Since September of 2018, a group of University of California (UC) students, grad students, and faculty calling ourselves the Community Economies Collaborative (CEC) has been growing a movement to bring the study of community-based economics to the university, and to likewise leverage the UC’s resources towards supporting community-based economic efforts. Starting with a small group at UC Davis, this movement is rapidly growing and is now represented on six of the UC campuses statewide.
As a point of calibration, we are drawing upon the economic writings of Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham, two feminist geographers who jointly write under the moniker J.K. Gibson-Graham. This spring we are reading Gibson-Graham’s, A Postcapitalist Politics, in which they queer both capitalism and Marxism, while exploring practical ways that community economics unfold on the ground. Gibson-Graham’s work, however, is only one articulation of alternative economic thinking, and we are excited to explore a number of alternative models as we build a dynamic and engaging understanding of the way community economies are expressed in language and on the ground. Below are some of the key ideas that we have been working with in our discussions.
The Commons – The “commons” typically refers to natural resources owned and managed by a community. Economist Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2012 for her work on common pool resource management. Her work stands in contrast to Garret Hardin’s pessimistic formulation of the “tragedy of the commons” and gives hope that communities can, under certain conditions, cooperatively manage their resources for the public good. As such, “commons” or “commoning” is at the root of a wide array of cooperative economic activity right now such as community land trusts, time banks, tool libraries, and certain types of venue organization such as that found at the Omni Commons in Oakland. A key advocacy organization for promoting the commons in the United States is the Schumacher Center for New Economics, named for the economist E.F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, who since the 1960s has been promoting the idea of Buddhist economics, which relates closely to the vision Gandhi laid out for the economy of postcolonial India.
Localism – “Localism” has many different meanings in the literature, but recently, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) has adopted the term to advocate for economic development rooted in community-based enterprises. Their primary argument is that local ownership and control of economic decision-making allows for more democratic and ecological accountability. The term “local living economy” comes from author David Korten, who wrote the 1994 bestseller When Corporations Rule the World. David’s thinking influenced Judy Wicks, a Philadelphia-based activist who owned one of the first restaurants in the country to intentionally seek out locally-sourced ingredients. Judy joined David and several other likeminded individuals to found BALLE in 2001. Their original framework for the organization described several building blocks for a localized economy: sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, zero-waste manufacturing, green building, independent retail and media.
The Anti-Globalization Movement – The takeover of several towns and villages in the Mexican state of Chiapas by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation on January 1, 1994 was a protest against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which went into effect on that date. The uprising became a rallying cry for civil society groups around the world that protested global trade negotiations that were dominated by multinational corporations and global financial institutions at the expense of local communities. These decades-long trade negotiations resulted in the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO), which has the power to invalidate laws protecting workers and the environment as “trade violations.” Following Chiapas, the wave of anti-globalization protests reached another flashpoint in 1999 during the WTO meeting in Seattle. The violent police response to the protesters captured worldwide attention. Other moments of resistance have included the G8 summit protests and Occupy Wall Street. Beyond protests, this branch of community economies connects to grassroots community development work in the Global South, the rise of the fair trade and the slow food movements, and more recently Buen Vivir, a holistic set of economic and spiritual practices arising from
indigenous communities of South America.
Sustainability – The term “Sustainable Development” came into wide use after the 1987 publication of Our Common Future, a report by a United Nations commission on the rapid deterioration of the planet’s ecology. Sustainability as a framework emphasizes flows of energy, water, food, and waste and treats ecological resources as a form of wealth that should be saved and cultivated with the same conservationist spirit that was once directed towards the saving of money.
The focus on climate change became one of the key concerns within the sustainability framework in the early 2000s after the Bush Administration withdrew the United States from the Kyoto Climate Accords. The concept of “Peak Oil” also gained public attention during this period, an idea that says that after a certain peak, extraction of oil will reach a point of diminishing returns, meaning oil extraction will become increasingly expensive and necessitate a transition to a low-carbon society. This realization sparked the Transition Town Movement in Great Britain and then the United States. More recently, the concept of “resilience” has emerged as new way to think about how to respond to climate change.
Naomi Klein’s recent book and film This Changes Everything directly links the climate crisis to capitalism and the need for re-localization. Klein argues for paying close attention to the economic frameworks coming from indigenous peoples and argues for self-determined economic futures.
Ecological economics – Herman Daly was once the Senior Economist for the Environmental Department of the World Bank, where he worked to develop policy guidelines related to sustainable development. He co-founded the journal Ecological Economics and has argued forcefully since the 1970s against the use of gross domestic product to measure economic wellbeing, saying that instead, we should use what he and John Cobb developed called the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW) as form of measuring economies. Daly and others have advocated for a steady-state economy, with some calling for degrowth in order to avoid environmental disaster. This is absolute heresy to the economic establishment, and there are still very few ecological economists in university departments. The 1975 book Ecotopia by Ernest Callenbach is an early work of science fiction imagining a steady-state economy on the US West Coast. A leading advocacy organization is the Center for the Advancement of the Steady State Economy.
Diverse Economies – Katherine Gibson and Julie Graham met as Ph.D. students in geography at Clark University in the 1970s. They began to develop a critique of Marxist analysis, showing the problems of an economic theory that requires the state to be seized before the new economy can be implemented. Instead, they have developed a queer, feminist approach to economics, a practice that “encourages us to make visible the hidden alternative economic activities that everywhere abound, and to connect them through a language of economic difference.” Only by working to collectively see noncapitalistic activities, and treating them as both present and viable, are we able to “actively build on them in the here and now to transform our local economies.” Gibson-Graham’s work moves us past forms of essentialism that dominate traditional Marxist thought. They suggest that the real economy is like an iceberg. What’s most visible is capitalist exchange, but most economic activity happens informally below the surface. Thinking through these “diverse economies” is a way of opening up our imagination to the diverse economic practices and possibilities all around us.
These are just some of many ideas we are exploring as we come together to rethink our roles as academics, community members, and inhabitants of the planet at this moment in time. As climate chaos ravages the planet, the need to course-correct towards more resilient and sustainable community-based economics has never been more urgent. We are eager to continue to develop and grow our understanding of “community economies” within and outside of the academy, while also working to leverage the UC system towards growing more sustainable, just, and democratic economies locally, and around the world. We hope that our work will inspire others to build similar projects within their communities and workplaces, and we hope that others will join us!
In January of 2020, we plan to hold a conference at UC Davis which we hope will be the beginning of this process to develop curriculum and policy changes within the UC and beyond. Currently, we are hoping for more UC graduate students from around the state to join our steering committee, and to join us on our quarterly retreats. We are also looking to connect with community partners who are working to build and advocate for resilient community economies to join us in developing policy and practices. If you would like to be part of the conference, or are interested in this project, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like to follow our efforts, you can subscribe to our listserv by sending an email to SYMPA@ucdavis.edu – in the subject line put “subscribe email@example.com” followed by your name and leave the body of the email blank.