Is your community struggling to provide enough jobs and services to maintain a prosperous, healthy lifestyle for its residents? Is the situation threatening to get worse as globalization continues to move jobs overseas and environmental constraints push the price of basic goods higher and higher?
How can your community rebuild its prosperity and ensure a sustainable future – create a resilient response to 21st-century environmental and economic challenges?
One approach would be to continue to invest in “creative destruction” – an economic paradigm that depends on continuously replacing existing products and services with new ones. Thus, for example, 8mm home movies are replaced by videotapes, which in turn are replaced by CDs and, ultimately, memory chips. As this process continues, the companies that produced the original goods or services are destroyed, or at least diminished so that most or all of their labor force is displaced, devastating local economies.
While some see this as a form of progress – technology is improved and the prosperity of society as a whole can increase over time – it comes at costs that are increasingly unacceptable, especially for the local communities that must suffer the hardships of the destructive side of the creative/destructive coin. Technology-based businesses come and go – mostly go – in today’s global economy.
Thus, attempting to do business as usual by attracting companies from outside one’s community with incentives such as creating business parks and offering tax breaks is a bad long-term strategy for prosperity. And as globalization is consolidated, resources become scarcer, and as computers move investment capital at lightning speed, it’s an increasingly bad short-term strategy as well.
Alternatively, communities can look to themselves and their local and regional economies and environment to build resilience and long-term prosperity that is not dependent on the boom-and-bust creative-destruction cycle. To do so, they must identify feedback loops and understand the types of feedback they can expect from various policies and investments.
Accelerating, or “positive,” feedback is a lever that makes certain societal and economic trends grow exponentially while others, by being deprived of economic or cultural oxygen, as it were, decelerate. For example, educating women in poor countries can break or diminish the cycle of poverty because educated women tend to have fewer children. Fewer children means reduced poverty and greater opportunity for the remaining children to become educated, which means even fewer children and, ultimately, less poverty.
This is an accelerating feedback loop based on positive signals – signals that encourage more of the same behavior. It is begun by deleveraging the destructive feedback loop of overpopulation, which leads to poverty, which in turn leads to increased population – a trend that would now decelerate.
Communities in wealthier, developed nations can observe trends such as automation, globalization and the increasing scarcity and rising price of basic resources to pick the feedback levers they want to “pull” in order to build resilience and sustainable development into their local economies. Does it make sense, for example, for communities to continue to encourage investment in suburban development instead of in compact, less car-dependent cities?
Continued suburbanization results in increased automobile dependence, which in turn means building more automobile infrastructure – roads and massive parking lots paved with asphalt (an oil-based product), parking structures and so on – which in turn encourages increased automobile use and more sprawl development. Excessive automobile dependence means people pay more to get to work, create more pollution and generally have worse health.
Compact city design, which can include pedestrian-only zones in downtown shopping areas, encourages greater diversity of business ownership (more small business outlets rather than fewer businesses in malls) – which in turn increases local employment, and strengthens the local economy – which in turn encourages even greater diversity of ownership and the creation of even more small businesses, reducing the harmful effects to the community if some businesses fail.
Compact cities also encourage public transportation development (creating jobs), and bicycle use and walking, which reduce transportation and health-care costs, allowing for more investment in beneficial community functions – while gradually reducing dependence on the external automotive economy while ... you get the idea: feedback.
Finding the right feedback levers is the first step in creating prosperous, resilient communities at our ecological house.
Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him by email through his website, www.your-ecological-house.com.