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In Close Proximity: Invest in the future, not the past

Business as usual in our system is hell-bent on climate destruction — by pouring ever more carbon into the atmosphere, now from exotic sources (tar sands, fracking, the deep ocean, the arctic, etc.). It’s a fast way to make enormous profits. The problem is we need the climate in order to live.

But how can ordinary households resist this economic orthodoxy, carry on daily life, and remain secure? It seems a hopeless task — but it’s a certainty that nothing will happen if we don’t start somewhere. So let’s imagine how we might begin to decouple from the capitalist train (understanding that systemic change will ultimately be necessary).

At a minimum, we should support the fossil fuel divestment movement launched by 350.org and taking off on college campuses nationwide. The idea is to weaken the borrowing and spending power of the fossil fuel companies by lowering demand for their stock, thereby making production and expansion more expensive and difficult. This movement started at colleges for a good reason: Young people know that even a first-rate education won’t be worth much in a world devastated by climate change. There’s no reason divestment shouldn’t extend to municipal and institutional investment policies, too.

This can also include household finances. In order to create a different kind of economy, we need to conceive of money merely as a transactional tool, rather than an end in itself. We need money to function in this society, but what if we were motivated more by social welfare than personal wealth? That shift opens new avenues to “the good life.” Those who have money could invest it with this alternative return in mind: things like a harmonious community, businesses that employ people who enjoy their work, local organic agriculture, open space and biodiversity.

Community loan funds are nonprofit enterprises that enable people to pool their money for investment in deserving local endeavors that help create communities where satisfying lives can be led: community land trusts, CSA farms, small businesses, co-ops, renewable energy facilities, nature preserves, etc. Such projects may be unable to access money from conventional, for-profit lenders despite their value to society and functional viability. Conversely, your desire to support innovative ideas is not served by the profit-first big banks.

This is where the community loan fund comes in. Investors deposit money on sliding scale interest rates, often agreeing to receive much less than might be possible in the speculative market in return for the knowledge that their money is being used for things that will make a difference in their communities. Guided by boards of directors committed to ecological and economic justice, this money is loaned out and repaid over a manageable time. Repaid loans are available to be recycled into other worthy undertakings. Conditions of these loans may require ongoing community benefits well beyond the repayment period, such as affordability restrictions on housing or permanent conservation easements.

Community loan funds are not completely removed from the capitalist system, but they do show how an alternative might begin to flourish — with local money used as a tool to accomplish local goals, the profit incentive made secondary or eliminated by the free choice of participants.

New England and the Valley are fortunate to have some of the earliest and strongest community loan funds around, including Common Capital, based in Holyoke; the regional Cooperative Fund of New England; and Turners Falls-based Equity Trust, which coordinates small projects across the country. Google them, or read “Occupy Your Investment Future” in the Jan. 3 issue of the Valley Advocate for more information about how you can invest in the future.

Rob Crowner, Steve Randall, and Larry Ely are the writers for the Pioneer Valley Relocalization Project, and welcome your comments at pvrelocal@gmail.com.

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