The cooperative local economy

By David Parkinson

We use the word 'weed' for plants which interfere with our plans for nature.

We use the word 'weed' for plants which interfere with our plans.

‘Tain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it,
And that’s what gets results.

(Melvin “Sy” Oliver and James “Trummy” Young)

Last week’s column was about creating a stronger local food economy, something which I spend a good deal of time thinking about (and being engaged in). And now that we have a newly-formed Transition effort starting up in Powell River, I hope that we’ll see renewed efforts to start new projects which help move us in the direction of regional self-reliance.

It’s not hard to sit around a table and brainstorm ideas for projects which would help this region adapt to peak oil, climate chaos, and the economic uncertainty that is hitting us now and showing no signs of abating. Car-sharing, carpooling, or ride-sharing networks; backyard gardening cooperatives; municipal composting; local media collectives; neighbourhood potluck and child-minding groups; campaigns to raise awareness of shopping locally; cob-building workshops; micro-hydro and wind power; barter and free exchange networks; and on and on. Ask someone who is hip to the challenges we face and you will get any number of good suggestions of how we can become more resilient, less dependent on fossil fuels and imported goods, and stronger as a community. There is no shortage of good ideas. But so far not a lot of them being implemented.

The more I think about transition planning, the more I believe that we need to see a large number of experimental projects happening. Some will succeed and others will fail. They cannot all be funded by government dollars or money from foundations and charitable organizations. Nor can they all run entirely on the goodwill and time of volunteers. We need to find ways to create small businesses out of these solutions to various problems; but we should also be creating businesses which balance entrepreneurial risk and foresight against a strong commitment to the people and the values of the surrounding community. A local economy which supplies local needs and keeps jobs and wealth in the region will also need to do its part to reduce social inequities and to provide solutions to systemic problems like poverty, food insecurity, insufficient affordable housing, the lack of a living wage, and so on. These problems are the inevitable result of an economy which places profits above all other considerations, and the sooner we stop pretending otherwise the better.

It seems clear to me that the best solutions to the challenges we face will emerge from genuinely collaborative, collectively-designed and -managed, community owned enterprises. Cooperatives provide a good way to create businesses that satisfy needs which individuals find hard to satisfy on their own, and they have the advantage that they are well recognized in provincial and federal business law. But some of the projects we might want to work on are too loose and informal for all of the hoop-jumping and legalities of a formal incorporation. There are no one-size-fits-all structures for getting people to work together so that everyone benefits.

No matter how we formalize an understanding among individuals which involves property, money, labour, rights, obligations, and regulations, we first have to get to the point of working out what it is we’re trying to accomplish and how we intend to go about it. When this is done in order to attract start-up capital it’s called a business plan, and might emerge from a collaborative process of:

  • brainstorming in free-flowing conversation;
  • identifying an unmet need in the community;
  • thinking about how we might harness cooperative energy to solve the problem we identify;
  • solving various problems of start-up costs, dealing with regulations and other legal impediments;
  • enlisting the support of people who need the planned goods/service (potential customers, collaborators, or members of a cooperative);
  • defining how those who contribute their labour and knowledge can be adequately rewarded (whether in the form of money, equity, goods, shares, etc.).

There will always be individuals with an entrepreneurial bent who are talented at identifying business opportunities and figuring out how to apply money and resources to a problem in order to find a solution which will return a profit on money invested. But as for the rest of us, we might have to get involved in cooperative business ventures with other people. And this means having to collaborate effectively, to learn how to weigh different alternatives and figure out what is possible and what is impossible, to figure out what the steps are in solving a problem and which are of a higher priority than which others, and so on.

Lately, I am witnessing a number of processes which are intended to be collaborative and cooperative. For the most part, they are not succeeding as they might. In some cases, they are downright counterproductive. Why is this? As a society, we are pretty good at identifying what we want to do, but we often struggle with how to go about accomplishing the goals we identify. (What we want to do is very often stupid or pointless or toxic, but the goal is at least clear.) Entrepreneurial management strikes me as fairly uncomplicated: do whatever it takes within the limits of the law (more or less) to make your money make more money. All other considerations are subordinate to the prime directive, profit. But cooperative management and business development entail other considerations, since they reflect a community of interests and often have a socially responsible orientation; e.g., the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit.

We’re going to have to become better at working collaboratively in many ways as we adjust to the post-peak economy in which more of our needs will need to be met locally. I want to work together with other people to cobble together appropriate solutions to problems in the local market, and I want people to receive proper pay for their contributions to meeting the needs of the community. I want to be able to participate in cooperative decision-making in the common interest. I want to be part of starting up enterprises which can support the local economy, train and employ people in useful and necessary activities, and generate wealth which remains in the community. I imagine that many others feel the same way, but don’t know how to start collaborating (and on what?).

In next week’s conclusion of this piece, I will sketch out how we might learn a thing or twelve from David Holmgren’s principles of permaculture about creating an effective collaborative design and planning process which we can use for starting cooperatives and other small businesses in the region.

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