How a New Economy Might Work in Rhode Island

Videos and text by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — Ever hear a politician brag about how much open space she protected? Or how much food scrap he wants to divert from the landfill? Or how they both made a neighborhood healthier by shutting down a polluter? Probably not often.

Instead, the words and acts of most elected officials focus on top-down economic development, such as lowering taxes and offering big corporations massive financial incentives to relocate.

That kind of outdated thinking is driving the spread of an altered economy, one that reduces the emphasis on unbridled profit-making and gives priority to health, nature and economic equality. Models vary, but most advocates and practitioners call for a shift to a shared economy, one that relies on local resources and networks and shuns outside ownership.

Statistics show that the current economic system isn’t working. The United States is doing poorly in creating economic equality and providing health care. Success stories abound, as do data, supporting the benefits of spending local. The grassroots-economy movement has been led by networks of artists, environmentalists and social entrepreneurs.

Specific solutions vary. Some say it’s as simple as having consumers, the government and institutions buy locally made products from locally owned businesses. Everything from food to furniture should made using local raw materials and labor and sold in locally owned shops. Bartering is also common, especially for items that can't be produced locally.

This modified capitalism has also fostered a more minimalist lifestyle. Less stuff and smaller homes reduces environmental harm. It also leads to greater contentment. Houses are smaller while the role of nature and open space is greater.

Partisan gridlock and corporate-funded opposition are stalling favorable policies at the legislative level, so the movement so far has adapted through tweaks to existing rules and systems.

Local environmentalist Greg Gerritt and social-enterprise advocate and impact-investor Dan Levinson, of Main Street Resources, recently discussed the issue and policies around a new economic movement.

Gerritt’s economic platform of ecological healing focuses on addressing climate change, ending fossil-fuel use and protecting forests.

Levinson believes Rhode Island can prosper from a food-based economy and greater simplicity. Solutions include asking large food users such as universities to exclusively buy local; shifting out-of-state tourism marketing funds into attracting locals to local destinations; government injecting money into the local economy by paying premiums to local companies that bid on local projects.

Rather than politicians, local small-business owners should decide where economic stimulus money goes, Levinson said. “Ask these guys where to put it," he said. "They are not going to want to pollute. They treat people fairly. They are not going to ship all over the world."