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What Happens if We Focus on the 3%? (Spoiler: Local Economies Flourish)

By Rob Hopkins, co-founder of the Transition Network

Arundhati Roy once famously said “another world is not only possible. On a quiet day I can hear her breathing.”  I would like to adapt that slightly, and tell you that another world is not only possible, but on a Wednesday in March 2013, I could see her breathing.  Indeed, I could talk to her and see her at work. I was at Transition Town Totnes’s second annual Local Entrepreneurs’ Forum in the town’s Civil Hall.

The event was designed to bring together entrepreneurs, potential mentors and people looking for places to invest. After a morning designed to enable them to interact and cross-pollinate as much as possible, the afternoon featured "The Community of Dragons." Rather than the TV show, Dragons’ Den, where people present their business ideas to either be invested in or humiliated, this one was based on the idea that everyone in the room, and in the community, was an investor.

Four entrepreneurs pitched their business ideas and took questions from the audience.  The audience then pitched their pledges  of support. Some pledged £100, others pledged £50 if four other people would, people offered land, professional support, accountancy help, photography, space, film-making, one young girl even offered £1 of her pocket money. One project was offered professional landscape design services. Another had at least 20 people promise to become members when its membership scheme launches. The Community Supported Agriculture scheme that came looking for £1,000 ended up going home with £3,300 and much more besides. I made a short video about the event, which captures how thrilled and elated the entrepreneurs were:


I mention this event because it captures something important. As the world passes 400 parts per million of atmospheric CO2, as our energy policy seems committed to, literally, scraping the fossil fuel barrel rather than pursuing renewables, and as a growing number of economists argue that economic growth and avoiding runaway climate change are incompatible, it is time to look afresh at the kind of economy that is appropriate for the 21st century.

The recent Portas Review stated that 8,000 supermarkets now account for over 97 percent of all UK grocery sales. If, for argument’s sake, we say that the remaining 3 percent now goes out through local and independent businesses, then we are faced with what I think is a crucial question. We know local shops employ three times as many people for the same amount of turnover as a large supermarket. We know that when a new supermarket opens, on average 276 local jobs are lost; an impact which can be felt “up to 15km away.”

We know that local, independent businesses are more likely to create stronger and happier communities. One striking, extensive study from the U.S. in 2001 found that communities with large supermarkets had fewer non-profit-making groups and organisations that build social capital (such as political, religious and business groups). The report even linked the presence of large supermarkets with lower voter turnout at elections! They hypothesised that such a drop in community cohesion is due to the disappearance of local businesses, which perform a vital function in providing "community glue."

Local businesses also tend to source and use local produce, with its reduced carbon footprint, and support the local economy in many ways. So in the current economic climate, obsessed with recreating economic growth whatever it takes, we have to ask one very important question: Should we be focusing on growing the 97 percent or the 3 percent?  If the 3 percent economy meets our needs better than the 97 percent one, then it is clear we need a rethink.

In reality though, the 97 percent continues to relentlessly and aggressively displace the 3 percent.  Fortunately, we are seeing the pushback beginning. Around the world, communities are coming together, not waiting for permission, but starting to create a new economy based on the values of appropriate localisation, community resilience, being low carbon, working within natural limits, not necessarily being purely for profit, and, where possible, bringing assets into community ownership.  One of the banners for this is the Transition movement.

Whether it’s Brixton Energy, enabling local people to invest in renewable energy in some of the poorest housing in London, Transition Homes in Totnes, building affordable housing using local materials, the Bristol Pound, the city’s complementary currency now accepted by hundreds of businesses across Bristol (the city’s Mayor even takes his full salary in them!), or any of a wide range of food, energy, education, recycling and other projects, Transition groups are rolling up their sleeves and doing stuff. Inspiring, practical, meaningful stuff. It’s happening everywhere.  Almost certainly it’s happening where you live, too.

Which brings us back to our Entrepreneurs’ Forum. It beautifully captured what it looks like when a community comes together to make that new economy happen in a way that is playful, positive and fun. Let the pushback commence. Talk to your neighbours. See what happens.


Rob Hopkins is the co-founder of both Transition Towns Totnes and Transition Network. His new book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff, launches on 15th June 2013 at Bristol's Big Green Week. Rob tweets as @robintransition, and has been involved in permaculture since 1991.  He previously wrote The Transition Handbook and The Transition Companion, and recently was awarded a PhD by the University of Plymouth.  He was voted one of the Independent's top 100 environmentalists, is an Ashoka Fellow, and a keen gardener.

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