Thoughts on how “alternative institutions” could revamp American society.
Using his own experience of starting a car-sharing program as a leaping-off point, Metcalf takes readers back to the years prior to the American Revolution to begin his analysis of how and why alternative institutions are once again needed in the United States. Although the narrative is textbook-dry—he outlines what he plans to examine, covers that material in depth, and then sums it all up—Metcalf does offer solid examples of cycles of change in this country. From the early days of the country, he studies worker co-ops, analyzes “mission-driven investments and progressive consumer demand,” and discusses companies that demonstrate his points. The author looks at the pros and cons of land trusts, particularly the Champlain Housing Trust in Vermont, and explores other housing situations. Metcalf notes that money is usually the limiting factor in community and conservation land trusts, but they also require like-minded people who are more interested in maintaining the land for generations rather than generating short-term profit through privately owned property. The author also features agricultural cooperatives and provides a short history of sharecropping as well as a study of the emergence of the Farmers’ Alliance in 1879, the Seattle General Strike of 1919, and the advent of the sustainable food movement. Metcalf uses these historical markers to illustrate some of the key components of alternative institutions: they should solve the immediate problems people face in their daily lives; they should provide a direct route for political organizing; and they should network with one another, creating a larger pool of similarly minded members. Although alternative institutions can’t fix everything, Metcalf believes they can help transform society, and many readers may agree.
The author is not much of a prose stylist, but he gives enough historical evidence to back the theory that political and social change are in the hands of activists willing to make a stand against conventional practices.