How to win friends and influence the new economy

August 27, 2013

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Loneliness is as strong as smoking or alcohol abuse as an indicator of premature mortality. When Lisa Cook found she had no one to help her put her cat down, she decided to act. She joined a resilience circle: a friendship group that works on new economic principles.

Image Removed

A resilience circle. Credit: Flickr.

No one likes to admit that they are lonely. It’s too embarrassing. When Lisa Cook’s cat had to be put to sleep, she went to the vet alone. "I couldn’t think of a single person to ask to go with me," she remembers. "It was devastating."

Strong cultural norms keep us silent about this problem, despite the fact that isolation and loneliness are endemic. According to the General Social Survey, the average American has only two “confidants” – people we can really talk to and rely on – and one in four have none at all.

Loneliness is a strong predicator of premature mortality – as strong as smoking or alcohol abuse. Social connections are a key, but underemphasized, factor in our physical and mental health. But what activists and organizers may not appreciate are the ways in which isolation also undermines the prospects for social and economic change.

In my experience, lonely people are controlled and scared more easily, and they are more inclined to accept the status quo. Isolated individuals have little reason to believe in their own agency. It is only by forming networks and communities built on solidarity that most people can make a difference.

That’s what Lisa did. She got to know her neighbors, she started organizing, and she formed a "resilience circle" to learn from and share with others.

Resilience circles ( also known as common security clubs) are groups of eight to fifteen people who come together for learning, mutual aid and social action. They began forming in the USA in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, when the first group began in a church in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, hoping to understand what was happening to the economy.

They learned how members of the group were impacted personally by the crisis, and their meetings quickly turned into brainstorming sessions about the different ways they could help each other. As a result, the age-old practice of "mutual aid" was reborn in their congregation. Since then, hundreds of Circles have met across the country, using the free resources provided by the Resilience Circle Network.

In the current, broken economy, most of us rely on money, corporations, and technology to fulfill our needs. We depend on distant, complex systems to fill our supermarkets and our gas stations. Disruptions to these systems, which will become increasingly common because of climatic and financial instability, can be catastrophic to communities. That’s why the task of building more resilient systems is so important.

Resilience circles help to build these systems by allowing us to relearn the practice of mutual aid, which many of us have forgotten in the current “you’re on your own” economy. Participants write their “gifts” – the things they can offer to others – on one set of note cards, and their needs on another.

In the circle I belong to, one woman started the conversation by offering to help with bicycle repairs, and mentioning that she’d like to be able to hem her own pants. Two other members said that they’d like to learn to sew, and then a third woman offered to run a sewing class for the group. Moments later, I was scheduling a time for the pastor of the church to cut my hair. A dog-sitting and child-care exchange also began to bud. People began brainstorming about how to find and share a 20-foot ladder that they needed.

After this exchange, people – often – leave the room with a new sense of wealth and abundance. They see that when they pool their resources – their stuff and their skills – they are much stronger than when they act alone. They may know this in theory already, but the exchanges in the circle give them a taste of how sharing and co-operation actually work in practice.

These intimate exchanges lie at the heart of the circle. The experience also allows people to envision change on a much larger scale. They see that it is possible to shift the balance from relying on money and corporations to relying on people and their skills. They can imagine a system of resilient, interconnected communities, and a new economy characterized by ecological balance, living democracy and an equitable distribution of resources.

Resilience circles are only one place where people are experimenting with building a new economy. According to political economist Gar Alperovitz, the new economy is "just beneath the surface of traditional media attention. [It has] been gathering force and is about to explode into public consciousness."

Across the globe, people are building Transition Towns, worker co-operatives, community-owned banks, collaborative forms of consumption, renewable energy systems, community land trusts, farmers’ markets, urban agriculture, peer-to-peer learning networks, alternative currencies, time banks, locally-owned businesses, and other models and experiments.

In the new economy, people make, grow and fix stuff instead of buying it from distance. They borrow and barter what they cannot make for themselves. When they buy, they buy from locally-rooted businesses. People become producers, not just consumers. They participate in creating the economic system that sustains them.

Not only is economic interdependence of this kind necessary to create the world we want, it also transforms many aspects of our personal lives. In the new economy, no one can afford to be isolated. Without fossil fuels, we won’t be able to construct large houses in far-flung suburbs. Many of us will have to live closer together, and do more walking, car-sharing and biking. Without Big Oil and Big Agriculture, we’ll have to collaborate to figure out new regional food and energy systems. With less reliance on technology, we might get together to make more of our own entertainment.

The new economy won’t be built a moment too soon. Our communities will continue to be challenged by the housing crisis, austerity-driven cuts to public services, job market instability, extreme weather, and more. Coping with challenges like these requires strong and resilient communities that can make their own decisions democratically and build shared wealth.

Like many others, Lisa Cook is building the solidarity-based economy in her own backyard. Next time she needs to go to the vet, she’ll have a friend to drive her there, and she’ll be able to offer something in return. The good news is that we can all follow Lisa’s lead by taking small but intentional steps to connect with those around us. Those connections can have a major impact; when taken together, they can put us on the road towards a new, fair, and sustainable economy for all.

For more, you can can listen to Lisa’s story here

Sarah Byrnes

Sarah Byrnes is co-founder of Jamaica Plain New Economy Transition and coordinator of the New England Resilience and Transition Network.

Tags: belonging, Building Community