My friend Dale and I have been conversing about my recent post concerning why so many entrepreneurs want to be sole proprietors, when, historically, committed partnerships (of people with a shared purpose and complementary skills) tend to be far more resilient, sustainable, and joyful. I’d been writing about our modern aversion to accepting responsibility for other people, and Dale suggested it was this fear of responsibility, more than any of the ten fears of entrepreneurship* I write about in my book, Finding the Sweet Spot, that keeps so many of us in the thrall of wage slavery. Dale wrote:
What keeps people from starting startups is the fear of having so much responsibility. And this is not an irrational fear: it really is hard to bear…This really fits with my own experience. I had plenty of opportunity to expand my business creating software products and sharing software development expertise. The thing that always held me back was knowing the responsibility that I had for everyone else. I was also nagged by the thought that this great burden that I was taking on would not be respected, or worse, would be taken advantage of.
I was chatting about this this afternoon with Tree (a very successful sole proprietor, doing work as an independent professional facilitator), who has challenged me before on whether “the work we’re meant to do” really should preferably be in partnership with others. I had lamented that most of the people who had written to me to tell me that thanks to my book they had found their sweet spot (the work they’re mean to do), also told me that this work involves writing or personal coaching or some other individual enterprise. Tree is (like me) a believer that our economy and society would be more sustainable and healthier if it substantially evolved bottom-up, and if it was community-based. I argued that many of the key enterprises of such self-sustaining communities (like renewable energy co-ops, local food co-ops, community theatre, community health clinics etc.) would have to be partnerships — collaborative ventures involving several if not dozens of committed people.
However, I’m also a fan of the idea of a World of Ends as the future of business — the idea that, thanks to Open Source and the Internet, one day every new venture might be created spontaneously as an online collaboration between potential producers and consumers identifying and then filling unmet needs. Is it possible, I wondered, for cooperative enterprises to self-organize around unmet community needs in such a way that no one needs to commit or accept responsibility for anything beyond completion of the next project? Could a whole economy operate without major institutions, without funding for capital projects and infrastructure and ongoing working capital, without commitments for continuity of supply? Is it possible to create a society so resilient that it has no commitments, so that it can therefore “turn on a dime”?
This got me thinking about writing a second edition of (or sequel to) my book, this time not about how to find a sustainable niche in the unsustainable industrial growth economy, but rather presenting a blueprint for creating a whole new, connected, resilient, sustainable, community-based, bottom-up steady-state economy.
If we were to take the World of Ends approach of spontaneous self-organized collaborative enterprise formation, then the 7-step approach to creating a Natural Enterprise within the current economy, outlined in my book, might morph into a 7-step approach to creating Natural Enterprises that are part of a fully Natural Economy, as follows:
Creating a Natural Enterprise that has a niche in the Industrial Growth Economy
|Creating Natural Enterprises as an integral part of a Natural Economy of Self-Sufficient Natural Communities|
|DISCOVER WHAT YOU’RE MEANT TO DO:
||DISCOVER WHAT YOU’RE MEANT TO DO:
|FIND AND FILL UNMET HUMAN NEEDS:
||FIND AND FILL UNMET HUMAN NEEDS:
|MAKE YOUR ENTERPRISE SUSTAINABLE:
||MAKE YOUR COMMUNITY SUSTAINABLE:
The World of Ends gang are essentially globalists, and their vision of customer/supplier self-organized Peer Production depends on the ability to ship products made of atoms (not just those made of bits) worldwide, inexpensively. As we realize that shipping atoms all around the planet is unsustainable, can we scale down the World of Ends model to work at a self-sufficient community level? In other words, could we create a “100-mile economy” for goods and services made of atoms (where nothing and no one is transported more than 100 miles) while still accommodating a “global economy” for goods and services made of bits (that cost essentially nothing to send anywhere)?
To try to envision this, let’s start with a list of the essential goods and services in a sustainable, sufficient, community-based economy (a Natural Economy), delineating those made of atoms (subject to the 100-mile rule) and those made of bits:
A. Essential Goods and Services Made of Atoms:
- food and water (this assumes permaculture principles are used, so there is no importing of chemicals or water to grow food)
- clothing products and related personal services
- building products, furnishings and supplies and related personal services
- transportation products and related personal services
- health products and related personal services
- live art, entertainment and recreation
- personal education services (to the extent these are needed in a de-schooled society, i.e. personal mentoring to self-directed learners, rather than teaching)
B. Essential Goods and Services Made of Bits:
- designs (of clothing, building, energy, transportation and health products)
- information, ideas, perspectives (Internet) and communication/connectivity/collaboration services
- recordings and broadcasts of art, entertainment and recreation
So how might this Natural Economy work, where items from list A had to be provided within 100 miles of sources of supply (and ideally within the community itself), but items from list B could be provided from and to anywhere on the planet?
Here’s a Future State Story that imagines how such an economy might work:
The community of Freedonia began when a group of 30 people purchased a total of 500 acres of adjacent mixed forest, cropland and abandoned industrial-zoned land about 150 miles west of Toronto, from five different vendors (disillusioned small farmers, a highway construction company, and the regional munipality). The group had been reading about permaculture and the transitions movement and wanted to try implementing both.
They agreed upon a Statement of Operating Principles for the community, but quickly realized they lacked many of the essential skills needed to create a self-sufficient community. So they sent out an invitation to those who did, and who shared their Principles, and soon the community population had jumped to 120 people.
When they described what they needed to be self-sufficient, they recognized that the work they would have to do fell into four categories, each of which lent itself to a different operating model:
- Organic Products: List A goods produced from ingredients produced naturally and harvested: foods, household cleaners, natural medicines, and to some extent buildings
- Craft Products: List A goods designed and then manufactured from mostly-local materials: clothing, furniture, paper, linens and other household durables, appliances, transportation, information and communication technologies, and to some extent buildings
- Energy Products: List
A goods produced by tapping mostly-renewable resources: sun, wind, water, biomass, thermals
- Knowledge Products and Services: List B goods and services: design, learning, health, social services, facilitation and capacity-building, recreation, entertainment
The community produced its own local currency, Freedollars, but as explained below it quickly evolved to a Gift Economy internally, using Freedollars only for transactions with other communities.
Freedonia started with a local food store, with the intention of sourcing as much food as possible from within or near the community. The store operated as a co-op, but as it evolved less and less of the foods were ‘retailed’ and the ‘store’ became merely a storehouse. People contributed what they produced in their gardens and planted in the solar greenhouses and hothouses that began as ‘private’ enterprises but soon were just given to the community and became community property as the construction loans were either paid off (to the community credit union that initially financed them) or forgiven. People took what they needed, initially paying with Freedollars and then gradually just leaving ‘thank you’ notes acknowledging what they had taken. The volunteers in the food co-op refocused on managing the inventories and organizing seed swaps, jam-making and canning events, moving the gardens to permaculture, managing the greenhouses and hothouses, and organizing the restaurant. Like the food store, the restaurant started as a private community enterprise with prices in Freedollars, but soon evolved to a volunteer facility where people contributed food, labour (preparation, repair, clean-up) or other property (art, crafts) in return for their meals.
This self-organizing model, supported by a community-developed database that was a cross between eBay and Craigslist, evolved to be quite sophisticated. People would maintain their ‘shopping lists’ in the database (initially with a maximum price they were prepared to pay for each item, though as the model moved to a Gift Economy model, the prices were eliminated). Producers would maintain their ‘offerings’ in the same database (initially with the minimum price they were prepared to accept), and when there were matches, other community members would undertake to deliver the goods from the offerors to the orderers (initially on a fee basis, and later for free, as part of their contribution to the community). The database software would optimize order and delivery quantities, and indicate what there was a surplus or shortage of. Surpluses and shortages were relayed to and coordinated with other communities nearby (within 100 miles). Those with home gardens could list what they were growing on a ‘you-pick’ basis, so community members could harvest any excess. A built-in ‘reputation management’ system allowed community members to rate and comment on the various suppliers and orderers so no one could exploit the system. And spontaneous local ‘farmers markets’ evolved to dispose of significant surpluses so there was no waste.
This community food co-op model gradually expanded to include other organic products, such as household cleaners, herbs and natural medicines, cotton, bamboo, wood and other organic building materials.
The craft community of Freedonia self-organized into four main groups — (a) those who made clothes, (b) those who made other craft products such as furniture, paper, linens, pottery and other household products, (c) those who made appliances and information and technology products, and (d) those who built and maintained buildings. All groups benefited from the emergence of the Global Design Exchange, a huge repository of free designs varying from clothing patterns to art and furniture designs to software and hardware designs to blueprints. Like the food co-op, the crafters began with a retail store charging Freedollars, but gradually charged only those outside the community for what they produced. They quickly learned what was needed and what was valued in the community, and the same community database developed for organic products was also used to manage and process ‘shopping lists’ and ‘offerings’ of craft goods. The crafters offered free lessons to all community members in all types of craft skills. And they also pioneered sewing machines that were connected to the community’s laptops and which produced simple clothing and embroidery automatically, so some of the effort used to make clothes could be diverted to making fabrics.
A late innovation in Freedonia came from a group of new community members who had studied indigenous cultures and who designed and created lightweight, flexible all-weather clothing that would allow members to live comfortably anywhere in the community, indoors or out, and hence eliminated the need for heating and air-conditioning in many of Freedonia’s buildings.
When Freedonia began, there was a mix of farm, single-family residential and industrial properties on the land. Much work was done to retrofit these buildings to the needs of the community, but eventually these were abandoned and dismantled and replaced with portable, reconfigurable buildings made of rammed earth, straw bale and other local, biodegradable materials. Buildings were designed (drawing on the Global Design Exchange), personalized, and approved collectively, to meet recognized needs for both personal (subject to a maximum square footage per member) and collective community needs, and were erected at community ‘bees’ in which everyone participated. Each building was designed for a finite life, and followed a set maintenance schedule for that life, after which it was dismantled and its materials used for the next needed structure.
Maintenance and production of information and communication technologies, plus some household appliances and fixtures, and their contribution to the Inter-Community Electric Vehicle Transportation Network, proved to be the greatest challenge for Freedonia, because some components simply couldn’t be sourced with local materials. Freedonia collaborated with other communities in an inter-community market for these items, which was also used to find resources for specialized goods and services (e.g. pharmaceuticals and surgeons) that could not be locally sourced. As a matter of principle, since use of this larger market indicated a lack of self-sufficiency, Freedonia attempted to use this market as little as possible. The Global Design Exchange frequently came to the rescue with innovative designs for computer and communication technologies and appliances that used local, abundant resources.
One of Freedonia’s first successes was its local energy co-op, which in just three years moved the entire community reliably off-grid for heat, electricity and water and provided information to other communities on how to do the same. Its model, shared through the Global Design Exchange, was configurable by other communities to suit local climate and the relative availability of sun, wind, water, biomass and geothermal resources.
The Global Design Exchange was one of a series of Free Exchanges that were used to make List B products freely available online. Other exchanges included the multimedia World E-Library and World Health Library (each with thousands of volunteers supplementing the content repositories with real-time consultations), the Earth University (with 10,000 free online multimedia courses), and the Virtual Worlds Environment. Freedonia’s members were significant contributors to many of these Free Exchanges, and their recordings of local community theatre productions, their community-made films, and their virtual art galleries were particularly renowned. Through these Free Exchanges, members of the community could access the people they needed to learn critical capacities and deal with problems, until they had acquired sufficient experience to provide these services within the community. And through the Exchanges’ networks, they could continuously learn and continuously improve their competencies.
The community’s greatest controversy was over the provision of health services, and particularly expensive, specialized medicines and therapies. Freedonia adopted a full set of principles for self-sufficient community health care, including personal responsibility for learning and practicing health prevention, self-diagnosis and self-therapy, an egalitarian health product and service access code, women’s choice, a no-prison code, the right to palliative treatments and the right to die. But several members, deprived of the ability to get specialized medicines or treatments within the egalitarian Gift Economy structure of the community, opted to leave to purchase these elite health care products and services elsewhere. Another problem was dealing with various addictions of some community members — after a significant investment was made trying to rehabilitate them, the community reluctantly chose to expel some incorrigible members who were exhausting the energies and resources of the community.
Conversely, Freedonia’s unschooling program was an astonishing success. A decision was made from the start not to have any formal schooling program in the community and not to endorse or fund schooling programs elsewhere. Using a mentoring program developed by some of the members, and drawing on curricula and learning resources from the Free Exchanges, both young and continuous learners in Freedonia discovered that they could master useful and interesting skills and knowledge, and most importantly learn how to learn, at their own pace in their own preferred style, what they chose to learn, much more quickly and effectively than those in other communities who had been schooled in traditional institutions. Everyone in the community became a mentor, allotting time to show others in the community the skills they had acquired.
What those who studied Freedonia found most compelling about their operating models was that there was no hierarchy in the community. Some people worked harder or longer than others, but somehow the community ‘knew’ how each member was contributing, and those who undercontributed relative to what they took from the community were, through collectiveself-management, gently limited in what they were able to take. Because the community lived according to a principle of sufficiency, there was always an abundance of resources, recreation and time in the community. The farmers who joined the community were especially amazed — they had lived an arduous, stressful, high-responsibility life before they had joined, and discovered that once freed from the globalized, corporatist, ‘market of scarcity’ pressures on their activities, they had more help, more leisure time, and more fun than they could have dreamed of, with no loss of ‘productivity’.
The community ‘learned’ to operate as a single, optimizing organism, so there was no requirement for any individual to take on any responsibility or obligation — people voluntarily and willingly did the work they did because as a member of the collective group each one received back much more than they put in. The organization of projects and enterprises was spontaneous, continuous and collectively self-managed, dynamically and holistically, so that what was needed got done without coercion, almost effortlessly. They concluded this was because when it operates at the community level, an economy does not encounter the dysfunctional diseconomies of scale, inequalities, communication problems and bureaucracies that massive, hierarchical, centralized economies spend most of their energies trying to cope with.
Freedonia was an early member of the Transition Movement, and used a lot of its programs, but found its transition to a zero-carbon, zero-footprint, zero-oil dependency society quite effortless, largely because its community-based self-sufficiency-driven modus operandi was inherently less polluting and less dependent on ‘imported’ resources than most modern communities.
So the idea is as follows:
- Finding the Sweet Spot, my book, was about creating Natural Enterprises within niches of the existing Industrial Growth Economy, in the hope that, if there were enough of them, they would rended that unsustainable economy obsolete.
- What I’m talking about above is more radical: It’s about creating span style=”font-style: italic;”>Natural Communities, that would be able and motivated to withdraw almost immediately from that Industrial Growth Economy, and that could, by networking together, transition us directly to a new, sustainable Natural Economy.
- And by operating on World of Ends principles, these Natural Communities don’t need anyone to take personal responsibility for creating anything — no one needs to advocate, or oppose, any capitalist, socialist, libertarian or any other political or economic ideology. All we need to do is, personally, identify the work we’re meant to do, and then, working individually in networks within and between communities and doing that “work we’re meant to do”, spontaneously self-organize to surface, innovate and deliver solutions to communities’ unmet needs, and then keep those communities sustainable by maintaining those networks, by being resilient, and by operating ‘on principle’.
In such an economy we would all be sole proprietors, ‘free’ agents, Natural Entrepreneurs, working in teams that were continuously self-forming, reorganizing and re-forming, to solve one problem, meet one need, at a time. No responsibility for others, no personal commitments, just doing what we know we’re meant to do, sustainably, responsively, joyfully, in community.
* Not having the skills, self-confidence, ideas, money or time; not being able to handle the stress, the failure or the loneliness; not knowing the “process”; and the fear that “the deck’s stacked against entrepreneurs in favour of big business”.