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What Sustainable Lessons Can We Learn from Traditional Small-Scale Societies, and How Can Those Lessons be Implemented?, by Kent van Alstyne (May 16, 2014)

Posted by: | February 4, 2015 Comments Off on What Sustainable Lessons Can We Learn from Traditional Small-Scale Societies, and How Can Those Lessons be Implemented?, by Kent van Alstyne (May 16, 2014) |

Increased urbanization, technological advancement, and industrialization have come with countless benefits. In a world increasingly concerned with the pressures of a rapidly expanding population, the focus has largely shifted from the positive to the negative impacts of development. With this change in emphasis, many people have begun to view pre-industrial times through a rosy lens. Romantic notions of the relationships between small-scale societies and the ecosystems they inhabit are widespread. The stereotype of American Indians as idyllic, green, nature-loving people living symbiotically with their environment is a clear ‘green-washing’ of small-scale society land use.1 Recent concepts like ‘buy local’ can function as ways of dividing the interconnected global economy into small-scale, relatively independent subsets. This piece analyzes the sustainability of two ‘buy local’ campaigns through a social science lens—applying a series of factors social scientists use as predictors of sustainability in small-scale land use2 —and identifies key advantages and flaws in the underlying legal agreements.

For years, many people have been looking to so-called traditional small-scale societies, like the nomadic pastoralists of the Tibetan plateau or indigenous groups of the Amazon basin, as examples of how to live sustainably.3 Supporters of this outlook often cite experience with the local ecosystem and frequently some form of spiritual respect as reasons for the sustainability of these societies.4 Proponents of this ‘indigenous conservationist’ theory argue that as a modern society attempting to become more sustainable we should look to these small-scale societies as examples. Ecological economists, however, largely view the sustainability of these groups as a matter of scale.5 Many land use practices among small-scale societies, while sustainable at certain population levels, become unsustainable once the population reaches a certain threshold number, often referred to as the carrying capacity. Because virtually all markets are interconnected in the modern economy it is nearly impossible to keep scale low enough to maintain sustainability.

‘Buy local’ campaigns and local currencies have recently surfaced across the globe as tools to combat global unsustainability.6 While the positive economic effects of buying local goods are widely touted,7 the benefit to the environment is likely considerable as well.8 Buying local goods minimizes externalities associated with transportation. Most importantly, local currency and buying campaigns attempt to mimic the scale advantage of small-scale societies by creating artificial geographic subsets of the larger economy. Similarly to traditional small-scale societies, reducing the population size dependent on the resource base increases the likelihood the population will be sustainable. Social scientists frequently cite five factors that point toward sustainability in small-scale societies: 1) controlled access, 2) distinct resource populations, 3) resilient and rapidly renewing resource populations, 4) low incentives for immediate yield, and 5) small group size with institutions to counter free-riding.9 Since ‘buy local’ and local currency measures are designed to create essentially small-scale society economies within the larger global economy, these factors are highly relevant in assessing whether local projects will be sustainable.

In the context of legal agreements designed to promote local use, factors 1 and 5 are particularly important. The first factor asks whether the small-scale local economy can control access to resources within the local economy. Control is usually shown by the ability to either deny or condition access. The fifth factor looks at the number of participants in the local economy; the fewer, the better. This factor also asks whether laws exist that prevent people from freeriding, i.e. taking advantage of the benefits of the local system without internalizing any costs. Two initiatives—one in Bellingham, WA, the other in the greater San Francisco bay area—provide an interesting factual basis for analysis.

In Bellingham, a non-profit organization called Sustainable Connections encourages buying local through their “Think Local First” campaign.10 Membership in Sustainable Connections is restricted to local, independently owned businesses, and cost is based on the business’ annual revenue.11 In addition to events, advertising, and promotion, Sustainable Connections offers member businesses a place in their local coupon book, “Where the Locals Go!”12 Purchasers of the coupon book receive considerable discounts at all member businesses. The coupon book creates the incentive for consumers to participate primarily in the small-scale, local economy.

Closer examination, however, raises considerable questions about the environmental sustainability of the local Bellingham economy envisioned by Sustainable Connections. Controlled access to the local Bellingham economy is virtually non-existent; any consumer is free to purchase goods and services from any member business. Membership in Sustainable Connections is available to businesses in four counties with a net population of almost 350,000 people. Lastly, few disincentives to free-riding exist. Local and non-local consumers have equivalent access to the local economy, and participation in the economy is just as easy for both groups. Access to the coupon book is somewhat restricted. The coupon book is only available for purchase in specific retail stores in Bellingham which, at the very least, mostly restricts access to this benefit to consumers in the local area. Unlike a similar program in southwest Washington, online ordering is unavailable.13 However, anyone, local or otherwise, may purchase a coupon book, provided they are able to visit one of the stores. Reducing the scope of the business membership to a smaller geographical area, or requiring proof of local residence to purchase the coupon book could swing the fifth factor more in favor of the measure. At least as it stands the Sustainable Connections vision of a small-scale, environmentally sustainable economy seems at odds with the factors identified.

Bay Bucks, based in the San Francisco bay area, is a new local currency. Bay Bucks are earned by offering goods and services for sale, or by donations or service to community organizations.14 Bay Bucks will be useable for virtually any good or service and is based on the idea of “business trade exchange.”15 Essentially, any product or service can be placed on the exchange, and any product or service can be bought on the exchange. Placing items on the exchange earns the company Bay Bucks equivalent to the U.S. dollar value of the products or services. Buying items off the exchange requires Bay Bucks equivalent to the U.S. dollar value of the products and services. This means that, in effect, bread or milk can be traded for carrots, bicycles, or even dental service.

An analysis of the factors suggests Bay Bucks are more environmentally sustainable. Access to products in the Bay Bucks economy requires participation in the Bay Bucks program. Access is also conditioned on members following the extensive legal rules and regulations of the trade exchange.16 Considerably more control is therefore exercised over continued access to the Bay Bucks economy than Sustainable Connections exerts over the Bellingham economy. The number of participants in Bay Bucks will likely start small, but as the program gains in popularity it has the potential to include millions of people. The more successful Bay Bucks becomes, the more the fifth factor will weigh against it. The extensive legal structure behind Bay Bucks, however, provides many avenues to deal with free riders. The program requires participants remain in “good standing.” Non-payment or other bad faith dealings prevent members from continuing to trade. Additionally, the regulations provide for a feedback system where clients can leave reputation feedback. All in all, the significant legal requirements of the Bay Bucks program help to swing the factors more toward environmental sustainability.

The Bellingham and Bay Area programs are only a small sampling of measures designed to segment the broader economy into small subsets. It does seem, however, that extensive legal parameters like the regulations in the Bay Bucks program are used to make programs more likely to satisfy factors tending toward sustainability. Legal parameters are especially useful in counteracting free-riding through identifying free-riders or even excluding them altogether. If small-scale economies are a way to overcome the problem of scale in today’s economy, legal regulation of the parameters of these economies is likely to promote their environmental sustainability.



1 See Pocahontas, (1996), summary available at http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114148/.
2 Smith and Wishnie, Conservation and Subsistence in Small-Scale Societies, 493-94.

3 Id. at 500.
4 Id.
5 See generally Herman Daly, Ecological Economics: The Concept of Scale and Its Relation to Allocation, Distribution, and Uneconomic Growth (2003).
6 See e.g., LocalHarvest, Why Buy Local? (2014); John Boik, Can Local Currencies Help Advance Global Sustainability?, THE GUARDIAN (Feb. 5, 2013).
7 http://content.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1903632,00.html
8 http://www.zmescience.com/ecology/environmental-issues/how-buying-local-benefits-the-environment-and-society/
9 Smith and Wishnie, supra note 2.
10 Sustainable Connections, Think Local First: FAQ for Local Businesses (2014).
11 FAQ for Local Businesses, supra note 10.
12 Sustainable Connections, 2014 “Where the Locals Go!” Coupon Book (2014).
13 See Sustainable South Sound, Buy Local Coupon Book (2014).
14 Bay Bucks, Community Currency.
15 Bay Bucks, What is a Business Trade Exchange? .
16 Bay Bucks, Trade Exchange Policy, Rules, & Regulations.

under: Business, General

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