In a Food and Fuel Fix

dave gutnecht

Local food projects highlighted in these pages are essential components of a future that in many ways will be much more constrained, requiring us to come closer to living within resource limits. Support of farms and producers is an important part of what has built food co-ops' success so far, and those local relationships will be even more critical as the future unfolds. Given the growing importance of such examples, how food co-ops are building local food economies will be a recurring theme in these pages.

In a contrary direction, the 24/7 news offers disastrous system failures in finance and energy production. At the same time, many people hope for an eventual return to business as usual—trying to maintain past expectations and, as we all do, relying on past assumptions.

We are badly served by leaders who are afraid to explain decline and to call for making significant conservation a top priority. Misplaced confidence certainly characterizes much of the population: extremely dependent on fossil fuels and long-distance food sources, and believing that investing in improved "efficiencies" will overcome resource limits. However, financial and industrial breakdowns, along with natural disasters, are shaking those assumptions.

Examples of truth-telling by citizens and by public officials do exist. A recent blog (Joe Romm, New York Times, 3/24/2011) quoted at length from Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's announcement of next year's imposition of a national carbon tax—a courageous speech in which Gillard acknowledged

…the pity and shame posterity reserves for leaders who miss the wave of history and misjudge the big calls.… We will cut carbon pollution. We will not leave our nation stranded by history. We will not live at the expense of future generations. We will get this call right and get this job done: For our nation. For our people. For our future.

The world, and the U.S. in particular, has enjoyed decades of an incredible whirly-gig ride from burning cheap fossil fuels, and it won't be easy cutting back. Contrary to common convention, the biggest obstacles are primarily social and political rather than technical in nature. All energy sources have major costs. Yet most car owners could immediately drive less, and the many millions of people who are unemployed, underemployed, or not even counted could be put to work insulating homes and growing food. Finance is similar, in that we could much more readily raise capital to build resilient local infrastructure if we were moving toward more wealth sharing rather than less.

Why should conservation, from personal practices to political policy, be top priority?  (Summary thanks to John Michael Greer:

  • It's the easiest thing to do.
  • It's the cheapest thing to do.
  • It doesn't require additional infrastructure.
  • It doesn't require high technology.
  • It can't be outsourced.
  • It's a long-term solution.
  • It creates a mindset of "use less."

A new era of resource constraints is washing in upon us. For those who have been paying attention, it is the future forecast 40 years ago in The Limits to Growth and elsewhere—when many of today's food co-ops were launched to help build a better foundation. The present is a time of enormous positive potential along with huge threats from breakdowns in resource supply and infrastructure—and as the debt bubble deflates, from further decline in conventional economic growth.

By contrast, co-ops manifest an encouraging presence in local communities and the larger marketplace, offering a model for the never-ending work of building democracy and greater self-reliance. Cooperatives democratically control community capital, and they contribute to the sharing that is essential for democracy. But fair distribution and democracy will continue declining until larger numbers of people embrace both solidarity and reduced consumption through public action and more cooperative relations.

To build that kind of future, to be realistic rather than merely hopeful, requires courage. We need people at all levels with the foresight to call for and begin widespread changes in institutions and community life, including radical conservation and fairer distribution of wealth and services. Cooperatives need to spread their ownership model and their passion, their spirit of solidarity. The Year of Cooperatives can't come any too soon.

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