Real Economies vs. Fake Economies

Real Economies vs. Fake Economies

There’s a really interesting piece in this morning’s New York Times about the town of Hardwick, Vermont and the Center for Agricultural Economy. Hardwick was, like many small rural towns, emptying out — main street was full of empty buildings, and there was no way to make a living. Then a group of local agricultural entrepreneurs got together, meeting monthly, loaning one another money, figuring out ways to share skills and resources so that they all prosper. Their website says that their goal is programs that:

…will recognize that the 21st century food system balance be tipped towards localization over globalization, locally sustainable food systems over long trade routes, and broadened agricultural diversity and biodiversity over intensified crop production

Local systems, local sustainability, local community — look — hippie values back in action, but making money, and building a local economy. It sent me off to the basement library to pull out Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry and Paul Hawken’s books — maybe its time for a refresher course in the economies of sustainability. In the wisdom of old values like thrift, and soil conservation, and organizations based on community.

What I loved about this article was the timing of it. Here we are in a financial crisis caused by a classic crazy bubble — this time it wasn’t tulips, or Web 1.0, but mortgages. If you give people crazy mortgages that they can’t afford, and then you borrow on margins of 60 and 80 times the ostensible worth of those rotten mortgages, well, then I guess you shouldn’t be that surprised when the whole thing blows up. I’ve been just beside myself with anger at all those snotty guys I grew up with who when you asked what they did said “I do money” and then went on to point out that what they did was of course so arcane and complicated that no one but them could understand it. And then they went off and gambled with all of our money and lost it because they decided to pretend that the essential rules had changed when they hadn’t. And now the rest of us will suffer the very real financial consequences.

So in a week when I’ve mostly been livid — it was such a joy to read about the farmers of Hardwick (where my beloved Patrick spent a couple of years when he went to Sterling College in Craftsbury). What I loved about these farmers and ag entrepreneurs in Vermont was that they rebuilt a town by focusing on what is real — real crops, real compost, real products that they can make out of materials they grow themselves. Real cooperation. They banded together. They found ways to buy one another’s surplus and make more products that they could sell. They put money back into the foundation and into one another. They rebuilt a town. The old fashioned way. The way we’ve all been told for the last couple of decades was obsolete in a global economy. They proved that local and sustainable can work.

Ed Abbey called an economy based on the  concept of endless growth “the economy of the cancer cell” — it seems to me that perhaps, although it’s traumatic and is likely to be very painful, maybe we’re seeing the beginning of the end of that way of thinking. The traders who were making millions and millions of dollars by trading pieces of paper that held no real relationship to anything of actual value have seen their entire industry disappear (perhaps now they’ll have a little more sympathy for all those steelworkers and manufacturing workers who have been through the same thing for the past thirty years). Although I haven’t gone to the website and read the details, the fact that Obama is talking at every turn about green technologies being a sustainable growth sector and a way we can earn/innovate our way out of this crisis is very heartening to me. And his message is resonating. It’s making sense to people waking up from a fever dream of consumerism and cheap oil and bad processed food that only makes them obese and sick.

Suddenly, the old values, the ones that Gary Snyder and Wendell Berry and Paul Hawken have been talking about for years are being proven true. I was talking to one of my dog park friends this morning who is opening a store this winter — he’s going to sell canning equipment and water filters and mills to grind one’s own wheat. He wants to start some classes for people who want to learn to do for themselves those skills of basic sustainability that we’ve handed over for too long to big corporations. This is one of the main reasons I moved here — I wanted to be someplace where people still know how to do things. There are still a lot of old chicken coops in back alleys all over town. There are gardens. There are ranchers raising animals. There are elk and deer and antelope filling freezers every fall. There’s an ethic of sustainability and self-reliance and there’s also a real community. So maybe, like the good people of Hardwick, we can keep one another afloat.

5 thoughts on “Real Economies vs. Fake Economies

  1. Something else interesting about the timing of this story: On Sept. 18, the Publishers’ Marketplace service carried an announcement of the sale of a book called “THE TOWN THAT FOOD SAVED: How One Rural Community Found Vitality in Local Food,” by an author named Ben Hewitt, about, yes, Hardwick. PM is extremely widely read (cf me as evidence, here in Minneapolis) – makes me wonder whether someone at the NYT saw the announcement and thought, hmm, sounds like a story. Within their purview of course, but if I were that author I would be very annoyed.

  2. Thank you for this. I grew up in Craftsbury and so saw Hardwick’s store fronts empty out. It has been heartening to hear about the new energy emerging there and in the surrounding small towns. Similarly heartening to hear about similar ventures (green industries, small-scale agriculture) starting up in the midst of blighted urban areas; I think the NYT has carried several such stories lately. In the midst of global financial chaos and the cynical politics of election season, people are rebuilding community from the ground up.

  3. I can’t remember where exactly I read an article (the Ethicurian perhaps?) about how every time a government or group of people invest in agriculture the results are much more productive than investing in technology, or value-added industry, or something like that. More jobs are created, more money is made, etc. Unfortunately, governments overlook this. It seems like such a simple thing to do… invest in your country or town’s food supply. It’s heartening to read about how people are taking matters into their own hands and turning things around like this. And your phrase “no real relationship to anything of actual value” makes perfect sense when applied to our global economy. One thing that I hope Obama doesn’t overlook in his plan is making the “humble” professions – farmers, butchers, bakers, carpenters – real and honorable again. We don’t hear “Oh! I’m going to be a farmer!” There’s a need for engineers, there’s a need for advanced psychology and English degrees, but we also need (far more in my opinion) the professions that we live on.

  4. “there was no way to make a living.”

    I’ve heard and seen this sort of statement a lot of times, often in newspaper articles about the demise of this or that small town. I find the sentiment rather odd. There is always a way to make a living. The problem is some people expect other people with a way to do it 9 to 5. The solution is for them to get creative and make things happen for themselves.

  5. I know Walt — that’s what I love about what you’re doing, and what these guys are doing. All my farming experience is Midwestern, where the majority of farmering is commodity farming — a lot of those guys had a hard time rethinking (or couldn’t because of the debt loads) the way they farmed. But I agree with you — there’s always a way to make a living — if you’re resourceful and creative and willing to rethink your priorities. I guess that’s what I found so heartening about the Hardwick cooperative — the cooperative nature of it — that they did it as a group — the High Mowing folks working with Toms Greens to make soup out of the squash they didn’t need for seed.

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