Economic Roads Less Traveled

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Exit polls from recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey showed the vast majority of voters are anxious about the direction of our nation's economy. They should be worried because our present economic path is not sustainable.

"The Economics of Peace" conference in late October, sponsored by Praxis Peace Institute and RSF Social Finance, showcased several different roads businesses can travel and still thrive.

One of the workshops I attended was conducted by Trent Schroyer, author of Beyond Western Economics and Chair of The Other Economic Summit. He maintained we must make a transition to "post development" thinking and re-embed the economy in community. Schroyer feels we must devolve into smaller, self-reliant units to create this new economy.

Discussion about self-reliance touched on Transition Towns as one possible solution. The Transition Towns are communities that have adopted the concepts of the Transition Network, which views itself as "a social experiment on a massive scale" and advocates "relocalization" as a practical model where ordinary people can respond to peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis. "Where we get to at the end of this could be better than where we start from," said originator Rob Hopkins in a video at the Web site.

Judy Wicks spoke about how the global economy is composed of local economies which need to be strong and healthy. She said we must "build community wealth" that is not based on envy and "work cooperatively to build sustainable systems."

Wicks founded a sustainable business network in her hometown of Philadelphia after opening the White Dog Café in the 1980s. Working on "maximizing relationships, not profit" and "collective joy," Wicks crafted a local network to supply the restaurant.

Her work led to the creation of a national organization, Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) a cornerstone of the local-economy movement. The alliance presents a new model of economic development by building "a web of economies that are community-based, green and fair - local living economies."

In Sonoma the BALLE network has taken the form of a co-operative. The motto for GoLocal Sonoma County is, "Working together to reclaim our local economic power." The group stresses buying and investing locally because of the Local Multiplier Effect. When you spend one dollar locally, 45 cents is reinvested locally, but one dollar spent at a corporate chain keeps only 15 cents in the local economy.

Conference participants were introduced to other forms of co-operatives, most notably the Mondragon Cooperatives from the Basque Country of Spain. This consortium of worker-owned companies was started in 1956 by a Catholic priest and now employs more than 100,000 people in 264 enterprises.

Joseph Tuck spoke about the Alvarado Street Bakery in San Francisco, an example of a smaller worker-owned co-operative business. The bakery has over 100 employee/owners who make organic breads and they all earn at least $60,000 a year in the successful business, Tuck said.