Opportunities and Threats for Co-op Values

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As editor, it’s a pleasure to review some of the good news contained in the magazine, and that is what “The Editor Notes” column on page 3 will do. Readers can look in the present issue or most any Cooperative Grocer edition for contributions from around the country. By design, in these pages it is co-op practitioners who continue to provide most of the instructive and inspiring examples.

Cooperatives also by their nature offer good examples of self-determination and equity. My past editorials have tried to examine cooperative mission and values in a world gone wrong -- and to evaluate how co-ops in practice are actually delivering on those values.

Why examine the larger picture and cooperative mission? It’s always good to know what one is about, and co-ops are evolving in their unity and self-definition. Further, during a period in which we all face deepening social challenges and crises, a review of purpose and identity is essential. With major changes on the horizon, we can hope for clarity of purpose as we adapt to new circumstances.

The big picture: finite resources

The global picture offers huge opportunities and threats. Once you absorb the lessons of a summary of declining resources, such as that by Richard Heinberg in the previous issue, you can’t go back. More and more people are concerned and are seeking solutions. Old assumptions are melting as if they were Arctic ice. Expectations about continuing the past American way of life are about as reliable as the recent value of investment instruments based on sub-prime mortgages.

On the other hand, without an outlook that recognizes limited resources, my alarms will seem pointless, a rant to bury in the back pages. But most people are now at least seeing the headlines and noticing the economic turndown.

Said Heinberg more recently: “Fortunately, there is at least one upside to all these downers: the collapse of the current debt-and-growth based economy may finally force a redesign of the money system and the ‘science’ of economics. But this will take a while, and it will help if there are good ideas out there being widely discussed and promoted, such as the notions of a steady-state economy or an energy-backed currency. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in finding shelter during the storm, get thee to the productive side of the economy. Grow something, or learn to make or repair something useful.”

Just as before, during the 1970s awakening that led to the founding of most of today’s food co-ops, people begin thinking differently once they see the unhealthful and unsustainable side of the mainstream food system. Today, that damage is even deeper, but so is the understanding of alternatives.

For example, biofuels that use resources that otherwise could produce food for humans are not in any way a solution to energy constraints. Rather, such production is raising food costs and may actually be making the cause of food re-localization that much more difficult to achieve.

Co-op members and the general public cannot plead ignorance about the problems. But co-ops can help members consider solutions. Following recognition of global trends in resource use and population growth and ecological damage, our best course beyond denial is to become more knowledgeable and to act more responsibly.

“It is decision time,” says Lester Brown of the Earth Policy Institute (their Plan B 3.0 is available free at www.earthpolicy.org). “Like earlier civilizations that got into environmental trouble, we have to make a choice. We can stay with business as usual and watch our economy decline and our civilization unravel, or we can adopt Plan B and be the generation that mobilizes to save civilization. Our generation will make the decision, but it will affect life on earth for all generations to come.”

I tend to put matters in a moral perspective because that is a necessary framework if one believes in a social foundation of taking responsibility. Nevertheless, as stated earlier, most of this magazine is taken up with practical examples. That is because successful cooperatives are absolutely necessary for our ability to survive the future, and the organizational guides being offered are measured in practice: “Well-done is better than well-said.”

Our preparations to build stronger and deeper cooperative services are but a foundation. I believe each of our cooperatives and the communities they help create will be strongly challenged in the years ahead. We do not know how far this society will unravel, how much or little wealth will be shared, or even how much democracy will be restored. As the consequences unfold, cooperative principles and values can be a foundation for myriad forms of enterprise and struggle.

One more time

To review, beginning with the elements of cooperative mission and core values, the key aspect of mission remains democratic ownership. This should be seen as the context for the marketing, financial management, governance, and other practical work discussed in these pages.

A key cooperative value is education. It drives our efforts to address social needs. Education efforts, including education for adaptability, will determine much of co-op success in realizing their values and expanding their enterprise.

As for democracy, that is another core value in the internationally shared “Statement of Cooperative Identity.” Here, co-ops are living examples in a dying political landscape. In the U.S. at large, democracy is not much in evidence. We are offered a media circus, and none of the mainstream national candidates has proposals concerning redirecting industrial agriculture or reducing resource consumption or reducing the war budget.

A better time to begin limiting disaster from natural resource depletion would have been during the 1970s oil shortage and subsequent recession -- not coincidentally, the period when most of today’s food co-ops were starting. Now we are in quite deep a hole. The reasons food co-ops were launched are still present, probably more than ever. And the potential for food co-op leadership is greater than ever. We had best be attending to food sources, and in particular to our local food economy.

See other articles from this issue: #135 March - April - 2008