Towards a Natural Economy: A Step by Step Framework

virtuous natural cycle

There was a business “track” at the recent Bioneers By the Bay conference, but at the business sessions there was a shadow of skepticism. The very words “business” and “enterprise” have (thanks to Enron, ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Koch, the banks, Halliburton, Bush and the rest of the corporatist gang) acquired an unsavoury connotation of greed, indifference, and rapaciousness. At one of my interviews about my book Finding the Sweet Spot, the interviewer asked me if “Natural Enterprise” wasn’t an oxymoron.

So perhaps the first thing we need to do is show people (not tell them) that enterprise is not only not necessarily evil, it is essential to effective human society — it is how we self-organize to get stuff done. We can do that by creating working models of a Natural Economy, an alternative to the modern Industrial Economy, an alternative that is responsive, responsible, sustainable, healthy and useful in enhancing the well-being of all of us.

As I’ve written before, we can’t create that Natural Economy top-down, or mandate it by legislation. We need to build it bottom-up, and then let it slowly replace the Industrial Economy as people opt out of corporatism and opt into a self-managed, durable model of how to make a living together. As Bucky Fuller said: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

My previous articles have been a bit abstract, however, so I thought this time I would try to move beyond just principles towards actions, steps that we can take to prepare ourselves for the collapse of the Industrial Economy and to be ready to build one that works better from its ashes. It’s never too early to start that process.

This is a rough first draft. I hope to recruit some of the leading thinkers on Natural Enterprise (like John Abrams) and on Natural Economy (like Herman Daly and Richard Douthwaite) to help me with this. But in the meantime, here is what I’m thinking:

  1. A Natural Economy must be community-based: It must comprise Natural Enterprises that are responsive to specific local needs, and the citizens of the community who are at once the producers (the members of these Natural Enterprises) and the consumers (those who use what the Natural Enterprises produce) — to the point the distinction between producer and consumer disappears. The community provides for its own needs, and a million such communities, self-managed and connected, comprise a new economy.
  2. A Natural Economy must begin with working models: We need to start small-scale to show what works, why it works, and why it’s better than the current economy, and so we can learn from our mistakes while they’re small and simple to correct. So we need to establish some Natural Economic Community (NEC) Zones that we can study and show off. This will be difficult because these NEC Zones will be competing with the existing economy and will be seen as a threat to vested interests. We will need to start in places where the local authorities are motivated to sponsor and nourish a radically different economic model (i.e. where the authorities are either enlightened or desperate enough to try something new).
  3. The building-block for the Natural Economy must be the Cooperative: Co-ops are a form of enterprise that are neither profit-obsessed nor charitable. They are a form of community-based, collective ownership. Both the NECs and the Natural Enterprises within them should be set up as cooperatives. As not-for-profit entities, any income they receive in excess of expenses is redistributed to their members in an equitable manner (described in point 7 below). So they have no “profits” and hence pay no taxes. All decisions of these communities and enterprises are made collectively by their members, by consensus, and all members are responsible and liable for the actions of their community and its enterprises.
  4. The infrastructure needed to provide essentials for each community must be created and owned by the community: Cooperative Natural Enterprises that are collectively owned by all members of the community must provide the following essential infrastructure, goods and services to everyone in the community:
    • Local, renewable energy
    • Education, based on an unschooling model, with learning coaches and facilitators not ‘teachers’
    • Health services, based on principles of self-managed health and illness prevention
    • Green building, based on toxin-free and cradle-to-cradle principles
    • Finance, based on the credit union model, investing the wealth and resources of the community in the community
    • Food, based on the 100-mile diet and the provision of organic foods grown in accordance with bioregional, sustainable, permaculture methods
    • Telecommunications, recognizing such utilities as a necessity of modern life
    • Transportation, stressing shared and public transportation over ‘private’ vehicle ownership, and walkways and bikeways over motorways
    • Innovation, drawing together the minds and imaginations of the community to address unique community problems
  5. The property (land) of each community must be held in perpetuity by the community in trust: The community as a whole must be entrusted as stewards of the land, and the trusteeship must specify that they are responsible for ensuring the land remains undamaged, undepleted and unencumbered for use by future generations. Any natural resources used must be regenerated.
  6. The communities and Natural Enterprises must be size-limited: No community or enterprise can be permitted to grow to a size greater than that which would allow knowledgeable consensual decisions to be made by all of its members.
  7. Each community must have full financial and political autonomy: The community must not receive money (or benefits) from or pay money (or benefits) to outside interests or governments. It should maintain its own local community currency. It should levy a duty on imported products and services sufficient to (a) encourage the production of such products and services locally, to the extent reasonably practical, and (b) fully “cost” these products and services to include, charge and offset/remediate social and environmental costs and the replacement costs of non-renewable resources. This full costing should also apply to products and services produced within the community. The community should also levy a wealth tax on members whose wealth, other than that deeded to the community for its collective use, exceeds a certain number of times the median wealth of the community.It should decide how to distribute any excess of its revenue over its expenses (i.e. among its own disadvantaged members, to other communities, and/or to ‘national’ authorities for services provided to many communities, as described in point 8 below). Each citizen must decide for herself to what extent to volunteer labour to other communities or nations (volunteer work, peacekeeping work etc.)
  8. In a Natural Economy, the only role of the federal/state government is regulation and peacekeeping: In such an economy, many of the roles of federal, state, provincial and municipal governments are no longer required. If the majority of communities switch to this model, the current bloated national and regional governments need only coordinate inter-community regulation, distribution and peace-keeping, and become much smaller, agencies instead of institutions.
  9. A Natural Economy must be a Gift Economy: If we insist on keeping score, on not giving anything unless we receive something of value in return, we will never make the transition to a Natural Economy until none of us has anything left to lose. This transition depends completely on our generosity — on our willingness to give more than our share without the expectation of compensation, in the interest of the greater good of all life on Earth.
  10. Natural Communities must be connected: The autonomy described in point 7 above does not imply isolation. It is essential that the communities making up a Natural Economy be sharing knowledge and ideas and collaborating on projects that are beyond the capacity and resources of any one community to provide. Natural Communities are the nodes in the network that is a Natural Economy. (Likewise, Natural Enterprises are the nodes in the network that is a Natural Community, and they too need to be connected together and to Natural Enterprises with similar missions in other Natural Communities. In this way they create the ‘virtuous cycle’ shown in green in the chart above).

I know it sounds naive to believe this would be allowed to happen, and it’s quite possible that it won’t be allowed to happen until the Industrial Economy cracks wide open (what we’ve witnessed so far this year is just the beginning). But this doesn’t preclude us from establishing some semi-autonomous Natural Communities now, in areas that are relatively enlightened, progressive and self-sufficient, connecting them together in an experimental network, and using them as a laboratory and proving ground for this new Natural Economy.

If we don’t start with such experiments now, we’ll have a much harder, and more error-prone, time of it when our Industrial Economy collapses. At present we are utterly dependent on this economy (and heavily on foreign corporations) for most of the essentials of living listed in point 4 above. If we fail to become more self-sufficient in producing these essentials locally, there will be a great deal of suffering and even loss of life when the economy collapses, and we have to learn in a hurry or perish.

It would be, and will be, a huge error to take a neo-survivalist position (that we must or somehow will learn to do these things for ourselves in secured, isolated homes). The resigned position of the religious fundamentalists (that the Rapture will spare us from catastrophe through divine intervention) is even worse. But to succeed, we not only have to overcome the extremism of the neo-survivalists and fundamentalists, but also the business-is-necessarily-evil skeptics and the power-brokers who will never cede economic or political power without a fight to the bitter end.

But perhaps the biggest enemy in this struggle is ourselves — our propensity to wait until we have no choice but to change, and to doubt that such a change will ever be possible, and our poverty of imagination to conceive, and then realize,a better way to live and make a living.

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4 Responses to Towards a Natural Economy: A Step by Step Framework

  1. Nathan says:

    I’m enjoying this latest writing related to your book, as it seems complementary to Kevin Carson’s almost-complete work on org. theory. I expect you are aware of his writing about areas where co-operatives are very significant, such as Emilia-Romagna in Italy.However, I do think that necessity will end up being a driver to make people change. I think that’s just how societies evolve. It’s possible it might not be as catastrophic as you usually suggest, and there will be a bit more “transition time”. Personally, I’d love to get involved in a Natural Enterprise immediately, but there seem to be so many barriers to forming them.As you say, many things just aren’t allowed because everything is biased towards the industrial economy…

  2. There are many bits of good stuff in this, Dave, I hope you can develop this piece and the theme further. And a lot of what you are saying fits into well tried models and accepted social arrangements. If a land trust owns the land, it can be leased to organisations under the condition they look after it and can give it back in the condition they find it, or like the Usufruct system, the legal right to use and derive profit or benefit from property that belongs to another person, as long as the property is not damaged.A reflection on the gift economy, which I cannot get away from, is that it avoids all of the energy you need to put into handling money. I’m not saying there is no need for an economic or financial function in the world, but all those jobs, all that fossil fuel used up just handling money. For example: Unlike the UK health system, the Swedish one requires a fee every time you visit the doctor. Because of this, a whole range of jobs are created to take care of the handling, and despite huge efforts, the Swedish system can never achieve the same “service for the buck” of the UK one.While I’m at it I’d like to promote the idea of co-owned shared large facilities of the type “Build once, enjoy every day, use 100years.” I am thinking rainwater harvesting systems, windmills, communal buildings, local food system installations like breweries etc. I am sure that people would like to move from being consumers to being co-owners in the means of creating living standard systems. This is in contrast to for example the automobile, pay money all the time, get a lot of bother from it every day, and get a useless piece of junk after too short a time.Lastly, the barriers are real low to forming these enterprises. Some examples: ride sharing ( set up a free account on for your neighbourhood) community garden, a purchasing cooperative (if you all buy food from a local farmer its a lot cheaper … or even just buying in bulk from a cash and carry or whatever the US calls them). I know people who got together, pooled a bit of money to buy a sail boat, a weekend cottage, and in Sweden we have the 100 friends and a farmer concept co-housing combi farms.Maybe the barriers everyone talks about are that we have come so far away from the trible animal we are that we just don’t trust anyone. To make natural enterprises work well you need a big dose of social capital, trust etc, to make up for the shortfall in financial capital.

  3. This is a great starting list of principles. I see/hear/read many people thinking along the same lines. I wonder if it is best to use the island effect of innovation and let many models work independently, or if its best to work together as a globe. My gut tells me more than 4 people on a project hinders vision. There must be a way for us all to ride this wave of thought together.

  4. David Parkinson says:

    I love this! I just went and ordered your book, so I’ll be spending some time absorbing it all at length. But it sure does fit into where my thinking is at these days. Thanks!

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