Archive for the 'collective' Category

Lesson I: Foster community and cultivate networks

By David Parkinson

A cool blue spring sky; only the gentlest hint of summer's heat.

To receive and to communicate assistance, constitutes the happiness of human life: man may indeed preserve his existence in solitude, but can enjoy it only in society: the greatest understanding of an individual doomed to procure food and clothing for himself, will barely supply him with expedients to keep off death from day to day; but as one of a large community performing only his share of the common business, he gains leisure for intellectual pleasures, and enjoys the happiness of reason and reflection.
(Samuel Johnson; The Adventurer No. 67, Tuesday, 26 June 1753)

It’s a feature of the times and places we live in that the gap between is and ought-to-be is becoming more visible while growing wider; as many people engaged in many activities, from all points in the space of political outlook, continue to work at filling in this gap — or at least to spread awareness of alternatives. The value of common action, and particularly the gap between working together and simply being an isolated individual in an anonymous economic system, goes at least as far back as Dr. Johnson’s time, which was a period during which traditional ways of living were changing quickly.

We now live in a time when the trajectories barely sketched out in Johnson’s lifetime have reached some kind of culmination, although there’s no way of knowing how much further they will be carried by their momentum. But the observations that Johnson makes are no less true now than they were then; only more obscured and hard to talk about. They have become like an occult knowledge bubbling under the surface. It’s starting to become a commonplace (in uncommon places) that the real key to successful social organization and the creation of alternatives will be collective projects that harness much of the energy which is currently wasted. Only no one really knows how to make this happen, so these wishes for better forms of social organization remain just that: wishes. (As a former colleague was fond of saying, hope is not a plan.)

A good recent overview of some of the ferment happening in the world of ‘re-commonization’ is in this article by David Bollier. The historical narrative he presents is one that is starting to filter back into the conscious mind of the culture, and it’s interesting to see that the past years of a somewhat ahistorical future orientation to social change are fading into a new awareness of the paths by which we got to where we are and the forces that moved us along those and not other paths. The works that Bollier points to by Raj Patel, Lewis Hyde, and others take care to present the history of ‘de-commonization’ as the subterranean history of the rise and triumph of capitalism — as its side effects or collateral damage. But are we to work at restoring what has been lost? Or to work at creating counterforces that will inevitably do that work for us? The former looks difficult but possible; the latter daunting beyond all imagining.

Increasingly, or so it seems to me, the search for alternatives of any kind is becoming more appealing to people whose allegiance to the way things are is strong as long as things are working well for them. As more systems pass the threshold into counterproductivity and begin to produce more ill than good effects while somehow still retaining their manic vitality, we might expect more people to step away from isolation and extreme individualism and into… what, exactly?

None of us has any idea how to answer that question. The best we can do is construct new and better systems within which the answers will emerge. And for every system we devise which generates progress and increases social cross-fertilization and cooperation, we’re likely to create a few which just lie there and do nothing useful. Our fear of failure, of wasted time and effort, causes us to fear this outcome more than just about anything; but we have to push through the fear and frustration, through the feelings of blockage and futility, redirecting our efforts where that seems right and doubling down when that seems right.

The far-off goal is for everyone to have some part in the collective creation of a community that consists of innumerable networks, some official and recognizable and others which serve a very particular purpose for a small number of participants. These networks — or their proto-networks — are out there now, arising out of people’s needs and their willingness to sacrifice individual initiative to the convenience (or inconvenience) of depending on others with their added labour and insight (and conflicting needs and desires). As a society we’ve gotten ourselves into a place where the benefits of individualism and the costs of collectivism are presented as higher than they really are. The costs are buried and not to be spoken of.

Like many people, I’m often frustrated by the slowness of social change. It feels as though we are moving into a time of almost perpetual crisis, in which the only way to insulate ourselves from feelings of fragility and threat is to tune out, to retreat further into the isolation which is the leading symptom of the malaise. There’s no real way of knowing, but I can’t help but think that this withdrawal can only worsen, at least among some segments of the population, over the next few months or years. Its costs will be an impoverishment of the human potential that we’ll have at our disposal and more drag on our efforts to get things done, at least to the extent that those things entail popular support. It might be hard to accept this as a natural response, but a society in denial can only expect that denial is one of the few tools in the general arsenal. (We can always deny that we’re in denial.)

Meanwhile, let’s hope, a part of every community will find ways to go from wishing we could organize and get more done together to finding more effective ways to make it happen, to reward individual effort while keeping it under some kind of collective oversight so that the interests of the whole network are always represented. For people raised in a culture where walking away is always an option, this will take real conscious effort and the kind of humility that doesn’t always come easily to people who were promised everything. There is little science to this, but a great deal of art. The exciting part is that it continues to be uncharted (unchartable?) territory; traditional societies have had to nurture and appreciate these skills, and it’s a hopeful sign that we are now starting to value them and talk about them. How we can weave them into our daily lives remains to be seen, but it’s the great work of our time.

The last words go to David Bollier:

I think we need to recover a world in which we all receive gifts and we all have duties. This is a very important way of being human. Tragically, the expansion of centralized political and economic structures tends to eclipse our need for gifts and duties. We rely on money or the state for everything. And so we forget what Ivan Illich called the “vernacular domain” — the spaces in our everyday life in which we create and shape and negotiate our sense of how things should be: the commons.

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NOTE

This post is the first in a series based on the essay Seven Lessons for Leaders in Systems Change by Michael K. Stone & Zenobia Barlow, published by the Center for Ecoliteracy.

Spirit and perseverance

By David Parkinson

Big enough for anything.

Sense must distinguish between what is impossible, and what is merely difficult; and spirit and perseverance will get the better of the latter.
(Lord Chesterfield)

Today spring is tightly coiled, soon to unleash its potential energy in the form of sunshine, warm breezes, longer days, gentler rains, and the unmistakable sense of being on the upward trajectory. Out of winter’s inward-looking retreat to darkness; out into days when indoor and outdoor clothing are the same; when the evenings decline slowly at a shallow angle into the twilight and then into a clear-skied cool evening. Today the bees are buzzing around the apricot blossoms, a perfect sign of hope.

With another successful Seedy Saturday behind us, the season of plentiful food is slowly stirring itself into action again. This is the time of year when the immobility of the cold months of short days stretches into a keen sense of possibility: we make grandiose plans to take advantage of the longer warmer days, and we promise ourselves not to let a precious moment go to waste. (Of course we will waste many moments, precious and otherwise.)

This year, more than ever I suppose, many of us in this region will be talking about the need to be better prepared against the certainty of rising food prices and the possibility of shortages and disruptions in our food supply. We are that much further out on a thin extremity of the supply chain, all the more exposed to the cascading effects of hiccups up the line; and more people all the time are becoming aware of the consequences of this precarious position, even if they might not understand their causes.

The big question is this: if the food supply chain continues to weaken, how self-sufficient can we become? This difficult question is followed by a few which are equally hard to deal with: how can we increase our self-sufficiency as quickly as possible? what happens if our ability to increase local production, processing, and distribution is outstripped by events beyond our control? when is the need for action going to hit the mainstream and become a topic of common concern?

Many of the people I spend most of my time in contact with are aware of the degree to which our regional food supply falls short of demand, and of the unbelievably huge campaign that lies ahead of us. By anyone’s accounting, it’s daunting in the extreme and involves education, money, changes in our attitudes towards worthwhile work and in our conception of what our communities are, what they mean to us, and how we choose to contribute to them.

To me, the most important questions are the how questions; specifically how the unfolding of events is going to lead to changes in these social arrangements. Many people I encounter agree that we all need to work together to rebuild our regional food economy so that it can support the population living here, or at the very least not fall so spectacularly short of doing so; but there is no consensus on how to get going. The number of problems to solve, challenges to overcome, and predicaments to learn to work around is huge, and our resources are as nothing.

The most natural outcome of this type of situation is for everyone to work individually on some aspect of the complex of challenges — it’s hard to say how each person chooses where to dig in: some do what they’re already good at; some go with inclination and a desire to learn new things; some run the numbers and choose what seems like the most efficient places to work; most could probably never explain their ways of responding to what might be only half-formed needs and wants. The upside of individual action is that the feedback loop between input and output is tight and fast; it’s easier to see the sequence leading from work to results, to fine-tune that sequence and create variations on it. It takes some faith to go from working alone, with complete control, to having to accommodate others’ needs and wants.

Another challenge here is that the people who are the most engaged individually are the ones who are too busy for much time spent trying to organize collective activities. They’re also the ones less likely to see the need for it, because they themselves are further ahead in ability to provide for their own needs in case things get weirder. All the while, as more people discover the urge to become more individually resilient within a community of mutual dependence and cooperation, they have to pretty much make their own way and learn on their own. To some extent, this is a good thing, since it encourages discipline and hard work, mental and physical. It’s a bad thing to the extent that it discourages those with less persistence and wastes time forcing them to solve well-known problems and learn workarounds to familiar predicaments.

I’m thinking a lot about this, because it’s so fundamental to everything else we might accomplish, together or separately. Without developing better techniques for pooling our work and distributing the results in a way which is fair and decent, our already small and marginal efforts to build alternatives will be further diminished.

It’s going to be difficult to find creative ways to increase the amount of cooperation and sharing of resources, time, labour, knowledge, expertise, and experience. If there is a theme tying this blog together, that’s it: more than anything else, I’m struggling to distinguish what is impossible, and what is merely difficult and then hoping to find the spirit and perseverance to make headway on the difficult work. The lucky thing is that there is an increasing interest around here in exploring collective styles of work, with a base of some very impressive and experienced individuals who have developed their skills and knowledge in areas which will be vital to the community. We need to continue experimenting in the hopes that we’ll wander into new arrangements that make sense.

Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging

By David Parkinson

Warp and weft working at cross purposes to bring about a higher-level order.

If we can only live once, then let it be a daring adventure that draws on all our powers. Let it be with similar types whose hearts and heads we may be proud of. Let our grandchildren delight to find the start of our stories in their ears but the endings all around in their wandering eyes.
(Julian Assange, 2007)

We’re into the time of year when the year’s-best lists come out and we all engage in acts of reflection on the past year and preparation for the coming year in the form of New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t really think that I’m rested and distanced enough to have anything useful to say about the reflection part — except to say that the last month and a half of 2010 was a pretty riotous time, what with our community radio station suddenly kicking it up about twenty-three notches of activity. As I have told a few people, in the four years and a bit since we arrived in Powell River I have not seen such an outpouring of positive energy and creativity. I think that CJMP FM is going to be a game-changer for the region, and 2011 will be the year when we get to see what that might mean. If you’re in the region and have always harboured thoughts of being involved with community radio, check out the website and find a way to be part of this effort.

But that’s getting us into preparation for the coming year. What does 2011 hold in store? I don’t consider myself much of a prognosticator, but it feels as though 2011 will see even more failures among the institutions which make up the world we think we live in. 2010 saw the Deepwater Horizon spill, massive bank fraud, Wikileaks’ revelations shedding light on dark corners of the world of diplomacy and war, and a hundred other occasions to feel unhappy about having to continue relying on huge unaccountable opaque organizations with hidden agendas.

It takes a long time for faith to wear away. But we seem to be in the early stages of a widespread crisis of faith in all of these institutions. Fewer people affiliate themselves with the traditional political parties; fewer people vote; fewer people believe that government can — or even cares to — solve the problems they face. Closer to home, the gap between the public will and the intentions of our municipal government appears to grow wider and wider; we’ll have a chance to see how wide that gap is when we come to the municipal election in November 2011.

But it’s dangerous for people to lose faith in traditional authority without having something else to switch their allegiance to. This really worries me. People with nothing to believe in and governments and other authorities with no mandate to serve the population are a deadly combination. Once you get to that point you get irrational and dangerous populist movements contending with the arbitrary exercise of unaccountable power in the service of insane and obsolete ends. We can expect useful solutions from neither faction, only a hardening of their positions.

Meanwhile, prices will continue to rise and jobs will become scarcer. Social programs will dwindle and disappear (in the name of austerity) while corporate profits will continue to be skimmed for the benefit of those needing the least. Eventually, when there is nothing left to rob the government will declare a new golden age of personal responsibility. And we’ll be on our own.

I wish I had more reason to think that the irrationalism sweeping through society will burn itself out before things become desperate. But I think that this gigantic machine is just going to shake itself into pieces and there’s very little we can do to stop it. It’s simply too enormous and our points of access into it are tiny and closing fast. Closing our eyes and refusing to make sensible preparations are no longer acceptable. Personal responsibility might be being thrust upon us once again, after a few decades of glorious irresponsibility. This will be a tough transition, but I really see many reasons for optimism out there (and I hope that this blog conveys a sense of that, despite the occasional dips into the gloom).

I don’t believe that the collapse of major institutions means that the world will come to an end. The weakening of extremist anti-democratic corporate power is nothing to mourn. We should welcome an increase in skepticism and the creation of citizen-led organizations, collectives, cooperatives, tribes, and freewheeling gangs of troublemakers (the good kind). We need to seize the commons back from those who stole and plundered them, so that we can create our own institutions that serve human ends — as we define them in our territory, for our wants and needs, in the service of regenerating the natural world which is the only source of wealth.

Which is all well and good, if a bit grandiose. What to do? Where do we start? What could we do in the next year which would get us closer to a sane world close to home?

Obviously, I don’t have answers to questions this profound. (Although if you do, dear reader, feel free to put them in the comments to this post.) My only real answer is that — if we believe that nothing short of a full-on systemic overhaul is going to do the trick — we need to begin by opening up spaces where collective action will flourish.

Last week at the monthly Kale Force potluck, Ron Berezan talked about Cuba’s transition to organic agriculture in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. What the Cubans accomplished with a high degree of social solidarity and minimal physical infrastructure, we will need to accomplish with a low degree of social solidarity and huge amounts of physical infrastructure. I suspect that the Cubans got the better deal: it’s easier to improvise machinery and tools out of whatever comes to hand than it is to create strong social networks of mutual support and compassion out of a deliberately stupefied and disaffiliated population.

We need to shift from excessive and wasteful private ownership and control of land, tools, vehicles, and other resources to social arrangements reposing on trust and mutual obligation that allow us to share and work together more efficiently. It shouldn’t be that difficult, but until now the systems that favour privatization and individual action have been extremely strong and supported by legal, social, and cultural underpinnings which are only now weakening under attack by internal stresses which can no longer be kept under control: resource depletion, notably the end of cheap petrochemicals; an economy founded on greed and ignorance of natural limits on human action; and the devastation of the natural world.

We who live along this short stretch of the endless coastline of a huge landmass, who find ourselves here because of accidents of geography and history, face impending challenges which are fundamentally the same as many other local populations: how to live within the limits of what the earth, water, and air provide; how to govern ourselves so that these resources are divided equitably; how to work, play, and celebrate together to reduce needless suffering and increase happiness as much as mortal life will allow. To pitch things at such a high level is to make consensus seem deceptively simple; after all, who would not agree that these goals are important ones? The problem comes in moving from extremely vague motherhood statements to the bricks-and-mortar implementation. And here we hit some snags. In the next post I want to talk about one of these roadblocks; namely, what happens when we conceive of consensus as a state rather than a process. I’ll argue that there is a kind of fetishization of consensus that is actually blocking progress and will suggest a way we can unblock our efforts to generate more creative action.

Sharing should be easy

By David Parkinson

Oats!

Canada Border Services willing, this week will bring something I’m very excited about: the region’s first commonly-owned cider press. For just about as long as I’ve been living here and hearing about the Powell River Fruit Tree Project (now known as Skookum Gleaners), I’ve been hearing people say, “Someone should get a cider press that we can all use” — or words to that effect.

But one thing we can all admit — even though sometimes we go around acting otherwise — is that words alone won’t make this sort of thing happen. For reasons which are not very clear to me, we struggle to get from the desired outcome back to the simple steps needed to get started. I get frustrated fairly often when I hear people saying that we should do such-and-such, or someone should do this or that, and then leave it at that, as though coming up with the first idea off the top of one’s head is a real start towards making something happen. In fact, implementing the solution to a clearly stated problem is, like most things, the product of discipline and hard work. There are few shortcuts that aren’t dead ends.

So, in the case of the desire to have a commonly-owned cider press, we have to work backwards to understand what we can do to make that happen. And here we can easily bog down, hampered by a lack of imagination or a lack of exposure to innovative solutions to a pretty common and simple problem. After all, people throughout history have figured out how to avoid having to force everyone to own the same tools when those tools aren’t in use every day. We have lost our flair for the commons, dazed by cheap commodities and a perverse economy that rewards the illogic of gluttony and waste.

One solution is: buy a cider press among a group of family, friends, and neighbours. And from what I hear, this solution is in practice out there in the hinterlands, where there are enough people with enough apple trees so that there is both a real need for a common solution and a network of mutual trust in place to make it work with minimal effort. This is a fine solution when those conditions are present.

But what about the more common situation, where we see a widely-dispersed network of people with few trees, many of whom do not know one another? In and around Powell River there are many homeowners and tenants who have a few fruit trees on their property; but these trees produce nowhere near enough fruit for these people to start seriously considering getting in on a cider press, let along buying one for their personal use. Only at the level of the whole network of trees could we produce enough cider to justify the purchase of a press.

Also, this network is so disconnected and spread out that there is little hope of creating the sense of common need or mutual trust needed in order for people to work together for the common goal of sharing a cider press. Somehow someone or something needs to pull the network together, and we need to create an entity which people can trust to do the right thing by individuals and by the community at large. It’s unlikely that any individual tree-owner is going to take this task on. It’s one thing to say that someone should get a cider press to deal with this problem/opportunity; but who will buy the thing? Who will operate, maintain, and store it?

If any person or organization were to own and operate equipment which could be held in common for the use of the entire community, we would want that person or organization to be open and transparent to participation by anyone with an interest in using that equipment. In the case of our cider press example these people would comprise owners of trees, people who want to make cider, and others in the community who would benefit from having access to local cider.

The question of a shared cider press is only one among many examples which we could easily come up with, from shared hand tools all the way up to a community farm or vineyard or brewery. It’s simple to imagine cases where a great number of people can benefit from the collective ownership and control of assets which few individuals are likely to buy on their own. In a sense, it is a simple problem to solve, and yet we struggle to find a solution. Our economy has evolved to make it almost necessary for everyone to have to own the same commodities as everyone else, even when shared ownership would do so much to reduce the burden of individual ownership on people, on the economy, and on the environment. We place convenience high above environmental stewardship, and the result is a lawnmower in every garage, even though one per block would be more than enough to keep the lawns mown.

There is a growing movement out there, epitomized by websites like Shareable and the P2P Foundation, seeking sensible collective solutions to problems like this one. I’m amazed by the number and variety of creative solutions that people are developing in order to enable us to work better together, reducing the load on individuals while strengthening community networks of sharing and collaboration. Not to mention reducing the stress on our stocks of non-renewable natural resources and on the the systems which support life on the planet.

The solution we chose is to purchase the cider press through Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative. This organization is completely open and democratic, so anyone wishing to have some say in the use of the cider press is free to join and participate. There are other models we could have chosen for collective ownership, but the cooperative model is ideal for situations like this one, where people benefit collectively through access to resources that are hard to access individually. If we had 100 people buying together, this cider press would have cost about $13 per person: less than the cost of a night at the movies with a bag of popcorn. Well, eventually we will have more members than that, so that the cost (and benefit) of the press will be spread wider and wider.

As long as there is an organization which people can trust to manage the purchase, maintenance, storage, and use of shared resources, then we can have valuable community assets at a low cost to individuals and with a high degree of accessibility for the many owners. It is a simple and brilliant solution to a set of problems which are becoming more pressing all the time.

What can a local food-security cooperative do?

By David Parkinson

It's the time of year when the hidden galaxies of mycelium burst forth in flower and send their seeds out into the world.

It's the time of year when the hidden galaxies of mycelium burst forth in flower and send their seeds out into the world.

Last week I posted some of the reasons why I think we need a food-security cooperative in the region, by which I mean a maximally democratic, open, accountable organization committed to helping its members become self-reliant in food. One of the really powerful reasons for favouring a cooperative corporate structure is that it inherently emphasizes the creation of community and mutual aid. When Herb Barbolet spoke recently at the local campus of Vancouver Island University, the main message I took away was that we needed to build stronger community ties and get more things happening.

Yesterday we saw some of the wonderful cooperation and action in the community of people who support local food: the first ever Celebration of Local Food, which was co-sponsored by Transition Town Powell River and the Powell River Food Security Project. Food producers, processors, retailers, and others were there to offer their respect and gratitude to the many people who make it possible to enjoy local food. It was a really lovely time.

Even though there is a lot happening now, I believe that there is a place in the local economy for a cooperative which will help its members meet common needs that many struggle to meet on their own:

  • access to the equipment and other physical resources they need in order to grow and preserve sufficient food to consider themselves food-secure;
  • the skills, knowledge, and know-how, as well as the self-confidence to get started and keep going;
  • the time or the physical ability to engage in these activities;
  • a community of like-minded and supportive individuals and groups.

Although I expect that the main focus of the cooperative will be in helping people grow their own food, I expect that the cooperative will also be active in providing its members with the tools, skills, and labour needed to ensure a year-round food supply. Canning, preserving, pickling, drying, and other food preservation techniques, as well as root cellaring and food storage, are methods of making the harvest last. We are seeing considerable enthusiasm in the community for these ideas, and I believe that members of a cooperative would be willing to pay for access to tools and technical know-how at fair prices, especially since some of the tools are expensive and not likely to be used frequently by any individual or family.

Here are some of the projects which we could carry out (or push further) under the auspices of a cooperative whose mission was to get more people to be more food-secure. Many of these are ideas that I have heard mentioned more than once. And still they are not happening, usually because no one person wants to sign up for the huge amount of time and effort it would take to get a project up and running on a volunteer basis. And there is no organization whose mandate specifically drives it to start projects like these, to publicize and support them, and to seek ways of funding them. This needs to change!

Year-round crops and food: storage crops, preserves, dried food, etc.

Scenario: Perceiving a need for locally-grown storage crops, the cooperative pools labour and materials needed to plant large amounts of onions, carrots, potatoes, squash, and other crops. The expense of maintaining these crops through the growing season is shared equally among the participating members, who receive shares of the harvest according to the labour or money they put in. (Some portion of the harvest should be contributed to the community.)

Goal(s): To pool labour and expenses

Requirement(s): Land; labour; tools.

Enabling factor(s): Plenty of disused gardens and other land around Powell River; high demand for produce in winter.

Outcome(s): More food is being produced to meet people’s needs year-round.

Materials and labour for construction and maintenance of home gardens

Scenario: A member of the cooperative wants to grow more food in her backyard. But she does not have the expertise or time needed to prepare raised beds, trellises, compost bins, etc. Through membership in the cooperative, she can buy needed materials and resources at fair prices, and can also get some of the work done by worker-members of the cooperative. The member can pay for these goods and services with money, labour, produce, or some combination of these.

Goal(s): To make it easier, less time-consuming, and less expensive to start and maintain a home food-producing garden.

Requirement(s): Workshop and storage space; labour; tools; materials; publicity.

Enabling factor(s): Interest in growing more food locally; local knowledge and expertise.

Outcome(s): More people are able to overcome barriers to growing some of their own food at home; the network of home food growers becomes more organized; surplus food can be donated within the community or sold to raise money for the cooperative’s activities.

Access to seeds, starts, soil, amendments, compost bins, cold frames, etc.

Scenario: A member of the cooperative wants to start composting and using cold frames to extend the growing season, but does not have the time, tools, or know-how to build these at home. Through her membership in the cooperative, she is able to purchase these, or construct them as part of a workshop, and save money. She also has access to seeds and plant starts at a fair cost, grown by other members of the cooperative and distributed within the cooperative at a reduced price.

Goal(s): To provide useful resources for home food production to members at low cost.

Requirement(s): Storage and construction facility; tools; materials; designs; greenhouse space (for plant starts).

Enabling factor(s): Tools; workshops; greenhouses.

Outcome(s): People can produce food more efficiently and economically.

Access to shared tools (e.g., rototiller, cider press, pressure canner)

Scenario: A member of the cooperative needs to press apples from her tree to cider. But she does not want to buy and maintain a cider press. Instead, she uses the cooperatively owned cider press for a fee (which might be paid in cider to be sold to members, sold to raise money for the cooperative, or contributed to the community).

Goal(s): To allow members to borrow (or use in place) tools that they may be unwilling to own.

Requirement(s): Storage facility; maintenance; tracking system

Enabling factor(s): Tools in the community; expertise

Outcome(s): People can produce food more efficiently and economically.

Augment the Fruit Tree Project; preserve annual fruit harvest

Scenario: A member of the cooperative wants to make applesauce and dried fruit, but does not have fruit trees. Through the cooperative, she is able to go and help pick fruit from trees in the community, some of which she keeps, some of which goes to the owner of the trees, and some of which is given to the community (before or after processing). Working in collaboration with other members of the cooperative, using tools belonging to the cooperative (e.g., pressure canners, dehydrators), she preserves the harvest of fruit for her own use and for the use of the cooperative.

Goal(s): Reduce amount of food wasted; reduce bear incidents in the community; increase amount of local fruit available to members of the community; educate about tree care.

Requirement(s): Tools for picking fruit (ladders, baskets, etc.); organizational structure; transportation; processing facilities; tools for processing fruit.

Enabling factor(s): Huge number of untended fruit trees in the region; existing Fruit Tree Project and Bear Aware; ladders; pressure canners; dehydrators; cider presses; Open Air Market and other venues for selling preserved fruit.

Outcome(s): Less fruit is wasted; people are better fed.

Community resource library (books, magazine articles, etc.)

Scenario: A member of the cooperative is interested in researching technical information pertaining to home food production or preservation. She is able to consult free resources available through the cooperative, and get help finding the information she is looking for.

Goal(s): Collect together unused books and other resources pertaining to the activities of the cooperative and make them available to members.

Requirement(s): Books; magazines; CDs; storage space; filing system.

Enabling factor(s): Many books and magazines in the community.

Outcome(s): People have easier access to information on growing and preserving food.

Community composting

Scenario: Members of the cooperative compost their own kitchen scraps (and other scavenged materials from the community) in a common area, in order to supply themselves and other members of the cooperative with compost to use in growing food. The cooperative can also sell some of this compost to fund its activities.

Goal(s): To keep organic materials out of the waste stream; to produce compost for food production.

Requirement(s): Common storage facility; means of transportation; composting bins.

Enabling factor(s): Existing interest in the community for reduced waste and more compost; expertise.

Outcome(s): People have access to high-quality compost for use in improving soil quality.

Community seed-bank

Scenario: Members of the cooperative work together to plan and grow seed-saving gardens, in order to augment the supply of seed produced locally, contribute to Seedy Saturday, and possibly provide a source of revenue to the cooperative.

Goal(s): Increased food sovereignty through control of local seed supply; strengthen Seedy Saturday; educate about seed-saving.

Requirement(s): Storage facility; filing system; information.

Enabling factor(s): Existing Seedy Saturday organizers and participants; other seed-saving efforts in BC and elsewhere; many local growers whose gardens could be used to raise plants for seed.

Outcome(s): People are more aware of the importance of saving seed locally and know how to do so. This region has a seed-bank to reply on in case of emergency.

Chicken- and rabbit-raising

Scenario: A member of the cooperative is interested in raising chickens for eggs, manure, and insect control, but does not know how to house them or care for them. Through the cooperative, she is able to learn how to build a chicken house, and how to care for her chickens.

Goal(s): Provide small-scale growers with access to manure; eggs; meat; pest control.

Requirement(s): Tools; expertise; materials; local network of chicken-breeders; cooperation from local governments; education.

Enabling factor(s): Existing chicken farmers; interest in poultry and other small livestock in the city; need for nitrogenous fertilizers.

Outcome(s): More people are raising small livestock; more manure fertilizers available locally.

Workshops, work parties, and social opportunities

Scenario: A member of the cooperative is interested in learning how to start a new garden bed. The cooperative plans a work party at someone’s home to convert some backyard space into a food-producing garden, and members are invited to contribute labour in return for credit to be applied to some other good or service provided by the cooperative.

Goal(s): Spread skills and knowledge throughout the community; involve members of the cooperative in the cooperative’s activities; build community.

Requirement(s): Organization.

Enabling factor(s): Existing interest in workshops and other opportunities to share expertise.

Outcome(s): More members of the community have more expertise related to growing and preserving food.

What is your favourite idea?

Why we need a food-security cooperative

By David Parkinson

A late huckleberry clings on into the autumn

A late huckleberry clings on into the autumn

In a previous post I wrote about the need to start talking and thinking about how we might address some of our challenges through collective action. Lately, the idea of starting up cooperatives seems to be cropping up more and more frequently, one of its manifestations being the new Working Group on Cooperatives under the auspices of the BC Food Systems Network. The purpose of this working group is to act as a provincial clearinghouse for groups looking at the cooperative corporate structure as a way to work on food security in the community. And there is a conversation going on locally within the Transition Town Powell River (TTPR) group about the role that cooperatives might play in taking action on the challenges posed by resource depletion, climate chaos, and economic downturn.

Here is something I wrote about my vision for a food-security cooperative in a recent email thread among some of the members of TTPR:

I can see a local cooperative which exists to identify potential sources of common wealth (gleaning, foraging, growing, fishing, hunting) and create a supply chain between provider and consumer which pays the former with dignity and rewards the latter with delicious food. I like the idea of creating a sort of free-floating laboratory of different projects: so if one person wants to gather fruit and make wine, and another person wants to buy bulk ingredients and make fresh pasta, and another person wants to create a ‘cow-op’, then all they need to do is present their idea to the members of the cooperative and see who wants a piece of the action. The co-op exists to make sure that everyone plays fair, money is tracked responsibly, decisions are made in a correct way, and other policies are followed (e.g., I strongly believe in paying a share into the community via charities, soup kitchens, food bank, etc.).

Just over a year ago, when I was engaged in a previous series of conversations about starting up a local food cooperative, I put some of my thoughts down on paper. I’m hauling this paper out now since the signs are propitious that we can start a conversation about this. There is not much in it that I would change after a year of letting it sit and ferment; but I’m sure that we can think of ideas that should be in here. I intend to use next Sunday’s Celebration of Local Food event, co-sponsored by Transition Town Powell River and the Powell River Food Security Project, as an opportunity to advance the conversation about cooperatives a little bit.

This week’s post is more about the reasons for favouring cooperative solutions to the challenge of building a resilient regional food economy. Next week’s will address some of the projects that such a cooperative (or network of cooperatives) could tackle. I take for granted that there are good reasons for wanting to develop a regional food economy and start out by trying to figure out what some  of the pieces of that economic system might be. The central idea of a cooperative is that it makes the best possible use of limited resources, by finding ways of spreading them around — as opposed to the corporate model which aims to take abundant resources and make them artificially scarce so that their cash value is as artifically high as possible.

The shift to a more local food economy will take place on different scales: individual, family/household, group/neighbourhood, municipality, and region.

Individual

Individuals can participate in the local food economy by contributing skills, labour, or tools to the common effort. We will need more people with more skills contributing more labour, making use of common tools, and creating economic activity.

Family/household

At this scale, participation in the local food economy means providing for household food security: home gardens and food preservation and storage, in particular, are activities ideally suited for families and small groups.

Group/neighbourhood

At the scale of the larger group (e.g., church groups, service clubs) or neighbourhood, it becomes feasible to set up community efforts; e.g., community gardens, shared greenhouses, work parties, etc.

Municipality

The government of the City of Powell River has the power to affect the implementation of a local food economy, by imposing or relaxing regulations that affect people’s ability to produce and distribute food; e.g., regulations controlling animals in the city, growing and selling produce, composting, etc. The City is also a potentially valuable partner in funding food security initiatives which would benefit the whole City, such as community gardens, community and commercial kitchens, and so on.

Region

At the regional level, it makes sense to think about how to implement procedures for producing, storing, and distributing food that can serve the needs of the entire region, and possibly intersect with regional emergency preparedness, Area Agricultural Plans (AAPs), and other policies and processes that impact the region as a whole.

A cooperative or network of cooperatives should be able to organize efforts at whatever scale is appropriate. Since it is an enterprise with the mandate to serve the whole community equally and does not generate profit for a limited number of shareholders, a cooperative should be relatively immune from conflicts of interest or favouritism. Ideally, it can be everyone’s chosen vehicle for accomplishing the goal of building a local food economy.

This shift will require a high degree of cooperation, communication, and mobilization of shared resources (skills, labour, and tools).

We do not have enough of these resources available locally, and what we do have is not distributed equally throughout the community.

But we do have considerable resources available in the community: skilled and knowledgeable people, many of them elders; young people able and willing to work on building a local food economy; tools and resources such as land, rototillers, and greenhouses.

In order to build on what we have now, and start building more for the future, we need an organization to network in the community and provide stability and guidance towards a local food economy.

We cannot rely solely on government-funded or corporate solutions to make the shift quickly and broadly enough.

There are many community initiatives currently working on various aspects of a local food economy: the Farmers’ Institute, the Agricultural Association, the Food Security Project, the Fruit Tree Project, Good Food Box, Food Bank, 50-mile eat-local challenge, etc.

Many of these organizations and initiatives exist on scant and unreliable funding. Getting the work done depends on and commitment by voluntary associations and volunteer labour. It is difficult to assure continuity when organizations and the individuals within them are spread thin and constantly in search of funding.

For–profit corporations exist to provide a return on a capital investment. There is a place in the local food economy for many privately controlled businesses to prosper and provide valuable goods, services, and employment. But there is also a place for organizations which exist to provide a return to the entire community, in the form of food security and a stronger sense of community and common cause.

The ideal solution is to create an organization which democratically represents the interests of the entire community, is open to participation by anyone who wishes to contribute time or energy, and (crucially) is engaged in developing and sustaining itself from new economic activity within the community, rather than relying on funding from outside the community.

The community-building function of a cooperative is an essential part of our plan. People are isolated, powerless, and dependent on a globalized food industry that is out of their control. We aim to give people the tools they need to take control over their own food security and to exercise genuine democratic involvement in their community.

A cooperative or network of cooperatives is best able to marshal the resources and deploy them at the appropriate scales in order to develop a resilient local food economy.

Activities depend on three essential resources: skills, labour, and tools:

Skills are things that people know or know how to do.

Labour is the time and physical effort that people put into doing things.

Tools are the physical resources that people use in order to do things.

Skills

Collecting, organizing, and distributing information is going to be enormously important. For-profit enterprises typically make no explicit commitment to the free sharing of information; in fact, they often benefit from hoarding information. Our cooperative will make an explicit commitment to make information freely available to those who benefit from it.

The most effective way to transfer skills is to give people opportunities to work together. The cooperative should organize work parties and workshops that members can attend in order to acquire skills and knowledge by doing, rather than in a more academic setting.

Older people in the community are priceless resources. Many of them grew up in a time when it was common for families to grow and preserve some of their own food, and they are eager to pass these skills on to younger people.

A local resource library is one good way to give people access to information. A cooperative can easily take donations of books, old magazines, and other sources of information on any aspects of a local food economy. These resources can be housed somewhere, catalogued, and made available to members of the cooperative for free or for a nominal fee.

Labour

There is a huge amount of work involved in producing food and making it available to the community. We’ll need highly trained farmers able to use a variety of methods and work on different scales of production. We’ll need experts in preserving food for later use, whether this means freezing, drying, canning, pickling, or other methods. And we’ll need more people who know how to prepare delicious healthy meals from locally-produced ingredients. Much of the knowledge is out there in the community; we need to harness that knowledge and those skills and start finding ways of making them part of the local economy.

Building up areas of the local food economy that can support year-round, well-paid jobs is going to take some time and a good deal of experimentation and persistence. But as many people acknowledge, we must begin somewhere and constantly seek new opportunities for creating employment.

One promising area for job-creation is in maintenance of people’s food-producing gardens. It is possible that more people would be willing to grow food in their backyards if they were able to have the garden maintained when they are away on vacation.

The proven viability elsewhere of the SPIN Farming model (e.g., Victoria, Parksville/Qualicum, Vancouver, etc.) suggests that the cooperative might be able to provide members with jobs and services by using people’s properties for food production.

Tools

Tools comprise everything from books, hand tools, seeds, and compost bins, all the way up to large expensive resources such as rototillers, walk-in fridges, apple presses, and greenhouses. It is uneconomical and wasteful to expect people to have their own rototillers when a commonly owned one will suffice. Tools owned by the community, used for the benefit of the community, will allow us to develop a local food economy as efficiently as possible. And many of these tools are lying around waiting to be picked up, repaired, and made available.

There is no organization in the region which aims to provide people with greater access to the tools needed to help them become more self-reliant in food production. All that is needed is a storage space and a system that allows people to use these shared tools when they need to. A not-for-profit cooperative could also allow people to make tax-deductible donations of tools and other infrastructure. We believe that people would be happy to make donations for the benefit of the community.

We need to salvage as much as we can. It will almost always be cheaper to overhaul existing resources than to purchase or construct new ones. The region is full of abandoned vegetable gardens, greenhouses, tools, and other valuable resources. In the spirit of doing-it-yourself and creating minimal waste, we need to encourage as much salvage and re-use as possible.

Any thoughts? Feel free to leave a comment.

Next time: some of the things we might want a local food-security cooperative to accomplish.

Principles for creating a cooperative local economy

By David Parkinson

Horsetail

Horsetail, like all plants, finds the right niche and provides needed services to its local ecosystem. It does not force itself into a niche where it has no purpose.

Last week, I introduced the subject of designing cooperative local enterprises as one way to start boosting the resilience of this region. But the one big problem with working cooperatively is that many of us don’t have a lot of experience at working with a team of equals, brainstorming, compromising, and discussing our way from problem to solution. My feeling is that we’re going to have to get better at this, and quickly.

There are plenty of processes and methods out there for working better collaboratively. Many of these can be found in the business section of the bookstore or library, since this is the main place where people have sensed a need for making plans at the level of a community — a corporation or a working team being a community of a special kind. One of the few books of this type that I’ve read is Peter Block’s Community: The Structure of Belonging, which Giovanni Spezzacatena discussed briefly back in March. Block’s main idea is that meaningful change at the level of the community can happen only through conversations which open up a space within which ideas and hopes can emerge organically.

A little while ago, I was reading about permaculture, and it occurred to me that there are some real similarities between the Block-style approach to community development and the permaculture approach to creation and restoration of holistic natural systems. Permaculture is a design system developed initially by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. To go into great detail would take us too far afield for this short piece, but to me the core of permaculture is that it takes a systems view of agriculture and the human role in coaxing food from the earth. Rather than impose a technological brute-force solution to food production, as is done in commercial agriculture, the permaculture approach takes advantage of natural processes, using human labour to maximize positive outcomes and minimize negative ones. Humans move from being producers who impose their will on the earth to being facilitators of the earth’s natural inclination to be productive in a sustainable fashion.

I was reading about David Holmgren’s twelve principles of permaculture, and it struck me that — just as Peter Block’s principles of community development take a very non-hierarchical approach to unleashing the creative energy of a group of people — permaculture in a similar fashion is about observing and intervening very gently and respectfully into natural systems, with an eye to increasing their outputs for the benefit of humans and the other plants and creatures who participate in those natural systems. I’m always intrigued by theoretical systems or collections of principles which are specific enough to have applications in one area but general enough that they apply to other areas as well. So I decided to try to apply Holmgren’s twelve principles of permaculture design to the domain of community development. (Anyone interested in learning more about how these principles apply to the design of agricultural systems can learn more by starting here on Holmgren’s website.)

I. Observe and interact

Successful community development, meaning the creation of new groups working on new projects to benefit the community, is all about careful observation and interaction. Observation means looking at what the community has and what it needs, thinking about why those needs remain unmet, and looking everywhere for the pieces of the solution, even in unexpected places or marginalized people. Too often the same old people are in charge of the decision-making process, and this leads to an insular and stale process for coming up with solutions and new ideas. It’s critical to tap into the genius and passion of the folks who are usually outsiders to the planning process — unless, of course, you really do want more of the same. And observation means continually trying to see past the surface of the community and understand how things are held together at a more abstract level. Why is there more vandalism there than elsewhere? Why do people hang out in this park but never in that one? Why are so few people riding the bus?

II. Catch and store energy

In the world of permaculture design, this is about making sure that no energy is wasted, whether it comes from the sun, rain, wind, or wherever. Catching it is crucial, as is storing it, since storage means having energy even when it is not still forthcoming from its source. For example, rainwater stored in a pond can be used to drive a waterwheel even during a drought.

For our purposes, this principle is about making sure that, when the right people or resources show up, we need to recognize them, draw them into our project, and ensure that their creative energy is not wasted. This might mean getting better at recognizing talents and abilities in people which we don’t need at present but will need in the future.

III. Obtain a yield

This is a big one for me, because I interpret this principle as stating that no activity should fail to produce some kind of reward or benefit to someone. Basically, this means no free labour. It means that even if volunteers are doing the work, their time and labour must be returned to them somehow. And even a small return is better than nothing.

I’ve been involved in a few planning processes which treated the volunteers from the community in an atrocious manner. And so these volunteers trickled away and the collective energy dissipated. Each time this happens the process loses the input of the community, and the community loses a sense of engagement in the process and whatever comes from it.

No one should be expected to work collaboratively on some project without ongoing rewards for their contribution. Sometimes it’s hard to do this, but this is one of the problems that must be addressed at the very early stages of any planning process. Failure to do so means creating a process which does not engage ongoing support and attract talented and enthusiastic collaborators.

IV. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

This one seems like pretty much a no-brainer, but it’s amazing to me how often a conversation about some new project will go off the rails early on and never recover. We live in a culture which finds it very hard to critically examine ourselves and our work. Everyone wants to celebrate their successes, but no one wants to learn from failure, even though failure is extremely informative. And if you don’t recognize when something is not working, then you can’t correct it. The longer it goes uncorrected, the worse the situation becomes.

A conversation leading towards a new vision or a new enterprise must be able to incorporate feedback at all times. It must be open to criticism from within and without. Everything must remain provisional and open to change as long as possible. Plans and methods will change, especially in the beginning, so we need to be ready to abandon preconceptions and change course quickly.

V. Use and value renewable resources and services

The meaning of this principle is clear enough in the domain of permaculture. In the realm of community development, I take it to be saying that we need to find sources of funding and labour which we can rely on to continue. One-time-only or startup funding is dangerous because — if the planning is not careful — it creates a need for more funding. Soon your community effort is devoting too many of its resources and time towards finding more money, and neglecting its primary mission.

I am not saying that one should never seek or accept outside funding. But too often money is seen as the universal cure-all for what are not really financial problems. Failure to observe one or more of the other principles of community development will likely lead to a situation in which only money can push things forward — because you are working against systems you should be working in concert with, or your volunteers are burning out, or you are wasting money needlessly elsewhere. As much as the planning and implementation can be done on a shoestring, so much the better.

VI. Produce no waste

Waste in the context of collaborative planning and creating new community projects can mean anything from wasted time to wasted labour to wasted good will. It’s not entirely clear how waste in the non-physical sense can be used as the input to some other process, but we should be aware of opportunities to apply our excess resources to other related projects in the community.

VII. Design from patterns to details

When entering into a planning process, it is important to stand as far back from the problem to be tackled, or the enterprise to be created, as is possible. The solution can be sketched out from this very high level before the details are filled in. And because the enterprise is being created through an iterative and ongoing series of conversations, the big picture and the minor details can be constantly revisited and rethought.

It’s not uncommon to find yourself well into some kind of planning process or series of meetings and to realize that at no time has the group had a chance to stand back from the solution they are supposed to be working on so as to name it, comprehend it, and talk about it to one another. This means that there is no genuine consensus among the group as to what they are really doing, and the end result of that is frustration when the unspoken assumptions turn out not to be shared by everyone.

A vision statement is a way of stating the whole pattern from the beginning.

VIII. Integrate rather than segregate

This is the very essence of collaborative work: the notion of pulling effort together to generate synergy. It takes wisdom and careful observation to see how various people and resources can be brought together to create a whole which is more than the sum of its parts, but failing to do so wastes effort and creates frustration.

Processes which are modeled on competitive and individualistic planning tend to pit people against each other, if subtly. As a society, we are not very adept at creating truly open spaces which bring people in and give them the tools they need to excel both as individuals and as members of a collaborative enterprise. We need to work hard at this and create our own models as we go.

IX. Use small and slow solutions

Everyone wants a big bang for the buck right away. But oversized and needlessly ambitious plans can burn people out and create false hopes. It’s better to succeed in small things, to continually re-evaluate and expand from there, than to wear ourselves out reaching for too much right away. Small and slow-building solutions allow for continual feedback and re-evaluation, and make it easier to generate some kind of payback in the early stages of development.

One area where we are seeing this principle applied is in the diverse and fast-growing area of urban agriculture, where many people are working on a small scale to develop techniques for producing food in urban spaces like backyards and abandoned properties. Generally, these begin as one-person operations and are highly experimental at first while the correct set of techniques and procedures is hammered out. Presumably these experimental and low-budget enterprises are generating a corps of technically accomplished urban farmers who can continue to expand their operation, codify the ways or working which make the most sense to their community and climate, and bring more people into their enterprise as needed.

X. Use and value diversity

One way to avoid groupthink is to invite and include a diverse set of people in your planning. Too often, collaborative projects fall into a kind of rut because the same people keep showing up with the same ideas. It’s essential to create a welcoming environment so that people who have not been part of the process can easily find a way in and feel as though they can contribute. A lot of this goes back to creating a process which is critical and self-reflexive, since an uncritical group process does not allow for newcomers whose ideas might seem far out or whose troublesome questions don’t have easy answers.

It’s not easy to keep trying to include the sort of people who might have good reasons for not being involved in the process you’re creating. All the more reason for doing so whenever possible.

XI. Use edges and value the marginal

Holmgren uses the proverb “Don’t think you are on the right track just because it’s a well-beaten path” to illustrate this principle. In permaculture, edges are of special importance because we often find particularly exuberant and productive ecosystems at the boundaries between two ecological zones. I take this principle, as it applies to collaborative planning for community development, to mean that we should constantly think about hidden places where there might be opportunities for creative new projects at the edges between ‘zones’ in our surroundings. For example, what might flourish on the edge between day-care centres and composting? Between mass transit and education? Between low-cost housing and unemployed people? This principle urges us to look harder at the places we often ignore and to see edges between two connected domains where we might otherwise see them as completely separated from each other.

XII. Creatively use and respond to change

I interpret this principle as similar to Principle IV (“Apply self-regulation and accept feedback”) only on a larger scale, the scale of societal change. We are in a time of increasing turbulence, most of it so far in the economy but more of it to be increasingly in society in general, how we work and live together with our families and with other people, and how we organize ourselves at the community level to provide for our basic and not-so-basic needs and wants. As the systems which define our society undergo these changes, we will need to stay flexible and look for opportunities to provide goods and services in ways that might not have worked well in the past.

I believe that any cooperative effort to create a new project or to change the environment or culture of some place would do well to think about applying principles like these. It’s good to have some kind of mission or vision statement or goals to work towards, but it’s probably more valuable in the long run to have a set of principles which guide the ongoing process of getting from here to there, whatever that might mean. Goals and visions can always be rethought and reworked, but a collaborative process for community development which operates under weak principles or none at all is destined to waste a lot of time and energy.


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