Co-ops and the Three R's

If each day is indeed Earth Day, we all must learn and relearn the new "Three Rs": reduce, reuse, recycle.

Just these three words by themselves are worth repeating, if only to make clarifying distinctions and help counter the tendency to neglect the first part: reducing consumption actually being the most important step in changing unsustainable social patterns. Those patterns involve maldistribution of resources, providing poverty for some, enormous production and waste for others, and poison for all.

Something else often missing in most of what I see and hear about sustainable social practices, missing even from the essential message of the Three R's, is the notion that the responsibility to establish such practices does not rest only or even primarily with the individual. Of course we must all do our part, and the profound nature of the contemporary crisis and opportunity can be seen in its challenge to all of us, at all levels from the international to the individual. We need also to point out the institutional and corporate powers foisting unsound energy, products, and services upon us and to point out the opportunities for consumers and workers to organize and improve their circumstances.

People in co-ops, whose organizations were founded on a vision of the common good, should find the present social environment increasingly supportive of that vision. Cooperatives at their best manifest desires for production that sustains rather than poisons natural resources and local economies, and desires for a means of distribution and consumer sales that supports such production. Cooperative businesses also are one of the best ways to sustain or institutionalize such aspirations, going beyond celebration and protest. And cooperative ownership poses a necessary alternative to a way of doing business, indeed a way of life, that is based fundamentally in private ownership of resources (natural, financial, human) and in a drive for private advantage -- gained, if necessary, at the expense of other people and of those resources.

Most food co-ops having learned, whether long ago or more recently, that profitability is a desirable goal, we can go on to assert and demonstrate that a crucial distinction to be made is who owns and controls the capital and profits. We need to say this loudly and clearly and to be clear and proud about our cooperative mission, at the same time that we are active and take leadership among a wide array of businesses, individuals, and social and economic agents involved in efforts to remake a safer more sustainable society.

What is our vision, and what is it that cooperatives will help us attain? That, of course, is a big question, what could be called the millenial question, and I have only a few lines and a few breaths left. Recently, however, I arrived at an interesting statement of what we are about by toying with the first part of a definition of organics in a statement offered by a leading organization in that industry, OFPANA:

Organic farm management relies on methods that replenish and maintain soil fertility by providing optimal conditions for soil biological activity and that reduce the use of off-farm chemical inputs and reliance on non-renewable resources.

Something close to this statement describes what we propose in the larger sense:

Organic social management relies on methods that replenish and maintain cultural fertility by providing optimal conditions for social and biological activity and that reduce the use of long distance energy inputs and reliance on non-renewable resources.

What are co-ops doing to promote the Three Rs as well as to articulate and contribute to that necessary larger vision? We'll have much more on that in future editions.

See other articles from this issue: #028 May - June - 1990