Seattle: Elements of a Living Economy

by Victor Bremson

In countries such as the United States, where media and public spaces are saturated with the advertising of global corporations, the extent to which the infrastructure of prospective living economies is already in place is largely invisible to most citizens. Thus critics can easily get away with making the claim that advocates of "living economies" represent a minor fringe of throwbacks to an earlier age and are blind to economic reality.

Yet even a cursory search reveals the seeds of a planetary system of living economies sprouting virtually everywhere at local, national, and even planetary levels, including in countries like the United States and Canada where national governments are aggressive proponents of the suicide economy. In many localities initial living webs of business relationships among like minded firms already exist or are in the process of formation. 

Indeed, in spite of aggressive assaults by predatory global corporations intent on clearing small competitors from the field, these seeds are taking root in soil that seems increasingly hospitable to place-based, human-scale, local-stakeholder owned, life-serving enterprises. By shortening the distance between producers and consumers, such enterprises offer the attraction of being able to respond to customer needs in more healthful, caring, and intelligent ways.

Living enterprises and economies were once the standard in more traditional societies. One of the better known examples is from the community of Ladakh in the high Himalayas that has been extensively documented by Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). Today, few of these traditional living economies have survived predatory displacement by the suicide economy. In more modern urban areas what we most often find are prospective living enterprises that are individually captive to the more powerful institutions of the suicide economy and are forced to play by suicide economy rules. 

In contemporary times the closest prototypes for the formation of living economies are found in the ecovillage experiments that are springing up all around the world and are freely sharing their ideas and experience with one another over the Internet. An ecovillage is an intentional community engaged in the experimental pursuit of deeply democratic and environmentally sustainable ways of living. An ecovillage in Ithaca, New York includes community building, housing, food, education, and commercial activities, and energy and healthcare -- bringing together consumers, service providers, farmers and producers into a community relationship.

According to the EcoVillage Network

Ecovillages are urban or rural communities of people who strive to live a sustainable, satisfying lifestyle in harmony with each other, all other living beings, and the Earth. Ecovillages attempt to integrate a supportive social environment with a low-impact way of life. To achieve this, they integrate various aspects of ecological design, permaculture, ecological building, green production, alternative energy, community building practices, and much more. 

This initiative is documenting clusters of living enterprises and the emergent processes -- where these can be identified -- by which they are beginning to build intentional relationships among themselves toward the formation of living economies. It is coordinated by Victor Bremson, retired management consultant and business turnaround specialist. 

Work has begun on the development of a catalogue of selected living enterprise and related initiatives in the Seattle Area of Northwestern Washington, home of such suicide economy giants such as Starbucks, Costco, Boeing, and Microsoft. We chose this region because we live here and more importantly, because we observe the outlines of the infrastructure of a living economy beginning to take shape. Some of the elements have been here for over 50 years. Other elements are in their infancy. The organizations identified include businesses, farms, associations, schools and governmental agencies. The infrastructure is regional in scale. A number of non-profit organizations are included because life serving economies must perform many functions beyond those appropriate to for profit enterprises. A Northwest chapter of the Business Alliance for Living Economies has been organized and is sponsoring regular events spotlighting living economies initiatives in the Puget Sound area.

In its present preliminary form the Seattle catalogue is based on information provided by the websites of the organizations listed. Follow-up interviews to obtain additional information are now underway. The initiatives identified have been organized into nine categories: 

  1. Community Building and Networking
  2. Alternative Housing
  3. Agriculture and Food Related Businesses
  4. Commercial Businesses
  5. Healthcare
  6. Banking, Currency and Bartering
  7. Education
  8. Energy & Resource Sustainability
  9. Transportation

I.  Community Building and Networking:

 The following are a partial listing of resources and functioning groups that are available in the Seattle area for various community building and networking processes.  These resources help to build a  conscious consumer community, in part through connecting Cultural Creatives and engaging them in cooperative community building tasks. 

  1. From the Four Directions http://www.fromthefourdirections.org
    Organizational consultants and teachers Margaret Wheatley and Christina Baldwin organized this group.  It currently has groups/circles meeting in 38 countries throughout the world.  It started in Seattle in the summer of 2001.  The group attempts through a series of 7 discussion meetings to develop life-affirming leadership practices and values in local communities around the world.  The organization intends to link up the circles around the world via the Internet. 
  2. Natural Choice Directory of Puget Sound http://www.naturalchoice.net
    This directory includes entries for many forms of the alternative economy.  There are listings for Environmentally & Socially Responsible Resources, Holistic Health, Food, Natural Remedies, Bookstores and Counseling.  Copies can be found at many of the locations that carry their advertisements including the Puget Sound Co-Operative.
  3. The People Web  
    This loosely knit group was organized in the Pacific Northwest to help human beings come together for community, co-opportunities, involvement, action, celebration and inspiration.  Their slogan is “Celebrating Our Interdependence”. The group has over 20 people representing various organizations listed as affiliates, including many of the groups listed herein.  They sponsored the initiation of the ‘Cultural Creativity Café’ at local independent coffee shops. 
  4. New Road Map Foundation    
    NRMF is one of a few similar type organizations that teaches people how to live simpler and become more responsible citizens.  Founder Vicki Robbins regularly holds trainings in the Seattle area and throughout the country.Their website states that, “Our educational work has traditionally focused on three realms of life - personal finances, health and human relations - since these are the fundamental building blocks of daily life. Shining the light of clear thinking on these realms allows people to muster all their energies, fulfill their potential and give wholeheartedly to the world.”
  5. Seattle Local People’s Assembly 
    Formed in 2000, after the first Global Peoples Assembly in Apia, Samoa to increase support in the Seattle area for global democracy and to promote new democratic processes both locally and globally.”  Although still quite small this group is working towards growing its numbers and networking with other organizations.  
  6. Co-Opportunities Northwest Conference 
    The Purpose of this conference is to bring together a variety of stakeholders in advancing local sustainability and sustainable community development.  The conference will beheld October 19-21, 2001 at the Seattle Center.  The idea for the conference came from the Northwest Intentional Communities Association to cast a net around sustainable community developers to explore creative opportunities together. Many of the organizations listed in this essay are coming together to support this event.   
  7. NeighborNetsNetwork   
    The website refers to “Neighbornets” as affinity groups of people who live in the same general neighborhood who choose to form closer bonds with one another.  The form of each net may vary but the common principles are based on sharing, such as, sharing time and friendship, sharing skills and labor, sharing resources and sharing values.  They are more closer related to bonding groups than full scale intentional communities and are an approach at creating a more urban form of community.  One of the state purposes of “NeighborNets” is to build bridges between intentional communities and surrounding neighborhoods. The purpose of this group is to facilitate the growth of this activity. The Ballard Pod is a local gardeners NeighborNet.  Seattle Tilth helped to organized this pod. 
  8. Cultural Creatives Network  
    The Culture Creatives Network is beginning to organize the great enthusiasm brought about by the book “The Culture Creatives”.  A Pacific States group has been organized and has started to function in Seattle.  One of their initial activities was the establishment of regular meeting places at local coffee and tea type houses. At these meetings people can come together to discus issues of common concern.

II.  Alternative Housing

Since the end of World War II, the US Government has encouraged the development of suburbs.  This encouragement has taken the form of favorable tax subsidies and road building.  Americans in large numbers chose to live out their dreams in new houses developed in charming suburbs. One of the effects of this shift has been to reduce for many the sense of true community that those urban centers provided.  Development of new suburbs has put pressure on issues of sustainability and resource stewardship.  The following are examples of organizations in this region that are trying to find ways to bring community back into their lives and to encourage sustainability. There is a wide range of financial and community commitment that a person makes in choosing a community. 

  1. NorthWest Intentional Communities Association NICA http://www.ic.org/nica
    NICA was formed in 1992 by intentional communities around the Puget Sound area to create a means for sharing information and resources.  There are currently approximately 22 communities in Washington State and 9 in Oregon that are part of this association.  Many of these intentional communities are involved with more than just housing. They include training facilities, retreat houses and agricultural communities.  NICA is currently working in the Co-opportunities Northwest Conference plus a Northwest Communities Directory and Resource Sharing Guide. This guide will enable the exchange of services between Intentional Communities and also to promote community run businesses and services. 

III.  Agriculture and Food Related Businesses

Food was once something we could take for granted. Development, worldwide creation of corporate mega-farms, increased chemical usage and genetic modifications has rapidly changed this perspective by many citizens.  The following local organizations support the preservation and development of local and organic farms.

  1. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA).
    This is an informal commercial system where consumers desiring high quality and fresh local produce purchase a share from local farms.  Seattle Tilth publishes a directory. http://www.seattletilth.org
  2. PCC Natural Markets http://www.pccnaturalmarkets.com
    PCC Natural Markets is a community-owned business and one of the nations largest natural food co-operatives.  It serves the Puget Sound Region in 7 stores.  They have been operating for over 40 years. They support community owned businesses and have both green and labor criteria for the selection of vendors.  Consumers join the co-operative for a fee and then are able to share in the savings and values expressed by the co-op.  PCC supports local charities, community building activities, environmental organizations and a network of local agricultural suppliers.  A board of directors chosen democratically by its members runs the organization.  Employees are represented by a union and receive a negotiated wage.  Employee practices are considered progressive.  One of their important programs -- the PCC Farmland Fund (found at the PCC link) -- was created in 1999 in order to secure and preserves threatened farmland in Washington State and move in into organic production.  The purposes of this fund include: saving farmland, protecting habitat, urban/rural partnership, and replication in the form of assistance to other organizations interested in doing similar work. PCC is a member of the Northwest Cooperative Grocers’ Association.
  3. Central Co-op Madison Market http://www.centralcoop.com
    This  is another consumer owner cooperative that services the needs of consumers looking for healthier arrays of products. It is located in the Capital Hill area of Seattle.
  4. Puget Sound Fresh  http://www.pugetsoundfresh.org.
    The Puget Sound Fresh program was created by the King County Agriculture Commission and is supported through a partnership between King County and three other local counties.  This program is designed to encourage consumers, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants to seek out and purchase locally grown products.  A locally grown sticker is used to help identify Puget Sound Fresh products. 
  5. Seattle Tilth and Washington Tilth Producers Associationhttp://www.seattletilth.org  
    Seattle Tilth is a member of the Washington TilthProducers Association.   These organization encourages organic gardening in urban areas and on local farms.  They promote sustainable and ecologically sound agriculture in the interest of environmental health and social equity.

IV. Commercial Businesses

Many entrepreneurs are committed to creating enterprises that align with the values of a living economy. These businesses often provide a variety of community services not available from more purely bottom line driven enterprises, but face the challenge of building sufficient consumer loyalty to survive. Alternative Currencies and consumer education can assist in building such loyalty. 

The book entitled “The Great Good Place” discusses ‘third places’ as places that encourage the development of community.  The book points out that when people moved to the suburbs they left behind community centers such as churches that provided a place for development of community in addition to their religious endeavors.  In the last 30 years as people moved to the suburbs, giant predatory box store retail chains have replaced Main Street as centers of commercial activity. The availability of lower prices and one stop shopping has been a major attraction for these stores. Fortunately people are beginning to understand that shopping in these stores does not build community and substantially limits diversity.   As example, the large predator stylebook chains have forced most of the independent bookstores out of business.  They in turn own or are owned by large media and publishing companies that decide what books we should read by promoting those books on their media outlets.  Malls are filled with stores selling products made in third world countries, in many cases by exploited labor.  Owned by absentee shareholders, these large chains are only interested in their own bottom line, not in strengthening local economies through the sale of local products or in building local community. The following are examples of independent retail outlets in the Puget Sound with a strong commitment to building community and the local economy. Others can be found in the Natural Choice Directory http://www.naturalchoice.net  and the Green Business Directory of King County. 

  1. Third Place Books  http://www.thirdplacebooks.com  Ron Sher owner of Third Place Books in Bothel has a dream to create profitable local businesses that support the concept of the ‘third place’.  His store hosts daily book lectures, child events and community activities.  A substantial amount of square footage is designed as a community center with large tables and chairs available for organizing and games.  
  2. Pike Street Market  http://www.pikeplacemarket.org  
    Anyone who has ever visited Seattle knows how special Pike Street Market is.  The market is the selling home of 100 local farmers, 150 local craftspeople, 300 independent commercial business people and 50 performers. Not known to many is the market is also home to 500 residents, most of whom are low-income seniors, and the market provides many services for the needy.  Seattle would not be the same without the Market.  It brings a sense of community like no other place in the city.    
  3. The Crossroads Shopping Center http://www.crossroadsbellevue.com 
    Ron Sher is also owner of this community-based shopping mall.  It offers many community style activities and fun entertainment for the family.  It is home to places where you can obtain local governmental services and houses a local police station.  The Crossroads Community Center is right next store. 

V. Healthcare

The need for providing quality healthcare for many has become a major problem in our society.  Costs have increased every year as drug companies, hospitals, doctors and insurance companies fight over how to share this huge market. Many members of our community are not covered by insurance or their coverage has become very limited.  In addition mega-corporations, utilizing advanced public relations methods, have learned how to control the substance of the debate over alternatives.  The Puget Sound area was the source of one of the best group health experiments in the country and is also one of the nation’s centers for the development of alternative medicine.

  1. Alternative Medicine- The Seattle area supports a large and growing network of alternative health care providers. These include naturopathic, osteopathic and homeopathic doctors, chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapists, nurse practioners, midwifery,  and other modalities.  There are a number of schools in the area, (such as Bastyr- http://www.bastyr.edu) which provide professional training to these practitioners.  It is important to note that most consumers searching for this kind of service must pay for the service directly.  It has only been very recent that insurance companies have been forced to pay for some of these type services.  As a result these providers are small local businesses that have not been corrupted by the large mega corporations. An example of this would be “One Sky Medicine” located in the Lake City Area.  At this clinic you can receive a combination of traditional and alternative medical care.  Other examples can be found in the Natural Choice Directory  http://www.naturalchoice.net 
  2. Group Health Co-Operative  http://www.ghc.org/web/
    Group Health is a consumer-governed, nonprofit health care system that integrates care and insurance.  Begun in 1947, by ordinary people dedicated to creating affordable quality health care, Group Health is one of the oldest and most respected health care organizations in the U.S.  Group Health provides care for over 550,000 people. Patients continue to govern Group Health today, although the company was affiliated with Kaiser- Permanente in 1997. Kaiser Permanente is also a not for profit organization.  It is included herein despite the fact that it is now owned by an outside company because of the model that it created and its continued attempt at providing quality healthcare at a reasonable price.

VI. Banking, Currency & Bartering

The all-powerful banking system including our national currency represents a major obstacle to development of local regional economies. The banks have strict rules on whom to lend money to and the underlying currency represents at this time our medium of exchange.  We place great value in our national currency and would consider the creation of another currency as fool hardy, and yet a truly developed regional economy might need to develop its own form of value exchange. In addition new local enterprises may need small amounts of capital to start-up.  Small micro-lending institutions and credit unions are needed for people who don’t meet the criteria of the big banks.  These local organizations support the creation of local businesses and the development of new ways to think about currency. 

  1. Seattle Endowment Fund – the Black Dollar Day Task Force sponsors The Campaign 5000 program.  
    This project is designed to raise money from person’s interested in investing in the development of black owned businesses in the Central District of Seattle.  This fund was established in 1994 as a means of providing working capital for small entrepreneurial businesses in Seattle’s Central District. For information call 206-6841777 or 206-3243114. 
  2. Cash Washington http://www.washingtoncash.org
    “The Washington Community Alliance for Self-Help (Washington Cash) is a community-based, non-profit organization dedicated to fostering economic self-sufficiency through self-employment training and lending services to low-income women, people with disabilities, immigrants and other low income individuals.” The organization provides the following type services to help potential entrepreneurs:  business training, access to small amounts of credit, planned savings plans, ongoing technical assistance, mentoring, and peer lending. 
  3. LET Systems   (Local System Trading) http://www.gmlets.u-net.com  
    LET Systems deal combine the use of the national currency with a local currency. A Seattle LET System was recently started.  There are over 1500 LET Systems in many cities throughout the world.  A LET System is a trading network supported by its own internal currency.  It is self-regulating and allows its users to manage and issue their own ‘money supply’ within the boundaries of the network.  The key points include:
    1. Co-operation: No one owns the network.
    2. Self-regulation: its users control the network.
    3. Empowerment: each Let's group issues its own currency for transactions among its members.  

    VII. Education

    The purpose of education according to many global thinkers, such as Buckminster Fuller is to learn how to solve the big problems in life, the whole systems problems.  Specialization teaches students how to fix small problems.  We have become a highly specialized society and solving our global problems requires development of global thinkers. Unfortunately many of our finest colleges today teach students to be highly specialized.  The Empire needs people who can fix small problems.  Whole systems design would be threatening to the Empire’s value system as it might encourage people to think about positive alternatives.  The Puget Sound is home to at least two universities that are interested in teaching their students whole systems design whether it deals with organizations or solving human health concerns.  The following schools have also become the center of activity about building alternative solutions to our society’s pressing problems.

    1. Antioch University Seattle  http://www.antiochsea.edu 
      Antioch University is included here because of it’s location in the center of downtown Seattle, it’s commitment to diversity and innovation, and because it has become a physical center of much of the organizing activity that is taking place in Seattle.  
    2. Bastyr University  http://www.bastyr.edu 
      Bastyr University is included here because of it’s location in the Seattle area and because it has become both a local and national leader in the development of alternative medicine.

    VIII. Energy and Resource Sustainability

    1. King Country Green Business Directory.  http://www.metrokc.gov/hazwaste/greenbiz/ 
      This Directory is produced by King County.  It was produced by the Department of Natural Resources, King County Solid Waste Division, Green Works Business Recycling Program, Construction Works Program and the EnviroStars Program. Contact King County for information on where to find it.  Copies are available at the Puget Sound Co-operative. This directory helps you find businesses that have actively changed their businesses practices to reduce some of the harmful environmental factors within our region. 
    2. Northwest EcoBuilding Guild   http://www.ecobuilding.org/ 
      The Northwest EcoBuilding Guild is an association of builders, designers, homeowners, trades people, manufacturers, suppliers and others interested in ecologically sustainable building. There are 9 guild chapters located in the Northwest area.  Members hold meetings, classes and publish the Green Pages, a directory of members and their environmentally friendly services and products.  Its mission "is to function as an educational forum to facilitate building practices that: protect human health, encourage sustainable resource usage and foster long-term economic vitality.” One Guild member is Windfall Lumber http://www.windfalllumber.com,  a Western Washington retailer and distributor of a variety of eco-friendly wood products that works with suppliers involved in certifying forest products as sustainably harvested. Another member is Second Use Building Materials, Inc. http://www.seconduse.com that specializes in remarketing the vast quantities of re-useable construction and demolition waste materials otherwise diverted to landfills. Climate Solutions http://www.climatesolutions.orgdevelops ideas and projects that address solutions to the global warming crisis that deliver multiple benefits -- from job creation and economic development to environmental protection and a better, more satisfying quality of life. 

    IX. Transportation

    Seattle is considered to have one of the worst transportation systems in the country.  The Washington State Legislature is as of July 2001 completely bogged down in partisan politics over the need for new taxes to fix the states transportation problems.  The legislature is primarily oriented toward adding to the automobile infrastructure, despite credible studies by groups such as the Texas Department of Highways that conclude that building more roads just creates more congestion.  Localization would substantially reduce the need for expensive infrastructure.  Portland, Oregon has been a leader in in combining growth boundaries to increase urban density with a well designed public transportation system to increase the livability of urban areas. In Seattle there has been a strong cry for development of local monorails.  These cries have come from citizen groups who believe that this would be the best approach to solving some of our congestion.  Unfortunately local leaders do not support these citizen initiatives.

    Revised March 20, 2002. First posted August 15, 2001