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Esteemed Reader: August 2011 

So far as I can see, the idea of a local economy rests upon only two principles: neighborhood and subsistence. In a viable neighborhood, neighbors ask themselves what they can do or provide for one another, and they find answers that they and their place can afford.
—Wendell Berry

Esteemed Reader of Our Magazine:

“Hi, Daddy.”

The words were spoken quietly, from the back seat.

We were hurtling along Route 32 going north. I had been thinking. Or perhaps the state was more akin to dreaming—one thought associating with the next like ice crystals forming, randomly, never in a straight line.

Images of a writer friend who wrote a book about the sirens’ song...Odysseus’ craving for experience ingeniously indulged with ropes and the beeswax-packed ears of his sailors…masts and trees…tree is the root-word of truth…what is truth?

And then in a moment, perhaps triggered by the word, or a ray of sunlight alighting on a part of the brain, thought stopped. Suddenly I was in the car, the sky and trees whizzing by, the sounds of the engine and wheels and wind, aware of my children sitting behind me in their car-seats—I was having a spontaneous in-body experience.

And that was when he said it:

“Hi, Daddy,” as though he noticed I had been away, and then returned.

I share this anecdote in the context, believe it or not, of what I would call local economy.

In 1972 Gregory Bateson wrote a book called Steps to An Ecology of Mind. Like many great books the title is an expression of the message of the whole tome, that ecology in every arena arises with a careful cultivation of the vast mind-space between our own ears.

In this direction, the title of this missive might be Steps to a Local, Living Economy, with the basis that a living economy begins at home. As the father of Hermeticism, Hermes Trismegistus put it, As Above, So Below.

The word economy has its roots in ancient greek and literally means to “manage a household.” The household may be any microcosm of relationships; eg, a family, a community, nation, or planetary world. It is the place we live, the world we inhabit, and the system through which our creative and productive output flows.

The currency that courses through the economy may take many forms. One symbol of this value is money—“legal tender”—the fiat notes we all know have no intrinsic worth, but have value because we agree they have value. In the old days they could be converted to gold, but no longer. And as a consensus valuation money is useful, but also destructive, because it is pure quantity, a commodity, denuded of all the other qualitative factors that are essential to human fulfillment; e.g., money can’t buy me love.

A local, living economy—the economy of our immediate community—traffics in more diverse currency. It is the stuff of all the work we do in our lives—creative, spiritual, social, environmental—not just the work we do for money. A local, living economy transcends the usual conception of personal property and ownership and addresses the resources we truly share.

For instance, when I was in Europe a few years ago I was amazed at the vastness of the public spaces. The parks were enormous and in great use. Returning home I felt claustrophobic within the preponderance of private property that is off limits to all but its owners. Of course there are many fine local and national examples of public space to be grateful for like our historic sites, parklands and preserves, and a recent seemingly miraculous accomplishment which is the Walkway Over the Hudson, but the Europeans are ahead.

We live in an area that is rich in collective, grassroots wealth. In the Hudson Valley our community output of arts and music, environmental organizations, social awareness and support, and locally-owned, independent business activity is immense. These are our treasure, our collective wealth, and the place to continue to invest not just our money, but ourselves.

Of course money, as a consensus-defined measure of value, plays a vital role in a local, living economy. We have the opportunity to be buffered from the insanity of macro-economics which is concerned with generating a quantity of illusory value, at the expense of real, qualitative value. In our locale we can place our money where the real value manifests—keeping it in local banks where it will be lent back to our neighbors, spending it in locally-owned businesses where it will be circulated back into the local economic ecosystem, buying locally-grown food from local farms that isn’t shipped from thousands of miles away, and supporting local cultural and environmental not-for-profits.

And when we do our work for money, it should be work that nourishes our being; so that our being may generously overflow to our friends and neighbors, family and community. At it’s root a local, living economy is based on the presence we bring to relationships—“Hi, Daddy”—and the promises that we make and keep to one another.
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