How to win friends and influence the new economy

Published on openDemocracy, by SARAH BYRNES, August 26, 2013, 2013.

Loneliness is as strong as smoking or alcohol abuse as an indicator of premature mortality. When Lisa Cook found she had no one to help her put her cat down, she decided to act. She joined a resilience circle: a friendship group that works on new economic principles.

No one likes to admit that they are lonely. It’s too embarrassing. When Lisa Cook’s cat had to be put to sleep, she went to the vet alone. “I couldn’t think of a single person to ask to go with me,” she remembers. “It was devastating.”  

Strong cultural norms keep us silent about this problem, despite the fact that isolation and loneliness are endemic. According to the General Social Survey, the average American has only two “confidants” – people we can really talk to and rely on – and one in four have none at all.

Loneliness is a strong predicator of premature mortality – as strong as smoking or alcohol abuse. Social connections are a key, but underemphasized, factor in our physical and mental health. But what activists and organizers may not appreciate are the ways in which isolation also undermines the prospects for social and economic change.

In my experience, lonely people are controlled and scared more easily, and they are more inclined to accept the status quo. Isolated individuals have little reason to believe in their own agency. It is only by forming networks and communities built on solidarity that most people can make a difference.

That’s what Lisa did. She got to know her neighbors, she started organizing, and she formed a “resilience circle” to learn from and share with others.

Resilience circles ( also known as common security clubs) are groups of eight to fifteen people who come together for learning, mutual aid and social action. They began forming in the USA in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown, when the first group began in a church in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, hoping to understand what was happening to the economy.

They learned how members of the group were impacted personally by the crisis, and their meetings quickly turned into brainstorming sessions about the different ways they could help each other. As a result, the age-old practice of “mutual aid” was reborn in their congregation. Since then, hundreds of Circles have met across the country, using the free resources provided by the Resilience Circle Network.

In the current, broken economy, most of us rely on money, corporations, and technology to fulfill our needs. We depend on distant, complex systems to fill our supermarkets and our gas stations. Disruptions to these systems, which will become increasingly common because of climatic and financial instability, can be catastrophic to communities. That’s why the task of building more resilient systems is so important … //

… Not only is economic interdependence of this kind necessary to create the world we want, it also transforms many aspects of our personal lives. In the new economy, no one can afford to be isolated. Without fossil fuels, we won’t be able to construct large houses in far-flung suburbs. Many of us will have to live closer together, and do more walking, car-sharing and biking. Without Big Oil and Big Agriculture, we’ll have to collaborate to figure out new regional food and energy systems. With less reliance on technology, we might get together to make more of our own entertainment.

The new economy won’t be built a moment too soon. Our communities will continue to be challenged by the housing crisis, austerity-driven cuts to public services, job market instability, extreme weather, and more. Coping with challenges like these requires strong and resilient communities that can make their own decisions democratically and build shared wealth.

Like many others, Lisa Cook is building the solidarity-based economy in her own backyard. Next time she needs to go to the vet, she’ll have a friend to drive her there, and she’ll be able to offer something in return. The good news is that we can all follow Lisa’s lead by taking small but intentional steps to connect with those around us. Those connections can have a major impact; when taken together, they can put us on the road towards a new, fair, and sustainable economy for all.
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Links:

Swiss banks to divulge names of wealthy US tax avoiders, pay billions in fines, on Russia Today RT, August 30, 2013: About a hundred Swiss banks will avoid prosecution by divulging the names of US clients who have allegedly avoided tax by using secret accounts. The banks could face fines of up to 50 percent of the asset value if they provide full disclosure …;

US sets out deal on legal problems for Swiss banks, on Financial Times, August 30, 2013;

American dictate: Swiss Parliament split on banking secrecy law, on Russia Today RT, June 14, 2013;

(see also: Welcome to our new blog: politics for the 99%).

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