Susan Witt is the executive director of the EF Schumacher Society. The society is dedicated to finding practical applications for the ideas Schumacher expressed in his well-known book, Small is Beautiful. Witt will speak at 7 pm, Oct. 24, on “linking land, people, communities and local economies” at the La Montañita Co-op’s annual membership meeting. The meeting is open to the public and takes place at SITE Santa Fe.
SFR: Give me the nutshell pitch—how does building a local economy link people, land and community?
SW: Schumacher was an economist and he argued that to really build sustaining economies—economies that sustain people and land and community—local economies were in fact the most vibrant basis. When the goods consumed in a region are the goods produced there, the economy is not dependent on shipping and is socially responsible because citizen consumers know the conditions that workers labor under. In today’s dominant economy, we have a separation of what we’re buying from our knowledge of the process of manufacture. When we know the whole history of the products we use in our daily lives, then those products are no longer just ‘stuff.’ To be more engaged citizens, we need to feel empowered in the shaping of our economy, rather than wringing our hands and wondering what a government or a big bank is going to do—and we can do that through activating our local economies.
Small is Beautiful published in ’73. Has it taken this long for its principles to go mainstream?
Well, let’s put it this way. The society was incorporated in 1980, and we’ve been building on those ideas steadily since then. We’ve been the epicenter for the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) movement, and the microcredit and local currency movements have flourished out of this organization. We’ve been consistently working on citizen-based implementation of these ideas for 29 years, and we’ve been seen as a boutique organization. We have lovely ideas but they’re not practical because the global economy is where all the action is. Suddenly, we have a global economy that has failed us…so now people are taking a look at what we’ve been saying and they’re taking it seriously.
There’s already backlash against local food economies, though. Even Mother Jones published a skeptical article earlier this year.
It’s not going to come without serious effort and without serious change. We’ve been sucked into the belief that paying online or paying with credit cards and working through electronic systems is convenient. It saves time. Do you know that book The Little Prince? He’s offered a pill that will keep him from being thirsty. He asks why he would want that and is told that it will save him time. And he says, ‘But if I had extra time, there’s nothing I’d rather do than walk to a well and pull some fresh water.’
But realistically you’re talking about networks of regional economies—everything can’t come from down the street.
Absolutely. Schumacher actually said if everyone were for small, he’d be for big. That wasn’t just to be contrarian but to point out that it’s a question of balance. We’re so weighted at the moment toward fractionalization. The real estate collapse came about from the increasing fractionalization of mortgages that were divided and redivided. The end investor had no thread back to a real home with people in it. That thread is an imaginative thread, a moral thread that we’ve lost. It will be hard to adjust to something different, but how many of us have been hurt by this economy of convenience?
Why do local currencies struggle to get off the ground?
Because flipping out a credit card has become a habit. We’ve been lulled to sleep by big corporations that say, ‘Don’t worry about that; we’ll handle it.’ Instead of managing all of our financial transactions consciously, we’ve kind of gone to sleep around it. And it’s hard work to be awake and taking responsibility. We’ve got years of patterning to undo, and we have to recognize that it’s going to take a continuing education effort. We’ve been trained by corporate welfare money.