Warming to the Tasks at Hand

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I recently read Heat, by George Monbiot, an outstanding British journalist who explores what it will take for modern society to reduce its carbon emissions to a fraction of present levels within about 20 years. The book is based in research and thinking that few U.S. citizens are hearing about. Once you read it, however, I doubt you will be able to think the same about any aspect of your life and business.

You want to do the right thing, yet there are multiple choices and a murky future. The economy is in decline, co-ops are pressed to adapt to more competition. Will there be more war? Yes. Is the Constitution being further eroded? Yes. And what are we doing about global warming?

My challenge as an editor is to balance practical points with pointed warnings. But warnings are difficult because they question people’s assumptions and confidence. Yet disasters already are occurring, and some warnings soon will be redundant. Disaster preparation and relief are recurring themes in these pages. I no longer feel confident of a predictable future, much less an indefinite one. Still, I feel a need to describe what I see while I have the opportunity.

Warnings are made more difficult by the depth of confusion and denial in the U.S. over basic political and environmental conditions. (For an incisive summary of how the mainstream media hides the urgency of global warming, see “The Climate Change Gap” in Extra! July/August 2007, and other media critiques at www.fair.org.) That confusion matters a great deal, since political action is necessary for our social survival. As for tactics, exemplary action is always recommended, even in extreme conditions, perhaps especially in extreme conditions: “If not me, who? If not now, when?” But cooperative leaders, who tend to favor exemplary action over the hard work of building coalitions, must recognize that collective action and public policy are essential in this deep social crisis.

Where we are

Food cooperatives themselves manifest exemplary action in an essential direction. They are a balance of the practical—“Real food. Real connections.”—with a deeper message: “Go co-op!” The latter statement supports the message in my recent columns: It’s all about the future.

Reports in CG detail continuing growth and increasing collaboration among food cooperatives. The organic and local foods market is stronger than ever. Resource limits increasingly favor the local over long-distance organic, and co-ops have experience and a commitment to local sourcing. Yet co-ops’ market share is shrinking by contrast with larger competitors, and they need a stronger expansion strategy in response.

After years of foundation building, food cooperatives’ national body appears positioned to develop a growth strategy aimed at opening additional stores. As discussed, a proven form of growth is opening more stores within existing co-ops. An under-recognized path toward that end is allying with and converting some of the 10,000 private retailers that are not part of a major chain. The new co-op statutes allowing nonmember investors could provide a good fit for protecting the investment of private owners in such co-op conversion scenarios.

Co-ops do have demonstrated ability to capitalize expansion from within established cooperatives, and there are a handful of good examples of acquiring existing additional stores. However, opportunities for expansion of existing cooperatives are not necessarily increasing. Most co-ops are based on a fully employed middle-income population, but that group is being economically squeezed and is on a downward slide.

Despite the growth of social conditions that historically have led to cooperative formation, food co-ops may need to rethink some assumptions if they want to accelerate store development. Those supportive conditions include:

  • unmet consumer needs in underserved or niche markets (how most food co-ops began; childcare co-ops; credit unions);
  • expense-reduction needs among small and independent businesses in mature markets (food co-ops attempting to form a virtual chain; purchasing co-ops);
  • unmet needs in declining markets (food
    co-ops in distressed communities and food deserts; worker buy-outs).

Encouragingly, a recent national meeting of food co-op managers generated statements advocating reinvestment of existing national surplus in system-wide development rather than simply rebating it to member co-ops. But while today’s food co-ops are rapidly building a virtual chain (b), they are not well positioned to ensure the success of new cooperative enterprise (a), needing more depth in both capitalization and professional development resources. Nor are they ready for a scenario that I believe will become more frequent ©, distressed neighborhoods and cities that are attempting to ensure greater food security for themselves.

Where we’re going

As recent reports in this magazine have explored, most food cooperatives are thriving, and so is their national organization. Yet the overall market is tightening, both with regard to competition and with regard to the income prospects of U.S. residents. There already are many signs of deep economic problems—including, especially, threats from growing resource shortages and the eventual inability of the U.S. to make good on its debt. The entire economy is likely on a long-term decline, uneven but inexorable as resources are depleted and global warming wreaks havoc.

The biggest problem of all that this country faces may be political. We are blocked by the unwillingness of leaders—including elected officials, civil servants, industry executives, cooperative leaders also—to boldly say that we cannot go on living in the manner we are used to.

What’s the alternative? Don’t wait for someone else’s leadership, and don’t wait for consensus. Many of our society’s problems may never be given a common framework for discussion. This is true in part because of the corporate powers that now own mainstream media as well as the avenues of influence in government, agents which have devoted themselves for many years to obscuring the damage being done.

Yet we have, according to most climate scientists, only 10 to 20 years in which to drastically slow the buildup of atmospheric carbon, after which the climatic impacts and system feedback will likely spin out of control. Beyond that point you can kiss goodbye any optimistic predictions about human society.

This is not typically what is discussed every day in the news and in the neighborhood. Nevertheless, because of the enormous impact of global warming and climate disruption, practices at all levels are going to have to change, whether or not we are ready. And we must begin to prepare—there is no rational way around this necessity.

Along with these universal challenges, many neighborhoods and communities, including some in which food cooperatives are located, will be stressed by factors such as business closings and localized disasters. Overall, food co-ops will be challenged to return to their values, to learn from their roots as social movements, and to improve their ability to serve low- and moderate-income populations.

Ethanol spells profits and hunger

“Deathanol” would be a better term for the conversion of corn into fuel, a process with little or no energy gain or reduction of carbon emissions, but one that receives huge public subsidies—not exactly a “free market” response to threats to our oil gluttony. The resulting use of crops has set off a dramatic inflation of commodity prices for corn, wheat, and soy. To say that this will mean increasingly expensive meat and dairy and many other foods is only the beginning. Additional consequences will be painful and ugly. Shortages and high prices also will mean accelerated hunger and starvation across a globe that is dependent on grain for feeding people. Already, international grain stores are at their lowest in decades. Sources ranging from Fidel Castro to neo-liberals at The Economist have condemned the financial and human costs of ethanol subsidies, yet that is how government presently operates in the U.S.: “In a hole? Dig deeper.”

Reflecting an unfounded faith in substitute fuels and a failure to promote conservation, what we are witnessing is a corrupt and outrageous diversion of resources to maintain highway driving and the profits of ADM and Cargill, along with that of the oil companies. Concerning transportation, the problem of carbon emissions from excessive U.S. energy consumption will not be adequately addressed by burning recycled corn or food grease, nor by the trivial impact of switching to hybrid cars. Car travel needs to be reduced, and biofuels need to be localized.

Concerning food, billions of dollars supporting destructive commodity production are being extended once again in the Farm Bill—already approved in the House of Representatives version. The Senate is likely to maintain these politically and morally bankrupt subsidies, making many placatory promises while allocating only a few million dollars for support of conservation practices. Now agribusiness is being given additional profits from public monies for ethanol production, with subsidies of up to $1.50 per gallon for fuel that yields fewer miles per gallon than petroleum and doesn’t reduce carbon emissions much, if at all.

Global warming, global police

Carbon emissions? Think carbon footprint and carbon rations—because that’s what’s coming. Whether there is much remaining democracy will determine if the burden of reducing emissions is fairly apportioned. The entire world is faced with changing its practices and its expectations, and international cooperation must be greatly enhanced as well. But when have the holders of wealth and power ever given it up voluntarily?

Denial will simply increase the pain of the inevitable reckoning, yet U.S. rulers are maintaining that outlook. Why? Probably not because they are ignorant. No doubt many civil servants are waiting out what they hope is a temporary era of extreme corruption, thinking they will be able to do better work under another administration. But the rulers are making an extreme power grab, one that will not be that easily reversed.

The people continuously in power are looking ahead and very likely do see the energy crunch. In their stated responses to global warming and the energy crisis, federal officials have offered obfuscation (no mandatory carbon limits) and denial of the problems, vacuous rhetoric (money for research on a hydrogen economy), and corrupted alternative fuels (ethanol). But by their principal long-standing practices they have made clear their commitment to controlling fossil fuel resources. This commitment means they intend to maintain the resource-based empire centered in the U.S. and supported by its military bases at more than a thousand locations around the globe.

The prospective economics of the U.S. empire look steadily weaker. But its proponents have a grip on power here, and sharing the wealth is not high on their agenda, to say the least. The corporate lords have friends throughout the halls of government, and their interests will be protected and extended at the price of war or even the appearance of democracy. The world’s biggest institutional machine maintains its funding and has all the rules in place needed to suppress democratic threats, including if necessary declaring martial law and commanding the domestic use of federal troops. Leading elements continue to consider launching a catastrophic attack on Iran that would mark an end to possibilities for improvement in international relations.

Rather than regarding our future as a common one, these people are protected. They are adapting to a world in breakdown, as Naomi Klein has recently written concerning “disaster capitalism,” so that private corporations end up with more of the nation’s funds and more of the assets. They can orchestrate fear and fraud with great skill. They have black budgets and are not accountable. But what they can’t be certain of is what U.S. residents will do when they realize how much trouble we are in and how much the U.S. government has lied to them.

Back to basics

Doesn’t sound like the world outside your window today, with the usual traffic and appearance of a busy day, does it? But when you pause to look behind appearances, certain trends are clear:

  • The U.S. economy is shaky, major assets are for sale, citizen confidence is sinking.
  • Global warming is real and demands action at all levels, and most citizens are concerned.
  • Price inflation in food along with crop failures will lead to shortages and widespread hunger.
  • Demand for oil is keeping it as expensive as ever, and substitute energy sources are problematic or not yet available.
  • The U.S. is committed to war and empire, and democracy here is greatly diminished yet greatly needed.
  • There is little strong public leadership around these issues, though many are trying to make their voices heard.

In this context, let’s say for the moment that the prospect of economic decline is the chief reason food co-ops should be re-examining their strategy and thoughts about the future. Today, with healthy balance sheets and increasing rewards from national collaboration, food cooperatives have a tremendous opportunity to begin a new era of expansion.

Included in those opportunities are scenarios that are our own responses to social problems. Maybe we can sponsor a new report on “disaster cooperativism.” Co-ops will be needed both in declining suburbs and in struggling urban neighborhoods. We’ll probably need to learn more about making alliances with developers, both nonprofit and for-profit. And we’ll want to revisit the historical lessons from prior attempts to establish co-op development programs.

To repeat from last time: Will your cooperative’s marketing vision address scarcity and conservation? Will it address the needs of people in declining circumstances? These difficult questions touch on energy options and global warming challenges inherent in maintaining the food supply and in maintaining most other aspects of social life. They ask what responses we will make to a world of diminishing resources.

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Dave Gutknecht is editor of Cooperative Grocer ([email protected]).

See other articles from this issue: #133 November - December - 2007