April 5, 2012 —
One of the many interesting things that struck us in Chris Fowler’s keynote speech for the Pure Catskills-sponsored Farm to Market Conference in Liberty on March 25 was the phrase “sustainable economy.” Fowler is founder and executive director of Syracuse First, an organization dedicated to the promotion of local businesses and products. The idea of localization vs. globalization is not new to us; indeed, we have argued for it on this page. But somehow “sustainable” is a concept we had always thought about mostly with regard to the environment. How does it relate to an economy?
Sustainable practices are ways of manufacturing, building or doing things that put back into the earth and biosphere whatever materials and energy are used, without (ideally) any of it being wasted or destroyed. But with the idea of a sustainable economy, we are talking not only about physical materials, but about human beings, financial systems and community. How does one structure an economy so that it puts back into the human community and its coffers what is needed to go on generating economic activity—and community—perpetually?
One way to approach this question is to look at the opposite of economic sustainability: the boom and bust cycle. Boom and bust happens when one big industry moves into an area, pumps up the economy for a short period of time—and then dies, taking the community, which has become uniquely dependent upon it, down with it. Extraction industries like mining are notorious for creating this pattern.
So one factor to include in a sustainable economy is diversification. But diversification doesn’t just apply to the goods and services produced; it also means maintaining an adaptable workforce. A quality workforce, after all, is one of the chief things businesses pay attention to when they choose locations. A workforce with diverse, general skills will bring in new employers even if an old industry fails. But if the dominance of a single industry has over-specialized the workforce, it will be difficult either to attract or start new businesses.
Another “don’t” for economic sustainability, mentioned by Fowler, is the tactic, common among industrial development agencies (IDAs), of providing tax incentives to lure businesses from other places. At best, all that does is boost the economy in place A at the expense of tearing it down in place B. But even for place A, the boost is more than offset by the fact that there is a race to the bottom for all locations that participate in this process, as all the various IDAs see how many giant taxpayer giveaways they can come up with to “win” the competition. Businesses lured this way have no loyalty; what is to stop them from moving to another town as soon as they find one willing to make even more concessions? In contrast, if you build up local businesses or help local entrepreneurs to expand, you are starting with people who already have a commitment to the community and are likely to stick with it as they grow.
Public investment is another key to a sustainable economy. Businesses naturally invest in the plant and equipment needed to manufacture a particular product or provide a particular service, but there are infrastructure elements—like roads, walkways and public spaces that attract consumer traffic—which no single business can or will provide for itself. If a municipality wants a sustainable economy, one that will nurture existing businesses and encourage the growth of new ones, it had better recognize that investment is just as important for government as it is for business, and be willing to provide such infrastructure. The proposed waterfront revitalization project for Tusten, NY, for which an engineering study is being conducted, and the renovation of the space between Upper and Lower Main Street in downtown Callicoon, NY, for which ground will soon be broken, are two examples.
But it isn’t just businesses and government that have to choose carefully to create a sustainable economy. It’s consumers as well. To buy purely on the criterion of lowest price ignores the benefits that accrue to us when our dollars stay local and cycle back to us. If we send all our purchasing dollars out of our towns and counties, we are draining away the fuel that can keep the local economy running under its own steam.
Sustainable economies are generated from within; they don’t rely on the big corporate saviors. We think our area has a good start in our agricultural, art and outdoors recreational communities, and can be positioned to move forward in green energy and even high tech. But to do so, local businesses, governments and consumers must all be mindful of the full consequences of our choices.