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Chapter 2 - page 3

Once a local financial system is in place, the community should turn its attention to meeting its irreducible energy, food and clothing needs from its own area. In fact, I rate community energy independence second only in importance to monetary independence because food production and many other activities depend on energy use. Moreover, external supplies of energy are highly centralised and insecure and wars have been fought recently to safeguard them. But food production needs to be local too and not just because outside sources might dry up or price fluctuations throw the local economy out of balance. Unless a community can feed itself, it will need to generate a substantial external income to buy its nourishment from outside and the enterprises it will need to operate in order to do so will not only be subject to the fluctuations of the world economy but will also absorb more and more local resources as the outside economy becomes increasingly competitive.

The four basic steps towards greater local self-reliance therefore are:

STEP 1 - the establishment of an independent currency system so that a community can continue to function economically, even if at a reduced level, whatever happens to money supplies in the world outside.

STEP 2 - the establishment of an independent banking system so that an area's savings can be made available to projects serving the community at interest rates such ventures can afford without passing through institutions which would be affected by an external financial collapse.

STEP 3 - the production of enough energy from local renewable resources to meet an area's needs, however difficult this might seem.

STEP 4 - the production of the area's basic food and clothing requirements without the use of inputs from outside.

This list raises an immediate question: 'Are there more steps? How far need a community's quest for greater self-reliance go? Inishbofin islanders may have grown flax to make their own fishing lines but many of the things we consume today cannot be produced in our communities on any realistic basis. Cotton clothes for example: do we have to switch over to locally-grown, locally-spun linen and woollen garments instead?.'

The answer is in two parts. The first is that we only need to produce the essentials of life within our communities and, once this has been done, we can be entirely pragmatic, taking things further only if it suits us. Some clothing is obviously essential and every community should therefore use part of its agricultural resource to produce fibres to turn into garments. However, clothes are a fashion item as well as a necessity and many of us buy many more than we need to stay decent and warm. There is no need for a community to go out of its way to produce this surplus.

Once its essential food, fuel and clothing needs are satisfied, a community should only replace external products with those of its own if it still has people who want to do more paid work than is available. In other words, a community should operate as far down the outside production pyramid as necessary to generate the jobs it needs. In the case of materials it cannot produce for itself like cotton, this might involve buying the raw cloth so that it can be printed and finished locally before being cut and sewn into clothes. This, according to the managing director of an Irish firm which weaves its own fabric to make into duvets, would save about 20% of the price of the finished cloth12. If a community went a stage further and did the weaving locally with bought-in yarn, it would save an additional 32%. And, since the raw cotton comprises only 29% of the price of the cloth, if it went the whole hog and spun yarn from imported cotton, it would save another 12%.

The further a community goes down the external inverted pyramid, the more scope it has to create a substantial rectangle or pyramid of its own. Once everybody is fully occupied, though, any further extension of the local economy is impossible unless the community can increase its labour productivity or persuade those of its members still employed in the mainstream economy to give up their jobs there.

The second part of the answer to "How far need we go?" is "Not as far as you think". This is because many products which it would be difficult to make on a community scale are not required in a peasant economy. For example, shipping containers are unnecessary to someone delivering their product next door and small firms are unlikely to want to use complex, high-output machinery for their limited production runs. As we saw in the last chapter when we discussed indices of sustainable economic welfare, a high and increasing proportion of everything produced by the industrial system is consumed by the system itself to keep running and is never enjoyed or used by people at all. Much of this internally-consumed production consists of goods and services which a peasant economy does not require.

Another question frequently crosses people's minds at this stage - What should be the boundaries of the area within which we seek to become more self-reliant? Fortunately, the answer has been provided for us by the proprietors of our local newspapers who, through trial and error over the years, have established the spatial limits within which we, their readers, are interested in each other's doings13. If the circulation area of a paper becomes too local, it will lack the advertising and commercial base on which to survive. On the other hand, if it spreads itself too widely, its readers will become tired of turning page after page on which there is little to interest them and switch to papers with a more limited coverage. Advertisers, too, resent paying high prices to reach readers living too far away to become customers and move their budgets to smaller papers covering a more limited area in greater depth. There is therefore a permanent dynamic tension between the benefits a paper enjoys if it expands its circulation area and the advantages it maintains by keeping a tight local focus. Of course, newspaper circulation areas overlap and so will our local economies. Each product or service is likely to have a different distribution area.

A local newspaper's circulation area approximates to what sociologists term a social field, which they define as 'the spatial reach of kinship, occupation and friendship within which people react in economic, social and cultural terms.' In an essay on social fields in Ireland prepared as part of a four-country EU-funded study into the appropriate scale for sustainable development, Dr. Kevin Whelan of the Royal Irish Academy wrote:

Effectively the social field may be partially, but not exclusively, defined by the local town and its hinterland. This applies to small towns with a population of 1,500 to 10,000 and their hinterlands extending within a ten to fifteen mile radius.....Through commuting, services and shopping, many cementing institutions now operate at this level - the factory, the supermarket, the secondary school, the bank, bus and rail links, the night club. In many ways these newly-strengthened town hinterlands are the most important level in the territorial organisation of rural communities, especially since the advent of mass participation in post-primary schools. The new patterns of social interaction can be seen in marriage fields: those relatively cohesive territories from which marriage partners are drawn and which now tend increasingly to mirror the economic hinterlands of these towns. The more localised social field has been extended and the traditional territorial order of the countryside has been reshaped. However.....only the local newspapers offer some expression of the nature of these town/country interactions. 14

Although Whelan says that 'long-term economic and ecological needs may best be met at a regional level' which encompasses a dozen or more social fields, this is largely because he was trying to identify sub-national units in Ireland big enough to suit the European Commission's planning and grant-administration purposes. Significantly, his quest was unsuccessful and he was forced to admit that in Ireland at any rate, 'there is no appropriate regional tier which can attach to or foster local initiatives.'

Click for panel from original book on bioregions

The idea that a social field consisting, perhaps, of a small country town and its hinterland should be the area within which greater economic self-reliance is sought upsets many city-dwellers. "What about communities like mine?" a friend living in London asked me when she came to visit one summer. "Your ideas may be fine for people in rural areas but you can't write off the millions of us in the cities."

Of course one can't, but big cities cannot become self-reliant and have never been so. They depend for their survival on an uninterrupted flow of fuel, raw materials and food from outside their boundaries and only grew to their present size when fossil-fuel powered transport enabled them to gain access to increased supplies. This is not to say that they are unsustainable - there is no reason to believe that it will prove impossible to develop renewable energy powered transportation systems which will allow their inhabitants to continue to be clothed, warmed, housed and fed - but their economic function will be undermined if rural communities become more self-reliant. It is, after all, the cities which house many of the people towards the top of the industrial system's pyramid and if countrydwellers find ways to eliminate the over-burden the cities impose on them by building independent small pyramids of their own, jobs in urban areas are going to disappear altogether or move to the country. The dependence of cities on their supply areas and the lack of economic self-reliance in those supply areas are two sides of the same coin and we cannot reduce one without affecting the other.

Citydwellers can do a lot to make themselves less reliant on the world economy, of course, by manufacturing more of their imported requirements and by entering into arrangements with producers in their immediate hinterland for their essential energy, food and raw material supplies. Even so, city populations are likely to fall if the approaches outlined in this book prove successful. A better balance between city and country will emerge and rural decline and depopulation will end.. Indeed, as we will see in the final chapter, it is not only the retired and the rich who are already moving to the country in search of a better life.


In the past, before transport systems developed enough to allow almost everything to be brought in, the challenge facing a community was to develop a culture, a way of life, which enabled it to live for generation after generation within the confines of its own place. Some communities, even some entire civilizations, failed to do so and disappeared. Other places managed extremely well and imported surprisingly little until comparatively recently. "So little trade went on with neighbouring towns that one carrier with a donkey cart was able to do it all, and even he, it was understood, went to town weekly only if he had orders enough to make the journey worthwhile" writes Walter Rose in his book Good Neighbours,18 an account of life in the village some thirty miles from London in which he was born in 1871. George Bourne, who is best known for The Wheelwright's Shop, his classic description of the business his father ran in Farnham in Surrey until 1884, also stresses how little was brought from outside in Change in the Village, a fascinating account of the decline of rural self-reliance first published in 1912:

It is really surprising how few were the materials, or even the finished goods, imported at that time [the 1850s]. Clothing stuffs and metals were the chief of them. Of course the grocers (not "provision merchants" then) did their small trade in sugar and coffee, and tea and spices; there was a tinware shop, an ironmonger's, a wine-merchant's; and all these were necessarily supplied from outside. But, on the other hand, no foreign meat or flour, or hay or straw or timber, found their way into the town, and comparatively few manufactured products from other parts of England. Carpenters still used the oak and ash and elm of the neighbourhood, sawn out for them by the local sawyers: the wheelwright, because iron was costly, mounted his cartwheels on huge axles fashioned by himself out of the hardest beech; the smith, shoeing horses or putting tyres on wheels, first made the necessary nails for himself, hammering them out on his own anvil. So, to, with many other things. Boots, brushes, earthenware, butter and lard, candles, bricks - they were all of local make; cheese was brought back from Weyhill Fair in the waggons which had carried down the hops; in short, to an extent now hard to realise, the town was independent of commerce as we know it now, and looked to the farms and the forests and the claypits and the coppices of the neighbourhood for its supplies. A leisurely yet steady traffic in rural produce therefore passed along its streets, because it was the life-centre, the heart, of its own countryside .19

Now, the limits of place have gone and goods can be transported from anywhere on the globe for those with the money to pay. As a result, one of the strongest bonds holding a community together has been broken and, although the negative feedback mechanisms which warned communities to mend their ways when they had overstepped the mark still operate, they have lost their power: if the fertility of a district's soil declines, if its forests are felled, its mines exhausted, its seas fished out, the better-off know they can always buy their requirements elsewhere or, if necessary, move on. Positive feedback rules most aspects of life in the industrial system because it rewards the nations which consume the earth's resources most rapidly with incomes which enable them to purchase and destroy even more.

There is therefore a close link between local economic self-reliance and sustainability. The most commonly-accepted definition of sustainability - 'meeting the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs' - is too pat. We need to spell out what sustainability means in concrete terms. The fact is that living within limits and sustainability are one and the same thing and until humankind learns to live within limits again, its future and that of the planet is threatened. Theoretically it might be possible to develop a world-wide industrial culture which enabled humanity as a whole to live sustainably within the limits of the world, but I doubt it; the scale and the complexity of the task are too great, and there's very little time. Moreover, diversity rather than uniformity is desirable if we are to exploit every available ecological niche. A more practical approach is therefore for each social field to achieve ecological sustainability by and for itself. This entails it meeting at least five targets, three of which we have already established are also necessary for economic sustainablity. The targets are:

1) Every system used in its area should be able to be continued, and every production cycle repeated, without environmental deterioration or other problems emerging in the next 1,000 years.

2) The population is should be stable and the district's economy should be growing or changing very slowly, if at all. The district must certainly not depend on economic growth for the maintenance of employment and prosperity.

3) The district must produce at least enough food and raw materials to enable its members to live simple, comfortable lives while staying within the limits of their environment and not exploiting other parts of the world.

4) All the energy used in the district must come from its own renewable resources.

5) To avoid being exploited or disrupted from outside, the district must have its own currency or currencies and its own banking system. Because investors' interests are rarely compatible with those of a community, capital should not be allowed to flow in or out and interest rates, if any, should be determined internally.

A sustainable world will not be one dominated by large companies and run according to the strict conditions necessary to maintain international competitiveness and speed economic growth. It will be one of small communities which run their own affairs and which, rather than trading across the globe, meet or make most of their requirements from their local resources. For it is only if communities develop cultures that enable them to live indefinitely within the limits of their own places that humankind as a whole will be able to live sustainably within the limits of the natural world.

Footnotes for Chapter 2

Short Circuit by Richard Douthwaite: links within this site

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