Millennium Village USA?
April 18, 2011, 12:50 am
Filed under: Ideas

The Millennium Villages project is a cool idea — coordinate development interventions in African villages to reach a tipping point beyond which development becomes self-sustaining, removing any excuses that a development intervention would have worked if only some other factor had been present, if some other chicken had laid some other egg, prior to your figurative development chicken laying its egg, so those eggs could grow up to make sweet economic love. Are you following me?

It doesn’t really matter, because I don’t want to talk about the Millennium Villages anyhow. I want to talk about the US of A. And maybe Europe and China, but mainly the US of A because that’s what I (sorta) know. We have a problem, right — that whole environmental footprint, living beyond our means thing, whereby we use more water, mineral, soil, and energy resources (not to mention our personal time and energy) than the earth can continue to provide, particularly as the world’s population grows. And, of course, this is not our only problem. We also have poverty in the US, and those of us who are not poor still may have issues of health and happiness. Our attempts at solutions so far have been piecemeal, but what if we escalate the effort to the level of Project with a capital P?

Taking our own medicine

Now you see where I’m going with this — why not turn the Millennium Villages model back on ourselves? Instead of generously exporting the wisdom we’ve acquired over 200 years as a country, why not ask a little wisdom in exchange from Cameroon and Kenya, Japan and Bhutan, Native Americans and the Amish? What do they do well in terms of living happily at low (environmental and social) cost?

Corporations (for better or worse) occasionally make all employees re-apply for their jobs. Let’s make consumer goods re-apply for our favor. Television, you wanna be in my life? Let’s talk about the costs and benefits. Coffee, don’t go anywhere, you’re next. What do we really need to be happy and productive and healthy? Do we need MRIs and Shakira? [Maybe on the former, most definitely on the latter.] But as I visit the official catalog of 1000 Awesome Things, I notice that a good many of them are not things that require consumption or environmental degradation or human rights abuses. So we can have our awesomeness and reduce our (environmental and social) cost. [And maybe we can even go a step further and ask ourselves whether the corporations we work for and are shareholders of should be exporting our consumption-obsessed failed model to other countries? Marketers do, after all, create new “needs” as much as (or more than) they meet pre-existing needs.]

How do we get there?

Systems continue until they’re replaced. We can’t just say “consumption is bad, so stop” — partially because consumption in and of itself is not “bad” and partially because people don’t feel like they really have a choice to stop driving or eating McDonald’s or buying products made by mistreated workers or watching television or working for a company that sells useless products (but pays the bills). How else would they get around? How else could they afford to feed and clothe their kids? What else would they do to relax? So if we’re going to come up with alternatives, going all in Millennium Village style could be more productive than piecemeal solutions.

Environmentally, at least, markets could help. But we don’t have to even get all economics complicated — think of it as Weight Watchers. You’ve got only so many calories to spend, so is it gonna be an extra slice of lasagna or the tiramisu? Let’s set a limit, say at the consumption rate supportable by one earth, and then bargain.  I used too much water this month but not so much energy, and you’re vice versa — I’ll trade you my energy for your water.

Measurement and labeling efforts such as Wal-mart’s sustainability coalition, or Tesco’s carbon labeling in the UK, paired with such platforms as Good Guide’s smart phone app (or maybe even something linked to your credit card and/or shopper’s reward card) could go a long way to making such a system feasible, at least technically if not politically.

But that’s still only one aspect of the Project. What about poverty / inequality? [I’ll trade you my human trafficking for your mortgage crisis?] What about education? Balancing water and energy aren’t going to mean that kids are eating better in school and out, and going home to families who have the time and energy to provide support rather than asking them to babysit the younger siblings or get a job. Social structures are needed for a sustainable society as well — what can we learn about these from our past and from other societies?

So …?

What do y’all think? How could we structure something like this? Would it have to be physically apart from our current cities, or could this be a community within a community? How could enforcement work? Are you aware of people (besides the Amish) who are currently living below their means by choice (rather than by dictate of poverty)? How can we incorporate harder to measure aspects of social justice?


As an interesting parallel to the above idea, Grameen Bank — the microfinance sensation which originated in Bangladesh — has setup shop in the US (under the name Grameen America).


China — with the support of international partners such as Arup and Bill McDonough — had an eco-city plan, but my web search seems to only be pulling up news on them as (not) recent as 2006.


1 Comment so far
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Also relevant from the conflict resolution book mentioned in my previous comment: “[Systems] theory holds that, although social systems ‘learn’ through their members who individually adjust their world views according to experience, sociocultural systems also have underlying assumptions which make the system as a whole more resistant to change than their individual members.” To me that says taking people out of their normal context can ease change. To the author, another way to “produce social learning” is to use a participative design process.

Comment by essareye

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