Return to Foreword
One of the things I learned from writing The Growth Illusion was that policies designed to accelerate economic growth had concentrated so much wealth and power in the hands of multinational companies and financial institutions that national governments had left themselves inadequate powers to safeguard their citizens' interests. What could be done to dilute this concentration? I asked myself. Power once gained is rarely given up voluntarily and governments had become too weak to take it back for themselves even if they were inclined to do so, which, generally, they were not. Intrigued, I thought I might write a book on the topic and circulated an outline to people who I thought might help find the necessary finance.
An enthusiastic response came from Ed Mayo, director of the New Economics Foundation in London, who suggested that I concentrate on three chapters in the outline and turn them into a handbook on the practical techniques which communities could use to become more self-reliant economically. I thought this a good idea, he raised a small amount of money from the Goldsmith Foundation and I embarked on what we both thought would turn out to be a six-month task. I had not got very far, however, when two problems emerged.. One was that it became obvious that the sort of brief discussion of techniques I had envisaged would not serve its readers very well without some discussion on why unconventional, community-based solutions were necessary. The second was that the techniques were likely to give disappointing results if communities simply tried to use them within the existing economic system and their members' thinking went unchanged. A much longer book was therefore required. Fortunately, however, discussions with Helena Norberg Hodge, the director of the International Society for Ecology and Culture, not only helped develop my thoughts considerably but led to ISEC agreeing to use funds provided by Peter and Máire Buckley for its globalization/localization studies to make such a book possible.
Despite its wide scope, this book is still intended to be a practical guide and, as such, it has to cover its topics in reasonable depth. This means that no-one should feel obliged to read it from beginning to end. What I suggest is that people read the Introduction and Chapters One and Two before turning to whichever of the four long core chapters interests them most and then move on to the final chapter. If I've done my job properly, however, they won't skip the other core chapters altogether. Someone keen on wind energy will naturally read the community energy section - Chapter Five - but if he or she wants to finance a wind farm, Chapter Three, on local currencies, and Chapter Four, on local banking systems, have a lot of relevant ideas. Similarly, someone interested in organic agriculture will turn to Chapter Six and then move back to the two money chapters for information on how to make a project commercially viable.
I resisted the temptation to write this book for a worldwide readership because this would have meant it being less specific and, consequently, of less value. It is intended for a British and Irish audience and I have drawn examples of the techniques in use from as close to home as possible so that they are from a similar legal and cultural framework and it relatively easy for communities to visit projects in operation and to arrange for speakers to visit. If there are disproportionately more Irish examples than, say, Scottish ones, the fact that I live in Ireland obviously has something to do with it. However, it is also because the Irish have recently been doing disproportionately more at a community level than most other countries in Europe. This is because ten years ago they were told by their politicians that if inflation was curbed, the rate at which wages were increasing moderated and the national debt reduced as a proportion of national income through public spending cuts, businesses would increase investment, the rate of economic growth would soar and enough new jobs would be created to make a substantial reduction in the number of people who were unemployed. All this has come to pass except the jobs. Ireland's rate of growth is so high that bankers refer to the country as the Celtic Tiger. It has a large trade surplus and is one of only two or three EU members likely to meet the Maastricht Treaty criteria for participation in a single currency. But despite these 'successes', its level of unemployment shows no sign of falling and, as a result, hundreds of people have given up relying on the government or outside firms to bring jobs to their districts and have become involved in community efforts to create work themselves.
Happily, the groups they have joined stand a very much better chance of being successful than similar groups in Britain because Ireland's community structures and its social capital are very much more intact, even in areas where the population is in decline. This was demonstrated in 1994 when Muintir na Tire, an old-established national community development organisation published a report on the resources that four parishes in North Tipperary could call on 'with a view to creating enterprises as an alternative to traditional job roles that are fast becoming redundant.' Parish C was typical of what the consultants found. It is centred on a village which had a population of 1,113 in 1991, a full 10% down on the total only five years earlier. And yet it had two primary and one secondary school, a Roman Catholic Church, a community centre/parish hall which the villagers built quite recently, nine pubs, three petrol stations, four supermarkets, a post office, a draper's, a chemist, a hairdresser, a doctor's surgery, a health centre and a credit union. A mobile library visited once a week. It also had five community organisations - a tourism co-op, a festival committee which organises an annual historical pageant, a Tidy Towns committee to ensure the village looks its best for the annual national contest, a Variety Committee which puts on plays and revues, and the Gaelic Athletic Association. How many communities in England of a similar size would still have a comparable range of assets? Come to that, how many modern housing estates in Ireland would either?
Admittedly, most of the Irish groups' efforts to develop their local economies are still on the conventional 'what can we supply to outside markets?' lines but a certain 'which of our needs can we start satisfying from our district's resources?' radicalism is creeping in. I've noted several examples of this. In spring 1995, for instance, some weeks after The Guardian carried a brief article about a survey of Hatherleigh, a small town in Devon, to assess the feasibility of supplying all its energy from renewable resources there, I rang the consultants in Bournemouth to request a copy. "Another Irish address" the man I spoke to commented. "That's interesting. We've had more enquiries about the study from Ireland than we've had from this country". And yet, as far as I know, the existence of the Hatherleigh study was not reported in any Irish newspaper. At any rate, his comment confirmed my view that if a new pattern of community economic development does emerge in Europe in the near future, Ireland will be at its leading edge.
Many, many people helped me to write this book by answering questions, sending information and commenting on parts of the draft and I record their names with gratitude at the end of the book. However, the support of five organisations has to be recorded here. First has to be the Goldsmith Foundation which provided the seed money for the project which me to visit Germany, Norway, Denmark, the US and Australia to find out what was going on. Then must come the New Economics Foundation, which besides arranging the Goldsmith grant, provided encouragement, information and advice and read through the typescript at a late stage. As I have already mentioned, funds from the International Society for Ecology and Culture enabled the scope of the book to be greatly expanded. However, its contribution went beyond the financial as I found Helena Norberg-Hodge's perspectives, derived from her years in Ladakh, on the ways in which happy, stable, self-sufficient communities can be destroyed by outside economic forces very valuable. And finally, I must mention the E.F. Schumacher Society in the United States - for which read Robert Swann and Susan Witt - which provided accommodation, hospitality and access to its extensive library during my visit to America. Run on a shoe-string, it is the single most important US information source for anyone researching community economics.
This book provides a snapshot of what communities were trying and people were thinking at around the time it went to press and, because both ideas and projects are constantly developing, it.will date quite quickly in some respects. One way of coping with that would be to bring out a revised edition in two or three years' time but a better way of keeping readers in touch would be to publish a magazine as this would not only be more immediate but would also allow topics not covered in Short Circuit to be explored. Moreover, people besides the author would be able to make their views heard. Nothing has been settled yet, but if you would like to receive a free specimen copy, please write to me at the address below.
Introduction to "Short Circuit"
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