Healthy economies depend on a vast complex network of interconnected facets. In a way they are very similar to a natural eco-system. What can we learn from this organic metaphor when applied to restoring our ailing communities?
Within a healthy forest the larger, more established trees and plants shelter and provide nutrients for the emergence of new types of growth. This undergrowth in turn protects the larger trees from predators and disease, and retains moisture, microorganisms and insect life in the soil. Layers of interdependent growth develop, contributing to the well-being and viability of the forest as a whole. Animals, birds, insects and microorganisms work in harmony and there is no waste.
When a forest has had the undergrowth removed the whole becomes vulnerable, there is no emerging life and the soil is eroded. The forest will eventually recover on its own if the damage is not complete, but this may take hundreds of years. Intervention is required to rebuild the ecosystem and repair the damage.
Does this sound familiar?
Similarly, our economy has become devoid of much of the “undergrowth” of local emerging enterprises. Young people are not staying in the area and becoming core primary providers of necessities and support services also tend to be less local.
Larger enterprises are increasingly not locally owned, and often become the equivalent of “exotic” or “alien” varieties rather than native fauna. Like our pine plantations, these take more from the soil than they give back. Like our soil, our local wealth, community cohesion and culture is depleted and exhausted in the process.
Commonly these larger entities will see the solution to falling returns as more centralisation. In a forest this would be like a giant tree trying to graft all the other plants onto itself, making the whole system massively vulnerable. So to in an economic sense trying to cover the whole supply chain or monopolise a whole market actually decreases the resilience of the whole system.
When the local “undergrowth” of small, local entrepreneurs is removed predators and disease move in as they do in native forest. For example, overseas investment may promise jobs for local people but these are often minimum wage low-skill jobs or imported labour who send most of their income out of the region. Our resources are stripped out with little local value added. In both the natural forest and the economic ecosystem eventually even the established native trees (larger locally owned enterprises) will succumb to disease and the soil will become so depleted desertification will result.
If existing larger established local enterprises can act as shelter to emerging local businesses we may be able to see a reversal in this process. We can become agents of intervention for the purpose of returning the system back to dynamic balance – “eco-nomic environmentalists”. We can create a space for new native seeds to be sown (locally owned enterprises) and returning insects, microorganisms and fungi to connect the life of the soil and plants. We can be like the bees and insects, cross-pollenating ideas through cluster meetings, hui, mentoring groups, research projects etc., or like the mycorrhizza, networking the whole through internet tools.
Following the “eco-nomic” model no-one is the “king” in this. Centralised, large-scale organisation actually decreases resilience. Rather each organisation and person takes on specific projects that enable the whole economic system to be restored to health and resilience – where possible partnering with and empowering others to do this rather than try to do everything ourselves. Instead older, more established organisations and businesses can act as “canopy” to sub-canopy and smaller plants. With the support of the whole “forest” large organisations may emerge from the top that become nationally or even internationally significant, but they are firmly rooted in and supported by the local community and the small businesses.
In this way the economy becomes a relational ecosystem, founded on the principles of collaborative, relational networks that cannot and should not be mapped into a rigid “organisational structure”.
Partnership within this may model may be financial, but more than that it will be a system of natural generosity, trust networks and friendships – healthy “co-opertition” of those that wish to share in the responsibility for creating a resilient and sustainable future together for our tūrangawaewae, the place we call home.
Clive McKegg – November 2015