Cooperative Sustenance and Questions

Here is good food for thought, grouped under two themes: approaches to internal cooperation and business strategy; improving equity, diversity, and inclusion in food co-ops. 

If the cooperative and its practices are to be relevant, it must model excellent operations and governance. The examples here examine aspects of what exemplary cooperation might mean: greater collaboration between departments (such as produce and prepared foods); and better understanding of modes of governance (fiduciary, strategic, and generative).

Cooperatives are ongoing social experiments in sharing services, risks, and responsibilities. Do they manifest their values through fair and inclusive practices? This aspect needs more attention. Two contributors discuss their co-op’s challenging work on equity and diversity, and another reviews food co-op development in low-income urban neighborhoods—the latter scenarios sometimes generate partnerships and collaboration that further stretch co-op boundaries. 

Social inequities and deteriorating conditions call for more cooperative equity and enterprise. Co-ops cannot solve at home or even as a unified sector such deep problems as workers’ degraded buying power, embedded racism, and global warming. But they can demonstrate better approaches and improved mutual services, while pointing to solutions and working in their communities and regions to effect broader change.

Many urgent issues call for widespread solidarity. The topic of emergency preparedness was treated here previously in the retail context: crises that can occur when operating a grocery and food service business. But some emergencies may go far beyond a local fire or storm damage. Since our entire society faces these threats, it is worthwhile to anticipate broader emergency scenarios and evaluate our preparations and resiliency—as citizens and as cooperative businesses in a challengingly complex society.

For example, in July severe heat waves and fires on several continents disrupted everyday activities and killed scores in each place. The highest global temperatures were recorded in 2015, 2016, 2017, and likely 2018. Extreme fire conditions in California led the Sacramento Bee to editorialize: “It is becoming clear that we must radically improve emergency preparation... Summer has been a death march... California must plan now for these and other aspects of global warming, as more of the state becomes too hot, too dry, or too fire- or flood-prone to safely live in, and as more of the world braces for the era of climate refugees.”

Related challenges arise from strains on the electric infrastructure, which is vulnerable to breakdowns. Are you prepared for interruption not merely of a compressor or internet server but of the 24/7 unlimited electric supply you expect? How about water restrictions, since drought and heat already are reducing key harvests?

Is there a deeper answer to these questions? Not obviously. Yet our society’s commitment to perpetual economic growth is collectively suicidal. Our deep dependence and high-energy living, whatever the energy sources, cannot continue—and therefore it won’t. We face a clear choice between leaving most fossil fuels in the ground or fatally overheating the earth in the near future. 

Why does the infernal system keep grinding on? It’s not merely consumer practices or even the deadly dinosaur war machine: overreach is rooted in the entire, financialized economy. Thirty years ago, after James Hansen’s prophetic warning on global warming, Herman Daly in Steady State Economics parsed it bluntly: “We are addicted to growth because we are addicted to large inequalities in income and wealth. What about the poor? Let them eat growth! Better yet, let them feed on the hope of eating growth in the future! We have been growing for some time, and we still have poverty. It should be obvious that what grows is the reinvested surplus, and the benefits of growth go to the owners of the surplus who are not poor.” 

At age 70, after sadly watching five friends of over four decades’ duration die during the past ten months, I’ve had the usual reasons to think about the near future. Never mind that the very wealthy are preparing doomsday bunkers! “It turns out,” (Kurt Cobb at resilience.org) “that we are here for a limited time and that trusting and reciprocal relationships with others are ultimately the most important possessions we have—unless we are too rich or too frightened to realize it.” •

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