Cashing in on cow shares!

There are local alternatives to the excesses of global capitalism

I am so excited. An investment opportunity I have been anticipating for some time has finally opened up. Nick Rodway, a local farmer who along with his wife Pam has devoted his working life to the production and promotion of organic food and ethical farming, has just called to offer me a share in his dairy herd.

Nick and Pam launched the "Cow Shares" scheme some years ago as a way of raising capital so that they could expand their dairy herd. The herd of 18 head of Ayrshire cattle produces milk of the highest quality with which Pam and Nick make wonderful traditional Scottish cheeses.

Nick and Pam were disinclined to go to the bank. This was for both pragmatic and ideological reasons. On the one hand, there was a natural desire to escape punitive interest rates and bank changes. On the other, Nick and Pam are dedicated to supporting their local economy and to promoting resource flows locally rather than seeing the community’s wealth haemorrhaging out.

So, rather than applying for a bank loan and facing the prospect of watching their interest payments wander off across the globe to finance all kinds of destructive, industrial practices that they have dedicated their lives to replacing, they turned to their home community.

The idea is very simple. A £500 investment buys a share in the dairy herd. This is a five-year loan to the farm, with eight percent annual interest paid in the form of a combination of cheese and manure, according to the preference of the investor. This system creates bonds of affection between the farm and its neighbouring community, raises capital for the farmer and helps in the reconstruction of the local economy – keeping resource flows local and on a human scale. Perhaps even more important, this kind of scheme represents a playful alternative to the anonymity of global markets, providing a gentle reminder that people can still take a measure of economic power into their own hands.

Today, there are many such shares systems operating according to similar principles all over the world. The idea originated in the celebrated case of Deli Dollars in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. When a local delicatessen owner was refused a bank loan to finance an extension, he turned to his clientele. He issued "deli dollars" – refundable over the course of the following year – to the value of $5,000. In this way, his customers pre-financed the extension. In return, he was guaranteed $5,000 worth of custom and his delicatessen grew even more in the affection and esteem of its local community. What is more, the deli dollars started doing the rounds as an alternative currency, even turning up in the collection plate of a local cleric who was known to have a taste for the deli’s pizzas.

From Manhattan to the Moray Firth, local economic experimentation is alive and well. As the monster that is global capitalism gorges on the obscenity of its own excesses, small-scale, decentralised alternatives are already at work, re-weaving the web of community and ecology. Long live Cow Shares!

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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