PITTSFIELD — He was a Germany-born British economist who favored small, localized economic growth during a period of great global prosperity.
Ernst Friedrich "E.F." Schumacher believed that natural resources should be conserved, that local currencies should be adopted and that the higher living standards achieved through capitalism served to deteriorate the surrounding culture. He even wrote a book titled "Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered."
Schumacher died in 1977, but his theories, ideas and research live on at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics in Great Barrington. The center's executive director is Susan Witt, who established the facility in 1980 with the late Robert Swann, the founder of the community land trust movement.
Witt, a native of Greenwich, Conn., who holds a master's degree in English literature from Boston University, helped establish the center's publications, library and educational programs. She also helped found the Community Supported Agriculture movement in the Northeast, which began in Great Barrington in 1986, and the county's local currency, BerkShares, in 2006. We talked with Witt recently about BerkShares, the center's theories on economics and the local currency movement.
Q: Is the Schumacher Center a think tank, a training institute, a research center or a repository for E.F. Schumacher's work?
A: We think of ourselves as a think and do tank. We research and come up with approaches for citizens to better support their local economies. But, we're not limited to that. We make an effort to apply those concepts here in the Berkshires, since we are placed-based.
Q: What is the center most focused on?
A: We're very much concerned with creating thriving, local economies. Our vision of a healthy economic system would be one in which each region has its own healthy economy that is trading and interacting with other regions.
During the past 75 years, the emphasis has gone towards creating more global corporations and a more global economy. To balance that, we feel that it is important to highlight and support local economies and find ways for them to thrive.
Our emphasis is on what citizens can do, rather than on government programs. It's not that we're opposed to government programs, but we feel that our sphere of influence is more in the realm of having citizens take responsibility for the future of their own local economy.
Q: So, how do you try and do that in the Berkshires?
A: In several ways. One of those is the creation of the BerkShares' local currency. ... What BerkShares represent is a way for consumers to advocate for their individually owned businesses in the region. ...
When money is spent into the local economy on businesses in the region, the velocity of the money is much better than if it's spent in a chain store and it flows out of the region quickly. ... The Schumacher Center is the leader nationally and internationally in thinking about the local issuings of currencies.
Q: Why did you and Robert Swann form the Schumacher Center in the Berkshires?
A: We were in Cambridge at the time, working at The Institute for Community Economics, which was known for its work with community land trusts. We were invited by a family in the Berkshires to come out and start the Community Land Trust in the Southern Berkshires.
I came in kicking and screaming. I kind of liked Cambridge. I liked the diversity. I thought I was coming to an extremely rural region, but instead I found the Berkshires in all its cultural complexity. ...
I started working for the Institute for Community Economics because, like every literature major, I was going to write the Great American Novel. ... I quickly found that my ability to tell stories about these new economic forms was extremely useful.
Q: What scholarly materials can people find at the Schumacher Center?
A: We were given E.F. Schumacher's personal library [in 1994]. Those are books and archives of historic importance. ... After that, we were given the libraries of Robyn Van En, who started the CSA movement (with Witt and Jan Vander Tuin), and Murray Bookchin, who started the Institute for Social Ecology in Vermont. ... We have other collections in appropriate technologies.
These collections are now more and more looked at by historians who are interested in what we've been told in the '50s, '60s and '70s. They're now a period that historians are examining to see the movement of those times, what impact did they have on world affairs. We have in our library some of the prime research material for that era.
Q: You must have a lot of visitors.
A: Reporters love coming to the Berkshires. It's a daytrip from New York City. All of our programs at the Schumacher Center have had extraordinary national and international coverage.
Q: How did the CSA model start?
A: At the time [the mid-1980s], we had started a small loan collateralization program that we called SHARE (Self-Help Association for Regional Economies). It was a step towards our goal of issuing new currency. ... With the agreement that these accounts could be used to collateralize loans that the bank normally wouldn't make, it brought us unto small businesses and small farms. ...
As part of that started we a newsletter called Sharecroppers, which was [for] mostly local farmers.
At the time, there were all of these food-buying clubs where families could get together and do bulk orders for mostly organic food. ... We found that we were ordering a ton of organic carrots a year for winter storage and that they were coming out of California. We thought farmers could grow them here.
Robyn lived just down the street from us at Indian Line Farm. She was part of the food-buying club. So, we started taking out ads in the paper in the spring, saying we need a ton of organic carrots for fall delivery, is there a farm that can grow it for us and we'll prepay? ... That started the concept going. ...
All the hard work was Robyn's, because she had to grow the crops and connect with the individuals, while we just shared our mailing list.
Q: Where is the local currency movement headed?
A: We recently were approached by the International Red Cross, who are interested in using local currencies as a means for making payments following national disasters. They feel if they make the payments in the local currency, it would be a good way to distribute payments and also that those funds would be respent in the local economy, therefore helping to rebuild an economy.
They're also interested in universal basic income payments. ... The experiments for universal basic income, to date, have been things like credit cards. ... BerkShares is now exploring with them how [local currency] might go digital while still retaining the deep connection with our community banks.