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If it’s good for the earth is it really good for the economy?

By Nancy Myers We hope! And we are starting to try to make it so. For instance, there is a USA Today article, “When It Pays to Go Green.” It shows how going green is good for your personal economy and how you can make it pay even more.

There are a lot more articles and studies like this in SEHN’s True Cost Clearinghouse.  Check it out for many examples of how going green can be good for the economy—both your personal economy and the larger economy. There are even more articles on the hidden costs of the industrial growth economy of the last two centuries. We have built ourselves a truly expensive economy.

It is true that “Can I save money by going green?” is a small question, like “Will this product harm my family?”

But I want to stay with the small question for a bit before looking at the bigger one. Where the economy goes, there is a case to be made for at least one form of the small question.

What I find most interesting in this article is the suggestion that the best and greenest way to save money is to “use fewer products.”

“Sometimes the greenest option is to do as little as possible,” says a green homebuilder. Indeed.

But is using fewer products and doing as little as possible good for “the economy”? From time to time we’ve been told to look at the big picture and spend for the good of the economy.

So no, cutting back is not good for the economy as we know it. Not the consumption economy. Not the perpetual-growth-based economy. Not the economy that supports the lifestyle to which we Americans have become accustomed.

What if everybody bought, used, and built less? Well, we’re getting a taste of that now. It’s called “recession.” It hurts. Nearly 17 percent of the people in the community where I grew up are unemployed.

Here’s the thing. Elkhart County, Indiana, is built on the old economy. It’s the center of the recreational vehicle industry, which was fueled by low gas prices, and manufactured housing, which depends on a constant demand for new homes.

President Obama will be there today. I wonder what he’ll say? He’s walking a tightrope between propping up the old economy and bringing in the new—with compassion for those at the bottom who suffer most in the transition. Some say he’s already fallen off, on the side of the old.

I hope he, and we, hang on to a transformative vision because we need to build a different kind of economy. The earth-healthy economy will look different from the consumption economy. But the vision is elusive. We think we don’t know what the new economy looks like, in macro. Where will the jobs come from when the factories close their doors?

Elkhart County is trying new ideas. One idea was to make fish farms in the empty factory buildings but that didn’t turn out to be practical. Not enough jobs, for one thing, people said. We’re still looking for the superscale answers, you see.

But the new pattern is likely to be made up of many small enterprises, like the small-print fabrics the local Amish and Mennonite women favor for their quilts. One Elkhart County builder I know is doing quite well, rehabbing modest houses and selling them at modest prices, providing the initial financing himself. His business is growing (modestly), he’s hiring more people and attracting more investors, making homes that people can afford, and helping to restore crumbling neighborhoods. This is the new economy.

We all know what it looks like to use less stuff, recycle, grow our own, learn to know and buy from our neighbors, trade, and create jobs for the kid next door. That microeconomy—which feels good, usually, in the pocketbook as well as the spirit—is the beginning of a larger pattern that could very well replicate itself like the Biblical loaves and fishes.

So it is sometimes healthy to think first about what is truly good for our own health—physical, financial, psychological, spiritual—and build from there, raising our sights to the community. Small view, extended.

By the way, I’m not sure carpeting made of shredded soda bottles, which the USA Today writer recommends, is the greenest option, though it may be the cheapest. There’s one case where the view is definitely too small. It doesn’t take much imagination to think of all that soda that passed through all those bodies. All that plastic. Is that where you want your baby learning to crawl?