THE ALTERNATIVE SECTOR (June 1994)

Presented as a discussion document to ‘New Life for Glastonbury’, this article marks the point at which the ideas first explored in ‘For Peace & Goodwill’ two years before were beginning to come to fruition; later enlarged into a booklet (now out of print).

I start with the word ‘alternative’, implying the need for and desirability of change; and ‘sector’ as in ‘business sector’, ‘private sector’ etc – I am talking about effecting change in the sphere of economics. I would state my belief that this is necessary and desirable in three premises:-

1. That the present economic system, founded on a mixture of profiteering and competition with centralised planning and hierarchical structures,  is becoming unworkable and dangerous – a danger to the mental and physical health of us all, and particularly to the natural environment which sustains us.

2. That a viable alternative would have to take account of the needs of the environment, would be based on the principles of co-operation rather than competition, and would follow the organic patterns of permaculture rather than a crude law of supply and demand.

3. That the current mainstream economy includes a private sector, controlled by big business interests, and a public sector, controlled by the government; and that we need to develop an ‘alternative sector’, controlled by the people.

There is a dichotomy between the human need for local independence and inter-dependence, and the ‘economies of scale’ – which always means mega-scale – that are imposed upon us. If you have a feeling for this need and this tension, you will probably broadly agree with my three premises.

The ‘Green Consumer’

In the context of a supply-and-demand economy, convention has it that the consumer dictates the market, so that in order to change the way that our goods are produced and marketed, we have to educate the consumer into buying only that which is ‘ethically correct’. This goes on, and it has an effect, but it could only be one part of an overall strategy.

‘Consumers’ (that means all of us) are becoming more and more environmentally aware, but they are still consumers. As such they tend to be both penny-wise and lazy: many are unable or unwilling to pay a high premium for organic produce, for instance, or a hand-made item rather than something mass-produced. And very often we are similarly unwilling to go too far out of our way to purchase something of a particular quality when something easily accessible will do. This is understandable, and there’s little point making a moral crusade out of it: it doesn’t work.

Of course, as the demand for organic produce, recycled paper and CFC-free fridges increases, so the price gradually comes down and the availability improves. But this is not a one-way process. What I feel we have to do is to take more responsibility for making these things available, at reasonable prices. This, as well as creating new areas of employment, is what I mean by developing an ‘economic sector.’

There is a problem: side-effects of industrial processes, their effect upon the environment, have a very real cost – but this is rarely recognised in conventional economic models, let alone costed into the price of manufactured goods. So, for the ‘green’ producer, there is a missing item of economic benefit for his work and care in not polluting the environment. How can this show up in his profit and loss accounts? I have no easy answer.

‘The Consumer’ will respond to having environmentally-friendly goods readily available in the High Street. There is a market there, waiting to be developed. Some of the major supermarket chains are taking advantage of this; but this is still part of the old pattern of centralised control and profit-motivation, and often their products come from the same source as wholly unpleasant and damaging alternatives, and are almost certainly transported in large and damaging trucks. The ‘wholefoods in Safeways’ syndrome is interesting, but it doesn’t seem to be a real answer.

Economists, asked to estimate the actual costs and economic implications of ‘cleaning up’ our economy to make it environment-friendly as a whole, are forced to the conclusion that it just cannot be done by simply spending money endlessly on developing new high-tech processes, filtering systems, and wind-farms. We would actually have to alter our lifestyles, which implies consuming less. Some people realise that this at the same time involves improving the quality of their lives; and they join the alternative sector.

Scale

The ‘alternative sector’ is already beginning to emerge. What characterises it is not the particular structure or the particular area of work that is taken on by any business or project, but the way in which the project is carried out. Working in the alternative sector is often very hard work for low pay; and whilst this is more of a problem than a virtue, it is of prime importance that the intent and the motivation come before the money. This work is being done, essentially, as a service.

It is also being done co-operatively rather than in competition, and with quality rather than for profit. All these things put together mean that it is likely to be done in small, human-scale units and not in large corporations. In thinking about developing the alternative sector, we are thinking about developing local economies.

This will not be done for us by central government or international business concerns. It will be done by us, in the spaces left by governments and business concerns as they go through the contortions of trying to maintain their profits in a world with a growing population, finite space, and diminishing natural resources.

Employment

As the unemployment figures rise, there is in fact more and more work to be done. Much of it is in the area of repairing damage to the environment, re-creating society’s infrastructure along organic and co-operative lines, and building up the economic, social and political forms to go with it.

In creating such employment, there are other ways than simply investing large amounts of capital in order to make jobs appear. Capital can help, but the intent behind it is equally important, and in any case capital is only a measure of stored energy – which can be manifested and released in other ways, through motivation, enthusiasm and creativity. The basic problem is not accessing capital as such, it is accessing openings for this creative energy.

A craftsman becoming self-employed, and interested in the quality of his work rather than maximising profits, adds to the alternative sector. If his business grows to become a partnership, its contribution to the alternative sector is doubled.

A small group of people creating co-operative housing for themselves, with a minimum of capital, is adding to the alternative sector.

People coming together to establish their community centre, ‘small school’, or a complementary health clinic are adding to the alternative sector. With the larger projects, they may be supported by one of the gradually growing number of sources of ‘ethical investment’ funding.

A variety of legal frame-works – partnerships, trusts, co-operatives, collectives – may be used to achieve these aims. What is important is that the opening is created, to allow the energy to grow – into part of something new.

Local Economy

The native American activist Russell Means, who was interested in regenerating the economy within Indian Reservations, said that money should – before it is spent outside – change hands seven times within the community. Otherwise the localised economy is drained of economic vigour, and ultimately the people become passive consumers, supported by welfare payments or relatively low wages from rich outside employers.

In developing the local economy, in the context of the alternative sector, we have a similar situation. And if money is to change hands seven times within our communities before it is spent outside, that means that 87.5% of our gross income would need to be spent at home. The nearer we can get to this the better.

As far as our personal income goes, we can do our best to achieve that. But for businesses and community projects, strategies will have to be developed if we are to get anywhere remotely near this target, and we will have to look at every area of expenditure. I can offer only ideas, for instance:

Premises: Clearly, we do not want to be paying large amounts in rent to distant or corporate landlords. We should be aiming to own our own premises, or to rent them from friends or colleagues within the community. And those who have independent means which enable them to buy premises can do so, and rent them on reasonable terms to local businesses. But large amounts could still be paid out to mortgage companies.

Finance: A growing amount of finance is now available as low interest loans from ‘ethical investors’ or as ‘alternative venture capital’. As yet, there is no organisation similar to the Ecology Building Society, for instance, which has any network of local branches (even the Co-op bank is hard to come by). We need to look at ways of attracting such financial institutions into our communities, or setting up our own.

Wages: Wages are usually paid to people within the community; and those businesses with the capacity to pay part-time wages can help to support the solvency of artists, musicians, actors, craftspeople and others who are also working in the alternative sector. The earning and payment of wages should help foster our inter-connectedness, rather than establishing a hierarchy; and the greater the proportion of turnover that is spent on wages, the more will be recirculated within the alternative sector.

Wholesale Buying: If it is possible to establish local buyers’ co-ops with buying power on a larger scale than any single business or individual, then prices can be bought down – or goods can be bought direct from manufacturers rather than through large wholesalers. The next logical step would be local warehousing.

Equipment and Servicing: This is the most difficult area to tackle, because it is so capital-intensive as well as often technically complex. Perhaps the most promising starting point would be in reconditioning and recycling old or obsolete equipment; also conversion to alternative sources of power.

‘Public Sector’ Services

With the steady reduction in the powers of local authorities, and the steady move towards privatisation, opportunities are opening up for taking over some of the resources and services formerly run as part of the public sector. This can be done through setting up co-operatives, Housing Associations, and community ownership schemes.

Areas worth looking at in this light are Community Centres and Sports facilities; Housing; Waste disposal and recycling; Education and Health Care. It is also possible that such institutions as Post Offices and bus services could come into this category.

Such major public projects are a big step into a new reality. They should only be taken on if the people involved actually want to work and take responsibility in that particular area, rather than simply wanting it to be done by someone other than the Council or statutory authority.

Conclusion

The ‘Alternative Sector’ is a huge potential growth area in the economy, though this potential – or even its existence – may not be noticed by mainstream economists for some time yet. It is the area where enthusiasm and idealism, channelled into relatively small, human-scale projects, show the way for the future.

Where a sufficient number of idealists and their projects have already coalesced into recognisable communities, there is scope for building up the alternative sector’s infrastructure, and for building new projects on the basis of those already established. And with each new creative impulse that emerges into concrete reality, more possibilities are further opened up.

The approach is necessarily hands-on, and using what physical resources are already available, however scanty. It is more productive to create something small (even miniature!) that works, than to fail to realise the whole dream at once because the money/land/equipment that would be needed are forever out of reach.

Success breeds success, and leads a step forward to a point where the ultimate dream is more likely to be in reach, and also to where we have learnt about it in such a way as to alter the dream and make it more realistic. There is no shortage of things to be done, and always a way to make a start, however small. What the Alternative Sector needs is the best that we have to give it –  energy, commitment, and mutual co-operation.


HEMP PAPER

Apart from the cover, this book [The Alternative Sector] is printed on hemp-based paper. It has harmed no trees, and should last longer than wood-pulp paper. Hemp fibre has been used extensively for making rope, fabric and paper; hemp paper is still used for manufacturing bank-notes and high-class cigarette papers.

Over a 20-year period, an area of land can produce four times as much paper from hemp fibre as it can through growing trees for wood-pulp. Hemp also leaves the ground in good condition, and has other environmental benefits. The use of hemp-made paper is in many ways more appropriate than using recycled paper.

In centuries past, hemp was grown widely in Europe and North America; at times it has been illegal not to grow it, because of its military use in making sailcloth and rope. Extracting the fibres from hemp was a labour-intensive process, which became uneconomic more than a hundred years ago with the abolition of slavery. In the early part of the 20th century, new technology was developed in the United States for the chemical pulping of wood, and for making nylon fibre.

These grossly polluting processes were created before the invention of efficient machinery for “heckling” hemp, and vested industrial interests (including Dupont Chemicals and Hearst Newspapers) ensured that their products replaced hemp – which had been a traditional cash crop for small farmers. There followed a propaganda campaign – generated by Hearst Newspapers – against ‘crazed marihuana smokers’.

The growing of marihuana was subsequently made illegal, although many Congressmen did not realise until later that it was the same plant as the traditional hemp. Its history since then, under prohibition, is well known.

Hemp is grown under licence in the European Community, and the re-introduction of hemp paper to Britain [was in 1994] being pioneered by Ecologically Sound Papers, Middleway Workshops, Middle Way, Summertown, Oxford OX2 7LG.

Alternative Sector