As Always, the Future Is Now

Food co-ops have been key to reshaping the food economy in North America. They share credit for visible progress toward establishing sustainable production and generating public support for new directions. Co-ops are growing strongly in owners and sales, and they are expanding their impact by supporting more local growers, creating more jobs, and sponsoring more public education.

All these efforts are but a beginning. That’s said not only because organic/sustainable production is still only a small percent of total food production and dollars; in addition, present efforts can only be a beginning if one looks at the global picture of increasing warming, storms, water shortages, and fuel costs.

Education around these looming conditions is especially urgent in the United States, where the mainstream conversation is stultifying and an unaccountable ruling group is fixated on war-making and profiteering. Our best response to their official messages, whether lofty promises or the drumbeat of fear, is doubt or disbelief.

Neither sustainable agriculture nor alternative energy nor medical care nor Gulf Coast rebuilding will be funded adequately until we shrink the U.S. weapons industry and the drivers for global dominance. It appears that only major disruption will divert these powerful actors—climate change for certain, perhaps also fiscal and political upheaval. While much of the rest of the world is urging united environmental action, here the crisis is disguised while we careen toward a tipping point.

“Live as if you will die tomorrow. Learn as if you will live forever.” (M. Gandhi)

If co-ops are to be among the educators and those who make a positive difference in this situation, they must continually seek new information and new allies. An excellent example appears in this edition’s report from Robynn Shrader, addressing a farming association conference titled, “Cooperation: with Nature, Neighbors, and Local Economies.”

Presently, private groups and local or state efforts are generating the most hopeful developments, and this is likely to continue. Some co-ops are among the many organizations and projects that encourage changed behavior and model energy conservation—and not only in food production. Food co-ops in places such as Brooklyn, Davis, and Duluth are going further by purchasing electricity from renewable sources. In addition, co-ops provide everyday, living examples of how successful enterprise can promote change toward sustainability while also expanding democratic ownership.

In some cities co-ops already have allies actively leading the public toward greater awareness, conservation, and environmental stewardship. In other situations a locus of such activities may be the co-op itself—through its classes, newsletter, and advocacy for environmental causes. If you’re not seeing enough changing attitudes and practices in your city, sponsor some deeper conversations!

The same need for changed environmental awareness exists for debate around defending civil liberties and opposing war, and from the same outlook and mission based on cooperative principles. Co-ops are inherently democratic and should advocate for (real, not phony) democracy. Accepting the international merit of the cooperative principles and values—see the contents page—implies support for democracy as well as peaceful relations and opposition to war.

Three years ago an editorial in this vein, “Against War,” caused a slight stir, and I anticipate further misgivings and objections from cooperators: “We have a membership of diverse views.” “Our mission is focused on food.” Yet I’m not talking about excluding people but about expanding the scope of urgent conversations. And I certainly am not talking about excluding products—if a co-op only sold the stuff that I buy, it would soon go out of business. As for cooperative mission, one that is limited to food is simply lacking depth, lacking vision.

In favorable circumstances a co-op will have local allies providing voices for alternative practice and politics. But with few substantial debates or forums in the community, the defense of sustainable food production and the environmental commons, along with the defense of democracy, should be articulated in the co-op’s boardroom, in its newsletter and website and classrooms.

There’s too much at stake to carry on with business as usual. We cannot act as if we have learned nothing in the past year or 30 years about the damage being done by the dominant economy—and about co-ops’ identity in a shared, sustainable future.

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

See other articles from this issue: #123 March - April - 2006