Valuing a new economy


Valuing a new economy

By Shea Howell

Michigan Citizen, Oct.3-9. 2010

Over 4000 people attended the series of five meetings hosted by Mayor Bing and his administration. There should be no doubt that Detroiters intend to shape our own future. But the choices before us require a lot more debate and discussion and they also require a lot of new thinking.

One of the most important things to emerge in this process is how wedded the business elite is to the belief that our future rests in “reindustrialization.” The prospect of becoming the battery capital of the world is the most bandied-about idea in the media. Currently, the U.S. produces less than 2% of the batteries used in the emerging electric car market, but some analysis are promoting the idea that within ten years the state will see the creation of 62,000 new jobs, with Holland, Michigan, being the western anchor for a web of battery manufacturing facilities.

The recent announcement of a second plant in Livonia is heralded as a sign of development, prompting many at the forums to question why none of these facilities are being located inside Detroit. Jesse Jackson gave voice to this concern before the Detroit City Council when he said, “The governor, a Democrat, brags about Michigan getting a battery plant, built north of Grand Rapids, as opposed to Detroit, the engine that drives the state. We need industrialization, not farming.”

While we certainly need to rebuild an economy by restoring and inventing productive, creative and meaningful Work, we should have no illusions that this will look like the industrial past.

The industrial production employing masses of workers that dominated the last half of the 20th century is not part of our future. From the abandonment of Detroit by industrial capital, we should have learned that masses of people are no longer needed for mass production.

The industrial assembly line is now run by high tech machines that require fewer and fewer people to produce and service them. The much-coveted battery factory in Holland is expected to employ 300 people. This plant and its companion in Livonia are both the result of President Obama’s stimulus money, not the result of visionary venture capitalists.

We need to think very differently about what our new economy will look like. This is why the urban agricultural movement is so important. It points the way to the values we need to consider as we think about how to reconstruct our economy. Urban farming begins with the idea that we can produce locally the things that we need to sustain us. This is the first principle that we need to apply to how we think about redeveloping an economy.

Second, most of our urban farms are not only efforts at growing food; they are consciously restoring neighborhoods and a sense of community. They are places where generations can come together and learn from one another in the course of being productive. Our new economy must place Work within the context of building communities.

Third, historically agriculture has been the basis for evolving culture and economies. Just as technology has transformed industrial production, it is also making small scale, local and year-round food production possible. In the process it is opening up new ideas for businesses and for economic and social relationships.

Detroit could be producing glass for greenhouses and fish tanks, electronics for hydroponic gardens, wind and water mills for local power, clothing, furniture and a myriad of useful items requiring care and craft. In fact, much of this is already taking place.

In Detroit we have the opportunity to create a new economy that is rooted in the values of developing people and will sustain us and the land we share. We have the opportunity to create not only new Work, but also new economic and social values.