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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Social Ecology

Prozac or park benches

Ecology isn't just about the natural world. It's about the world we all live in, wherever that might be.

by Jonathan Rowe

The Ecologist (April 2007)

There is an empty lot on the main street in my town, next to the bakery, a local hang-out. For years, people have talked about buying it to create a space for people to come and gather. But recently a friend and I said, 'Why wait?' We fixed up a couple of old benches and set them away from the street, under a tree, which seemed vaguely park-like. Within a week, people had moved the benches right up to the pavement, which is where they have stayed ever since.

Not long after the bench-moving, I happened upon a book called The Social Life of Public Spaces by William H Whyte {1}. Whyte spent much of his life studying how people use such spaces. He found that there are recurring patterns, a kind of economy of human interaction. Among other things, people like to sit near the flow of life, rather than in secluded corners - which is exactly what had happened in our commons.

This is not so surprising, really. We humans are social creatures. We like to be around other people - at least, most of us do - even if it is the anonymous buzz of a coffee shop. This disposition shows itself in many ways, from the dance of street crossing at crowded intersections, to the mutual help of neighbours and friends. Given a half hospitable setting, it can be generative in much the way that nature is - a kind of parallel economy that meets real needs; increasingly, the most pressing ones.

But this productivity is invisible to most economists, and thus to the media and policy establishments, because it is not transacted through the medium of money and price. As with its natural counterpart, this invisibility has made the social commons vulnerable to invasion, expropriation, degradation and neglect. The spontaneous sociability of high streets is easy prey for anonymous chain stores; cell phones and iPods easily displace serendipitous encounters on trains and buses (while making these places into insufferable noise holes); and on and on.

The same corporate forces that have degraded the ecosystem have attacked its social counterpart. The result has been a breakdown of community, and loneliness and isolation that are epidemic in this hyper-wired age. There is a vicious spiral, a kind of social equivalent of compound interest. People need more money to replace the supports and capacities they have lost; so the corporate economy must churn ever faster, and the assault on nature escalates. Meanwhile, the policy establishment cheers because the GDP is going up.

Ecological economics, so-called, tries to address this by rafting 'correct pricing' onto the conventional model. Make corporations pay for the muck they disgorge and the market will work as advertised. It is a useful idea as far as it goes. But how far is that?

Wal-Mart could adhere to the most stringent green codes and still be a plague to the social ecology of the main streets it displaces. Green Ritalin might spare the ecosystem, but the social pathologies that lead to drugging kids to keep them quiet in school would remain.

Ecological economics is necessary but not sufficient. It needs a complementary model that works outside the market and which produces what that market can't, and which it increasingly tends to destroy.

Which brings us back to the benches, and whatever it is in human nature that causes people to want to put them near the sidewalk. That instinct, as mentioned, takes a multitude of forms. It even drives much of the activity in the market itself - not greed, and certainly not need, but a simple desire to be engaged with other people. What today we call 'the market' actually began as fairs and gatherings in the plazas next to churches. The social occasion came first; the calculus of gain glommed on to it later.

Today, however, the corporate economy has cannibalised the social commons that spawned it - sucked out the core, and left a giant feedlot and financial casino in its place. That's what happens when a Wal-Mart kills a town centre, or a Starbucks drives out the local coffee shop. They are like economic neutron bombs: the community goes but the stuff remains.

The result is we buy more to fill the void. Development patterns have fed this syndrome, enclosing us in cars, cut off from the sociability that once was built into daily life. It is not surprising that so many of us feel isolated and alone in this most 'connected' of ages. (USA Today reported some 25 per cent of Americans feel they have no one they can confide in.) Is it entirely accidental that the use of antidepressant drugs is soaring, along with - and as part of - the rising GDP? Pharmaceutical companies want to blame our biochemistry, but there is more to it than that.

Why, for example, is it 'economic' when a plumber fixes a leak, but not when a neighbour does so? Why do counselling and Prozac count, but not the informal daily interactions that might reduce the need for these? There is no reason, besides the astigmatism of the conventional economic mind. We are told we are nostalgics for believing such things. To entertain the thought that a prior state of affairs might have had advantages over the current one is to be deemed psycho - emotionally deficient.

Yet take a hard look around you. What are the greatest needs you see - for more stuff, or more community? Which would do more for your life: a high definition television, or a good neighbour?

We face what my friend Edgar Chan calls a 'hidden rustbelt' of extended family, neighbourhood and community. Nobody knows, for example, who is going to care for our ageing population. The debate over public versus private is beside the point; there will not be enough money either way.

Volunteer fire departments in the USA are withering for lack of volunteers. It has become increasingly hard to get people to staff polling places during elections. The true nostalgics today are the economists who believe that yesterday is forever and that stuff alone can do the job. Human needs are different today than they were two centuries ago; increasingly we need - socially as well as ecologically - the very things the corporate market has been destroying in the name of making life better.

Something in human nature, however, has been activated in recent years, almost like an antibody. It is evident in the increasing efforts to resist the transgressions upon the non-market economy of the commons; and also to rebuild it. The campaigns against Wal-Mart, for example, are not just the anti-corporate reflexes that critics assume. They are efforts to protect the social ecology of traditional main streets and the hidden productivity they include.

So too with the Buy-Local campaigns, which are spreading across the UK and USA; and the farmers' markets, which are not just about food, but even more about the social content that has been stripped away from food. There is a long list of kindred efforts, from community gardens and the recreating of public spaces, to municipal WiFi and slow food.
In some cities, neighbours are reclaiming back alleys from drug dealers and rubbish and turning them into protected commons for residents of the block.

A real dynamic is at work here; and also real enterprise, a questing and inventive spirit. The Time Dollar movement is spreading rapidly in the USA, UK and beyond. The concept is simple: time spent helping a neighbour in need earns a credit for every hour offered, regardless of the service; the neighbour helped is debited one credit that they earned by helping someone else. A computer program helps to schedule services and keep track of the credits and debits. Time Dollars is providing a currency tailored for the social economy, in which the aim is reciprocity rather than gain.

Until recently, such efforts could be dismissed as eccentric. Farmers' markets and alternative currencies did not seem poised to shake the world. Yet now the social dynamic that animates them is finding expression in a potent and unlikely place - high tech, which has become both a medium and a metaphor for the larger changes that are emerging.

This is not entirely the case. High tech invades the commons in a multitude of ways, from the noise of phones to the over - reaching of the intellectual property laws that make sharing music a crime. Yet look at the other side. Generative communities such as Wikipedia and Linux are producing software and knowledge in open and cooperative ways that defy the supposed laws of economics. No property rights? No monetary 'incentive'? According to the economic rules it should be impossible.

Yet here they are, because people get a kick out of producing things together, much as they instinctively move benches near the pavement to be in the flow of life. The seed of a new economics is here; not because people are heroically altruistic, but because they have a capacity to perceive their needs and do that which meets them. Along with nature, it will be the factory of the future; not replacing the corporate version, but existing alongside it and serving as a boundary to its transgressions.

When advocates of an open internet and oceans, wilderness and public spaces, grasp that they are talking about aspects of the same thing, then there will be an economic movement that is truly formidable. They will have a story that can stand against the romance of the market and finally eclipse it.




Jonathan Rowe is a senior fellow at Redefining Progress

Bill Totten


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