Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Thoughts on Indigenous Economies

written by Ian Christopher Goodman
with guidance by Douglas Frederick Jack
and Marcus Macdonald

What follows are some ideas about how to find a surplus of time and money that can then go towards other projects. It is about accessing an indigenous economy rather than staying in our current and problematic exogenous economy. The word “indigenous” has Latin roots and means "self-generating" while “exogenous,” accordingly, means "other-generated". Currently, most of us rely on exogenous funding—money from other entities (employers, welfare, inheritances, etc.)—and when we spend the money, we don’t usually see it come back to us directly. But there are other sources of funding that are very close and very accessible to us, which we can generate ourselves, and which can return to us in very tangible ways. Just as the harnessing of energy can have equally pronounced differences—from the burning of coal found deep within the Earth to the tapping of formidable atomic energy found deep within the microscopic world—so too can various economic models.

To further explain indigenous economy, I will start first by describing our current exogenous economy. For the moment, the average Canadian must worry about his or her own livelihood. Each individual gets her own job, and then her own apartment, her own computer, her own living materials, cooks her own meals, and does her own laundry, among many other things. Most of us don't take a critical look at this system because we don't have anything else to compare it to.

What happens when four people decide to gather themselves more closely together in an attempt to generate a surplus of time and money for themselves, so that they have more time and money to spend on those actions that are valuable to them? Rather than each individual owning a computer (an expense of $4,000) maybe only one computer is needed. The gathering of four has just saved $3,000. If the example had been a car, perhaps around $30,000 could have been saved. Rather than all four individuals each taking the time to go to the grocery store, one could go to the store on behalf of the group, freeing up possibly an hour of time for each of the other individuals. These are but two examples, and small surpluses of time and money here and there can quickly accrue. The average annual income for an individual in 2005 (according to Stats Canada) was $25,000. As a gathering, these four would now be earning $100,000 a year, and would have the ability to buy some costlier items.

If the group changed from 4 to 15, the economic changes are even more pronounced. Some people could sell items (fridges or computers that were no longer needed) and give some of that money to the people who's material items would still be used. Instead of 15 people going to the grocery store individually, spending about 15 hours of work, one or two people go for the group, potentially saving up to 14 car trips. The two grocery shoppers of the group may spend more time than if they were shopping for themselves—perhaps 2 hours. Nonetheless, 11 hours has been saved for the gathering in this example, and they can now put that time into other types of work. 15 people could cook for themselves individually, freezing leftovers for the week, or a few could cook for the gathering, and freshly prepared food could be enjoyed at every meal. Rather than each individual spending, for instance, $400/month on rent or mortgage payments, the group could pool their money together and be spending $6,000/month or $72,000/year towards the ownership of a living space. The total average income of a gathering of 15 is $375,000/year. If a person decided to leave the gathering, all the money he/she sunk into rent could potentially go back to them as well.

Some groups in Canada’s past, such as pre-1955 Doukhobors, were well aware of their indigenous economic power, and created economically strong communities as a result, sometimes with gatherings of close to 100 people (an annual group income of $2.5 million). And one reason that corporations wield so much sway these days is because of powerful gatherings of individuals. Only here, the surpluses are directed in ways that the boards of directors see fit, not necessarily the employees.

A way to keep track of all the time and money people are giving towards a gathering can be time-based accounting. Each individual in the group would have a notebook and would jot down all instances of energies and expenditures given to the group. Each member of the group could take a turn at organizing this information, possibly averting the problematic situation of only one accountant who knows the numbers. At first, this kind of system may seem unnatural and cumbersome, but it would quickly reveal itself to bring recognition to people within the group. Work would not go unnoticed. It would be documented and appreciated by others in the group. People would get a chance to see how long certain jobs took, how much certain things cost, then compare differences found between each other, all the while finding more efficient ways to do things.

Douglas Jack urges people to consider official contracts when counting one's work within a gathering: "It is important to stress that this is a formal contract process where individuals contract to perform certain tasks for their community at certain rates of compensation. Different from an "exclusive" monetary economy, we "include" all labours, which can be accounted for as investment into the community, and expressed as share ownership that is influenced but not limited to market-rate equivalents for compensation. As some jobs are currently under-valued in the market, with others over-valued, more equitable market rates can be determined by the community. In this sense, individuals build share holdings and vote with these at meetings. This ties into the idea that people who have given more to the community hold more sway in decision-making. I believe that, at every stage, we have to build this system formally, so that tangible rights are represented, as participatory enterprises like Tembec have done."

Marcus Macdonald has explored the issue of accounting in relation to people's varying levels of sociability: "Counting is, in itself, an expenditure of time and energy, so we need be frugal in deploying our accountants. Many actions do not benefit from the added weight of counting. Some tallies can lead to abuse. Does a highly productive individual deserve a better livelihood than a contemplative outsider who chooses to participate only marginally in the collective good? In a village, the critical mass can assimilate some nonparticipation. Nonparticipants make all sorts of contributions that are truly beyond quantification. Strange behavior, for example, should be valued as a resource that gives inspiration and staves off stagnation, and gives us a good laugh. Finally, despite any tallies of time, effort, or experience, everyone that is accepted within the community deserves a minimal portion of the collective bounty, and should have a voice in local governance. It should be noted that even this type of system, with all its checks and balances, is still vulnerable to unfairness. It is the discerning compassion of a united family/community that can rectify the errors that accounting may miss. After all, actions are of infinite complexity; how we reward those actions will always be relatively arbitrary. More essential than accurate accounting is the final equilibrium."

Human resources accounting can also be done, cataloguing people’s assets and discovering special ways that each person can give to the group. This is often referred to as ABCD: Asset-Based Community Development, and it doesn't refer to how much money someone is bringing into the equation. It's about discovering what skills and talents people have (and everyone has some skill or talent), rather than labelling them as poor, old, handicapped, sick, etc.

Decision-making within the group would not be an overly-simplified matter of one member = one vote. People with more experience in certain matters, such as elders, would have more authority on some issues, compared to someone who was new either to the group or to a certain issue. Both-Sides-Now is a system of dialogue developed by Douglas Jack that allows individuals to have an equal amount of time speaking and being spoken to. Other principles of indigenous governance, such as multi-stakeholder associations, caucussing, and progressive ownership can be used (but won't be elaborated upon in this posting for now).

Perhaps you know of a group of individuals who are willing to pool their livelihoods, time and expenses together in order to create some substantial surpluses that can go towards the creation of important projects. These people would not necessarily have the same lifestyles or beliefs, and even their goals could be different. People could still live in apartment or housing situations that provided them with the privacy that they’ve grown accustomed to. Living together as a gathering would simply generate surpluses in time and money for everyone and each person could spend those surpluses in ways that they deemed fit. I sense, however, that people with similar lifestyles and goals would live more harmoniously together, with the barriers of privacy becoming more permeable as time progressed.

It is important to stress as well that indigenous economies would find new value and spin on exogenous relations. Again, Marcus Macdonald has eloquently elaborated on this. He says that gatherings do best when interacting with other gatherings. When groups mingle amongst each other and with world culture at large, they can be positively influenced and enriched. "Every level of community has much to gain by a lively interpenetration between villages all around the Earth."

And what can be done with the time saved while living in a gathering? Reading, exercising, dancing, thinking, cooking, praying, being with friends and family, teaching, learning, healing, meditating, growing, dreaming, gazing, loving, helping, exploring, playing, and many, many other things. Of course, this proposal I have offered is a very brief outline. And you may decide that it is worth considering in more detail. To do so, I would recommend finding a group of people who are willing to consider this indigenous economy. Once a group of, say, 15 has been established, more thought can be put into how well that group could function as a gathering, based on everyone's highly individual outer natures, and also their highly similar divine natures. They could also start to look for a living space that they could buy together.

Please feel free to leave a comment. There’s a good chance I’ll incorporate your ideas into this document. The great thing about blogs is that they can change with just a few button clicks.


Dana said...

interesting would dig the community we live in. And you would enjoy the conversations we have at our communal suppers...anytime you are in Okotoks you are more than welcome.

Ian Christopher Goodman said...

This is what Michaela said. Not having a google account, I posted it for her.

"I like this idea of pulling ourselves into a stronger community that would equal more time for leisure, play and whatever else. But it scares me at the same time. A collective can mean a place where one is accepted and cared for, but at the same time, while they seem to be naturally inclusive to some people, they can be just as naturally exclusive of others. I guess I tend to think that if we were all a part of close collectives then it would be easier to exclude and ignore others than it is now. I hope and wish that I am wrong though, because the idea and concept is a beautiful one."

After this comment, I included Marcus' comments in the blog, which I thought dealt with these issues.

Risa said...

very interesting and i know some people are very happy doing the co-housing thing, where you share some public spaces but still have private homes.. i could see that working for me. i wonder if there could be ways to create this relationship without needing to live together. could you do it with people in your neighborhood? this could resolve the weirdness of a collective in isolation. i guess i'd be interested to think about one or two aspects of this type of economic practice (maybe group cooking? i dunno) and try just getting those rolling with a group in my neighborhood, to build trust within the group and make the benefits apparent as you get the kinks out.. before moving in together ;)

Ian Christopher Goodman said...

Hey, Risa,

Yeah, I think people could take some of these ideas and apply them anywhere. Suburbia, urban neighbourhoods, you name it. I think I'd be more willing to move in with a group of friends and people who shared similar views as me before I shacked up with the random assortment of people I happen to share my current neighbourhood with. Nonetheless, creating community ties in any context is vital. One of these days, I'd like to put up a blog entry on ways to apply indigenous economy in suburbia.

I'm shying away from using the word "collective" for now because that word often seems to connote more idealism than the concept I'm promoting. The type of gathering I'm talking about is aiming at saving time and money for everyone involved. It could just so happen that these ideas offer much more sustainability and drastically change the configuration of our current economy. But that's in the long term and definitely not certain. Each gathering of 15 or 60 people would be quite different from the next gathering. The same thing happens when you compare nuclear families. So it's hard to attach too many ideals to that. I like to think of this as an apartment building, with people living in it who have different ideas on how to run things. Some apartments are private, some for collective use, all people in the building communicating with each other.

No venture is without risk, and the pioneers of any venture probably risk more than those who follow. Those who first try out indigenous economy probably require an adventurous spirit. Right now, Douglas Jack is working on a model for a non-profit, multi-stakeholder participatory incorporation. Equipped with this, along with some architectural plans, and certain community initiatives, a gathering could probably acquire a modest, unused building from the city for a relatively cheap price. The water-tower in Ste-Anne-De-Bellevue is a good example of this--it was donated to the Sustainable Development Association for a dollar or thereabouts. (see The only catch with that place is that it will probably cost millions to turn it into a living space. I'm more interested in finding something that wouldn't require a substantial investment to get it operating. Maybe a downpayment of $3,000 for each interested person, totalling $45,000 up front. Then people could each contribute $400/month ($6,000/month in total) for mortgage payments and upkeep. I think it would be great if the building in question could eventually support 60 people as the community grew.

Risa said...


some of these ideas are actually what undergird what we're trying to do with, actually. everyone contributes what they have time for on the group blog and collectively (AH! scary word) we create a highly active space.

i'd like to keep engaging the strengths of the network. if ian or any of the readers here have ideas or suggestions for how a web-based network could contribute to more real world sustainability i'd really love to read that. i'll come back here to check or you can email me - risa AT

ps- okotoks sounds amazing!! i'd love to see a city and it's boroughs be inspired by that model-

Ian Christopher Goodman said...

Here's what Chris sent me in an e-mail:


I read your blog, and I am very excited to hear you say these things. I have been thinking about this for several years now, and in Ithaca, NY where I was living for four years, I was beginning to become involved with a group of people who were beginning to move along these lines. It was just a beginning, but the seeds were planted in me, lying dormant now for a couple of years, and now perhaps are ready to sprout.

I began talking to a few friends the other day, my girlfriend and two friends from that little school I go to sometimes, and we were talking about this very thing, but in a more abstract way, and I really felt the power of it with just the four of us. It's really exciting.

I personally want to live sustainably and self-sufficiently, growing my own food, producing my own power etc.

The thing you talked about in your last posting about growing the initial 15 to accommodate 60 sparked something in me about the natural building thing that I know a little about, and that it is really inexpensive to build if you use natural materials. It just happens to be very labor intensive, but if you have a surplus of time from a communal living situation, some of this time can be turned over to this.

I really would love to start something like this going. I was traveling in Central America for a year, with the intention of finding such a place. It didn't happen, but that leads me to be here right now. I don't know if I am ready today to do this, but I will be ready soon.

I have a lot of good ideas about cottage economy, and how to develop income, or at least, how to diminish the amount of income one needs. There are many ways to produce commodities for the community, thereby eliminating the need to buy them, and then you can sell the rest to the "outside" world. Many ways, many things. Like you say Ian, EVERYONE has talents and abilities, but when we put them to use in the exogenous world, there is always someone further up the ladder taking a piece of us. I think we should become the person up the ladder taking a piece of us, or rather, eliminate that person.

My talents have a lot to do with food, art/aesthetics, healing, building, gardening and composting. When I think of all the energy I have to give to the right situation, it astounds me. I just spent two months trying to dig a poorly run cafe out of the ground, working 45-50 hours per week, thinking about it a lot, giving much of myself. In the end little changed, except that for two months the cafe ran smoother. I know how much I can give and I want to give it to a place where it will not be squandered, where it will accumulate and grow and be built upon by others.

So that's my little two cents. But wait just a little more. Imagine this little commonunity (that's a typo, but I think I like it) getting involved in community building projects where the wealth of the community grows by the participation of the members such as by landscaping, permaculture, gardening, building new buildings and structures, little ponds, walkways, fruit trees... The "monetary" wealth increases just by the saved time of the members being re-invested into the community. That's what I see. And the more efficient things become, the more time there is to re-invest, and then the more efficiently things will run. Maybe this model is naive, and that things won't cycle towards efficiency, but even so, the re-investment will create not just monetary gains, but lifestyle increases as well, such as care-taking each other's children, home schooling our children, creating a beautiful way of harmonious life with nature and ourselves.

That is what excites me. I feel like I need to make the plunge. I have fears, though, about getting involved with the "right" people, people who share a similar vision as I do, not just physically, but spiritually, of getting "stuck" in a wrong situation, of investing my time and efforts for nothing. I don't really believe that this is possible (I mean that whatever the situation is, I will learn and grow and come out the other side better for having lived it), but the fear is still there.

Well, I hope to see this starting to happen more and more in the near future.

Oh, an idea about the neighborhood thing, look into the City Repair Project. This is a very inspiring creation happening in Portland, Oregon.

I think that one of the things we can do now is food co-ops. People can form their own food co-op with their friends or neighbors, create an account with local organic, or conventional, farms, food delivery services, dry goods wholesalers, etc. Having been the manager for an organic cafe, I know a lot about these options, so people can feel free to contact me if you have any questions about how or where to go. These wholesalers usually have minimum orders. One dry goods wholesaler (everything from soy milk to oats to coffee to nuts to granola to toothpaste, etc.), Co-op D'Allentour, has a minimum of $350, another Mille et Une Saisons is about the same. And with 10 people this isn't much at all. A local fruits and vegetable wholesaler, Gaetan Bono, has a minimum $500 order for free delivery ($35 deliver fee otherwise), but someone can always just go there, it's at Marche Centrale [$8 boxes of organic mangoes (8-12 per box), $18 dollar boxes of organic avocados (16-24 per box), all kinds of organic vegetables for $1 per pound, usually, $1 per head of organic lettuce (case of 24 $22)], anyway, you get the picture. Also, there are local farms that deliver (probably not so much during the winter, but sometimes that have winter CSA's, and CSA's are always cheaper when you order the big basket, just imagine ordering the big basket for 15 people, or 30, or 60. Imagine the savings for you, the environment, the benefits for the farm, etc.) Ferme de Bullion is the one we used at L'Utopik, and the minimum order is $200 delivery on Thursdays. There's a local organic producer of tofu and soy products, Horium Foods, with dollar twenty per pound tofu, $4.50 gallons of soy milk, no preservatives or sugar added, and they deliver $50 orders (I'm not so keen on soy products myself, but you may be).

There are a lot of things we can do together without living together. An idea I had back in Ithaca was a communal tool workshop, wood shop space where people would pay a one time membership fee based on the total cost of the tools involved, plus an annual maintenance fee. And hopefully in this situation, some handy person will come along who can maintenance the tools for their fees, or the co-op could just pay someone.

There are many ways we can share things if we start thinking about it. Community art studios that operate under the same principle. Of course it is left for us to discover what the actual rates need to be to make these ideas functional. A friend just told me about a car collective, whose name I can't remember right now, that you sign up for under three different monetary tiers. The rates are phenomenal, and include gas and insurance. For the, I think it's, $500 dollars a year plan, the rate is $2 per hour (including gas and insurance!!!), or a max per day of 8 or 12$. I need to double check the prices, though. Maybe it's Communauto.

That's enough for now,