Why cooperation?

I do a lot in the realm of cooperation and cooperatives…in my courses, in conversations with people, and in real life. I was recently asked by someone about how and why I got into cooperatives and cooperation…and this was via e-mail, so I had to write it down, succinctly. Here is what I said:

“I teach economics, as I mentioned. At COA, off course there are plenty of students interested in sustainability, and also quite a few who are suspicious of standard economics. Ecological economics answers both situations: it’s the economics of sustainability, and is in marked contrast to standard economics in lots of ways. Once I got into teaching ecological economics, I got into sustainable food systems, which led me to farming. It turns out, additionally however, that a lot of ecological economists see cooperatives and a cooperative economy as a necessary part of some kind of “sustainable” future. So much of sustainability is somewhat hopeless/depressing (once you start looking at it systematically and intensely as ecological economics does), but cooperatives are a major bright spot, one of the few places where change can be real, effective, and possible (possible, as opposed to, for example, us stopping using carbon-based fuels anytime soon; getting rid of carbon would be *highly desirable,* but I think it will be a cold day in hell before we actually restrain ourselves in this realm, and many other, realms). Plus, my students love the idea of a cooperative economy, it really gets them excited and inspired. So I work it into a lot of my classes, have a new dedicated class (The Economics of Cooperation, Networks, and Trust), and do cooperation in real life whenever I can. I’ve been involved in co-op startup efforts in Bar Harbor and Seal Harbor (both ultimately unsuccessful), co-managed a buying club for about 4 years, and am working with another farm toward some kind of producer co-op for local foods in Knox County. Throw in 1) the desperate state of the rural Maine economy and resulting out-migration of young people, and  2) the financial constraints to doing small scale sustainable agriculture as a sole proprietor, and all off a sudden co-ops and cooperation make for a pretty important topic.

    Part of all this work is the result that I’m not starry-eyed about co-ops…they are amazing at providing lots of different things, but there is also cold hard economic logic that explains why they make up so little of our economy (but the variables behind that logic can change…people need to re-evaluate what’s important to them, or not be told by corporate American what is important to them). So I tend to spell things out, not ignore the tough economics of cooperatives and cooperation, but am constantly hopeful that we can do better. I do think the U.S. (and Maine in particular) could and should develop a cooperative economy.”
    That about explains it.


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