum of economy, is an interesting one. The answer is that there is no single scale of economy that is THE fulcrum. The economic scales comprise an ecology.

I recently drafted a relatively simple simulation model of the trends of community wealth development, and discovered that the community development strategy of  emphasizing intra-regional business resulted in a significantly increased standard of living in locales compared to the sole emphasis on inter-regional business.

That was nearly entirely due to the extended “multiplier” effect of citizens spending within their communities, rather than anonymously outside of their communities, which is then spent within communities, which is then spent within communities.

There is no possibility of economic health without some, even considerable, inter-regional trade. However, inter-regional trade realizes less community wealth than a strategy of enhancing intra-regional trade.

To be successful, intra-regional trade must result from and support value-adding activity, not just a transfer or welfare (especially if they just go to Wal mart and have the funds just leave the community again).

So, the most effective community development is the old Jewish virtue of “it is better to help a neighbor become economically self-reliant than to give him/her charity”.

It was astounding to see it in black and white.

The vaguely stated results were that if within a community, individuals spent 40% of their spending intra-regionally, then 80% of jobs would be intra-regional, while only 20% of jobs need be for inter-regional trade.

So, in looking at our needs, what constitutes that shift from inter-regional to intra-regional?

1. Food – Grow your own, buy from local farmers. Support groceries that purchase more than 40% of their inventory from regional providers. (Don’t buy California lettuce, but Connecticut valley, ALWAYS)
2. Housing – Take out your mortgage from regional rather than national or international banks or lenders. The 1/8% difference in interest rate will come back to you.

Use regional suppliers for repair and renovation materials. Use regional contractors.

Use regional fuel suppliers for home heating fuel, insulate using locally produced insulation materials (cellulose).

3. Transportation – Minimize the number of cars that you own. (They are ALL imported from far away). Minimize the number of miles that you drive, particularly alone. (The fuel is ALL imported.)

Cooperate. Drive together. Take buses and trains. Bicycle. Own vehicles cooperatively (some great tax benefits believe it or not).

Buy vehicles that can be repaired locally, and from local parts. Get your repairs done by local rather than national shops.

There’s more. It makes a BIG difference in your community.

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I’ve written quite a bit about the stresses/demise of intermediate scale enterprises serving local, regional and macro-regional markets at the hands of global businesses.

The restoration of markets serving intermediate scales of community is the necessary remedy. In addition to being economically rational in an increasing number of cases, it restores the integrated health of the whole system, making it far far more resilient than the global-only scale.

In that effort, we are “blessed” by high energy costs. We are however, “cursed” by the concentration of capital in the hands of large urban banks and trusts, and the predatory dominance of many large corporations.

For one, high transportation costs it will affect the siting decisions of value-adding activity.

In the past, the siting of manufacture was driven by proximity to raw materials, in which finished goods could be justified in transportation long distances. Firms will hopefully now reassess the siting of manufacturing, to site closer to markets, reducing the bulky “second to last-mile” costs.

That in itself does not create an “ecology” of scales, as it still involves giant continental and global corporations, but it does shift some of the value-addition to more regional.

We are not currently prepared to accomplish that shift. With the loss of production to overseas outsourcing, we’ve lost the skillsets required to revive it. We essentially have to start from scratch, as if we never had the skills, and at every phase of the process.

That requires a conspicuous investment in education, and planned land use, especially outside of the sprawl zones in Texas for example.

Wall Street is still way overvalued relative to “Main Street”, encouraging money to flow to speculative efforts rather than productive.

Congress does not have the intelligence or will to even identify what features would encourage a shift to productive use of assets rather than speculative.

Specifically, the current tax law rewards speculation and punishes enterprise and work, and grossly. (As a CPA, I see carpenters that pay 45% federal tax rate, and I see speculators that pay 15%).

That intelligence and will is conspicuously needed.

There is MUCH that can be done at a grass-roots level. To the extent that we complain, rather than do, we are complicit in the negligence.

Specifically, at a grass-roots level, it is possible to create social and cooperative forms of investment capital funds, and social and cooperative ownership of assets and enterprise.

We don’t even meet to talk.

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