Category Archives: Economics

Northland Food Council Hui

As part of our food re-localisation project we have initiated meetings with interested people across Northland. This is about discussing options and developing membership of a “Food Policy Council” from a wide cross section of education, health, growers, processors and so on in Northland.

The first took place in Waipapa and involved interested parties from Four Seasons Farms (eco-biological production of food or Community Seed Banking), Edible Kerikeri (utilising public spaces for food production), Far North Resilient Communities Trust (Timebanking, facilitation of all types of community development in the Far North), and Far North Civil Defence and ourselves (many of the participants also wear multiple “hats” in other organisations – the beauty of Northland!).

img_1564The second meeting was hosted by Te Rarawa in Kaitaia and also included representatives from Healthy Families Far North, Four Seasons Farms and FNDC. We were warmly welcomed by Executive Officer Kevin Robinson. Obviously the emphasis on a sustainable local food movement hits a chord with all concerned with the future of our communities and our tamariki.

One of the key ideas to come out of our hui was the importance of creating new stories that show that there are alternatives to our current economic models and that communities can rise up and make a difference. Out of this thought came the idea of working collaboratively with one Northland community to create prototype for other communities to learn from. Watch this space!

Thanks to FNDC/Manaia Health Kai Ora fund for help with our costs for attending these meetings :)

Sacred Economics – Pt 1

sacred-economics cover art“Within every institution of our civilization, no matter how ugly or corrupt, there is the germ of something beautiful: the same note at a higher octave. Money is no exception. Its original purpose is simply to connect human gifts with human needs, so that we might all live in greater abundance. How instead money has come to generate scarcity rather than abundance, separation rather than connection, is one of the threads of this book.” (pg 10)

Charles Eisenstein writes with a rare clarity. While I don’t subscribe to all his conclusions, his analysis of the current global economy is spot on, and I’ve learnt much from this book about how the current system has developed, why it has enslaved the world to a cycle of near-irreversible self-destructive consumerism and what some of the keys might be to moving on from this current nightmare.

Connecting human gifts with human needs

Eisenstein’s hypothesis is that society did not develop our present money system as a way to facilitate competitive enterprise in the form of barter as such, but to facilitate mutual gift-giving of resources that would be wasted if not shared. In fact there have been societies that have functioned in a much healthier way without life being denominated in terms of money. He says:

“Let me be very naive for a moment so as to reveal this core, this spiritual (if not historical) essence of money. I have something you need, and I wish to give it to you. So I do, and you feel grateful and desire to give something to me in return. But you don’t have anything I need right now. So instead you give me a token of your gratitude—a useless, pretty thing like a wampum necklace or a piece of silver. That token says, “I have met the needs of other people and earned their gratitude.” Later, when I receive a gift from someone else, I give them that token. Gifts can circulate across vast social distances, and I can receive from people to whom I have nothing to give while still fulfilling my desire to act from the gratitude those gifts inspire within me.” (pg 20)

The fact that human gifts and skills are not being well utilised in our highly developed world (most people don’t love the work they must do) and human needs are very largely unmet through a massive polarisation of wealth illustrates that what we have come to now is an absolute failure.

Instead, money has become a way to reduce human life and the natural world into a reductionist, centrally controllable machine-like and decidedly un-sacred place. He says: “…reductionist science seems to rob the world of its sacredness, since everything becomes one or another combination of a handful of generic building blocks. This conception mirrors our economic system, itself consisting mainly of standardized, generic commodities, job descriptions, processes, data, inputs and outputs, and—most generic of all—money, the ultimate abstraction.” (pg 9)

Instead of enabling well-being for society, our economic system has become the tool of crippling the linking of human gifts and human needs. Money as we know it is not the answer, money is actually the problem.

“It is ironic indeed that money, originally a means of connecting gifts with needs, originally an outgrowth of a sacred gift economy, is now precisely what blocks the blossoming of our desire to give, keeping us in deadening jobs out of economic necessity, and forestalling our most generous impulses with the words, “I can’t afford to do that.”” (pg 22)

Reductionism and commodification

As an accountant by training, I know how powerful the story behind our economic system is, and how hard it is to break out of that mindset. We are trained that everything can be expressed by some sort of a monetary value: time, goods, people, resources, land, water, entertainment, culture etc.

When we link this to the other unquestioned assumptions of our age – maximisation of wealth as expressed in possessions and net worth, and the value of individualism, we have a toxic brew for dehumanisation and destruction of the earth.

Eisenstein shows how society has moved progressively from very little being denominated in monetary terms to almost everything. Much of what was once regarded as the commons – the common property of humanity for the good of all – is now private, protected by private ownership, regulation, patent law, digital rights management and so on.  This has had the effect of not just separating us from our joint cultural heritage but also of separating us from each other and ultimately from our own worth. In a generic world where everything is exchangeable nothing carries any kind of meaning – including our lives.  We see this in western culture where although we have an abundance of stuff we are the most dissatisfied of generations.

“…the products of slave labor embody the spirit that goes into them. Who but a conscript would produce the crappy, dispirited, toxic, ugly, cheap objects and buildings that surround us today? Who but a slave would be so resentful and unpleasant in providing services? The vast majority of our “goods and services” are made by people who only do so for the money, who only do their work because they “have to.” I want to live in a world of beautiful things created by people who love what they do.” (pg 199)

By denominating almost everything in terms of money, we can “own” what was once the possession of all, limit it making it scarce then make a profit. By denominating abundance into money (a scarce commodity) the abundance of the world is withheld from the needy and wasted by the powerful.

“When everything is subject to money, then the scarcity of money makes everything scarce, including the basis of human life and happiness. Such is the life of the slave—one whose actions are compelled by threat to survival. Perhaps the deepest indication of our slavery is the monetization of time.” (pg 31)

The non-organic nature of money

If almost everything is denominated in terms of money, things once intrinsically valuable not only lose meaning and true value, but the status of money is elevated to a higher value than the goods that it is supposed to represent.

Almost everything in the real world decays over time – food, fabrics, timber, manufactured goods, even ideas and culture. They need to be refreshed and nurtured. Even land if left unkept losses some of it’s intrinsic value (an orchard left to become overgrown say). This is why gold was regarded so highly in ancient cultures – it did not rust or decay like everything else.

Money as we know it on the other hand (because it can be loaned at interest) functions in the exact opposite way. It gains value over time. Money, something that has no intrinsic value but is simply supposed to be a way of linking human gifts with human need, has now become something to be desired above all else, to be hoarded rather than used to benefit society.

Eisenstein argues that this is actually not just ridiculous, but it is at the heart of our inequality and what he calls “wealth polarisation“. Those who somehow have money gain more for doing virtually nothing, and those who don’t get worse off. The scarcity of money drives economic slavery.

The problem with interest

“Economic thinkers since the time of Aristotle have recognized the essential problem. Aristotle observed that since money is “barren” (i.e., it does not leave offspring like cattle or wheat do), it is unjust to lend it at interest. The resulting concentration of wealth had been seen many times already by 350 BCE, and it would happen many times thereafter. It happened again in Roman times. As long as the empire was expanding rapidly, acquiring new lands and new tribute, everything worked passably well, and there was no extreme concentration of wealth. It was only when the growth of the empire slowed that concentration of wealth intensified and the once-extensive class of small farmers, the backbone of the legions, entered debt peonage. It was not long before the empire became a slave economy.”

Loaning at interest – the backbone of the modern economy – only works in times where there is room for growth – new lands to conquer, new products to make, new needs to create, new resources to exploit, more gullible people who will believe that they too can be “rich”.

When we start running of out the commons (what is left of our shared culture and our natural world), when we become satiated on the drug of consumerism, when pleasure no longer is pleasurable, the system starts to break down.  Then it gets nasty. The economy starts to implode, democracy becomes a commodity for sale to the highest bidder, regulation multiplies so only huge exploitive corporations are able to survive, debt becomes unsustainable, jobs become harder to find and higher-pressure. In the intensity of human suffering violence escalates and the poor and minorities usually become the scapegoats.

No reverse gear

The current system is clearly unsustainable. It is an insatiable beast without the ability to regulate itself.

While Eisenstein offers some great solutions at a macro level which could reverse the process (which I will talk about in a coming post) I’m not convinced that without a serious rupture in the current system there will be any appetite for real solutions. Our best hope is to at least aware of the vulnerability of the current economy and not to put our hope in it, but to begin to rebuild an economy of care and generosity that isn’t focussed on or indebted to the money system.

Although the details and timeline of this unraveling are impossible to predict, I think we will first experience persistent deflation, stagnation, and wealth polarization, followed by social unrest, hyperinflation, or currency collapse. At that moment, the alternatives we are exploring today will come into their own, offering an opportunity to build a new and sacred economy. The farther the collapse proceeds, the more attractive the proposals of this book will become. (pg 101)

To me the most helpful solutions are ideas we can initiate on a personal and community level. We will look at these options later.

Never saw it coming – the parable of the high flyers


Using “economic growth” based on change in GDP as almost our sole measure of national or regional wellbeing (as many of our politicians tend to do) leads them (and us) into some very strange and unfortunate behaviour. 48470558-aircraft-cockpit-pilots-airplane-captain-pop-art-retro-style-aviation-and-travel

Consider flying a commercial aircraft that has only one gauge operating. Some smart person has got the idea that the purpose of planes is to fly really high and really fast. So everything else has been disabled except this gauge that shows us a reading of speed x altitude (they have forgotten that the actual purpose of passenger aircraft is to get everyone safely and comfortably to some destination).

So the pilots, locked away behind secure doors for their safety (so that they won’t be attacked while they do their work) gaze intently at their one gauge and push us higher and faster — because that is their job after all (and they get bonuses for doing it well)!

GDP IndicatorMeanwhile, back in the cabin the passengers are getting uncomfortable from the turbulence, while the pilots are blissfully unaware that the air back there is stale, the food is inedible and the frantic cabin crew are beginning to abuse the upset passengers who are now fighting amongst themselves over who gets the clean water.

Soon wounded, sick and suffocated passengers are being quietly jettisoned out the back. This makes the plane lighter, so of course it can go faster and higher. The pilots hi-five and do quick calculations on small scraps of paper about how much their bonuses will be!

At this sustained high speed parts of the structure begin to shake loose and fall off. The pilots loose directional control – but direction was never the point anyway – just speed x altitude and that’s great without those extra bits.

Meanwhile the cabin crew are finding it too tough and parachute out, again making the plane lighter. Faster and higher! Baggage starts streaming out the door left open along with the bodies of the remaining passengers – all asphyxiated now by the lack of air at this altitude. But we can go even faster and higher now!

The pilots are of course unaware of what is going on out the back behind their protective door. Even when their fuel runs out their massive velocity towards the ground keeps their instrument registering positive results. In the final seconds they look at each other with pained expressions of surprise.

The recovered Black Box reveals their final conversion:

10:02:14 I never saw this coming, we were doing so well.

10:03:35 It must have been a bloody terrorist.

10:04:41 End of recording

(Alan Greenspan – Chairman of the Federal Reserve of the United States from 1987 to 2006, wrote an article in 2013 about the 2008 Global Financial Crisis famously called “Never Saw it Coming – Why the Financial Crisis Took Economists By Surprise”)

By Clive McKegg, March 2016

Local Food Northland – Progress Report

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Ideas from our stakeholder meeting

Further to the Relocalising our Food Project, on 21st October we gathered a group of business and community leaders at the Whangarei Library to talk about the process from here. Some great ideas emerged including:

  • Potentially working in to supply increase the supply of local food to institutions like the hospitals, restaurants etc and what sort of infrastructure would be required
  • Ideas around enhancing access to fresh local food in Whangarei via the Tikipunga market and potentially a mobile food truck for those without access to markets
  • Enthusiasm over establishing a local directory/software portal
  • Local food demonstrations at the Saturday Whangarei Growers Market (these are starting on 5th December)
  • R & D work for new foods that can be grown locally taking local food and preparing/processing local food in new ways
  • Collaboration with CBEC over bringing local food content into their current work in schools
  • Potential for working with local health providers to deliver food education – growing, preparing and serving – with families caught in poverty and poor health/obesity
  • The potential for appropriate connections to local government through the enthusiastic representatives of WDC and FNDC who attended

We have set up a website called localfoodnorthland.org to promote these ideas.

Since the meeting we have done considerable work on addressing the next steps around developing a governance structure and structure for tax free donations (we have a Trust Deed prepared ready to set up a Charitable trust), creating a business plan to enable partnering organisations to see exactly how their resources are proposed to be used, and defining the specific projects, objectives and rolls required to accomplish our mission.

This business plan will be available for public scrutiny shortly. Thanks so much to those who have contributed to this process – collaborative project development works! If you would like to help with this or any aspect of the project please contact us. Jeff, Peter, Sean and myself have been the main instigators so far but thanks too to Bindy, Lisa, Anne, Sylvia, Ross and others for their assistance, suggestions and editing work.

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Eco-nomics

Forest_layersHealthy 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.

Answers?

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

The Town That Food Saved – Hardwick, Vermont

In June 2015, Sean and Rowan Stanley of the Northland Natural Food Co-op (NNFC) visited Hardwick, Vermont, USA to check out how the local food movement was progressing, and to bring back tips for our Northland local food movement.

Hardwick was the basis of the book The Town That Food Saved: How One Community Found Vitality in Local Food, by Ben Hewitt (Rodale Books, 2010). Sean & Rowan toured the Vermont Food Venture Center managed by the Center for an Agricultural Economy.


 

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For decades, the rural Vermont town of Hardwick (pop: 3,200) grappled with a challenged economy. Like so many small towns, the once-thriving regional industry had died, and the majority of the working population was forced to commute far beyond the town line to find work. Enter the “agripreneurs,” a group of ambitious young agricultural entrepreneurs with big ideas about how regionalized food-based enterprise can be used to create sustainable economic development and wean our nation of its unhealthy dependence on industrial food. In The Town That Food Saved, Ben explores the contradictions inherent to producing high-end “artisanal” food products in a working class community. To better understand how a local food system might work, he spends time not only with the agripreneurs, but also with the region’s numerous small-scale food producers, many of which have been quietly operating in the area for decades. The result is a delightfully inquisitive peek behind the curtain of the town that has been dubbed the “Silicon Valley of local food.” (from Ben Hewitt.net)


 

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Vermont countryside

Trees, mountains and small farms rushed by us as we drove through the state of Vermont. We were fascinated by the balance between the farmland and the wilderness surrounding us. In one place, great swathes of corn hugged the riverbank, silhouetted against a backdrop of native forest which rose up across the water.

The delicate balance of Vermont’s landscape came as a harsh juxtaposition to the area of Canada we had left behind. Southern Quebec is dominated by massive fields of wheat, corn, soy and other monoculture crops. We had driven past miles of identical fields, flat and monotonous in their sameness. In contrast, Vermont had us pressed up against our windows, marvelling at the beauty and variety as it flew past.

Paddocks, or ‘fields’, as they are called in America, lay nestled between the hills and pockets of crop land. Like Northland, Vermont has a large dairy sector. Despite this, we saw very few cows. Herds there are small, especially in comparison to typical New Zealand farms. We passed several large, open paddocks which held fewer cows than I have fingers.

It was like driving through a storybook, complete with old wooden barns, painted a peeling red. Towering silver grain silos added to the foreign novelty. When they first slid into view, the silos looked like nothing more than 50 foot cylinders with rounded domes. As we drew closer, however, mazes of pipes, conveyors and lifts hinted at a greater level of technology and complexity. Even the fanciest milking shed in New Zealand had nothing on one of those getups.

Pretty little town in northern Vermont

Hardwick – northern Vermont

The countryside was bathed in sunshine, and wind turbines spun lazily on a hilltop. The warmth, coupled with the excitement of seeing Hardwick, had my wife and I in a great mood.

Small towns flashed by us, their names half forgotten before we’d even passed through. What stuck with me though, was the sheer number of small, locally owned businesses. I had dreaded visiting the States, expecting to be pressed in on all sides by corporate America. Instead, I felt blissfully removed from it all- even more so than in New Zealand. There were no franchises, no massive corporations. Instead we were greeted by tiny hardware stores, grocers and retailers; each with their own unique names, signage and atmosphere.

CAE food centre

CAE food centre

A tense border crossing had put us behind schedule, so it was a relief when we finally crossed into Hardwick. My stepmother let us out in the middle of town where the Centre for an Agricultural Economy was. Or so we thought. Though Google Maps told us we were in the right place, the Centre was nowhere to be seen. We had seen from ‘The Town that Food Saved,’ that the Centre for an Agricultural Economy was supposed to be on the main street near the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op, (a tiny establishment I regret not exploring further than a glance in the window).

After walking up and down the main block that the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op was on and not seeing our destination, I decided to test the town’s hospitality by asking for directions from a bookshop keeper. She and one of her customers were immensely helpful in pointing us to the Centre for an Agricultural Economy’s new location which was back along the road we came in by and up a small side street tucked behind an independently owned hardware store.

Upon arrival I raced to the men’s room and then more formally and more relaxedly greeted Daniel and Sara. They re-read the questions I had asked in my email and then they began to share with me in more detail about the various partnerships and financial aid available to farmers around as I described New Zealand’s challenge to get young blood back into farming.

farm fund

Local farmers

Jeff Griggs and I had wanted to know more about the Vermont Farm Fund, which according to the online description seems to be available for small business loans in the region and is of a ‘pay-it-forward’ resurging fund. Daniel and Sara explained that the Vermont Farm Fund’s origin lay actually in emergency loans to farmers.

“You see,” said Daniel, “Back in about 2008 we had a really bad storm and really bad flooding. One of the farmers near here had a lot of damage done. Damage so severe he was facing insolvency. However, his CSA members [community supported agriculture] began donating and fundraising to help him replace and repair the machinery and infrastructure he needed to. From the CSA members, other community groups including the Centre for an Agricultural economy got involved in fundraising and the end result is our farmer who faced bankruptcy suddenly had more money than he knew what to do with. So he decided to set up the Vermont Farm Fund with the extra funds and make that available to other farmers in times of crisis.

Since then, the fund has helped many farmers and the loan capital is released as farmers make payments. Interest is very low-to-nonexistent and farmers in bad financial trouble have been very good at paying even when there are more pressing debts. Because of this there is good will surrounding this fund. The faster a farmer repays, the faster another farmer can get help and the farmers themselves understand this. Today the Vermont Farm Fund is also looking at doing ‘business builder’ loans for helping established farm business grow. The fund is not really available to young people looking to get started though.

Daniel later told me about several small business lending initiatives that would help get someone on to the land and each has slightly different models. Community Capital of Vermont, the Vermont Community Loan Fund are more general while farming specific sources include the Carrot Project, NOFA-VT (organic certifier), and the Vermont Farm and Forest Viability Program. Despite having slightly different models, all these institutions offer lower-interest, lower-collateral, and higher-risk-tolerance than typical small business loans.

I was really interested to see the organic certifier had an interest in helping young people get started in the business with financial loans. I thought it would be neat if our own certifiers in New Zealand followed their example.

Bidinger220For more information about connecting young people to land, Daniel talked about the Vermont Land Trust which pays to conserve farmland (and forest) and also runs a Farmland Access Program to connect available farms to farmers in search of land. Nick Richardson runs their ‘integrated dairy’ model where they pair dairy farmers with cheesemakers, and Jon Ramsey runs the farmland access program–both of them would be available for us to speak with.

We then moved on and began to focus on food hubs. Sara showed us a rough sketch of Vermont with all the various food hubs and their approximate locations, and niche functions mapped on it. I believe this will be especially important to us setting up food hubs to help keep the projects focused when it actually comes time to pick a building and spend money retro-fitting it for use as a food hub. According to Sara there are three types of Food Hubs according to the Federal Government definition. They are:

  • Food Aggregation and Distribution hubs. This is simply a shared building where raw, unprocessed food is bought and trucks take it away to supermarkets, farmer’s markets, or on to further processing. I thought these seemed useful but also kind of boring and too much reliant on an older model of doing things. There may be food hubs like this in New Zealand already, likely in control by Turner’s and Growers.
  • Food Processing Hubs. This is the type of hub Rowan and I were in – the Vermont Food Venture Centre. It’s job is to be a shared business space for small and medium food businesses to create Vermont and American branded food items. Many items made here end up on Whole Foods shelves, farmers markets, and general grocery stores. The role of the hub is to provide the training and facilities for certain types of food processing at an efficient and cost effective level for a food business. The hub also offers business related services like help with business plans, advice on potential markets, etc. The success and financing of the Vermont Food Venture Centre predominantly comes from having two very large semi-permanent tenants.
  • Customer Food Distribution Hub: A hub where actual consumers come to either shop or collect orders from local suppliers. The original producers of the food may or may not be present depending on the types of activity going on here. Uses include, a drop-off point for CSA’s, indoor farmer’s market, etc.
VFVC Bakery

VFVC Bakery

Daniel then gave us a tour of the Vermont Food Venture Centre and we could see the integration of their three small kitchens and their privately owned, locked-away permanent business tenants. Daniel then explained how the centre manages some catering contracts for a local hospital and the University of Vermont by preparing large quantities of frozen vegetables for use in the kitchens there. Additionally we saw a producer hard at work making pickles flavoured with hops flowers. We saw lots of equipment and lots of storage, composting bins, bottling equipment, labeling machines, etc. The systems and equipment looked very efficient and I started strongly wanting one of these types of hubs for food in Whangarei.

After our tour Daniel said if we ever want to write or phone with more questions they’d be happy to be of assistance and both he and Sara wished us the best of luck in our New Zealand adventures.

Cluster 101 for Northland Interactive Workshop

iforThis workshop by Ifor Ffowcs-Williams was hosted by Northland Inc on 15 July at Barge Park in Whangarei.

Ifor is an extremely experienced facilitator of business clusters and founder of Cluster Navigators. Based in Nelson, he consults and conducts training all round the world concerning the development of clusters.

A Brief Summary:

Ifor is a great advocate of moving from isolation into teamwork. This is what clustering is all about – collaboration for the sake of empowerment. He gave great examples from round the world of how groups coming together were able to leverage their commonality to great advantage to the local economy – providing employment where there was great lack and poverty. In many cases businesses that on one level were competitors could still find synergies. He calls this co-petition (as opposed to competition). Wonderful!

He talked about studies that have been recently carried out in Northland – theTai Tokerau Regional Growth Study Report and The Tai Tokerau Maori Growth Strategy: ‘He Tangata, He Whenua, He Oranga – both in depth studies, but his impression seemed to be that while they captured the situation well, the failed to reach conclusions concerning real local action that we can take. Their focus was too much on needing support from Government. This is where clusters come into their own – as bottom up rather than top-down initiatives. I see the similarity to the Health Promotion model where the outcomes are exponentially better if community initiated and locally contextualised.

His experience is that all the reports in the world do nothing until local groups start to form that share “tacit information” – that is knowledge that can only be gained and shared by face to face interaction and knowledge that is often native to a place. Yay! (Sounds like he has been reading Wendell Berry)

He pointed out that of all the OECD countries we are the most centralised. While this may have been more appropriate in the past when NZ had a more uniform economy it is not really appropriate now where we have such diverse local specialisations emerging. Local clustering is likely therefore less likely to obtain as much central government support (i.e. financial help)  as in other countries but this shouldn’t stop us either.

Ifor took us though small group break-outs to identify what our Northland specialities are in order to see the potential for clustering – things like dairying, horticulture (kumara, kiwifruit, citrus, tamarillo etc), honey, fisheries, timber, boat building and repairs etc. The next step is to develop what he called “deep specialisation” – gaining a full knowledge of your product top to bottom, from production to finished goods to other alternative uses – implying partnership with research and education and complimentary types of processes and knowledge. I can see how this deep knowledge, when centred in a location, brings an intangible “something” that goes way beyond what intellectual property can protect.

As well as emphasising “tacit knowledge” he also emphasised the importance of trust in relationships. In a way this is something that can only grow over time, and in face to face interaction. Cluster interaction has a natural way of filtering out the “bad apples” and bringing unethical practices into line.

Ifor then took us through the process of cluster development. The more naturally and organically the development happens the better. He warned against formalising too quickly. It was important to identify the key stakeholders, as all may have input into the cluster. We used a diagram like this to identify the key people and companies in particular sectors:

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Next we discussed the vital role of the cluster manager. We looked at the skills and qualities needed, primarily the ability to listen and engage and facilitate – not doing too much but bringing people in gently – one at a time preferably, building relationships and trust. The cluster manager should also have a broad skill and knowledge base and should be neutral and able to keep confidences. They need not be a specialist in the particular industry but be able to pick it up quickly.

He breaks the cluster process into 12 steps as follows:

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Ifor pointed us to a free download from his website of his Cluster Development and Management Manual which includes a full analysis of the the process above plus much more – a great resource for further study. He also has his full book Cluster Development: The Go-To Handbook
– Building Competitiveness through Smart Specialisation available for sale on the website.

How does this work with Localisation?

I liked how Ifor recognised the engagement required across sectors and across interest groups. It’s really important that we don’t just stand back and throw stones at each other just because we are coming from some diverse and sometimes polarised perspectives. It is only through patiently linking together that we begin to see others’ perspectives better and come to a place of a better working understanding, and therefore better outcomes for our communities. This was evidenced on the day by the diverse interests represented.

While his focus seemed to be primarily on a global context – developing specialisations for the global market – he did seem to also grasp the importance of a resilient local economy/community. Where localisation can offer much to economic thinking is in the concepts of stopping leakage of wealth from a region. This was considered in terms of taking raw materials to finished goods, but the other aspects of leakage reduction were not really discussed or considered.

While from his perspective it seemed to me that the future is going to entirely global-driven, I would argue that global-scale specialisation is ultimately unsustainable – environmentally and socially – and we must build diverse local economies for food security, ecological sustainability and regional resilience, as local will eventually become the dominant economic model again for most essentials.

I would also argue that wealth ultimately does not come from trade – it comes from the soil, the sea, our waterways, the energy of the sun and is in our people. This is where our true wealth lies and we must do all we can to maintain and enhance these for the wellbeing of future generations.

However for now the local and global will sit together and can be complimentary – and the wisdom of clusters is highly relevant to both.

Clive McKegg

Going Local – Creating Self-Reliant Communities in a Global Age

Going-Local-Shuman-Michael-9780684830124Anyone who starts their book with a quote from Wendell Berry will get my attention.

But while Berry produces exquisite art that feeds the soul with inspiration and practical wisdom, Michael Shuman writes books for the “how to” of localisation. This one is filled with examples of what has and hasn’t worked – mainly from USA examples from the 1990’s but still highly relevant to our present time and place.

What I like about Shuman is the reasonableness of his position. For instance:

Going local does not mean walling off the outside world. It means nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages, and serve primarily local consumers. It means becoming  more self-sufficient, and less dependant on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of  distant corporations and back to the community, where it belongs (p6)

He deconstructs the current narrative that cannot perceive prosperity and well-being outside of increased reliance on the global economy, where we are obsessed with attracting overseas investment as our only hope of economic salvation. He says:

The only way communities can ensure their economic well-being is to stop chasing multinational firms with no community loyalties, and start investing in community corporations. Prosperity follows when ownership, production, and consumption become intimately connected with place.  (p7)

He has some great examples of cities and regions abandoned by large industry who have faced social and economic disaster, but instead assessed what was left and found ways to recover a buoyant local economy.  His hypothesis is that the costs of courting large-scale overseas investment is too high. The advantages are temporary at best. A long-term, robust economy is founded instead on solid, locally owned sustainable businesses.

The final chapter in the book addresses ten steps toward community self-resilience. I want to explore how we could adapt these to Northland:

Step 1: A Community Bill of Rights

By this he means developing a shared vision of a better future, asking questions like: What do we want to produce? How? Where? What kinds of goods and services are necessities? What should be our standard of worker right and wages? What should be our stand on preserving our land, water and sea? What kind of ownership structures will best serve our community well-being? As he says:

A community bill of rights accomplishes several goals. It enables residents to assert, fundamentally, that ends come before means – that businesses are welcome if they serve the community. It creates a set of public norms about commercial behaviour that protects the public and provides fair notice to corporations. A business’s faithfulness to the Rights. while voluntary, carries consequences. Every time a citizen considers making a purchase…he or she will have the list of qualifying companies in mind.

This is what we have in mind through a our Localise Project – developing a set of voluntary standards around shared values and then identifying businesses that are on-board with these values that they may support one-another.

Step 2: The State of the Region Report

This is about taking stock of what our city, town or region is and has. Every community has resources, assets and culture that are capable being revived and empowered. Sometimes we forget how blessed we are in Northland in terms of climate, resources and history. Shuman recommends recording and publishing this to remind ourselves of who we are and what we have. This not only gives us a starting point for moving forward, but inspires a new sense of collective identity.

Virtually every community… has a gold mine which economists have yet to discover. Along its veins and other deposits may be found unemployed human resources, underused civic institutions, and discarded economic assets…. Many kinds of human assets now lie fallow…… the inventiveness of the young, the forgotten skills of retirees…tally the inanimate objects that have been all but written off: empty buildings, idle machinery, wasted energy. (p184)

This report would also include our local renewable resources, non-renewables, community organisations, measures of current exports and imports, indebtedness and investment on a region-wide basis and so on. This report is not so much about finding answers, but identifying where we are at – that in many ways we are richly resourced, but just need co-ordination and vision for that to be utilised in a sustainable and empowering way for the whole community. This requires research and coordination – an essential part of the process. The Ministry of Economic Development recently commissioned a report on Northland which has collected much data around the Northland economy. Many of the conclusions are framed in terms of a global/industrial narrative, but the information could provide a great resource for a State of the Region Report.

Step 3: Anchor Corporations

From this report, Shuman says, there will be obvious ripe business opportunities. Unmet needs suggest new markets for local businesses. Under-utilised or poorly utilised resources may then be matched with people with ideas but lacking capital or land – unused buildings or land for instance, discarded goods that may be recycled or up-cycled. Import replacing businesses will begin to emerge based on a joint commitment made at step one. This is where a few companies must step up to point the way forward. Shuman says:

The existence of one or two successful community corporations – using local inputs, producing quality goods, operating in harmony with the environment, selling to local consumers, treating workers well, delivering profit to local shareholders – should inspire others to follow… As they increase the demand for inputs to production, new firms will be motivated to set up shop. (p187-188)

In Northland we have at least one great example of a Social Enterprise that has lead the way in CBEC (Community, Business and Environment Centre) is based in Kaitaia but has ventures throughout Northland. With a focus on running community services (transport, home insulation, solar power, conservation and recycling) in a sustainable way they have proven the viability of the Social Enterprise model in Northland. The Akina Foundation is presently working in the Far North coaching a series of new social enterprises, for example AKĀU – a design and architecture studio in Kaikohe using local materials to make quality furniture and other locally designed products, providing training for local youth in association with Northtec.

Step 4: Community Friendly Business Schools

Most people who have been employed by large companies all their lives (or have been unemployed) haven’t had the opportunity to learn the skills of business ownership. The availability of coaching and mentoring around the values identified at step one has been rare in the past. Shuman says:

The transformation of business schools and university economics departments is another imperative. Lewis Mumford once observed that industrial society transformed all seven deadly sins except sloth “into a positive virtue. Greed, avarice, envy, gluttony, luxury, and pride [are] the driving forces of the new economy”.

Fortunately we have organisations like Akina who are leading the way in ethical Social Enterprise and locally Northtec is playing a significant part in sustainable development and training.  They have carried out some significant research including an extensive study of the impact of the Whangarei Growers Market. From my background as a Chartered Accountant I see the great disconnect between great people with exciting ideas and the realities of compliance with regulations and reporting requirements. I am still involved in informal business mentoring with a number of forming ventures and may formalise this in future as there is a great need for incubation of new ventures. We are also in the process of creating software tools to assist with compliance and governance.

Step 5: Community Finance

Shuman sees the development of sources of finance as essential for the starting of community organisation. Conventional sources of finance form a point of “leakage” from the local economy, reducing the “multiplier” effect of keeping funds in circulation.

As community corporations expand, so will the need for local investors. A concerted effort must be made to convince your neighbours to transfer their pensions and other assets from global stocks and bonds to local ones, and from mutual funds with no preference for place to local mutual funds targeting local businesses.

Many will of course argue that this may expose their retirement funds or their children’s inheritance to undue risk.  But are investments in the global economy actually that safe anyway? There are ways to invest locally in safe way – for instance investing in land or buildings that are made available for social enterprise or start-ups at an affordable rate as a way of promoting these ventures. Mechanisms already exist for protecting peer-to-peer lending. Simply using a local solicitor to draw up an agreement is the most simple way if there is already some kind of relationship between the borrower and potential investor. New peer-to-peer lending businesses like Harmoney allow lenders to choose who to invest in. So a local investor could go in there are choose from a range of local ventures.

Step 6: Community Currency

Community currency is a proven way to stimulate a local economy. As well as reducing leakage for multinational banks and credit card companies, it provides resilience in times of natural disaster, economic or political crisis. Shuman says that local currency systems:

…demonstrate that designing, managing and recruiting participants for community currency is a terrific organising project. It raises awareness  about who lives in the community which citizens are committed to self-reliance, and what and where goods are locally available. It strengthens relationships between local business and consumers. It heightens public appreciation that every purchase is a civic act.

Northland has had community currencies and time-banking in the past. Laurence Boomert,  a guru on alternative currencies did a great presentation on Complimentary Currencies at the Resilient Economies Conference in Kaitaia in 2014. As far as I know there are no current currency initiatives in Northland however there are tools to enable virtual local currencies available and once some of the other steps are more progressed this would be natural extension.

Step 7: Community-Friendly Local Councils

While all the above can be achieved without local government support, if the local councils do get on board, there are massive advantages. Shuman says:

It can make sure that the only beneficiaries of local investment, contracts, purchases and bond finance are community corporations. It can help to match local-input supplier and workers with local producers. It can set up scholarship funds… If your mayor or local city-council members  refuse to start making the kinds of economic stands that make difference, consider standing against them.

There are some encouraging signs for Northland in this arena. The Far North District Council hosted the Resilient Economies Conference in Kaitaia in 2014. They are supporting the Akina social enterprise work in the Far North. The Whangarei Council seems open to suggestions. We just need to keep working on them!

Step 8: Political Reform

This is where it can start to get messy. As Shuman says:

A community that begins the transformation to self-reliance will soon encounter powerful enemies. Multinational firms that find themselves losing local markets and special government privileges can be expected to retaliate… and continue to use trade treaties and friendly courtrooms, wherever possible, to circumvent the inconveniences of democracy… But their most likely – and dangerous -reaction will be to tighten their grip on local governments.

This is a challenge. Once we make a stand to take our independence back from the global economy there is likely to be opposition. Already the TPPA is a massive threat to a thriving local economy. The good thing about the Northland economy is that nobody outside of Northland really cares about us. Our production is insignificant in national terms and no-one in central government wants to tackle our social problems so hopefully we can “fly under the radar.”

Step 9: A Lobby for Localism

This is about pushing for policies that devolve power back to local communities and local councils.

Local elected officials have to steer the devolution revolution so that they are given real powers over the local economy, and not just more responsibilities without the revenue-raising capacity to pay for them. They need to push the national government to reorient the nation’s trade policies away from the centralised autocracy…

In New Zealand local government has less power and less resources than in most other countries – lots of responsibility but little real power. But once we have a working model of a truly resilient local vibrant economy that doesn’t keep begging for government handouts, is addressing it’s social problems in creative and compassionate ways and is reclaiming a truly local identity then hopefully we will have a great case for government to look seriously at making it easier for local communities to at least be on a level playing field with the corporations, and to trust local councils with more power to facilitate this.

Step 10: Inter-localism

Finally Shuman suggests a better way of forming global connections:

A more responsible course for a globally minded community is to move toward local self-reliance, and to help other communities worldwide do likewise. How? By transferring innovations in technology and policy that foster self-reliance, especially to the poorest communities in the world that desperately need a new approach to sustainable development.

In fact it is many of the “poorer” countries where social enterprise is thriving and we can learn from them. However the idea is sound, that we get our own house in order, care for our own people – our own “zombie towns” – then perhaps we will have learned some skills to help others.

 

Clive McKegg

harbour board building

Nurturing our local economy

We are presently in the middle of a debate in Whangarei about whether to turn an existing community-owned building into an Arts Centre – the projected costs ranging from $10-15 million, with around 25% to be provided from the local council. What got my attention was a recent article in the Northern Advocate by Nick Chamberlain of the Northland District Health Board advocating for one of the options. He says:

”Although we play a part, social agencies and even district councils aren’t going to “fix” Northland – it’s going to be innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses taking a risk, putting their faith in our wonderful region.”

What struck me was the obviously widely held assumption that the work of innovators, entrepreneurs and business is primarily to draw more tourist/export dollars into our region and that will somehow solve our social and health problems.

What sort of innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses hold to this kind of philosophy? I assume they are people who are already wealthy and who will now make large, risky ventures that likely require further investment from outside the region and from local or national government if possible to make them a reality. These ventures will also rely on selling to people from outside the region while potentially exposing those within the region to the risk of the failure of their ventures. This seems to be the kind of private/public partnership proposed for the Arts Centre. I can’t help but be reminded of the words of the new co-leader of the Green Party, James Shaw:

“We have an economy where profits are privatised but the risks – and the social and environmental costs – of that profit are socialised.”

The thing is, where is the connection between having rich tourists visiting Northland and fixing our social and health problems? Isn’t this the rhetoric that turns local culture into “tourist culture”? The reasoning that builds high-rise hotels on our beaches? Casinos in our cities? So long as it attracts the dollars it must be good right?

Where does the money from tourism go? Does it produce satisfying work for local people? Perhaps a few jobs like that. But often it just produce demeaning minimum wage jobs that pander to the whims of the wealthy tourist while diluting our true culture.

Can culture and art be industrialised and packaged for consumption and still be authentic culture and art? Or is it just the way to make a few people who are already wealthy more wealthy, or sending wealth out of Northland to the outside investors? Will these entrepreneurs employ local people at a living wage and use local goods and services or will they pay the minimum they can for local labour and goods, or more likely import cheaper labour and goods?

Is this the future we want? Do we need to attract money from outside of Northland to have a vibrant economy with full employment? Actually I would argue no. What we need instead is to generate our own “internal” economy within Northland. What do I mean by that? Is it possible to have a workable, largely local economy?

The key is to assess our assets and resources, define the goals we want to achieve with those resources, then enhance them through minimising leakage.

Assessing our assets and our goals

We have extensive and diverse resources in Northland. These are our true capital assets. Our natural resources include our soil, our waterways and water reserves, our seas, our forests, our plants, animals and birds (both domestic and wild), our history, our skill-sets, our experience, our culture and our other raw materials. We also have existing infrastructure in terms of power reticulation, roading, harbours, and modes of transport (vehicles, boats, planes etc). We have the land-form and the climate to produce all of our basic necessities. Most importantly we also have our people.

Whether we use of misuse our assets depends on our goals. Our goals determine the ends to which we dedicate those assets. If for instance our goal is the maximisation of short-term wealth channelled into the hands of a few people it would make sense to sell off our capital assets, or to exploit them as quickly as possible – to run our economy, our people and environment, as they say “into the ground”. Then a few of us could retire rich to some safer place leaving the rest with very little.

If our goal on the other hand is the long-term well-being of our place and of our descendants we would do our best to preserve and build up our capital assets. We would ensure we maintained diversity of skill-sets, diversity of agriculture, horticulture and manufacturing. We would preserve our waterways, ground-water, air and soil. We would ensure our fishing supplies and native forests were harvested in a way that increased rather than decreased their long-term viability. We would retain local ownership of our lands and businesses. We would ensure that irreplaceable resources like minerals were only used in a way that ensured maximum value for generations to come for the wellbeing of our region. We would put great care into passing on values, culture and skills to our young people so that they – our greatest assets – would have a future in the place they sprang from. We would minimise the leakage of our assets and resources.

How leakage occurs

Leakage occurs when resources from within a community are extracted out for less than fair value. Some would argue that exports of raw material are not leakage, as they allow us to import the goods that we need and cannot produce here. From an accounting perspective when we deplete our capital to gain depreciating assets or consumables we are going backwards. Say for example we sell a capital asset such as a house, and spend that money on say, a car or a holiday. In 10 years the car is probably worn out and the holiday is a distant memory and we have no house – even though the house and land is still there and probably has the same intrinsic worth. This is the story of Northland under our current economic thinking.

We are depleting our true assets, in exchange for consumables and depreciable assets. We are selling our land to investors who take most of the profits generated on that land out of the area and in some cases out of the country. We are losing the nutrition in our soils through exporting huge amounts of timber, meat and dairy. What do we get in return? Imported fertilisers and pesticides to pump out more and more production from our depleted soils. Our soils have become chemically dependant – a temporary fix at best that cannot replace years of depletion and exhaustion. True sustainable fertility and natural resistance can only be built up again through the long process of careful humus replacement and building up the depth of topsoil. Our human and animal waste pollutes our streams and harbours instead of those nutrients being carefully put back into the soil.

We import cars, tractors and machinery to run our farms – all depreciable. And we buy consumable goods – fuel to run our machines and the trinkets of consumer society. These end up in our landfills, in our oceans, in our waterways, in our atmosphere and in our soils making it harder and harder for future generations to survive in this place. Or we ship what waste we can overseas – some to be recycled but most ends up polluting some other unfortunate community. When we use credit from a overseas-owned bank we are effectively “importing” it – the profit derived from our fees and interest is going to the overseas owners.

We also deplete our assets when we fail to care for our young people. When they cannot find meaningful employment and caring, safe communities what future is there for them?

How do we reverse leakage?

Diversifying our production and moving back to more mixed-farming models is a way of reducing and reversing leakage. More raw materials processed locally will reduce leakage, along with a greater variety of goods produced locally. This production may be smaller-scale but higher-quality. Less reliance then needs to be placed on revenue from bulk exports as more goods are traded locally and what is exported is in a higher value state. More work is created locally through the diverse local industries required for the more complex and skilled economy that results. As a bonus, waste and pollution is reduced as transport needs are reduced, and a more diverse model uses “waste” from one industry as raw material for another (manure and animal bi-products as fertiliser for instance).

More diverse farming and horticulture is less intensive in terms of environmental impact. Sustainable forestry and dairying practices maintain and build up natural fertility, preserve soil and waterways, allow aquifers to rebuild, reduce the need for expensive imported chemical and mechanical interventions and work with the natural processes.

Reducing dependance on debt also reduces leakage. An internal economy is one where capital is supplied from within the region. Borrowing from outside of the region is leakage – overseas owned banks profiting when that could be retained in the local economy. Similarly investment that is sent onto the national or international stock market is leakage. Brokers and companies elsewhere benefit.

By moving to smaller-scale but more diverse and more value-added style businesses the need for the vast debt burden required by our current primary industries could be reduced. The costs of entry into farming and horticulture becomes affordable in smaller-scale operations. More people are employed in more diverse jobs.

Finding ways to link local investors with local borrowers vastly reduces leakage. With the development of local credit co-ops, peer-to-peer lending, local virtual-currencies and time-banks an internal economy can begin to thrive.

Finally, we reduce leakage when we care for our young people and for the most powerless members of society. The worst fallout of our global-industrial system is social. Our people who have been left without work and without hope as the global economy has gone into spasms is a terrible waste.

When our young people have gone to the big city, overseas or to prison what sort of legacy is left for future generations? If our goal is the long-term well-being of our place and of our descendants we have failed almost completely. Free higher education would be a great start, but it must lead into creative, fulfilling local jobs, business ownership and home ownership opportunities to create stable communities.

A well-functioning local economy cannot rely on “innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses taking a risk” unless those innovators and entrepreneurs are connected to the community and land and are passionate about the wellbeing of the community and the land – actively supporting social services and community welfare initiatives that empower those caught in the poverty trap. A profit motive alone will not care for the poor or for the young. The motive must instead be the long-term wellbeing of the community, and the creation of a sustainable economy to support that goal.

What are our choices?

What kind of community consensus do we need to create a system that is more that a vague hope that the most powerless are cared for through some sort of trickle-down from tourism or exporting of raw materials?

How do we make our foremost goal and the measure of our success to be the care of our people in empowering, dignified and culturally appropriate ways? Can this be left to the whims of a so-called market economy? Even when it is demonstrated that it makes no sense even just economically to leave people poor, uneducated and unemployed, the market economy alone has generally done nothing. It has left the job to “the government” or simply blamed the poor, uneducated and unemployed for their own plight then grumbled about having to pay tax for the social problems created.

The most obvious way to generate an internal local economy is of course to make a choice, wherever possible, to buy from local suppliers who also buy from, borrow from and employ other local people. The more local the supply chain the more leakage is plugged. The more leakage is plugged the more momentum is gained by the local internal economy.

Tourism may be a happy bi-product of a strong caring local economy, but to rely on this as our source of well-being is to make ourselves powerless victims of the international economy that really doesn’t care about us. But instead imagine focussing on a truly local sustainable culture, celebrating our uniqueness and sharing the good things we have with others in an attitude of hospitality and generosity. Imagine art and music made not for commercial gain but out of a flourishing of history and depth of community that has time and resources to celebrate together. Ironically that would be a great tourist attraction!

Imagine the wonderful unique goods we could make from our local materials – not just “crafts” for “tourists” but real food, clothing, utensils, furniture, tools and technology that has grown to meet our local needs using our local resources. With a thriving full-employment low-social-cost society we should be able to make an excess of goods that can provide an export income, but only after supplying local needs at fair prices. This would make our region a highly desirable place to live and to visit.

Would this kind of local economy provide us with not only basic economic resilience but also assist us in our goal for long-term well-being of our place and of our descendants – a meaningful sustainable community where there is a future for our young people? Could this model be the way to lift us out of our present health and social crises? Could this provide a basic level of provision in case of emergency or disaster?

I am not against the development of an Arts Centre at the town basin. Either option may well be great. But it will not solve our health, social or economic problems. Only a sustained, coordinated effort involving social agencies, district councils, innovators, entrepreneurs and businesses with a shared goal of enhancing our assets, reducing leakage so that all may thrive in a strong resilient localised Northland economy can guarantee a good future for us all.

by Clive McKegg

Creating a parallel culture

memorial_velvet_revolution_prague

Changing a dominant world-view doesn’t require violent revolution – just enough people to stop believing the narrative –  as this story about the1989 “Velvet Revolution” in Czechoslovakia illustrates:

“Men and women from all forms of life felt they were caught in a system from which they could never escape. They had no part in the power blocs or elites but gradually developed habits that formed this parallel culture in the midst of the dominant Communist government. What happened was unexpected and unplanned. There was no grand strategy; rather people doing simple things that changed their reality. In coffee shops and in and other meeting places, a few would bring short original poems or commentaries and shared them with others… This was a slow gradual creation of a parallel culture in which more and more people found ways of confessing that that didn’t believe in communism anymore… for example, some people wrote of children trusting their parents in the midst of a public culture that encouraged children to spy on their parents and report on their activities; they were not overtly political but they told the story of another reality…It was this kind of storytelling among people even while the communist mantle seemed unshakeable, that created the parallel culture…It was hard work but eventually communism crumbled…” (Allan Roxburgh – Missional Map Making) 

No life was lost – the dominant ideology just became unsustainable and there was a resilient parallel culture that had built another reality that made more sense. In the language of sociology there was a change in the “Plausibility Structure” – in other words the “story” that we live by. Questions like:

  • “Where are we?” (what is the nature of the world?),
  • “Who are we?” (what does it mean to be human?),
  • “What’s wrong?” (how do we account for evil and the brokenness of life?)
  • “What is the remedy?” (what is the path from brokenness and insecurity to a life that is whole and secure?)

Communism gave one set of answers, but in our day global industrialism paints a whole different, but possibly equally dehumanising story for us to buy into. In this world driven by individualism, consumerism and pragmatism the answers might be:

  • “Where are we?” We are in an endlessly replenishable universe which with our intelligence and strength we can exploit for our constant and increasing pleasure
  • “Who are we?” We are autonomous selfs, fulfilled by ever increasing consumption of material goods and physical pleasures until we pass meaninglessly and as painlessly as possible into nothingness
  • “What’s wrong?” We don’t have enough material goods and entertainment, we aren’t beautiful or good looking enough, we don’t have enough power, we are surrounded by inferior people who are messing up the world
  • “What is the remedy?” Gaining more goods, looking more attractive, being with the right people, having lots of money to achieve these things by whatever means possible

So lets start imagining a parallel culture!