Disasters and Opportunities

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For a business or household, disaster preparation is more than a necessary form of planning or insurance. Even before such plans are made, preparations call for a willingness to step outside one’s current, more comfortable assumptions. And that is a necessary form of thought, open to imagining the new and potentially difficult.

Whether a questioning attitude occurs readily or after much resistance, once reflexive assumptions are set aside, individual and community minds are more open to recognizing threats and opportunities. What can be seen?

Disaster planning in its deepest sense must incorporate global trends, and we’re in deep trouble on several fronts: rapid climate change, energy shortages, and declining economic circumstances are already occurring, felt by many. Contrary to an astounding corporate and federal campaign of obfuscation and denial, these trends are bound to increase. Civil liberties and democracy also are substantially degraded, often under the guise of security (including the microchip-based tracking discussed in this edition).

Community-based in ownership, services, and mission, cooperatives are in a good position to promote recognition of disaster threats as well as the community-building possibilities inherent in such threats. Many co-ops already do so with regard to food security and local production. But if co-ops want to lead their communities, a deeper local role is needed. This edition’s featured co-op provides an outstanding example of re-creating the “village commons” and enlarging spheres of participation.

Food issues connect to all the fundamental challenges mentioned above and to the very nature of society. Will public resources be shifted to conservation (as described in the discussion of the farm bill) or continue to enrich military contractors and agribusiness? Will food security be seriously addressed, or will threats be a cover for expanding unaccountable government surveillance? In a society thick with propaganda disguising unsustainable practices, co-ops can sponsor better debate. Active food co-ops can be the portal for connecting to larger issues.

For a foundation, co-op action in the larger community need only refer to the internationally stated cooperative values, the basis for cooperative mission: self-help, self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. “The board shall seek partners in promoting local food security, and in doing so shall make explicit references to the values listed in the International Statement of Cooperative Values and Principles…”

When the community is facing disaster and is in conflict—that’s right now, in my view—insisting on these values will be a guide in difficult conversations and collaboration. Co-ops must make alliances and articulate cooperative values if they want to see these values manifested. Get involved in your community’s future! “We build the road as we travel,” and cooperatives are a road leading to a better future insofar as their practice manifests the stated values and principles.

Just as important as recognizing the need to change is recognizing resistance to change. A frog that jumps out when placed in a pan of hot water will stay in a pan of water being slowly heated, until it is too late to avoid death—vividly illustrating inertia and denial. Are we smarter than frogs? Multiplying problems of uncertainty and avoidance, we have private wealth and its allies in public offices promoting self-serving messages that the U.S. should continue to burn up one-fourth of global energy resources, that our foreign crusades are about bestowing democracy. Yet conservation will be imposed as a paradigm whether we are ready or not

In my view, democracy is largely gone at the federal level. Until some key assumptions and institutions are replaced, we are unlikely to see meaningful opposition to those foreign crusaders or effective planning for upcoming disasters. At this point, planning and solutions and new directions are almost entirely coming from below.

There is little hope of avoiding tipping points on rapid climate change and energy depletion. But we do have options, and the challenges of the coming years will be much better faced cooperatively than not. Is your community preparing for disaster?

If it keep on raining the levee gonna break,
If it keep on raining the levee gonna break,
Some people still sleeping,
Some people are wide awake.

—Bob Dylan, “Modern Times”

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

See other articles from this issue: #128 January - February - 2007