For Today, For Our Future

Education, as noted in my previous editorial, is key to sustaining a leading position in our competitive market -- education supported by example and an inspiring vision. Cooperatives, as harbingers of a better world, are mandated to promote education, and this has been incorporated in international cooperative principles since their inception in the nineteenth century. Consumer co-ops have a particularly good position from which to reach thousands of citizens with ideas and examples. Food co-ops work in a field with obvious ties to larger issues affecting the entire society and a field allowing practical responses to urgent problems.

For years, our generation of food co-ops was riven by debates over political activism and its balance with good service and professional management. Many of these organizations have come a long way toward realizing the essentials of inclusiveness and sound business practices. Cooperative Grocer No. 1 featured New Pioneer Co-op under the heading, "Successful by Working on the Basics," and now every edition gives evidence of such success and improved professional resources and cooperation among co-ops.

Meanwhile, the dangers and changes in the larger environment that drove co-op formation have not diminished at all, and with stronger cooperatives we are in a better position than ever to address those problems. Our education efforts start with food and health, and in their better versions extend to the entire food system and the health of the world at large. (An especially fine statement, "Why Earth Day Still Matters," by Lisa Malmarowski, recently appeared in Outpost Co-op's member publication.)

Most involvement in change begins with recognition that one's own health, happiness, and security are threatened. That recognition must be nurtured and extended to the national and global community and to the natural environment that makes our very existence possible. But to avoid generating a feeling of being overwhelmed by an alarming global picture, co-op education can again and again bring the lessons back to what can be done today, in the local community and home. Most of the daily thoughts and acts of most citizens are taken up with what is at hand and immediate. "Think globally, act locally" is a cliche -- what starts as insight but becomes an obstacle to thought -- and should be reversed to state, "Think locally, act globally."

The oceans are rising, destructive storms are increasing, more and more species are being exterminated. Despite the worsening example of much of the U.S. and multinational ruling circles, stuck in denial and self-serving profiteering, there is little doubt that we face the greatest crisis that the world community has yet seen. At the same time, inspiring examples of sustainability and positive solidarity are available. (Just one example: farms that use livestock manure to create biogas and generate electricity for the entire operation, leaving excess power for sale to the utility and compost for addition to the soil.)

From dense cities to remote villages, we are tied together in one human web. Many citizens of the world see U.S. policies as arrogant and dangerous. Even some segments of U.S. powerful institutions now understand that a watershed crisis is upon us. Yet dinosaur-like denial and resistance continues, in such familiar forms as massive subsidies for destructive agricultural and military practices, our two largest federal departments; refusal to move away from excessive use of resources; and attacks on movements for change and democracy. (My views are not extreme, just non-mainstream. See, for example, www.theheatisonline.com.)

Again, food co-ops -- if they are well managed and well capitalized -- are positioned to address many of these urgent issues and to help promote positive practice and examples. Co-ops can also articulate the principles upon which a better world can be constructed. In previous columns, I have attempted to contribute to this discussion by reiterating the notion that as humans and citizens our fundamental purpose, why we are here, is to take care of one another and to share the wealth. Extending that to future generations and to the larger environment, we can educate ourselves, our members, and customers about taking care of our communities, the soil, water, and air, and all their inhabitants.

It can be difficult to grasp and accommodate the scope of these issues. But that is less so because of intrinsically obscure or overwhelming aspects and more so because people lack a feeling of context. Yet not to realize that we are all connected, that everything we do makes a difference, is to be spiritually dead. Education challenges are made more difficult by a perversely individualistic culture and by institutional powers that encourage a me-first attitude. Myopia is probably a universal tendency, but our society revels in it.

The path to broader and deeper understanding can be seen in the evolution of organics, which many co-ops pioneered in promoting and which continues to be a leading edge of practice and education. Frequently starting from a desire for personal health and a somewhat misplaced consumer expectation of "pure" food, organics increasingly is understood more wholistically as a method of production, a process, an approach to improvement of the soil and sustainability.

In parallel fashion, food co-op education can lead from individual concerns to the global environment and back again -- back to sustainable economics and the opportunities for democracy -- back to the future, which is now.

Along with the inspiration and solidarity experienced in excellent organizations, we can look to our friends, to trees and birds, to music. Lines I keep singing to myself these days:

We gotta get to a higher place,
And I hope we all arrive together.
We gotta get to a higher place,
If we wanna survive the weather.

See other articles from this issue: #094 May - June - 2001