Archive for the 'cooperative' Category

Wrong

By David Parkinson

Crocus, the trailblazer, unafraid to be the first flower to bloom.

Listen to my song,
It isn’t very long,
You’ll see before I’m gone
That everybody’s wrong.
(“Everybody’s Wrong”; Stephen Stills/Buffalo Springfield, 1966)

Winter is slowly turning to spring here; crocuses and snowdrops are up and trees are gradually budding out. The hibernation of the year’s round of activities is slipping off: Seedy Saturday, which I think of as the opening event in the warm season, is only two weeks and a bit away, and there is a ferment of activity around Powell River, with citizens engaging with the City’s plans for liquid waste management and its plan to rezone the former arena site in town. We’re in a municipal election year and people seem to gearing up for it.

Out there in the wider world, all hell appears to be breaking loose. I’m never sure whether my perception of an increase in general mayhem meshes with reality, but it does look as though instability throughout the global economic system is beginning to permeate the social and political sphere to a greater degree than usual. The flareup in North Africa and Wisconsin’s sudden desire to return to the 19th Century are visible signs of some kind of unusual tremors; but it’s the steady drumbeat of corruption, misdirected effort, make-work in high places, lies, idiocy, counterproductivity, bogus expertise, worn-out fairy tales, and infantile wish-fulfillment fantasies that just keeps sounding louder and more insistent to me. It’s hard to prove that things are any weirder or more unhinged than they have ever been: each new signpost stands alone and we can choose to explain them away as they emerge, or we can, without much effort, see them fit into a larger picture — just another brush-stroke on the canvas.

The danger here is to be as sure as we can be that the big picture is not a paint-by-numbers set, where the outcome is predetermined and our only task is to fit the paint to the pattern. I hope (although I know that this is a thwarted hope) that we all observe the world and the things that happen in it as pointed challenges to our worldview, as observations always in need of proper explanation and not just more data to slide easily into their assigned place in our static outlook. Once we stop paying real attention to the meaning of the things we see, choosing to treat them just as more evidence of what we already know to be true, we begin imposing a kind of internal conformity on our own minds. It’s bad enough to suffer from the need to suppress our own creativity in the face of overwhelming social pressure; but when the pressure to quiet our rebellious mental impulses comes from within, it’s a step along the road to complete shut-down. And this is where we find ourselves, more and more; a very sad and dangerous place to slide into. Especially without being aware that it’s happening.

I’m thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately, because I’m finding it a challenge to make sense of anything I see going on. The human motivations, the social reasons, the economic justifications for the ways we structure our activities and relate to one another are, if anything, getting harder to figure out and resolve so that I can comfortably put them into their place and move on to other things. They come too quickly, from strange new directions, bearing the signs of who knows what unforeseen arrangements of hidden forces.

I can only think that the systems we’ve developed, and the mind-boggling complexity of the ways they interact, reinforce, and contradict each other, are creating a kind of widespread counterproductivity that is making it harder all the time for anything genuinely useful and humane to flourish. Possibilities are closing off in the visible parts of the system, but new configurations are still struggling to be born. And I believe that, without having a vocabulary for this kind of rolling deadlock of ever-growing futility (and worse), many people are picking up on a feeling of dead-endedness. We have entered the doldrums and no wind is blowing us out of here. As is so often the case in human affairs, that which matters most is to be spoken of least. We keep mum for fear of appearing fearful, believing the others to know what we know we don’t. This is the borderline between comedy and tragedy that runs right up the middle of each mind and every society.

I just started to read John Restakis’ 2010 book Humanizing the Economy: Co-operatives in the Age of Capital, and it’s pretty hot stuff. John is the Executive Director of the BC Co-operative Association, and someone I would love to bring up to Powell River to talk and meet with people around here. The turnout and enthusiasm at Skookum’s recent public event suggests that there is a lot of pent-up interest in cooperatives around here.

Here is something I read last night resonated with this vague sense I’ve been having for months now that we need new ways out of predicaments we hardly know how to name:

The inability to imagine an alternative is the final triumph of ideology. As William Leach [in Land of Desire: Merchants, Powers, and the Rise of a New American Culture, Vintage 1994] put it so well, the enthronement of consumerism and the acceptance of corporate capitalism as its social mechanism has diminished public life, denying people everywhere “access to insight into other ways of organizing and conceiving life, insight that might have endowed their consent to the dominant culture … with real democracy.” It is here that the most difficult, the most necessary work must be done to advance a more fully human vision of what economies might be and how such economies might be constructed. (p. 26)

This really struck a chord with me, since I have come to believe very strongly that one of the causes of our culture’s growing brittleness is precisely this inability to conceive, or consider, or value alternative answers to the questions we ask — let alone all the questions we don’t know how to form — about who we are, individually and collectively, what we’re doing, and why. Lost opportunities to find alternatives consolidate existing problems, but we’re all too busy running along the predestined grooves to look up and take time for the frivolous exercise of our innate creativity. Keep running!

The promising shoots of new growth so often get blunted or neutralized by being drawn into the inertia of the system they’re meant to challenge, however weakly or unreflexively this challenge might be mounted. Our fear of being wrong is so powerful that we’d rather dither and burn out in the unheroic middle ground. Everywhere we look, promising new approaches wither away while the same old deadly, ridiculous, pointless methods and attitudes thrive and spread. The mere act of persisting in something that rubs against the grain is a necessary act; the only way to have a true purpose is to be wrong by wrong standards, to deliberately set out to confound and disturb the accepted wisdom (which is rarely wisdom, only unthinking habit pretending to rest on principles).

This week I read of a fine example of how unhinged things are, from Mark Bittman’s blog: a sidelong look at McDonald’s new breakfast offering, oatmeal, which, as you would expect, they manage to fuck up almost completely, turning a cheap and nutritious food into expensive junk. As Bittman notes, “Incredibly, the McDonald’s product contains more sugar than a Snickers bar and only 10 fewer calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger or Egg McMuffin.” I come at this as a confirmed daily oatmeal-eater, and I know that picking holes in McDonald’s food and foodlike products is cheap sport. But what I thought of when I read this is how hard it is in this upside-down world to start up and fund a breakfast program for schoolchildren, one that might serve inexpensive healthful (and locally growable) foods like oatmeal. I know, from sitting at the table of the Nutrition Committee of the local School District, something about the hurdles that stand between hungry children and food. We tolerate them, although we know it’s wrong and a sign of a society in trouble that in the midst of extreme wealth and ostentation there are children showing up at school unfed. And we tolerate McDonald’s serving this nasty overpriced food, because after all there’s not much for us to say or do about it. It’s a free market. It’s wrong, but we’re stuck with it. And the alternatives are just too hard to imagine; if we can imagine them, they’re impractical or obviously crazy; and who are we to kick against the pricks?

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Shelter turns to retreat

By David Parkinson

Dilapidation. Cracks appear in the surface. So far, the wall retains its integrity...

There are not only wrong answers, there are also wrong questions, and these wrong questions are ideology.
(Slavoj Žižek)

Walls are for making distinctions in the physical world. On one side of the wall: warmth; on the other side: cold and wet. One one side: freedom; on the other: captivity. One side: mine; other side: yours. Walls also make divisions in the worlds inside our heads. Sometimes these are useful ones and sometimes harmful. We’re dualists through cultural indoctrination, talented at cutting the world with knives that split things in two. The more we cut the more we end up with fragments of what was once whole. Love/hate, good/bad, rich/poor, friend/enemy, and so on. We fall in love with these simplistic pieces of the world, to the point where they mean more to us than the real world — if we can even tell what it means anymore for the world to be real.

The amazing wealth we possess has allowed us to build strong, thick, high walls between us, and between the human and the non-human world. We have become adept at insulating ourselves from traditional human challenges: the need to shelter from the elements, to feed ourselves, to live together in communities with a high degree of interdependence. We have achieved the luxury of choosing our means of solving these problems, and of doing so as a matter of individual choice. We do not hunt or gather as a collective, nor do we travel together or live together in any meaningful way. Our wealth has allowed us to exile children and old people from the family home, since they interfere with the main business of living. And almost everything we do is mediated by money or other technologies.

It doesn’t take a conspiracy to deform human society to the point where we have become almost entirely dependent on forces beyond anyone’s control for the provision of our basic needs. There are no shadowy figures pulling the strings from behind the scenes. The incredible wealth derived from our plunder of the planet’s resources, all of which has been made possible by the exploitation of fossil fuels, has concentrated power in corporate hands. At the same time, there has been such an excess that it could be spread around, so nation-states (especially those in Europe and North America) could afford to liberalize the distribution of the surplus. Public education, the right to vote, houses, cars, travel, retirement, health care — there has been so much wealth that elites could afford to let go of enough of it to ensure widespread participation in and support for the rules of the game. Nothing nefarious in all that; just pure calculation of costs and benefits.

Now it feels as though the system is cracking. The kleptocracy that was always winked at (if we bothered to acknowledge it at all) is coming out into the open. Cynicism is spreading, as is fear of what the future holds. (Right now we can still afford to call it ‘nervousness’.) The walls we had the luxury to build during the good times are starting to look less like containers to hold the good times in, and more like barriers that keep us separated at the time when we need to start re-learning the ancient arts of collective effort.

Our political class wants us to imagine that the good times are heading our way again. Perhaps they’re right, although it’s hard to imagine how, once you read all the symptoms and their interconnectedness. If it were in the interests of our elected leaders to be frank with us, that would be a different business altogether. As it is, we’re on our own and getting more so everyday. We can choose to work our way out of this walled-in predicament, but it’s going to take constant effort after a recognition that separation and isolation are neither natural nor useful.

And yet — each step we take in the direction of collaboration and collective risk-sharing seems to take forever, as though we’re swimming against a strong current. (We are.) Maybe the best we can hope for is to be ready for the idea of sharing and working together, so that when historical forces make it inevitable we’ll be able to snap into action quickly. Of course, the only real way to get used to working together is by doing so; and we might as well be working together on creating the structures that will become more important to the community as the economy declines, the cost of fuel rises, and jobs become scarcer and worse-paying. These changes will disproportionately affect people at the low end; the ones who are already close to the edge with chaotic lives and few resources. One horrifying aspect of our walled-in individualistic culture is that we do not need to see these people and their situation for what it really is. Our lovely things and our annual winter getaways don’t have to seem connected to the desperate struggles of our own neighbours, since we can always tell ourselves that it must be their fault for living the way they do.

The first task is to understand that the way things are is not inevitable. Next is to understand that they are not the result of some gigantic conspiracy against which we are powerless. Lastly, we need to accept that there is a great deal we can all do, in many small ways, to create connections among people, to attack isolation, to see over the walls we’ve let grow up around us.

To learn about one way that we can start to build common tools for working together and overcoming our separateness, come out at 6:00 PM on Wednesday February 9 to the United Church Hall at 6932 Crofton St. in Powell River to hear Carol Murray talk about cooperatives: what they can do and how to create them. Carol is the Director of Co-op Development at the BC Co-operative Association. This event is sponsored by Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative, and will start off with food at 6:00 PM and a presentation at 7:00 PM.

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.

“Its origin and purpose are still a total mystery.”

By David Parkinson

Blueberry flowers enduring the drizzle

All you want to do is something good,
So get ready to be ridiculed and misunderstood;
Cos don’t you know that you’re a fucking freak in this world,
In which everybody’s willing to choose swine over pearls.
(Aimee Mann, It’s Not Safe)

The path from spring to summer seems to be meandering through winter this year. This past weekend we were treated to weather pretty much straight out of November’s repertoire, although with uncannily long days instead of the usual five o’clock shadow and shutdown. The plants shiver and wait for better weather, but the slugs are in their element. Eventually, though, the record will stop skipping and we’ll go on with the expected progression into the long hot days of unbroken sunshine: tomato weather.

In the meantime, preparations for summer are in full swing. The 50-Mile Eat-Local Challenge will be celebrating its fifth year this year, and of course we will be presenting another Edible Garden Tour on Sunday August 8, 2010, as the kickoff event of the 50 days of the eat-local challenge. (Feel free to contact me if you would like more information on either of these projects, or if you’d like to get involved as a volunteer.)

Closer in, the board of the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative is getting ready for our first Annual General Meeting, to be held on Wednesday June 23, 2010, at 7:00 PM at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. The preparations means creating a flurry of documents, getting ready to amend our rules, creating reports on our progress and finances, and generally being ready to stand accountable before our membership as their representatives. The best part of the meeting is that we will elect a new set of directors, who will have a democratic mandate to continue working towards our vision, using our values and principles as a compass.

But what is the cooperative actually doing? What is it for? I can tell that people are confused. I know for a fact that some people who hear that there is a cooperative in the region automatically think that we are planning to start a bulk-food or natural-food store. I’ve had it reported to me on good authority that someone out there believes that we are starting up another feed store, like the old Farmers’ Institute cooperative store which eventually became the Rainbow Valley Pet & Feed  Store after the rancorous breakup of the cooperative.

Obviously there might be some confusion about any new organization, especially one with a slightly cryptic name. People see the words “food” and “cooperative” in close proximity, and naturally they think of a food store. And the word “cooperative” carries other connotations for those who remember the demise of the old feed store. What the heck is a “provisioner”, anyway? It doesn’t help that, as I have learned lately, many people really do not understand what a cooperative is and how it differs from other corporate structures, such as the limited-liability corporation or the not-for-profit society. So one of the challenges for Skookum is to spread the word about the structure and philosophy behind the cooperative movement. We’ll get there, but it’s going to be a long process of teaching and learning together.

The main idea behind the formation of Skookum, which is simple but somewhat abstract, is that we need to kickstart many more experiments in strengthening the local food economy. There are many things going on in the region, but many of them are fundamentally working in isolation when they could be working together better. It is our belief that people want to be able to work better together, to share tangible and intangible goods, and to create things which are more than the sum of their parts. But it’s hard to make that happen; it takes a huge investment of time and energy to meet up with the others who have what you need and need what you have.

Without a structure to make this sort of collective effort possible, though, it simply won’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in conversations sparkling with great ideas and positive energy; but if those ideas don’t get some kind of nurturing support, they just get filed away, along with all the other wonderful things we could do if we had enough time, or money, or something we never seem to have.

So the essence of Skookum is that it’s designed to be a marketplace of ideas about how we can all work together to produce and preserve more food. We have members so that we can crowdsource solutions and so that we can easily gauge the amount and intensity of interest in any project that we might propose. The more members, the more projects we can sustain and distribute among the membership — also, the more easily we can pay for our projects and other expenses.

At its core, it’s a way to organize and connect together the people in the region most likely to have crazy ideas about getting more local food happening. Like a dating service for local-food freaks and compulsive backyard growers.

Let’s take a simple example. Imagine that I would like to grow chickpeas to support my out-of-control hummus habit, but that I don’t have enough space in my backyard garden for any significant amount. So I put the word out through the membership to see who else would be interested in working together to grow a large amount of chickpeas. Two or three people respond, letting me know that they would be very interested and would help with all the soil preparation, tilling, hoeing, weeding, watering, and harvesting. A few others respond to say that they would be happy to participate as subscribers to the harvest, and would be willing to pay extra to support the labour of the three or four people who will be the main workers.

The organizing team goes forth, finds some land it can beg, borrow, or steal for the purpose of growing a little field of chickpeas. Everyone tosses in some money to buy a good amount of chickpea seed, amendments, and whatever else it needs to get from seed to harvest. The project works on a share basis, meaning that whatever the harvest comes to, it will be divvied into equal shares. Some amount of the final harvest is set aside as a community share which we will donate to an organization that deals with people in need; or else we will sell it as a share and donate the money to that organization. (In case they’d rather have money than chickpeas.)

Built into the cashflow of the project will be some kind of payment or recognition for the labour, expertise, tools, etc. contributed by the members who organize the project and ensure its success. Every successful project, no matter what it does, has at its centre a person or a group of people who take primary responsibility: they make the phone calls, organize the meetings, and deal with the crises. Too often these people’s contributions are passed over. One of Skookum’s strong commitments is to provide fair wages for this critical work, because if we are going to have a functioning local food economy we need to find and nurture the special people who go out and get things done (as opposed to talking about getting things done). They deserve a reward for their valuable gifts of initiative and determination.

So the outcomes of this little chickpea project are:

  • more people know something about how to grow chickpeas;
  • more people have some locally-grown chickpeas;
  • some people got paid or otherwise remunerated for spearheading this project;
  • probably some new connections were formed among members of the cooperative and members of the wider community;
  • some members of the community benefited by receiving chickpeas or some equivalent donation.

Nothing terrifically earth-shattering, but if we get enough of these little projects up and running, achieving some kind of self-perpetuation, returning value to their participants and to the community, then we will be sending a message about the power of cooperative effort. And the best part is that all of this activity will be 100% democratic and accountable. There will be no need to rely on the goodness of those who own the business. The business will be owned and managed by anyone in the community who wants to pitch in. And that is the real magic ingredient here: I do not believe that we will organize our way out of the impasse we’re in by retooling private ownership to give it a greenish veneer. There needs to be a much greater degree of public involvement in the food system, or else we’re going to continue enriching the few who make the decisions which generally do not reflect the interests or the will of the people.

It will take some time before this all becomes clear. In a way, we’re fighting our way out of the murk of bad and increasingly outdated ideology. All we can see are problems, and all solutions seem equally plausible or implausible. So we need to keep trying anything but what the rules of game dictate: cooperation instead of competition; collective ownership and management instead of private capitalization and profit-taking; openness and transparency instead of boardroom decision-making and political railroading; togetherness instead of isolation. If we persist, sooner or later something will work. Trust me.

And… we’re off!

By David Parkinson

A springtime harvest of delicious and beautiful purple broccoli

There seems to be three ways for a nation to acquire wealth:  the first is by war…this is robbery; the second by commerce, which is generally cheating; the third by agriculture, the only honest way.
(Benjamin Franklin)

Last Tuesday evening the newly-formed Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative held its first public information meeting at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. The purpose of the evening was to share information about how we got to where we are, what we intend to do, and how our members can fit into all that.

One thing I realized as I assembled notes for my presentation was how much progress six novices managed to make in five months. Our first meeting to talk about forming a cooperative was back on November 27, 2009; so the public meeting last week was our five-month anniversary. In that short time, armed with little more than determination and persistence, this initiating team accomplished the following:

  • learned how to incorporate as a cooperative;
  • specifically, learned how to incorporate as a not-for-profit — or community service — cooperative;
  • learned how to amend the standard rules in order to create the governance structure we wanted to see;
  • wrote a vision statement (“A thriving community with a strong and reliable local food network”);
  • started drafting a statement of values and principles for directing our operations;
  • bought a domain, created a basic website, and set up email accounts;
  • created a logo;
  • started recruiting members;
  • began work on one major project, the Fruit Tree Project, and have started to line up other potential projects for this year or next.

I’m sure there is more, but these are some of the highlights.

But why, you ask? Why create yet another organization? What sets this one apart?

I’m still trying to figure out my best answer to questions like these. But the one thing about cooperatives that most interests me and the other members of the initiating team, who are now the board of first directors, is that they are highly member-driven organizations. A cooperative without members is not a cooperative, and cooperatives come into existence in order to supply its members with goods or services which they might otherwise struggle to supply for themselves.

In this case, the main gaps we aim to fill are shared skills, knowledge, and resources. Increasingly, people seem to be getting the message about the importance of food production to the local economy and to a broader picture of sustainability and resilience. Although it’s hard to gauge, there is uncertainty out there about the future and about our ability to keep the food supply running as it has been doing for the past few decades. Interest in local food continues to increase.

But once people start to question the global industrialized food system, how are they supposed to change the way they shop, prepare food, and eat? Some of us have what it takes to start tearing up the lawn to make room for purple broccoli and so on; but many people will feel that they don’t know enough about growing food, or they haven’t spent any time doing it and so it would fail. Or they haven’t got the time, or the tools, or a friendly neighbour they can work with or bounce ideas off. And so the good intentions, as they so often do, fall away and never manifest themselves as positive action.

What people need is a proper community of fellow food-producers (and -processors, and -preservers, and -preparers, and…) with whom they can share plans, garden space, seeds, tools, time, labour, laughter, and everything else that helps us all participate in a “strong and reliable local food network”.

This is where the Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative comes in. We chose the word “Provisioners” deliberately: a provisioner is traditionally someone who supplies provisions, meaning food and drink, usually to an army or other large group of people. And of course provision also means forethought or foresight: to make provision for something means to take it into account in one’s plans. Provisions are preparations in advance of some foreseeable event or situation. We wanted to play on this cluster of related meanings — to suggest that each one of us has what it takes to make provisions — to indicate that we can all become provisioners and escape the narrow confines of being either a passive consumer or an all-powerful producer. Just regular folks who know where their food comes from, how it got there, and where it’s going. United into a community of provisioners supporting and strengthening each other.

In this sense, many people up until about World War II were provisioners: they had some idea what it takes to produce, store, preserve, and prepare food for themselves and their families. Most of this work was considered women’s work, but it was respected as vital to the prosperity of the family and the community. We need to get these skills back into regular circulation, but we need to help people ease back into them. Many people are utterly daunted by the idea of tearing up lawn to create garden; or canning large amounts of food and storing it against lean times; or making sauerkraut; or foraging for wild foods; or building and using a root cellar; and on and on it goes.

So the only way out of this that we can see is to create a community of people working together to save money, time, and effort as they increase the amount of food being produced, preserved, stored, and prepared in the region. We intend to work with our members to design and implement projects which will attract people who want to secure their household food supply, but need the impetus of working with others, acquiring skills through doing, gaining knowledge through talking and listening, sharing tools and equipment that they cannot afford to buy for themselves. The Skookum Food Provisioners’ Cooperative was set up to be the framework within which we can make that happen.

Some people out there are the fearless leaders and trailblazers who don’t let any obstacles slow them down. But more are cautious and need support and encouragement. If we’re going to create a grassroots revival of traditional food skills, we’ll need to create new institutions to bring back those skills. This is not something which can happen through the existing consumer model. We cannot shop our way out of our passivity. It’s time to start creating shared projects and community institutions that bring people together. Ones which are open, honest, and fair, and increase people’s sense of a hopeful convivial future.

If this appeals to you, please consider becoming a member and helping us figure out how we can get more people involved in the local food network. Our first general meeting will be on Wednesday June 23, 2010, at 7:00 PM at Vancouver Island University in Powell River. In order to participate in this general meeting, you will need to become a member before May 24, 2010. For more information, drop us a line. We need you!

Serving the community, cooperatively

By David Parkinson

Like a bird on the wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free. (Photograph by Giovanni Spezzacatena.)

The best place to store your extra food is in your neighbor’s belly.
(African proverb)

Last week I talked about blending entrepreneurial and not-for-profit approaches to filling some of the real gaps in the regional economy, particularly the food economy. The entrepreneurial — or for-profit — approach is a good one when there is a real gap to be filled, where there are needed goods or services not being supplied by existing businesses; and the not-for-profit — or community service — approach excels where there is a gap which might not necessarily be filled by a market-driven approach, either because it is not profitable enough to attract investors or because it is a public good best provided by an association of individuals willing to sacrifice profit to the benefit of the wider community.

Powell River has many not-for-profit corporations serving the community in a variety of ways: The Powell River Association for Community Living (PRACL), Powell River Therapeutic Riding Association, Pebble in the Pond Environmental Society, The Source Club Society, and on and on… what these corporations have in common is that they have chosen to incorporate as not-for-profit societies. There is a common misconception about what it means to be a not-for-profit: it does not mean that “there is no money in it”, or that it is the sort of thing that can only work on the basis of government funding or charitable donations.

The essence of being a not-for-profit corporation is that whatever profits are generated through the activities of the corporation cannot be distributed to the members. In other words, no one can invest money in a not-for-profit with the hope of seeing a profitable return on that money. Instead, a not-for-profit corporation is a legal device for allowing a number of people to come together to achieve goals or transact business that would be difficult for any of them to do on their own, and to do that without the profit motive getting mixed up in what is usually a service to the community.

A not-for-profit corporation can indeed produce a surplus through its operations, in which case it can reinvest that surplus in those operations by purchasing equipment, starting new projects, training its staff, or in any number of other ways that will allow the organization to thrive. And those operations may produce direct economic benefit to the community by paying wages and salaries and by purchasing goods and services from other businesses. What the not-for-profit cannot do is offer dividends or other financial bonuses to its members. The membership of a not-for-profit and all other individuals or corporate partners who contribute money to it recognize that achieving the purposes of the corporation is more important than making a profit on the money they contribute.

They recognize that its status as a provider of a public good is higher than its status as a tool for increasing capital. In other words, they see it as a part of the commons.

A cooperative is a particular kind of association with its own set of provincial laws and regulations, and which operates according to principles which have been evolving since the origins of the cooperative back in the middle of the 19th Century. You may be familiar with a cooperative through membership in the Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC), through belonging to our local credit union (the first one in BC), or through belonging to a food cooperative.

Most cooperatives (e.g., MEC, First Credit Union) are for-profit, which means that any surplus they generate through their activities can be returned to members in the form of dividends or patronage returns. Dividends are determined on the basis of the number of shares owned; patronage returns on the basis of the amount of business transacted with the cooperative. (The credit union pays dividends; MEC pays patronage returns.) A for-profit cooperative may also issue investment shares, which allow investors (who are not necessarily members) to put their money into the cooperative in hopes of a return on that capital.

There is also a class of not-for-profit cooperatives, known in BC as ‘community service cooperatives‘. As the for-profit cooperative is to the for-profit corporation, the community service cooperative is to the not-for-profit corporation (society or association). As the name ‘community service cooperative’ suggests, these are often used as a way of providing a service to the community in general, as opposed to cooperatives like MEC and the First Credit Union, which primarily serve the interests of their members. (Although cooperatives, even for-profit ones, often have a very high degree of commitment to community service.)

The legislation defining the community service cooperative came into effect as recently as 2007, and so this model remains to be developed and tested in a variety of different areas and for different purposes. But it offers an appealing combination of the power of cooperative association combined with the ability to provide valuable services to the community as a whole.

Since late November 2009 I have been part of a small team of people learning how cooperatives work and how to get one started. This work picks up on the sorts of thinking that I set out in a couple of posts from back in October 2009: “Why we need a food-security cooperative” and “What can a local food-security cooperative do?“. What we’re looking at are ways to organize people to work together on projects that they might find hard to accomplish on their own — and on projects where there are real economies of scale to be had by pooling labour, time, or money. Examples of this sort of thing can be found in the two posts linked to just above; but a good example would be a commonly-owned fruit crusher and cider press which could be used by members and the general public to convert fruit to cider or wine for the few weeks of the year when the fruit is most abundant. Why should everyone need to own expensive equipment like this? Why not belong to a group which serves common needs without introducing the profit motive?

There is a great deal more to say about the structure and the motivation of a cooperative (coming up in future columns). But for our little initiating group, it is clear that food — of all things — is so fundamental to the life of the individual and of the community that we need to empower people to work for themselves and with one another in order to make more food available locally year-round, as equitably and affordably as possible, and with the least negaitve impacts on the environment. It will help to have an active and activist regional organization which is open to all, dedicated to the creation of a stronger local food economy, driven by the interests and needs of its members, fully accountable to the membership and to the wider community, and obliged by its very nature to place community service above individual profit-making. That’s where we’re heading — and very soon we’ll be asking you to come along with us.

If you want to know more, please feel free to email me. Or you can come out to the upcoming Chamber of Commoners event on Wednesday February 10 and to the fifth annual Seedy Saturday in Powell River on March 13, 2010 at the Powell River Recreation Complex. We’ll be at both of these events to answer questions and hear your wonderful ideas.

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?


Post facto

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