Table of Contents
Exploring Community Economies
As I was travelling to Liminal Village, I missed the EDE session on this, on 2023-06-10. The challenge when we miss a session is to look over the recording, and any supplementary materials, and to write a “synthesis” — I would perhaps call it a synopsis, with added commentary. Here it is.
In the previous sessions, we heard about the theory of money and currencies, so how about some examples of how it works out in practice?
The session started with a question to the participants: “What's one quality of the economy you want to create?”
People answered this in several ways, some of which could be related to a wider question, more like “what's one quality of the world you want to create?” Other answers could be related more closely with economy, and here the ones that seemed to me to fit best (put in alphabetical order, with a little reworking):
- enough for everyone
- wealth for all
Of these, circularity points also to the ecological dimension. The qualities: enough for everyone; flow; sharing; solidarity; wealth for all; and well-being seem to me to be also connected with the social dimension. Degrowth also implies concern for the ecological effects of the economy; efficiency to a need not to waste, and finally abundance, to me, points towards a rejection of the artificial scarcity that seems very often to stem from a capitalist system, recognising that under our current system, inequality between rich and poor is further increasing, and it is the rich who have the greatest responsibility for the different aspects of our multiple crisis.
It was noted that the UN SDGs are weak in the area of the economy, and this can be criticised. Does this mean that the SDGs are somehow compromised by the influence of the capitalist economy? It's not clear; but it seemed that many agreed with the idea that the SDGs are better than nothing.
Currencies and related systems are created by people, though laws and institutions, and can be designed to support any chosen goal. If we want to design a currency differently from our current one, then three key areas are worth consideration:
- property and ownership
- livelihood and meeting our needs
- distribution and exchange
So let's look at each in turn.
Property and Ownership
What, in our society, is owned? It could be
- the land;
- infrastructure: transport, energy grids, markets;
- means of production; (widely quoted in Marxist thinking)
- labour (as in slavery; or, in a labour market, we sell our labour)
- fruits of property and labour.
This is an important reflection to open and broaden our minds out from the personal property that we are most familiar with. One aspect of legal ownership is that owners have extensive rights over the use or access to what is owned. If we ask the question, who controls the things that have been created?, the answers are embedded in narratives and conceptual structures, which can be seen in terms of rules.
Property rights (when backed up by law enforcement) constrain how property may be used, sold, transferred, etc. There are various property regimes that have been documented:
- open access
- state / public
- common / collective
We can see some instances in the examples later, particularly in terms of the difference between private ownership by individual ecovillage members, and common or collective ownership by an ecovillage as a whole. Ecovillages don't often deal directly with state or public ownership, but it is taken as a given. Unregulated open access has become less and less common in recent years, as more and more resources are enclosed and sold as part of the capitalist economy. But unregulated open access is a problem when resources are limited, and this is what has led to thinking around the “tragedy of the commons”, which actually refers to the tragedy of the ungoverned, unregulated, unmanaged commons.
It hardly needs stating that for an ecovillage to thrive as a whole, all the members must be able to find a livelihood in some way or other. Different types of livelihood are made possible or not by different structures of ownership; and they have different qualities, such as: how does a type of livelihood relate to sustainability? to regeneration? to local self-reliance? An example: the thriving or destruction of a local ecosystem may completely disrupt the kind of livelihood that depends on hunting and gathering; climate change can radically alter the kinds of livelihood that are possible to maintain in a particular geographical area. The common values that often serve to bind together a group of people into an intentional community or ecovillage thus limits the kind of livelihood that can be followed in the ecovillage.
Distribution and exchange
- A market system is mediated by supply and demand, and enabled by currency. Market transactions only imply a very limited range of social relations. Individuals are just customers, with no requirement for interaction beyond common courtesy. This is not usually the way that ecovillages function.
- Reciprocity is more a generalised expectation of return. We may be family or kin. Whether this approach works in an ecovillage will depend on the attitude the members take towards the other members. Does each person feel close enough to others to treat them as they would immediate family? (My experience is that in a cohousing community this is not the case.) If I may add a personal note here, my ideal is for the community members to share their passions and work, and thus for them to be truly interdependent; and I believe this could lead to a natural reciprocity. This also happens in the examples of economic systems based on the commons, as famously researched by Elinor Ostrom.
- A redistributive approach relies on a central authority. In an ecovillage, this will depend on the community agreements, and there may be levels of membership that correspond to this. To my mind, this kind of system depends on the continuing acceptance by all members of the central authority structures and governance; and I note that even if the governance is oriented towards consensus, this will not necessarily guarantee that full acceptance.
These three approaches are not mutually exclusive — we can consider how much of each we want to implement in what ways for what reasons. However, the fact that we want to change these systems doesn't necessarily mean that we actually can change them in practice. There are local, regional, national, and global scales of these systems, and naturally it will usually be harder to change, the larger the scale of the system is — and with increasing scale often comes increasing complexity. The more complex a system is, the harder it is to change or control.
What are the means for change when governments cannot be changed? It is difficult to persuade anyone to make changes in a system when their life or livelihood depends on it. Thus, building relationships is key. So, for instance, an ecovillage may be able to build up relationships with a local authority. At Liminal Village (where I was visiting at the time of this session) one idea that came up was of a kind of alternative mayor — someone who looked after the ecology, the environment, the regeneration, etc. If such a person can build good relationships with the actual normal mayor, who knows what might be possible, perhaps in terms of the local authority supporting redistributive measures; or places where reciprocity can blossom; or changes to market permissions to favour organic, regenerative, local approaches.
Examples of intentional village economies
There are two main economic models within intentional communities
- Income sharing
- Independent income
These are not necessarily exclusive, as we shall see, in these examples that were set out in the presentation.
This was set up in 1986; Wikipedia reports as having 62 adults and 20 children. The people there share left wing political leanings, concern for ecology, collective economy, consensus, and striving against capitalist and patriarchal structures. They are 100% income sharing, and asset sharing, and have a network of 5 similar communities, called InterKomm. Everything owned by a trust, including all the businesses, which are also run and managed by the members themselves.
Twin Oaks was set up in 1967, and has around 70 adult members and 15 children. It is 100% income sharing, but not asset sharing. This makes it much easier for people to come and go. They can have kept a property outside the community, so if they leave there is somewhere to go back to.
This was set up in 1995, with 75 adults, aiming to grow to 150. People have independent, private income, and pay a membership joining fee and ongoing fees for running the place. In cases of financial hardship, they use a sweat equity system: people can work for the community in lieu of payment. They have an internal local currency, and as a matter of interest, Diana Leafe Christian lives there.
Auroville originally aimed to be a city of 50k people, though currently only around 3000. That's big enough to be different! They have an outspoken aim to be a money-free society. All land, buildings and businesses are owned by the community. The infrastructure and facilities are shared. They have over 170 social enterprises, which are listed on their website.
To start a business, a resident has to ask the community, and the business will be owned by Auroville, not by the individuals who start or run it. Everyone receives electronic credits for internal use, in what amounts to a big redistribution system. Visitors have to buy credits with fiat (ordinary) money. So, for example, in the “Foodlink”, people just take what food they need, and log it. There is also a solar kitchen.
Findhorn was founded many decades ago, and has grown up somewhat haphazardly to around 600 members. Its principle are: inner listening; co-creation with natures; work is love in action. Ownership in Findhorn is mixed, with neither approach exclusive. In the pandemic years, the stream of visitors dried up, and they had to shift from shared income to private. Many people lost their livelihood and had to leave. In the case of Findhorn, financial crisis has appeared to lead to privatisation.
Damanhur in Italy comprises at least 550 people, and there are about 1100 people associated people around the world in total. It started out as an income-sharing community, but at some point it was felt that there was not enough space for entrepreneurship, so that relaxed slightly. The community includes all the professions that you can think of. The economic system is well-developed, and as far as people know it is the only community which has a pension fund.
The community is mostly income sharing. It is self-sufficient and self-regulating, with only a little small scale privatisation. The reaction to Covid was opposite to Findhorn: they went back to income sharing for 9 months. Since then, they have gradually gone back to a mixed system with different funds, but personal income. It is designed for resilience, combining socialistic with entrepreneurial worldview elements.
Reflections within the session
5 essential resilience attributes
This is related to what was said about Damanhur, but these qualities are much more general, and seem to apply everywhere.
- Diversity: of livelihoods, supplies, energy systems, crops, ecosystems
- Redundancy: multiple safety nets, supply chains, and sources
- Connectivity and modularity: decentralise, localise, connect information and knowledge
- Inclusivity and equity: build from grassroots, put the most vulnerable at the centre
- Adaptive learning: collaborative learning, agile governance, memory
The essential message here is for conscious design. Is there a central vision that informs the approaches to property, to livelihood, and to means of exchange? This reminds me of other systems models, such as Stafford Beer's Viable system model, which is more general. No one can design an ecovillage forgetting the context, and for this module, the context is that of the external economic system, and the laws, currency provisions and social conventions – the stories – that shape (or indeed restrict) the possibilities for ecovillage design. This is really little different from the ecological and building perspectives, where all design decisions must take into account the local environment. As the economic system is human created, it is inherently more able to be changed by human decision than the natural ecosystem. We can tell different stories. If we join together with faith in those alternative stories, we can create our own internal economic systems; if we tell these other stories persuasively, with conviction, we can perhaps start to influence the other players in our society, and influence the world around us to move towards the regenerative rather than extractive ways of living and being.
Part of the context that can be very helpful is resource provided by the state, such as pensions and child support. Another source of income that particularly interests me is research funding, which in Europe is of particular interest, mostly from the European Commission, but also from foundation. In the USA a larger proportion of research funding is from foundations and from business. If UBI were implemented, this would seem to radically improve the opportunities for ecovillage living.
My own further reflections
I'll start by mentioning historical parallels, which are perhaps also well worth looking at, as well as the examples of current ecovillages.
Kommune Nierderkaufungen seems in some ways quite similar to the monastic economies of the middle ages. In Belgium, many famous beers are still brewed under the management of monastic institutions. In a similar way to monasteries, most people will join for life, and leaving is not easy, as people cannot take away any capital that they have brought in. It is also similar to what we read in the New Testament about the original very early Christian church.
On the other hand, the much less known practices of the Beguines and Beghards, primarily in the Low Countries, include a lack of formal vows, and the easy ability to leave the community at will, but still high degrees of economic sharing.
Many aspects of contemporary community life have an economic dimension. That is why it is such a challenge to design an economic system for an ecovillage. Trust is a vital variable. If there is high trust, high interdependence is possible and income sharing, a bit like the ideal model of communism. But as we know, practical communism has had huge problems, and that is a clear warning sign against idealism. We need to start with people as they are, and cultural and social systems as they are, and see how much and how far we can adapt them to support and be supported by the economic systems we see as desirable.
For me, the private income co-housing community was too separate, too distant. I long for a much more intense and close community, and for me that implies something more like a close family sense of trust and responsibility. At the same time, I recognise the great diversity of personal preference as well as personal development, and this means, to me, that there needs either to be some flexibility in the economic system (as we heard about Damanhur) or alternatively a well-connected network of ecovillages and intentional communities, where people can move from one to another as their preferences change. To know one's own preferences, and how one fits in with different models is not easy. I am dedicated to building the IT support for helping people find the places in which they can really thrive, and if that changes, to find places to move on to. That includes the need, or not: for private space; for solitude as well as company; for conformism and for eccentricity; for working together and for working separately; and so on. All of this is connected with the economics of a community.
Also, I recognise the importance of how the community as a whole sustains itself in the wider economy. Tourism, including ecotourism, could be seen as a kind of luxury, and vulnerable to economic stress. Should a community rely on courses for outsiders? Lancaster Cohousing doesn't have any collective enterprises, apart from the shared workspace of Halton Mill. But it could have. I would like to live in an ecovillage that has a collectively entrepreneurial attitude, seeking what makes best sense given the talents of the people and the needs of the surrounding society and the world as a whole. A kind of collective ikigai. That, for me, would be the foundation of a regenerative ecovillage economy.