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Issue 253
March/April 2009
Economics of Place

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Economics of Place
by
Illustration: Matt Kenyon

Illustration: Matt Kenyon

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Economics of Place

IN THE BEAUTIFUL botanical garden of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) there is a one thousand year old Great Banyan Tree. It has one thousand branches. Each branch forks into two branches; one moves upwards and embraces the sky, the other drops down to put roots in the Earth and thus creates a new trunk to support the skyward branch.

Looking at this ancient tree it is difficult to distinguish which is the original trunk or the original branch. Each new trunk is grounded in its place by putting down new roots to sustain the sky-bound branches. This is one of the most amazing examples of sustainable growth: while branches spread skyward reaching for the sun and the stars, the trunks and the roots remain firmly fixed in place.

There is another great tree in England – a magnificent yew in Dartington, churchyard, Devon. Botanists believe that this yew is between eighteen hundred to two thousand years old. Almost as old as Christianity itself and the tree was there long before the church!

“What is the secret of the sustainability of this great yew?” I asked one of Dartington’s gardeners.

“The roots of this tree are as broadly and deeply embedded in place as the branches are spread wide and high in the sky. Of course, you don’t see the roots but they reflect the branches you can see,” the gardener answered.

“Is this true of most trees?” I enquired.

“Yes it is. The great oak, the birch, the Lebanese cedar you see here in the garden are all embedded in their place. They have extensive networks of roots underground. If the trees did not have a sense of place they would not survive”.

What a perfect illustration of balance, harmony and wholeness. Outward growth complemented with inward growth. If only the globalisers of the economy learned from the trees, if only the bankers, hedge-fund holders, stockmarket managers, financial experts and economists would see this relationship between inner growth and outer growth. If only manufacturers and retailers would realise that the economics of the planet has to be built on the economics of place. Economics without a sense of place should have no place. The breadth of the economy has to be in balance with its depth

We cannot save the planet and destroy the place. We cannot serve the interest of the global community and undermine the interest of the local community. Large is lovely only if it is balanced by the beauty of the small; if we allow the small to diminish then one day the large too will perish. Large banks are facing a sorry state of affairs because they have swallowed- up small saving banks and mutual societies; we sowed the seeds of the credit crunch when we abolished the credit unions; we laid the foundation of the economic downturn when we blindly pursued the path of unlimited economic growth. What goes up comes down.

So the economy has to stay within the parameters of ecology, ethics and equity. Day and night we chant the mantra of “economy” while our ecology is in ruins, our ethics have been shelved, our principles of justice and equity are put on the back-burner.

We blindly follow the religion of materialism, we worship the god of money, and we sacrifice everything at the altar of the economy. We indulge in consumerism as if there were no tomorrow. As a result, in the short term, banks are running out of money, consumers are short of cash, house prices are tumbling and unemployment is rising. In the longer term, we face global warming, global terrorism, global poverty and population explosion.

THE CAUSE OF these multiple crises is our disconnection with the place to which we belong. Wherever we live we need to be rooted in our place. If each and every one of us took care of our place, our home, our community, the soil by which we are sustained and the biosphere of which we are an integral part, then the whole planet would be taken care of. Being embedded in a place is a prerequisite for being free to look up at the sky and embrace the world. Love of place and love of planet are two sides of the same coin; when we belong to a place we belong to the planet.

I wish everyone would join the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement! If every backyard were saved from motorways, airports, industrial estates, business parks and superstores then the whole country would be saved from them.

It amazes me to see that economists, industrialists, business leaders and politicians have forgotten the true meaning of economy. They only think in terms of profit maximisation and increased money supply, whereas the true economy means good housekeeping; proper management of all aspects of the home. The criterion of good house management is to ensure that all the members of the household are living in harmony with each other and the place. And of course home is always a particular place. Money is only a means to a good economy, not the economy itself.

So in order to address the root causes of the economic downturn and the recession we face, we need to revisit the theory of economics otherwise, the cycles of boom and bust will continue to infect our societies. The present financial crash and market meltdown offer us an opportunity to look deeply and design a new paradigm of sustainability. The economics of debt and derivatives is fake and fragile. Bottom-up economics based on trees and terre madre (soil), on people and place is resilient and reliable.

The days begin to lengthen as we reach the spring equinox and continue to do so until the summer solstice when we enjoy the balmy summer mornings and warm evenings – but we cannot have such long summer days for ever. After the solstice day length declines and we have to accept the dark winter nights. Only near the equator can we have days and nights in equilibrium. The challenge for politicians, economists and business leaders is to find an ‘economic equator’, a market equilibrium so that we can enjoy a “steady state economy”.

People talk about making poverty history but to do that we also have to make wealth history. The very wealthy are the other side of very poor; higher mountains are bound to create deeper valleys. A culture of equilibrium requires balance, harmony, proportionality and a sense of place. Without them we are bound to suffer boom and bust.

THERE ARE TWO roads to economic recovery. The first is the conventional road; to bail-out the banks and fuel consumerism, put more money in mortgages and hope to get back to business as usual. But the second, more genuine option is to think holistically and invest in land and agriculture, in renewable energy and practical skills. The Earth is our true bank. We are at a crossroads – which path are we going to choose? The answer should be obvious.

Economics of place is the key to a steady state economy of which Herman Daley writes so eloquently in this issue. The economy of place is also the solution to the planet crunch of which Andrew Simms is warning us in no uncertain terms. The economics of place will also prevent the nuclear nightmare about which Mark Dowie is so rightly concerned.

Let us celebrate our place and build and economics place.

SATISH KUMAR

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