Can Avatars Change the Way We Think and Act?

Reprinted from Stanford News Service

Experiences in virtual worlds such as video games and online communities can influence our behavior in the real world, says Stanford researcher Jesse Fox. Avatars can change the way we exercise or eat, or the way we view women.

By Christine Blackman

If you saw a digital image of yourself running on a virtual treadmill, would you feel like going to the gym? Probably so, according to a Stanford study showing that personalized avatars can motivate people to exercise and eat right.

Moreover, you are more likely to imitate the behavior of an avatar in real life if it looks like you, said Jesse Fox, a doctoral candidate in the Communication Department and a researcher at the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab. In her study, she used digital photographs of participants to create personalized avatar bodies, a service some game companies offer today.

To escape to the virtual realm, you simply slip on a helmet with screens attached in front of the eyes. You are instantly immersed in a digital room and fully surrounded by a new world, as if you are inside a video game. Cameras in the lab track an infrared light on your helmet so that images on the screen move with your head.

Participants respond to avatars that look like them

In Fox’s first test, some participants put on the helmet and saw their avatar running on a treadmill. Others saw themselves loitering in the virtual room or saw a running avatar they didn’t recognize.

Fox contacted participants a day after the study and found that the people who saw their own avatar running were more likely to exercise (after they left the lab) than the people who saw someone else running or saw themselves just hanging out in the virtual room. In fact, those who watched themselves running were motivated to exercise, on average, a full hour more than the others. They ran, played soccer or worked out at the gym.

“They had imitated their avatar’s behavior,” Fox said.

In another test, some participants ran in place while watching their avatars become thinner, other participants stood still and watched their avatars become heavier, and others saw an unfamiliar avatar either slim or fatten. Participants who had witnessed their own avatar change – whether becoming thinner or heavier – exercised significantly more than those who had seen an unfamiliar avatar.

Seeing their face on an avatar was the driving factor. “If they saw a person they didn’t know, they weren’t motivated to exercise. But if they saw themselves, they exercised significantly more,” she said.

Participants also responded to personalized avatars whose bodies slimmed as they ate carrots or grew heavier as they ate candy. Male participants mimicked the avatar and ate more candy, but because of the gender differences associated with eating, female participants ate less candy.

Fox thinks personalized avatars could be used to motivate healthy behavior. For example, someone on a long-term weight loss schedule could pull out his or her cellphone and track progress by watching the avatar body slim down onscreen.

Female avatars change participants’ view of women

In a separate study, Fox tested the influence of avatars on attitudes and views toward women. She showed participants two types of female avatars: a suggestively dressed woman in revealing clothing and a conservatively dressed woman in blue jeans and a jacket. Both types of avatars demonstrated either dominant behavior such as staring at the participant or submissive behavior such as staring at the floor and cowering.

Both male and female participants exposed to the suggestive avatar showed higher rape myth acceptance when answering a questionnaire afterward. This is the view that women deserve to be raped if, for example, they wear suggestive clothing or are out alone at night. These participants were also more likely to agree with statements such as “women seek to gain power by getting control over men” and “women are too easily offended.” Even when Fox ran a similar test with women whose own faces appeared on the sexualized avatars, participants still showed higher rape myth acceptance.

Video games almost always portray women in a stereotypical manner, Fox said. “If all it takes is five minutes of exposure in an immersive virtual world to one character, we really have to ask ourselves about exposures and interactions in video games like Grand Theft Auto,” Fox said. The female characters in Grand Theft Auto are often scantily clad victims of violence.

On the other hand, the influences of body image in the virtual world may also help women. For example, an anorexic woman with a poor self-image might embody a healthy-looking avatar. She might become comfortable in her new body as she interacts with others in the virtual world and experiences acceptance and approval. Learning the benefits of being healthy may motivate her to adopt a healthy diet or seek help in real life.

After studying the influence of avatars, Fox is sure about one thing: the need for media literacy. “The bottom line is that we have to have more education in society, particularly showing students stereotypes that exist in media and why they exist.”

Fox’s research was funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Christine Blackman is a science-writing intern at the Stanford News Service.

Related information:

Virtual Human Interaction Lab

Virtual self-modeling: The effects of vicarious reinforcement and identification on exercise behaviors,” Media Psychology, Vol. 12, Issue 1

Virtual experiences, physical behaviors: The effect of presence on imitation of an eating avatar,” PRESENCE: Teleoperators & Virtual Environments, Vol. 18, Issue 4

Virtual virgins and vamps: The effects of exposure to female characters’ sexualized appearance and gaze in an immersive virtual environment,” Sex Roles, Vol. 61, Issue 3-4

Tired of Reality? Virtual Reality Training Seminar — September 7th – September 17th, 2010

Fascinating Water Talk at Wolf Creek Alliance

Nick Wilcox of NID addressed a full house at the monthly meeting this evening of the Wolf Creek Community Alliance. Nick, a water scientist and former member of the California Water Resources Control Board, gave his rapt audience a high-level overview — full of interesting anecdotes and packed with information — of water issues in California.

He began by describing California’s ten hydrologic regions, which all drain into the Delta (originally a freshwater marsh).  He described the extraordinary history of engineering projects that led to the  fragile, levee-encircled Delta we have today (fifteen feet below sea-level in some places).

“The Department of Water Resources has understood for a long time that the worst case scenario for the Delta is a significant earthquake centered there, which could collapse all the levees at once.”

“In five minutes,” he said, “the city of Los Angeles could lose its entire water supply.” He couldn’t venture a guess for how long.

For this reason, and others, he suggests that the Peripheral Canal would probably be a good idea.

He opposes the $11+ billion Water Bond on the November ballot, and he repeated the phrase I first heard from him at A.P.P.L.E.’s recent water presentation: “In California, water runs uphill toward money.”

Nick loves his subject, and he could have gone on for hours. He is so engaging that his audience could probably have also listened to and questioned him for hours.

Take heart, those of you who have not yet heard Nick Wilcox: He is one of the featured presenters on March 6th at the Nevada City Methodist Church for the conference, “Water: Sacred and Profaned.”

Water: Sacred and Profaned

Our friend and United Methodist clergywoman, Sharon Delgado, sent us the following information about an important upcoming conference at the Nevada City United Methodist Church.

Here are the details, followed by the poster.

A one-day Conference on “Water: Sacred and Profaned” will be held at the Nevada City United Methodist Church on Saturday, March 6, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Conference will focus on the growing scarcity of fresh water, water as a right, and the need to preserve water for humans and all living things. It will feature presentations, discussion, film, Native American drumming, song, and ritual.

The Conference is being organized by Earth Justice Ministries, a local faith-based nonprofit, and cosponsored by the Church and Society Committees of Nevada City and Grass Valley United Methodist Churches, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Mountains Social Action Committee, Peace and Social Justice Committee of the Grass Valley Friends Meeting, and Pax Christi of Nevada County. Conference organizers have put forward the following premise which speakers will address:

“Water is sacred, essential for all life. Used as a sacrament in various religions, it is an expression of divine love. But now, Earth’s waters are being profaned. Our premise is that water should be held in trust for the common good and not monopolized, privatized, or sold as a commodity. Access to water is a basic right of humans and all living things.”

Sharon Delgado, a United Methodist clergywoman, will speak from a perspective of water as sacred, and will present an overview of threats to water — how water is being “profaned.” She will point to people’s movements for protection of water around the world.

Keynote speaker Nancy Price is from Defending California for Life, a project of Alliance for Democracy. Ms. Price will speak about global and statewide issues related to water preservation in the context of her understanding of water as sacred. She will cover the upcoming vote on the California Water Bond, climate change and the rights of nature, and implications of the recent Supreme Court decision that strengthens corporate rights. Find out more here.

Speaker Roberto Garcia is the Board President of the local Tsi-Akim Maidu nonprofit organization. He will speak on the value of water from an Indigenous perspective, and on local issues that the Tsi-Akim Maidu are working on, including healing the waters from mercury pollution caused by past mining, their annual Calling Back the Salmon ritual, and attaining federal recognition for the tribe.

Afternoon speakers include local hydrologist Steve Baker, producer of KVMR’s series, “Living Water,” NID Board members Nick Wilcox and Nancy Webber, SYRCL Board President and CLAIM-GV Board member Heidi Hall, and David Edwards of the Nevada City Water District. They will address the themes of the conference and apply their understanding to local issues of water preservation.

Native American drumming will be provided by local group Three River Drum, with Mignon Geli on flute. Hilary Marckx, a United Church of Christ pastor and songwriter from Geyserville, will perform and lead singing. The day will include a “healing the waters” ritual and a film. Lunch will be provided.

Admission to the Conference is by voluntary donation from $0 to $25. For information go to Pre-registration is desired but not required. To register email or call 274-1320.

Science is the Poetry of Reality

Here’s the latest of John Boswell’s creations for his “Symphony of Science” series.

He explains it this way:

“The Poetry of Reality (An Anthem for Science)” is the fifth video in the Symphony of Science series. This new video differs slightly from previous ones, in that it features many more scientific thinkers than usual. It includes (in order) Michael Shermer, Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, Jill Tarter, Lawrence Krauss, Richard Feynman, Brian Greene, Stephen Hawking, Carolyn Porco, and PZ Meyers, all contributing their personal views on what science means to them and how important it is in our daily lives.

Young Man Sitting in the California Vietnam War Memorial

During a break in the rain this morning, I wandered through the California Vietnam War Memorial in Sacramento’s Capitol Park.

I was startled by the quiet intensity of this young man, who was doing nothing more than sitting on a bench in the center of the Memorial, looking thoughtful.

He was in military garb, and it had just been raining, so it was hard to distinguish the rain drops falling from his forehead from sweat.

Maybe he had just been working.

Or fighting?

Maybe he sat there to rest?

He looked like he had lost someone.

A friend?


His lithe, taught frame reminded me of all young men eighteen years old, even of myself at that age. Casual, ordinary beauty we all take for granted, until it’s gone.

So many young men lost in Vietnam.

So many young men lost in all wars.


An Odd Place to Have Breakfast This Morning

Here’s the view from the MVP Sports Bar near the State Capitol in Sacramento, where I’m sitting eating breakfast while my wife attends an Urban Greening Project grant workshop all morning. This is not the rustic world I’ve become used to in the last few years. I’m reeling from a bit of culture shock, if you want to know the truth. But, it’s nice to experience a longing for our home in the mountains. Lately I’ve wanted to kiss the ground every time we come back.

Money and Career Opportunities in Climate Change Denial

In his review of the forthcoming book, “Merchants of Doubt,”  by historians of science Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, Jeffrey Sachs reports that “today’s campaigners against action on climate change are in many cases backed by the same lobbies, individuals, and organisations that sided with the tobacco industry to discredit the science linking smoking and lung cancer.”

Later, they fought the scientific evidence that sulphur oxides from coal-fired power plants were causing “acid rain.” Then, when it was discovered that certain chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were causing the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere, the same groups launched a nasty campaign to discredit that science, too.

Later still, the group defended the tobacco giants against charges that second-hand smoke causes cancer and other diseases. And then, starting mainly in the 1980s, this same group took on the battle against climate change.

What is amazing is that, although these attacks on science have been wrong for 30 years, they still sow doubts about established facts. The truth is that there is big money backing the climate-change deniers, whether it is companies that don’t want to pay the extra costs of regulation, or free-market ideologues opposed to any government controls.

Read Sachs’ full review here.

Campaigning for State-Owned Banks

Published by Yes! Magazine on February 19, 2010

The public bank concept is gaining ground on the state level, attracting proponents across the political spectrum.

by Ellen Brown

While bank bailouts fatten Wall Street, states continue to battle the credit crisis. In the search for innovative solutions, some political candidates are proposing that states generate their own credit by setting up their own banks.

State budgets for 2010 face the largest shortfalls on record, totaling $194 billion or 28 percent of state budgets; and 2011 is expected to be worse. Unemployment has already officially hit 10 percent, and many economists expect it to rise higher. Continued high unemployment will keep state income tax receipts at low levels and increase demand for Medicaid and other essential services states provide. The existing alternatives are spending cuts or tax increases, but both will just serve to make the downturn deeper. When states cut spending, they lay off employees, cancel contracts with vendors, eliminate or lower payments to businesses and nonprofit organizations that provide direct services, and cut benefit payments to individuals. The result is a reduction in overall demand. Tax increases also remove demand, by reducing the amount of money people have to spend.

Amanda Paulson, writing in The Christian Science Monitor, quotes Arturo Pérez, fiscal analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, which released its survey of state budget situations in December: “Unless you’re North Dakota, you’re probably a state that has had some degree of difficulty or crisis involving finances. It’s the worst situation states have faced in decades, perhaps going as far back as the Great Depression in some states.”

“Unless you’re North Dakota,” that is—a state with a sizeable budget surplus, and the only state that is adding jobs when other states are losing them. A February 13 poll ranked that weather-challenged state first in the country for citizen satisfaction with their standard of living. North Dakota’s affluence has been attributed to oil, but other states with oil are in deep financial trouble. The big drop in oil and natural gas prices propelled Oklahoma into a budget gap that is 18.5 percent of its general-fund budget. California is also resource-rich, with a $2 trillion economy; yet it has a worse credit rating than Greece. So what is so special about North Dakota? The answer seems to be that it is the only state in the union that owns its own bank. It doesn’t have to rely on a recalcitrant Wall Street for credit. It makes its own.

Candidates Across the Political Spectrum Pick Up on the Public Bank Model

In the quest to find ways to divorce the well-being of their states from the financial sector, a growing number of candidates are picking up on the public bank alternative. Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Massachusetts, Idaho and California all have candidates whose platforms contain this proposed solution to the credit crisis.

A publicly-owned bank has also been proposed on the federal level. In 2008, presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich, a Democrat, and Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party candidate, advocated nationalizing the Federal Reserve (which is not actually federal but is owned by a consortium of private banks). In 2009, Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz said the government would have been better off funding a federally-owned bank than doling out trillions of dollars to private investment banks and CEOs who speculated their way into bankruptcy. Speaking at the New York Society for Ethical Culture on March 6, 2009, he said:

If we had used the $700 billion to create a new financial institution, allowed it to lever 10 to 1, which is very modest compared to the 30 to 1 that we were doing, 10 to 1 would have generated $7 trillion of new lending capacity, far in excess of what our country needs. So the issue here is not about lending. It’s really about saving the bankers. And what we confused was saving the banks versus saving the bankers and their shareholders.

Though the proposals to nationalize the Federal Reserve face powerful opponents in Congress, the public bank concept is gaining ground on the state level, attracting proponents across the political spectrum, including Democrats, Republicans and Greens. The issue transcends party lines. In North Dakota, a Republican state, the state-owned bank was inaugurated by a political party appropriately called the “Non-Partisan League.”

Oregon: The Bankers’ Bank Model

In Oregon, Bill Bradbury has included a state bank platform in his bid for governor. Bradbury, a Democrat, was formerly secretary of state and has been endorsed by former Vice President Al Gore. His website declares: “It is time to put Oregonians back to work. It is also time to declare economic sovereignty from the multi-national banks that in large part are responsible for much of our current economic crisis. We can achieve these two goals by creating our own bank.”

The Oregonian, Oregon’s largest newspaper, reported that Bradbury plans to deposit tax revenues in the public-interest bank, keeping Oregon’s money in Oregon. The bank would then lend the money to get the economy going again, targeting small and medium-sized businesses. Interest would be poured back into the state through more loans to start-up businesses, agriculture, and other key sectors. Currently, Oregon deposits hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues into large out-of-state banks, siphoning the money off from productive in-state uses. Many of these banks are the very banks that needed federal bailouts to keep from failing in 2008, after years of handing out risky mortgage loans. These banks have now grown tight-fisted with Main Street borrowers, making Bradbury’s plan to get money flowing again especially appealing to Oregonian voters.

Bradbury uses the Bank of North Dakota (BND) as his model. Like the BND, the Bank of Oregon would return a dividend to the state based on its earnings, while creating jobs and stimulating the economy through lending. The state bank would not replace private banking institutions but would partner with them, particularly with community banks, providing them with new customers and helping them provide new services. To assure the state bank’s independence from existing financial powers, Bradbury proposes that a board of directors appointed by Oregon’s Senate should govern the bank, while taking advice from an advisory committee of experts.

Idaho: Keeping State Assets in the State

In Idaho, James Stivers, a Republican candidate for the State Senate, has also proposed a state bank to fill state coffers and protect the local economy. In the first indication of a political shift among grassroots Republicans, Stivers swept a closed-ballot preference poll at the GOP District 2 Central Committee meeting in Coeur d’Alene on February 13, winning the non-binding poll 10 to zero. Stivers declares:

An important part of sovereignty is the monetary authority. Currently, banks are allowed to multiply many times over the tax receipts deposited in their institutions. This special privilege is partly responsible for the ‘sucking sound’ in our local economies, as regional banks send their assets to central banks that are playing the derivatives markets of the world.

A state bank would restore this privilege to the people in a public trust and would give us the opportunity to back our deposits with the wealth from our public lands.

Stivers sees the bank as a way to facilitate small business start-ups, end the ability of private banks to cream profits from the public treasury, protect key budget items, and stave off excessive influence from the federal government. He suggests the novel approach of expanding the role of Idaho’s Bond Bank authority into a full-fledged state bank. The current banking system, he says, causes inflation, one of the “greatest detriments to a living wage”:

Inflation is caused by the secret tax of the banking industry in which lenders use the multiplier effect to the benefit of their cronies.  This secret tax takes the form of a decline in the value of the dollar and results in higher prices. Wages never keep up with this process because its very purpose is to extract wealth from the wage earner to support the privileged classes who curry the favor of lenders. A state bank would restore this privilege to the people in a public trust and would give us the opportunity to back our deposits with the wealth from our public lands.

Illinois: Using a State-owned Bank to Fund Infrastructure

In Illinois, Green Party gubernatorial candidate Rich Whitney has other ideas for a state-owned bank. Illinois is listed by the Pew Center for the States as one of nine states confronting historic budget problems. In a recent response to the governor’s State of the State Address, Whitney said:

I am the only candidate in this race who proposes to fund public improvements, and promote economic health, without any further tax increases, through the establishment of a state bank, a progressive idea that North Dakota adopted years ago, and that has helped keep that state debt-free even in these troubled economic times. Instead of going into more and more debt, to further enrich private banks, we should be using our tax revenue to further invest in our own State and its people, for the enrichment of our own economy.

The bank would use tax revenues and pension contributions as the financial base to expand credit where it is most needed. Illinois’ bank would borrow from the Federal Reserve at the same one percent rate as commercial banks. Once the budget was balanced, Whitney’s top priorities would be to use the new money to modernize energy infrastructure and promote solar and wind power. To achieve this, property owners of land where wind and solar generators could be located would be lent money through the state bank at a minimal one percent interest rate. To secure repayment, Whitney would require utilities to buy power from the solar and wind-based producers at a premium rate. One option would then be to require part of this premium to be paid to the state bank until the loan is returned. This arrangement, says Whitney, would create a win-win situation:

The bank is paid back. The homeowner, farmer or business investing in solar or wind generation realizes immediate savings on energy costs and in many cases will go from being a net consumer to a net producer of energy. Their greater income will further stimulate the economy. The utilities will have to pay the cost of the premium rate but in the long run will realize the benefits of having a greater, stable, more diversified and decentralized energy grid, ultimately cheaper in the face of rising fossil fuel prices. As economies of scale are realized in wind and solar power generation, the costs will fall, as will the necessary premium rate. And we all benefit from the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Florida: The Commercial Bank Model

Economist and author Farid Khavari, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate in Florida, proposes a state-owned bank that would lend directly to borrowers. The Bank of North Dakota usually uses a “lead lender” such as a bank, savings and loan company, or credit union rather than doing commercial lending directly. Dr. Khavari maintains that the Bank of the State of Florida could be launched at no cost to taxpayers by using the state’s assets as the reserves for making loans, employing the same fractional reserve lending rules used by private banks today. In this way, he says, the bank could drive an “economic miracle” in Florida, instigating massive job creation, cutting costs in half or more, providing low interest financing to homeowners and businesses, and improving teacher salaries and care for veterans and the elderly, while at the same reducing taxes. He explains:

The economy is collapsing due to lack of demand. The economy needs money, but the banks are cutting credit, and then sucking all the cash out of the economy by raising interest rates to make sure no one has any cash left at the end of the month. The cost of interest is built into the cost of everything. People already work ten years of their lives just to pay interest in one form or another. The Bank of the State of Florida will end that for Floridians. And this model will work for every state. . . .

We can pay 6 percent interest on savings. Using the same fractional reserve rules as all banks, we can create $900 of new money through loans for every $100 in deposits. We can loan that $900 in the form of two percent fixed rate 15-year mortgages, for example, and the state can earn $12 every year for every $100 in deposits. That means Floridians can save tens of billions of dollars per year while the state earns billions making it possible for them.

State and local government budgets will balance without higher taxes when the BSF cuts interest costs. Six percent BSF credit cards will save people billions per month, money that stays in Florida instead of going to the big banks—and the state will make huge profits on that, too. Saving billions in interest costs will create millions of jobs without subsidies just by keeping those billions circulating in Florida. Eventually the state will earn enough to reduce and eliminate state and local taxes while every Floridian has economic security in a recession-proof Florida.

The Federal Reserve states on its website that the banking system as a whole leverages $100 in deposits into $900 in loans, but whether a single bank can do it alone has been challenged. Critics say that while banks do create money as loans, they have to replace the deposits when the checks leave the bank in order for the checks to clear. How this all works is a bit complicated and will be the subject of another article, but suffice it to say here in response that if a bank does not have the deposits to cover its outgoing checks, it borrows from the interbank lending market at very low rates, or issues commercial paper or CDs; and the state bank could do the same thing. It would not be fighting with the other banks for old deposits. Loans create new deposits, which can be borrowed back from the pool of “excess deposits” thereby created. Ninety-seven percent of the money supply has been created by commercial banks by turning loans into deposits, but that credit machine has frozen up. A state bank could get it flowing again.

California: Catching the Wave

California leads the nation in the sheer size of its budget gap. It, too, now has a gubernatorial candidate proposing to alleviate the state’s credit woes with a state-owned bank. Running on the Green Party ticket, Laura Wells is a former financial analyst who received 420,000 votes in her 2002 bid for State Controller, more than any other Green Party candidate has earned in a partisan statewide race.  Her website says that, “rather than drowning in debt and begging Wall Street for loans, California can institute a State Bank that invests in California’s infrastructure, and future generations.”

She stated in a comment, “A state bank for California is part of my platform as a candidate for the Green Party nomination for Governor. I ran for State Controller to ‘Follow the Money.’ Now, we need to Fix the Money. A state bank would keep California’s wealth in the state. Rather than invest in Wall Street (we’ve hit the wall on that one) we can invest in our infrastructure and our future generations.”

Legislative Proposals

It is not just political hopefuls who are exploring the public bank option. Therese Murray currently presides over the Massachusetts State Senate. She has introduced legislation that would study the formation of a state-owned bank with the principal aim of boosting job creation in the state. Massachusetts now faces a 9.4 percent unemployment rate. “It wouldn’t be in competition with our small community banks,” she says. “We’ve got to free up some credit, and mortgage companies and banks have got to do a better job of allowing people to redo their mortgages.”

In Virginia, Congressman Bob Marshall, a Republican, introduced a bill in January to study whether to establish a bank that was owned, run, and controlled by the state. However, the plan was tabled in committee.

On February 16, the front page of the Huffington Post featured an article on the Bank of North Dakota and the precedent it sets for financially-strapped states. Along with political candidates, the article noted that a Washington State legislator and a Vermont House committee were exploring it.

North Dakota hit the Wall Street wall in 1919, when the Bank of North Dakota was established by the state legislature specifically to free farmers and small businessmen from the clutches of out-of-state bankers. For over 90 years, it has demonstrated the success of the public banking model. Other credit-choked states are finally taking notice and devising their own variations on the theme.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Ellen Brown wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Ellen developed her research skills as an attorney practicing civil litigation in Los Angeles. In Web of Debt, her latest book, she turns those skills to an analysis of the Federal Reserve and “the money trust.” Her eleven books include Forbidden Medicine, Nature’s Pharmacy (co-authored with Dr. Lynne Walker), and The Key to Ultimate Health (co-authored with Dr. Richard Hansen). Her websites are, and

Empty Bowl Benefit a Great Success

We attended our first Empty Bowl benefit for Hospitality House yesterday evening, and it was a great success. I’m not used to counting crowds but there must have been at least 300 people at the 5:30 PM seating, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the 7 PM seating did as well.

Scores of volunteers (potters, servers, cleaners, dishwashers, hosts and hostesses, musicians) all contributed to the general sense of fellowship and good spirits.

This is Nevada County at its best, reaching deep into its pockets even in this time of severe recession, and giving generously.

And everyone went home with a beautiful bowl!

Here are ours!

The Power of Local

Published by Yes! Magazine on February 18, 2010

Local businesses are educating communities, changing economic policies, and even outperforming chain competitors.

by Jeff Milchen

The 2009 holiday season was a tough one for retail businesses. In November, their sales increased just 1.8 percent over low 2008 numbers — failing to keep pace with inflation. December was worse, with sales actually falling three tenths of a percent from 2008.

But in more than a hundred communities across North America, independent community-based businesses had a more positive story to tell. A nationwide survey of more than 1,800 independent businesses by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) found them outperforming chain competitors. Most notably, the survey found independent retailers in communities with active “Buy Independent” or “Buy Local” campaigns reported an increase in holiday sales three times stronger (up three percent) than those in cities without such campaigns (up one percent).

Given the current inflation rate of 2.7 percent, the benefit of such campaigns could mean the difference between success and failure for many store owners. “Amid the worst downturn in more than 60 years, independent businesses are succeeding by emphasizing their community roots and local ownership,” says Stacy Mitchell, who executed the survey.

Jennifer Rockne directs the American Independent Business Alliance (AMIBA), a nonprofit organization supporting 70 independent business alliances across North America. She concurs with Mitchell, saying “When executed well, these campaigns are making a huge difference for local businesses and their communities.”

The increased interest in buying local isn’t lost on store owners. In a recent survey of its members, the Portland Independent Business and Community Alliance in Maine found 84 percent of its member businesses reported its “Buy Indie / Buy Local” campaign and related activities had positively impacted their business—that number has increased with each year.

The ILSR survey respondents hail from communities of widely varying size, geography and political leanings, but share an important quality. Like Portland, they gain support from AMIBA or the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) and engage in year-round, long-term community education that goes beyond mere consumer choices to focus on local independent business.

Mitchell and Rockne view many “buy local” campaigns started by government entities or chambers of commerce with some skepticism. “Many are launched without long-term commitment and are motivated by desire to boost city sales tax revenues, not concern for local entrepreneurs or community character,” warns Mitchell, who detailed the escalating problem of “local washing” last year. The term describes campaigns by some cities, chambers of commerce, and corporate chains to define a “local” business as merely a nearby location without regard to the crucial distinction between local and corporate ownership.

Rockne questions whether such campaigns can yield measurable impact and notes a key framing issue. “While we ask people to shift more of their spending to local independents, consumer choices alone cannot halt many of our destructive environmental, social and business trends,” he says. “We need to exercise our power as citizens as well.”

Why? Countless chains benefit from tax loopholessubsidiesfederal handouts and other preferential treatment that undermines fair competition and handicaps community-based businesses. Both ILSR and AMIBA help citizens to reverse such destructive government action and advance myriad pro-local measures, from local purchasing and contracting preferences to policies that promote neighborhood-scale building and prevent big box sprawl.

AMIBA is walking the talk of democratic action as one of four organizations to launch Free Speech for People, a coalition gathering support for a constitutional amendment to overrule Citizens United v FEC. The recent Supreme Court ruling granted corporations the power to spend unlimited company funds in efforts to elect or defeat judicial and political candidates. While recognizing the primary threat to our Constitution, indie business advocates also worry because, even prior to this ruling, corporate chains had little trouble translating their wealth into political favors such as those noted above.

AMIBA’s presence in the coalition has helped curtail previously routine media references to the Roberts Court as “pro-business” and has created some surprisingly honest reporting in major business news outlets. “High Court Wallops Small Business” was the title of a recent Kiplinger’s brief on the case.

While Rockne embraces this role, she focuses on the core mission of helping people to effectively execute local campaigns. She expects to see 100 Independent Business Alliances by year’s end.

Mitchell believes the recession creates added opportunity. “Recycling capital locally by spending and investing more with local independents is powerful economic stimulus for communities,” she notes. “As the evidence builds that Buy Independent and Buy Local campaigns can actually shift consciousness and purchasing choices, we’re seeing interest and results grow even more rapidly.”

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Jeff Milchen wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Jeff is a co-founder of the American Independent Business Alliance, which hosts its second international gathering for advocates of community-based enterprise in Tampa April 8-11.


Slow Money: Bringing Money Back to Earth Interview with Woody Tasch

Is there such a thing as money that’s too fast? Slow Money founder Woody Tasch says yes, and he’s trying to slow money down by connecting investors to their local economies.

Creating Real Prosperity by Frances Moore Lappé
Critics of “go local” movements warn that buying local deprives people in the Global South of jobs that could lift them out of poverty. But are multinationals really helping?

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