Thriving Communities and the Solidarity Economy

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  • Daniel Christian Wahl originally trained as a biologist and holds degrees in Biology (BSc. Hons., Univ. of Edinburgh), Holistic Science (MSc.,Schumacher College) and Natural Design (PhD., Univ. of Dundee).

A green economy is not an end in itself. Rather, […] it is a means towards a shared and lasting prosperity. But what exactly does prosperity mean? We propose a definition of prosperity in terms of the capabilities that people have to flourish on a finite planet. It is clear that a part of our prosperity depends on material goods and services. Living well clearly means achieving basic levels of material security. But prosperity also has important social and psychological components. Our ability to participate in the life of society is vital. Meaningful employment, satisfying leisure, and a healthy environment also matter. […] Thriving communities are the basis of shared prosperity.

Tim Jackson and Peter A. Victor (2013: 6)

In 2009, Professor Tim Jackson catalysed a step-change in the conversation about the ‘growth imperative’ that is structurally built into our economic system. In a report for the UK Sustainable Development Commission, Jackson dared to name the elephant in the room by asking whether “prosperity without growth” was a possibility, stating clearly why ‘business as usual’ was no longer an option (Jackson, 2009a).

[This is an excerpt of a subchapter from Designing Regenerative Cultures, published by Triarchy Press, 2016.]

The report showed that while the global economy has more than doubled in size in the last 25 years, it has severely degraded more than 60% of the world’s ecosystems without delivering a more equitable sharing of wealth. To the contrary, inequality has grown both within and between nations. We live in a world with 5 billion poor and the bottom fifth of the world’s population have to make do with just 2% of global income. According to a Credit Suisse report, the richest 1% of people now own more than half of the world’s financial wealth (Treanor, 2014). This extreme inequality drives a series of devastating chain reactions, affecting health, community cohesion, national and international security, and the environment.

Yet prosperity and wellbeing are not simply a function of the (financial) wealth a person has. We need more than money to feel well. Participation in thriving communities makes individuals prosper and through collaboration in community we can create prosperity for all. The report by Tim Jackson and Peter Victor on Green Economy at the Community Scale (2013) concluded that communities can take independent positive action to create a green local economy and improve prosperity for all.

“At its best, green economy offers a positive blueprint for a new economics — one firmly anchored in principles of ecological constraint, social justice, and lasting prosperity” (p.6). Taking a systemic perspective on true prosperity means going beyond simply meeting material needs and giving equal importance to the establishment of social and psychological conditions in which individuals and communities can thrive. “Material bounds do not in themselves constrain prosperity; […] with appropriate attention to material limits, it may be possible to improve quality of life for everyone even as we reduce our combined impact on the environment” (pp.17–18).

At the scale of local communities, abundance and human thriving are not exclusively based on the availability of material resources and energy but on human creativity and relationships. Community and individual prosperity depend on how we collaborate to create win-win-win solutions for all. Jackson and Victor identified four enablers of thriving communities: “the role of enterprise, the quality of work, the structure of investment, and the nature of the money economy” (p.6). Entrepreneurial and business activities in a community need to offer people the opportunity to flourish. Beyond providing the basic needs of food, clothing and shelter, “prosperity depends on ‘human services’ that improve the quality of our lives: health, social care, education, leisure, recreation, and the maintenance, renovation, and protection of physical and natural assets” (p.7).

Almost all of us spend much of our lives working. In doing so we participate in important relationships that shape our culture. These relationships form part of the ‘glue’ of our society. “Good work offers respect, motivation, fulfilment, involvement in community and, in the best case a sense of meaning and purpose in life” (p.7). In the face of the multiple convergent crises that are challenging humanity, to participate in co- creating thriving local communities as expressions of a regenerative human culture can offer this sense of meaning and purpose in life. As previously mentioned, the restructuring of investment and the redesign of our monetary systems are two important enablers of such community-scale collaboration.

Many inspiring and informative examples from around the world show how communities and regions can start to create economic structures that facilitate the emergence of regenerative cultures. The website Global Transition to a New Economy maps many of these initiatives. They all have a common thread: The path towards prosperity for all is co-created through collaborationRegenerative systems are collaborative! The ‘solidarity economy’ approach illustrates this. SolidarityNYC, for example, tries to give visibility to, and create synergies between, existing initiatives that are part of community collaboration within New York City’s solidarity economy.

The solidarity economy includes a wide array of economic practices and initiatives but they all share common values that stand in stark contrast to the values of the dominant economy. Instead of enforcing a culture of cut-throat competition, they build cultures and communities of cooperation. Rather than isolating us from one another, they foster relationships of mutual support and solidarity. In place of centralized structures of control, they move us towards shared responsibility and democratic decision-making. Instead of imposing a single global monoculture, they strengthen the diversity of local cultures and environments. Instead of prioritizing profit over all else, they encourage a commitment to shared humanity best expressed in social, economic, and environmental justice.

SolidarityNYC (2015)

The US Solidarity Economy Network supports this transformative impulse in the USA. Internationally, The Alliance for Responsible Plural and Solidarity Economy has stimulated dialogue on how we can co-create a collaborative economic model that builds rather than divides community in Asia and Brazil, and www.socioeco.org offers an excellent resource in this area. A UN Research Institute for Social Development report concluded: “Policy makers and the international development community at large need to pay far more attention to ways and means of enabling SEE [Social Solidarity Economy]. This is particularly apparent in the current context of heightened risk and vulnerability associated with economic and food crises and climate change” (UNRISD, 2014: v). Ethan Miller (2010) has attempted to map the diverse economic strategies, organizational forms and tools that can contribute to the creation of a solidarity economy (Figure 25).

Figure 25: The Solidarity Economy — Redrawn with original content with permission of Ethan Miller

Once again, the important message is that we are not trying to reinvent economics with ecology and community in mind from scratch. There are many time-tested strategies and tools already available to us today. They have been developed on the innovation-rich fringes of the mainstream. Some of them may well be H3 ‘islands of the future in the present’, waiting to be spread not necessarily by scaling-up but by employing and adapting them everywhere at the scale of local communities and regional economies. Even if the transformation of the wider macro-economic context will test our patience for a little longer, we are already beginning to meet the descending top-down globalized economic system with ascending H2+ bottom-up innovation. Applying scale-linkinghealth- generating design to economics means creating diversity and resilience by strengthening the solidarity economy at the local and regional scale. [… more on the 3 Horizon framework and transformative innovation]

Photo by Daniel Funes Fuentes


  • Daniel Christian Wahl originally trained as a biologist and holds degrees in Biology (BSc. Hons., Univ. of Edinburgh), Holistic Science (MSc.,Schumacher College) and Natural Design (PhD., Univ. of Dundee).

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