Tompkins Weekly, May 2, 2011.  By Eric Banford.

A full house gathered at Cinemapolis on April 27th for the film “The Economics of Happiness,” a project of the International Society for Ecology and Culture (ISEC). The film delves into the current world economy, the general unhappiness it spawns, and potential solutions being explored around the world. Following the film, Sustainable Tompkins hosted a panel discussion with local community leaders who talked about self-provisioning, gardens, sharing, labor, cooperatives, and local investment as vehicles for a more sustainable and happy local economy.

Kristen Elizabeth Steele, who grew up in Ithaca and now works with ISEC, introduced the film. “We keep coming back to the psychological cost of globalization. We’re familiar with the environmental and economic costs, but it’s important to realize that the economic system that we live under actually can foster a sense of well-being, or it can completely undermine it. That is the core message of the film. Our goals is to bring together thriving local initiatives like the one’s represented here, to come together, and to use this momentum to create policy change. Without that overarching supportive structure, these local initiatives will only be stop-gap measures.” She ended by emphasizing that, “We really want to change the world here,” to much applause from the audience.

The film begins by laying out a bleak examples of how globalization has impacted cultures around the world, and how unhappy those impacted now are. Bill McKibben notes that the number of Americans who say “yes I am very happy with my life” peaked in 1956, and goes slowly but steadily downhill ever since. So what is it that makes us truly happy? And how do we change our economy to support it? The film delves into concrete examples and hopeful visions of a more “resilient, sustainable and fair economy.”

Tompkins County boasts many alternative economic, social and justice organizations, including Whole Community Project, Local First Ithaca, Ithaca Freecycle, Ithaca Freeskool, Ithaca Health Alliance, Groundswell and other free or low cost options for fulfilling needs. Share Tompkins has been hosting monthly swaps and “Really, Really Free Markets”, and co-founder Shira Golding said they have received email from all over the US and as far away as the UK, asking how to start similar ventures.

During the panel discussion, Jemila Sequeira of Whole Community Project stressed the fact that “self-provisioning” is something low income families are already doing. “This is nothing new. This is something that has been practiced for a long time. Unfortunately, it has been stigmatized and not valued. People in this situation have a lot to teach us, and can be real solid role models. We have to honor what others have had to do out of necessity.”

Katrina Baxter of Gardens for Humanity talked about how community gardens have been started around Ithaca. There are now six community gardens, and they host work days and fund raisers to support their program.

Shira Golding and McKenzie Jones-Rounds of Share Tompkins talked about real life swap examples fostered through swap meets. Jones-Round swapped for a cello that wasn’t being used, in exchange for a year of guitar lessons. She shared that “it’s not just about the stuff we keep out of the waste stream or save money on, it’s also about instilling in the kids in the community the value of who they are and what it means to be part of something bigger than themselves. It’s good to be someplace where people aren’t just willing to share their things, but they share themselves too. We are building a resilient, self-reliant, non-monetary based economy through this.”

Next was Jan Rhodes Norman of Local First Ithaca, a group that brings people, businesses, and organizations together to create a successful local economy. She talked about voting with your dollars to build a living, local economy. Local First helps promote local businesses, while advocating for policy changes that will help at the local level. “Without change in policy, we are going to be constantly thwarted it what we are doing.”

Linda Holzbaur of the Tompkins County Workers Center remarked that “One of the things that I liked about the film was that it made clear that we need sustainability to not just look at environmental justice, but at social, cultural and economic justice. You can’t have one without the others.” She then outlined efforts to implement a living wage for workers everywhere.

Jackie Mouillesseaux-Grube of Tompkins Workforce outlined local green jobs and training programs, and the need to employ local contractors to support these jobs. Joe Marraffino of the Democracy at Work Network talked about worker cooperatives and their high rate of worker satisfaction, noting “satisfaction comes from being rooted in community”. And lastly, Fred Schoeps talked about local green investing, and had some interesting questions to get the crowd thinking about their consumption and investing habits.

A good summary point made in the film came from Dr Mohau Pheko, Coordinator for African Gender and Trade Network. She says, “We’ve got to begin localizing our politics, localizing our economies, localizing our spirits, even our spiritual natures.” Ithaca appears on the path to doing all of these things, and more.