The business of community

By David Parkinson

Sand, wood, and stone.

No work of love will flourish out of guilt, fear, or hollowness of heart, just as no valid plans for the future can be made by those who have no capacity for living now.
(Alan Watts, 1966, The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, p. 112)

Last week, in “Getting there from here“, I talked about a common problem we can see whenever the talk turns to creating solutions for the challenges of peak oil, climate mayhem, and an economy in turmoil. This conversation is going on all over the place, and when the conversation comes to a halt there are many people thinking about all of this. How are we going to provide more food as transportation becomes more costly? How will we cope with the rising cost of gasoline when we depend so much on it to keep our cars running? How will we heat our homes more efficiently? How will we continue to have a prosperous economy, especially when we are isolated and our primary industry seems to be in terminal decline?

There are some good solutions to some of these challenges, and more coming every day. Some come from the public sector (the government), some from the private sector (the corporations), and some from the grassroots (the people).

Increasingly, it becomes hard to imagine that meaningful solutions to any of the problems we face are going to come from either of the first two places: the public sector, when it is has funds available, cannot always direct those funds towards their best uses at the local scale. This is not to say that government programs are of no value; but the higher the level of government the less it can respond to local needs — and the better it can respond to the needs of the large corporate interests which can afford to pay lobbyists and fund think tanks to drive policy. Also, the longer this depressed economy continues, the less money our various levels of government are going to have at their disposal; funding will likely contract in all areas except essential services, and even there we may feel a pinch.

Last week the City of Powell River hosted a brainstorming session to come up with ideas for how the City and its residents could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Many of the ideas suggested were along the lines of offering incentives in the form of cash rebates or tax reductions for anyone taking steps to reduce emissions. Representatives of the City felt compelled to point out that it is unlikely that the City will be able to offer any kind of incentives, given the shakiness of the municipal tax base. Similar incentives at the provincial and federal levels are threatened by the downturn in the economy.

As for the private sector… it’s good at coming up with solutions to all kinds of problems. And entrepreneurial approaches to local concerns very often produce the best possible results. In the area of food security, all of our local farms and the people who sell goods through the various little markets are all entrepreneurs. If you want to fill a niche in the local economy, nothing beats a privately-owned and -controlled company: no shareholders telling you what to do, no strings on your investment, no reporting to the government, no answering to voters.

Some of the drawbacks of the entrepreneurial approach are:

  • not everyone wants to assume the risk of ownership and management;
  • it isn’t necessarily answerable to the interests of the community;
  • it can tend to place profit above all other considerations.

If we could overcome these and some other shortcomings, some offshoot of the entrepreneurial approach might be the best way to tackle some of the projects we need to get started in the region: the backyard gardening, car-sharing and ride-sharing, home retrofitting, swap and barter networks, home-based businesses of all types, and all the other pieces of the Transition puzzle.

What we need to develop is a spirit of entrepreneurialism in the region which does not depend on individuals having to do everything themselves, from creating a business plan to raising startup money; which spreads the risks and advantages of ownership more widely among the members of the community; which brings people together in order to addresses their common concerns; which does not need to pursue profit at all costs; and which is democratic and accountable to the community in which it operates.

Like other communities, we’re struggling here. Good things are happening, but we need more of everything. Many of us can see a number of challenges we need to start addressing, and quickly. But we’re blocked: do we form a new not-for-profit to get that work done? That’s a lot of work and takes a lot of time. Do we try to start businesses? That also is a lot of work, and personal risk — and anyway, most people are already busy working at something and don’t have the time to start a new business, especially one which might struggle until reality catches up with vision. We need more projects that are a hybrid between not-for-profit and entrepreneurial, and share the best qualities of both. And we need to get more people excited to start working together; this is the real tough one.

I’m excited to have found one approach which I think fits the bill: the community service cooperative. Next time: what the heck is a community service cooperative?


1 Response to “The business of community”

  1. 1 Serving the community, cooperatively « Slow Coast Trackback on February 9, 2010 at 12:05
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