Go Co-op! Can We?

Dave Gutknecht

The International Year of Cooperatives continues to remind us that cooperatives are a global movement of great impact and even greater potential. Some of the examples being highlighted encourage us to look outside our familiar boundaries (see stories.coop, USA2012.coop, strongertogether.coop). Our cover theme of collaboration is illustrated by food co-ops that are building a larger cooperative movement. 

International examples are also potent. The U.S. neighbor to the north, Canada, has long had a cooperative sector that serves and speaks for a larger proportion of its population—its cooperatives have had deep and positive impact on public policy, including health care. To the south, Cuba now provides new examples of cooperative enterprise—primarily in the food sector, at least initially. Following a recent Canadian-based study-group visit there, two U.S. food co-op managers report on new Cuban cooperative initiatives—providing more reasons for us to engage with that nation through trade and solidarity exchanges.

John Eicholz and Patti Waters describe Cuba’s ongoing major shift in these words:
"A society with a deep reservoir of social capital and a desperate need for economic innovation seeks to use cooperatives as a way forward." 

Could that statement also fit the U.S.? Perhaps it can, if we look upon the International Year of Cooperatives as only the beginning of a 10-year mandate to build social capital. 

The U.S. certainly faces a desperate need for economic innovation, but we have not secured adequate public understanding and support for cooperatives as a way forward. Yet opportunities for such a direction are increasing. For example, although the major banks have temporarily been rescued by the Federal Reserve, the failure of conventional political and financial institutions is clear. In response, more people are joining credit unions, and efforts are underway to restore credit unions’ lending capacity. 

Another link we share with Cuba is petroleum—the liquid fuel that we depend on absolutely, in the sense that we have no ready replacement, only conservation. In the 1990s, Cuba lost a fraction of its cheap petroleum supply (not all of it—a common misconception) from the former Soviet Union, and consequently was greatly challenged socially and economically. State-led rationing and social solidarity helped Cubans get through this "special period." 

In the U.S., meanwhile, fossil fuel falsehoods abound, with conservation a little-recognized necessity. But soon, as in Cuba, it will become clear what Peak Oil means: not the end of supply, but the end of cheap and easy supply. Global petroleum production, despite growing demand, has been at a plateau for several years, with the decline in conventional sources disguised by newer ones that are more expensive, more risky, more damaging. The U.S. is coming into its own "special period," and we sure aren’t ready. 

Can we at least aim to be able to describe the U.S. as a society with a deep reservoir of social capital and a country that wants to use cooperatives as a way forward? 

The nation, still of staggering power, is in obvious decline, another empire that cannot be maintained, like the former Soviet Union. Yet the U.S. also has a long and diverse domestic history of social capital created through thousands of democratic associations, volunteer societies, church-sponsored programs, guilds, unions, and cooperatives. 

As a society, our storied ingenuity is going to be put to the test, and it is far from clear where it will take us. For food in particular, we are threatened by the growing extraction of minerals, soil, and water; by the extreme dependence of production on fossil fuel infrastructure; and by an aging, diminished farmer population. Present-day support of local producers is but a hint of what we will need to make our own land-based revolution. 

How might that grow? Consider Greece, which is undergoing a mass internal migration as a result of the economic crisis that has engulfed the nation since December 2009. According to its agriculture minister, rural areas are making a comeback as unprecedented numbers of unemployed young Greeks move to the countryside, encouraged by government stipends to cultivate tracts of land that have been left untended for years.

Such a migration is needed in the U.S. as well. It’s a good thing we can point to cooperative success stories, along with many lessons still being learned.

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