Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Economy: Under New Ownership By Marjorie Kelly

How cooperatives are leading the way to empowered workers and healthy communities

Pushing my grocery cart down the aisle, I spot on the fruit counter a dozen plastic bags of bananas labeled “Organic, Equal Exchange.” My heart leaps a little. I’d been thrilled, months earlier, when I found my local grocer carrying bananas—a new product from Equal Exchange—because this employee-owned cooperativeme outside Boston is one of my favorite companies. Its main business remains the fair trade coffee and chocolate the company started with in 1986. Since then, the company has flourished, and its mission remains supporting small farmer co-ops in developing countries and giving power to employees through ownership. It’s as close to an ideal company as I’ve found. And I’m delighted to see their banana business thriving, since I know it was rocky for a time. (Hence the leaping of my heart.)

I happen to know a bit more than the average shopper about Equal Exchange, because I count myself lucky to be one of its few investors who are not worker-owners. Over more than 20 years, it has paid investors a steady and impressive average of 5 percent annually (these days, a coveted return).

Maneuvering my cart toward the dairy case, I search out butter made by Cabot Creamery, and pick up some Cabot cheddar cheese. I choose Cabot because, like Equal Exchange, it’s a cooperative, owned by dairy farmers since 1919.

At the checkout, I hand over my Visa card from Summit Credit Union, a depositor-owned bank in Madison, Wis., where I lived years ago. Credit unions are another type of cooperative, meaning that members like me are partial owners, so Summit doesn’t charge us the usurious penalty rate of 25 percent or more levied by other banks at the merest breath of a late payment. They’re loyal to me, and I’m loyal to them.

On my way home, I pull up to the drive-through at Beverly Cooperative Bank to make a withdrawal. This bank is yet another kind of cooperative—owned by customers and designed to serve them. Though it’s small—with only $700 million in assets, and just four branches (all of which I could reach on my bike)—its ATM card is recognized everywhere. I’ve used it even in Copenhagen and London.

With this series of transactions on one afternoon, I am weaving my way through a profoundly different and virtually invisible world: the cooperative economy. It’s an economy that aims to serve customers, rather than extract maximum profits from them. It operates through various models, which share the goal of treating suppliers, employees, and investors fairly. The cooperative economy has dwelled alongside the corporate economy for close to two centuries. But it may be an economy whose time has come.

Something is dying in our time. As the nation struggles to recover from unsustainable personal and national debt, stagnant wages, the damages wrought by climate change, and more, a whole way of life is drawing to a close. It began with railroads and steam engines at the dawn of the Industrial Age, and over two centuries has swelled into a corporation-dominated system marked today by vast wealth inequity and bloated carbon emissions. That economy is today proving fundamentally unsustainable. We’re hitting twin limits, ecological and financial. We’re experiencing both ecological and financial overshoot.

If ecological limits are something many of us understand, we’re just beginning to find language to talk about financial limits—that point of diminishing return where the hunt for financial gain actually depletes the tax-and-wage base that sustains us all.

Here’s the problem: The very aim of maximum financial extraction is built into the foundational social architecture of our capitalist economy—that is, the concept of ownership.
If the root of government is sovereignty (the question of who controls the state), the root construct of every economy is property (the question of who controls the infrastructure of wealth creation).

Many of the great social struggles in history have come down to the issue of who will control land, water, and the essentials of life. Ownership has been at the center of the most profound changes in civilization—from ending slavery to patenting the genome of life.

Throughout the Industrial Age, the global economy has increasingly come to be dominated by a single form of ownership: the publicly traded corporation, where shares are bought and sold in stock markets. The systemic crises we face today are deeply entwined with this design, which forms the foundation of what we might call the extractive economy, intent on maximum physical and financial extraction.

The concept of extractive ownership traces its lineage to Anglo-Saxon legal tradition. The 18th century British legal theorist William Blackstone described ownership as the right to “sole and despotic dominion.” This view—the right to control one’s world in order to extract maximum benefit for oneself—is a core legitimating concept for a civilization in which white, property-owning males have claimed dominion over women, other races, laborers, and the earth itself.
In the 20th century, we were schooled to believe there were essentially two economic systems: capitalism (private ownership) and socialism/communism (public ownership). Yet both tended, in practice, to support the concentration of economic power in the hands of the few. More

 

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Permaculture, Forever Sustainability

The guru of the permaculture movement came to Duke last week.

To hear him tell it, Toby Hemenway is an ordinary guy. To see him in person, you get the sense nothing could be further from the truth. The 300+ people that crowded into Love Auditorium underscored that with a standing ovation for his talk on "How Permaculture Can Save Humanity and the Earth but Not Civilization." The lecture was jam-packed with information ranging from human evolution to gardening -- and delivered by a far-from-ordinary guy.

Hemenway sketched in his background at dinner following the lecture. Starting out as a biologist working in genetics, he eventually found himself on a management track moving away from science. He wondered what he was doing with his life.

Then serendipity or inspiration or both hit. As he prepared to move to a rural setting, visions of tending a lush garden directed him to the library to learn how. There he stumbled upon the concept of permaculture and became hooked.

Today, fresh on the heels of publishing the second edition of Gaia's Garden, Hemenway is one of the world's leading proponents of permaculture -- a modern application of horticulture in which "edible landscaping meets wildlife gardening," as his book puts it, where the landscape "provides for people as well as the rest of nature."

Permaculture 101

So what's this movement all about? Here are some main points from his talk:

  • Regeneration: Hemenway rejects the notion of sustainable development, defined by the United Nations as "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." His two problems with it:
    • The malleability of the definition of "need." One might say he needs a skim soy latte or a big car to tote around his children. But are those real needs?
    • Sustaining is simply too middle-of-the-road, blah; Hemenway prefers regeneration.
  • The oxymoron of sustainable agriculture: Agriculture, which Hemenway decribes as the "conversion of ecosystems to people," is destructive and unsustainable. It leads to overpopulation, replaces polycultures with monocultures, and inevitably converts arable land to wasteland, as evidenced by the fate of regions like Western Asia's Fertile Crescent, Greece, and America's Dust Bowl.
  • Green Revolution is food from oil: Energy from fossil fuels (which has allowed us, for one, to produce copious amounts of fertilizers) has kept agriculture alive, but that fuel supply will eventually run out.
  • Unhealthy by-products: Agriculture lowers life spans; leads to degenerative diseases, zoonosic epidemics, and cyclical famines.
  • Gardeners not farmers: Unlike agriculture, horticulture, a word from the Latin for garden, is regenerative. Hemenway cites Hopewell and Oaxaca as examples of horticultural societies that sustained themselves over millennia. (The Oaxaca eventually moved away from horticulture, becoming early developers of agricultural practices. See here and here.)
  • Horticulture`s advantages include the promotion of:
    • polyculture over monoculture,
    • succession instead of plowing and replanting,
    • ecosystem function,
    • a belief in "earth spirits instead of sky spirits" (replacing the notion of human "dominion over the earth"),
    • egalitarian as opposed to hierarchical societies,
    • time for leisure, human interaction, and cultural pursuits (resulting from less work).
  • Permaculture to the rescue: Defining permaculture as a post-industrial application of horticulture, Hemenway sees the movement as not about "going back" but "moving into." It's a design system based on observing and replicating nature. By intelligently tweaking wilderness -- much like a gardener tinkering with her garden -- one can catch and store energy in its myriad forms, making small changes for big effects. If properly applied and adapted to specific locations and conditions, it can provide an abundance of food.

Hemenway sees Gaia's Garden (and the principles of permaculture) as a manual or guide for living. Judging by the enthusiasm of the SRO audience who braved a North Carolina snowstorm to see Hemenway last Friday night, I'd say it's a guide that's provided both material and spiritual sustenance to many.

The Personal or Expansive Goal of Permaculture?

But is the guide primarily for a personal gardening experience or the survival of humanity? I suspect Hemenway and many other permaculturists believe it's the latter. I'm not so sure.

While Hemenway maintains that permaculture is about moving forward instead of going back, a world sustained by horticulture seems to me to be a lot like the Garden of Eden. Is such a way of life possible without biting into the metaphorical apple that makes us human?

During the Q&A following the talk, Hemenway was asked whether permaculture as a system of food production could provide an adequate food supply for all humanity.

Hemenway answered yes ... provided we shrink our population to about two billion. We haven't much choice in the matter, he argued, because two billion is the maximum number of people that earth can sustain. (A similar idea was advanced by Roderick Nash when he visited Duke last year.)

 

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Monsanto Conquest Attempt Meets Aztec Resistance

Monsanto has a map for conquering the world and Mexico is in the center of it.

For nearly two decades the transnational corporation that manufactures the pesticides used across the planet has been trying to take over the global seed market with genetically modified (GM) seed. If successful, most of the food we grow and eat would have to be purchased annually as seed from Monsanto. The mutant plants would grow up addicted to Monsanto herbicides. Local varieties would disappear, and in their place standardized, genetically modified food–doused with chemicals–would fill supermarket shelves and corner stores.

More than sixty thousand farmers and supporters from workers’ and environmental organizations marched through Mexico City on Jan. 31 to avoid this fate. It was one of the largest mobilizations to date to reject the Monsanto game plan, and it’s no coincidence that it took place in the heart of the Aztec Empire.

Olegario Carrillo, president of Mexican small farm organization UNORCA, addressed the crowd in the central plaza, “During the last 30 years, successive governments have tried to wipe us out. They’ve promoted measures to take away our lands, our water, our seeds, plant and animal varieties, traditional knowledge, markets. But we refuse to disappear.”

“For peasant farmers, GMOs represent looting and control,” he stated.

With tens of thousands of people shouting “No genetically modified corn in Mexico!” and “Monsanto get out!”, the march showed the muscle of an unusual grassroots movement to protect small farmers and consumers. It also revealed the remarkable success of decades of public education and organizing on an issue that Monsanto and other major biotech firms hoped would slide under the radar of the people most affected by it.

Monsanto–along with Pioneer, Dow and other chemical/biotech firms– has been pushing hard to take over production of the world’s third major staple crop: corn. Small farmers in the U.S. have long experienced the pressure exerted to move them out of the way. Monsanto predicts that its corn seed will be planted on 96 million acres in the United States this year. But the key to its plans to conquer the market lies south of the border.

The powerful corporation, the largest seed seller in the world, desperately wants permission for unrestricted planting of its GM corn in Mexico. If GM corn is planted in Mexico, it will accelerate the transfer of acreage and water rights from small farmers to corporate GM corn cultivation, thus transferring control of the national food supply as well. Widespread open planting of GM corn will lead to contamination of native varieties. This is a scientific fact. Mexico has already detected many native cornfields contaminated by GM corn during the period when open planting was prohibited—a strong indication of the impossibility of controlling open pollination between native and GM varieties.

This has huge implications. Mexico is the center of origin of corn, and the home of hundreds of varieties developed by indigenous communities over centuries. To lose in situ preservation of these varieties is to lose a wealth of agro-diversity that has major importance for sustainable food production, and to eventually become dependent on Monsanto and other large corporations to feed ourselves.

The Mexican government first legalized GM plantings through what has come to be known as the 2005 “Monsanto Law”, which the farmers are demanding be revoked. It then began issuing permits, first for experimental plantings. Having passed that phase, Monsanto has now requested permits to begin all-out commercial production. It has filed to sow some 700,000 hectares of genetically modified corn in the state of Sinaloa alone. More

 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh

Ancient Futures: Learning From Ladakh. This video shown how Permaculture could benefit Ladakh, and perhaps attract young people back to the land.

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Open and Rocky Road Post-2015

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 31 2013 (IPS) - What values does a Yemeni journalist who fuelled the Arab Spring hold in common with a former principal of the U.S. National Security Council? And how in turn will they see eye to eye with a Jordanian queen, or the president of Indonesia?

The subjects of this riddle are meeting in Monrovia as part of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s 27-member High Level Panel of Eminent Person’s on the Post-2015 Development Agenda (HLP).

The purpose of the HLP is to lead the discussion around a new framework, the post-2015 development agenda, to replace the expiring Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The HLP’s work will culminate with an advisory report to Ban in May 2013.

The meeting, which takes place between Jan. 30 and Feb. 1, is the third in a series of four. Previous meetings took place in London and New York, and the forthcoming one will take place in Bali.


“This (meeting in Monrovia) is the HLP’s chance to hear the perspectives of a wide range of organisations and individuals in Africa about their priorities for a post-2015 agenda,” said Claire Melamed, head of the Growth and Equity Programme at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI).

“It’s important those perspectives are reflected in the final report,” Melamed told IPS.

ODI, in partnership with the World Wide Web Foundation and the U.N., developed an online survey to gauge the priorities of the world’s citizens. The survey, conducted through myworld2015.org, inspired a running Twitter conversation on the topic (#post2015). The online platforms sparked international chatter that was absent during MDG discussions.

“As we witnessed in the historic events of 2011 – from the Arab spring to the rise of Occupy – the possibility of mobilising public opinion on a global scale is becoming ever-more urgent and realistic,” Rajesh Makwana, director of Share the World’s Resources (STWR), told IPS.

The airing of new voices does pose a challenge: how will 27 panellists harbour the hopes and concerns of so many people?

“My apprehension is that this process is moving in so many levels (that) there’s no priority on how these different conversations (will) come together in one place,” said Radhika Balakrishnan, executive director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership and professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers University.

“There’s consultations happening all around the world… There’s not a clear way to see how these are going to come to fruition at the end,” Balakrishnan told IPS, noting that she is still hopeful, despite the challenges.

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