“If you don’t know something is possible, you can’t choose to do it.”
– Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, L. Hunter Lovins
Talk alone is pointless. The best ideas in the world are meaningless unless acted upon. Something must be done. There’s an old proverb that says, “You must give your prayers legs.” Hoping and praying and wishing for a thing will accomplish very little unless you do something. You can pray to your god for years asking to win the lottery, but you have to buy a ticket to have any chance of winning. If we want a better world, a brighter future, and a better system, we have to get off our butts and do something about it.
Where do we begin? I’ve presented plenty of ideas and suggestions already, but now I’ll put all the pieces together and hopefully you’ll get a clear picture of what I propose. Note that this isn’t necessarily a linear process. We’re creating a web of inter-connectivity and many of these “steps” will occur concurrently.
Step 1: A Company
First off, it will take a company.
“If Utopia is to emerge, it will do so primarily from the world of business. This only makes sense. When defined as a condition of society as a whole, of an entire culture, Utopia cannot be instituted by an individual or small deviant group; it can only be instituted through our largest, best-organized, everyday institutions. Only such large organizations have the structure, the wherewithal, and the motive to provide and demand of their employees the continuing on-the-job training required.”
– M. Scott Peck, M.D.,
A World Waiting to Be Born
Yes, I’ve said some bad things about corporations and they’re all true in far too many cases, but corporations can be used for good instead of evil. They can move humanity forward instead of facilitating our destruction. The key is creating a company that respects and values those that work within it. This is why sociocracy and the cooperative structure are necessary. That said, a company with enough capital has the muscle needed to effect real change. A grass roots effort won’t do it. Political activism won’t do it. Hugging trees, communal meals, and drum circles won’t do it. It takes a company around which other supporting companies can (and eventually must) be built. All such companies will need to be employee-owned cooperatives based on the Mondragon model, incorporating the Rochdale Principles, and operating sociocratically. It’s the creation of the first core company that begins the process of creating a sustainable, integrated, holistic community as described in the preceding posts. What’s needed is solid research, a sound plan, a good design, and the right people. Much of the research, plan, and design has already been discussed. What’s needed is the right people and the capital to finance the vision and create the company.
Mondragon began with a company manufacturing stoves and heaters. That is a good starting point. Making a product requires people, raw materials, distribution outlets, and support services. Thus, manufacturing is perfect for generating new companies. However, it can be very expensive, as the start up cost are enormous. A better idea is to create a company to develop and manage a piece of land. 640-1000 acres would be enough to create the type of community described herein, and, when completed, would meet the needs of a population of 7,000-10,000. So, the first company is, by necessity, a development company. That company will also become the management company for the cooperative community and supply properly trained managers to all subsequent companies. This way, we can ensure that the core principles of cooperation and sustainability are encoded within every other company that follows. The development & management company could be small initially but should consist of experienced green developers, executive managers, project managers, designers, engineers, visionaries and others that have the skills needed to get the cooperative community project off the ground. These would become the first employee owners of the first cooperative company within the matrix. This would be the seed that produces a community that is both economically and environmentally sustainable.
The initial financing is perhaps the single trickiest part. If I were a multi-millionaire it would be a done deal and I’d be well on my way to creating such a cooperative community, instead of sitting here in my sweatpants writing about it. Until that day comes, I’ll keep buying lottery tickets and hoping for the best. Finding the money may prove daunting because what is being attempted is unlike anything else and requires some creative thinking and vision on the part of those with the money. A socially responsible banking fund is one option, but getting one set up could take years and even then there’s no guarantee the project would get a loan. Land development deals are often viewed with caution because there are so many variables – so many things that can go wrong, doubly so when trying to shift the paradigm to an entirely new system. Another down side to the socially responsible fund idea is that the cooperative really needs a credit union, not a bank, and that cannot really be done until a later stage when there are more companies and more employees in the mix.
Venture capital is another option, although it would have to be a clearly defined deal that specified that the core employee-owned development & management company maintain control and that, once a certain return on investment was reached, the lender had no further stake in the process. This is so improbable it may as well be impossible, as venture capitalists always want control. Still a better option might be to find donors that believe enough in the concept to put their money behind the project. These could be either private donors, individuals with deep pockets and good hearts, or foundations committed to funding efforts in sustainability, intelligent land use, social issues, worker rights, green building, green economies, etc.
Step 2: Land
Regardless of how the financing is arranged or the capital acquired, the next step is to find and secure land to accommodate the ambitious aims of the vision. This would be done in full compliance with all applicable laws and ordinances.
As already stated, almost any business would be a good starting point provided that the start-up costs are reasonable. That said, it would be wise to find something based on manufacturing and/or agriculture as both will readily generate many jobs for skilled and unskilled workers, and allow for the rapid creation of secondary companies. I believe this is doubly true if there is an agricultural component in the manufacturing process, using a crop as a raw material for example.
One possibility is an ecological building brick. There are various versions of these on the market today. Some look almost exactly like concrete blocks, but with a fraction of the weight and far superior insulating properties. These can be made using kenaf – a crop that is cultivated in many parts of the United States and around the world. This creates another use for the agricultural space within the community (in addition to food crops) and provides the raw material for the eco-brick making process. Furthermore, a construction company is now needed to build the factory. The construction company should, of course, be employee-owned, and run by managers who are employee-owners of the development/management company. Part of the initial capital is used to pay the construction company to build the factory, another part is used to purchase the land, and the rest is used to pay the employee owners and conduct the business of the core development/management company.
Another option is an agribusiness consisting of interrelated food products based on organic farming and aquaponics. Aquaponics uses fish waste to provide nutrients for plants within a closed system. Fish are raised in tanks and – as fish will do – . create wastes that pollute the water. The water is pumped through a system of troughs with floating rafts that grow various commercial crops. The plants’ roots clean the water, which then returns to the tanks of fish. The plants need the fish for food and the fish need the plants to clean the water. It’s a mutually beneficial system that uses a fraction of the water needed to grow crops conventionally and in less space with less work. Furthermore, aquaponics creates multiple revenue streams, since both the fish and food crops are available to sell to consumers.
Once the land is purchased – enough for the factory (or whatever the primary business requires) and a full-scale community/village – it is placed in a Community Land Trust under the jurisdiction of the Cooperative Association – which at that time will most likely consists of the development/management company, the eco-brick company or aquaponics farm, and a construction company (but more employee-owned cooperative companies will soon follow). At that point, the process really kicks in. The construction company builds the brick factory. Once built, the construction company orders brick from the factory so that it can begin construction of the other offices, apartments, homes and businesses in the community. Thus, the construction company and the brick factory both start with a positive cash flow courtesy of customers with big projects. Revenues from these contracts are placed into the cooperative’s credit union according to the 70-20-10 Mondragon model. Money from the collective account allows loans to be made to start other cooperatives within the community. In short order the businesses needed to support the core companies can be created. Instead of having a giant corporation with a legal department, accounting department, human resources department, and so on, individual employee-owned cooperative companies are created to provide these services. These companies service the accounts of the Cooperative Association companies and take on work from outside the cooperative as well. This, in turn, increases cash flow and places more money in the cooperative credit union, which fuels further development. In effect, the cooperative pays itself to work for itself thereby creating work for itself.
“The key characteristic of a living network is that it continually produces itself. It is produced by its components and in turn produces those components.”
– Fritjof Capra,
The Web of Life
Step 3: Create Cooperative Companies while Building the Community
Given the current state of the economy and the disenchantment so many are feeling toward corporate greed and impropriety, finding employees and managers willing to try a career as an employee owner of a large sociocratic cooperative enterprise should be no problem. Word will likely spread quickly that the cooperatives provide a chance to make good money, have a stable future, and – if you want – a great place to live. Most people have heard the saying, “You’ll never get rich working for someone else,” yet many continue to do so because they just don’t have what it takes to run their own business. The cooperative model solves that problem. Now such people can profit directly from their work instead of making stockholders and executives rich and they don’t have to worry about learning every single aspect of the business. They are free to focus on what they do best and encouraged to develop creative ideas that will help the companies and cooperative association, which in turn helps them.
It’s important to note that no one will be required to live in the homes or apartments within the community. It’s a free country and if you want a house in the suburbs on your own private property that’s your choice. Dwellings not used by employee owners will be made available for sale or lease to non co-op members who want to live in a truly green community.
Once hired, the employees have a three-month probationary period wherein they learn sociocracy and the cooperative community system. Training sessions are held to explain how the Cooperative Association works, how shared resources via the collective accounts of the cooperative credit union make everyone stronger, what the role of the community foundation is, how sociocracy allows all voices to be heard, what their rights are as employee-owners of the companies, and what their liabilities are. After the probation period, their co-workers vote to decide whether or not they can join the cooperative. If accepted, they became full employee-owners. Thus, peer pressure creates a culture of responsibility and accountability. Co-workers will ensure new hires do a good job since everyone’s future depends on it. Slackers don’t have a chance.
As has been said, the homes, apartments, and businesses are built using a circular, intelligent design using eco-brick from the factory. All manner of energy saving, alternative building methods and green technologies are used to create maximum comfort and minimum energy costs while lowering the carbon footprint. Solar panels are placed on the roof of every building, likely generating more electricity than the community can use. This allows the selling of energy back to the grid, generating further savings and revenue for the community. The homes, apartments, duplexes and co-housing units remain assets of the company until they are sold to an employee and/or resident. As the rental income could offset the depreciation of the properties, the properties could be sold at a reduced value. The employees could be offered four-year loans at incredibly low interest rates (possibly even interest free). The end result is that the average worker can own a home outright in about seven years, something almost unheard of outside the cooperative community system. The employee and/or resident owns the home and can profit from any improvements made to it, but they do not own the land upon which it is built. The Cooperative Association holds all the land within the community in a Community Land Trust. Thus, private land ownership is eliminated and the community protected from those whose shortsighted greed might compromise the long-term needs of the community. This also allows for an incredibly easy system of selling homes. Whenever someone wants to move or leave the community, all they need to do is contact the Cooperative Association that then buys back the home at fair market value.
With ready access to capital via the cooperative credit union’s collective accounts, many smaller businesses form to fill niches and develop a unique sense of community. Bakeries, flower shops, pubs, barbershops, burger joints, restaurants and more are soon created to meet the needs of the residents, these are followed in short order by entertainment venues, stores, and other services. The cooperative also interlinks with other area merchants willing to engage in cooperative enterprise. What the cooperative can’t manufacture or service, it acquires from local or regional merchants thereby keeping as much money as possible within the local economy. It only makes sense. Why pay an outside company for something that you can do yourself or do locally – and do so very profitably? By supporting each other, companies within the region prosper and new businesses have a significantly higher success rate. This means more work, more revenues, more assets, and more stability. The result is a community that is like no other – no franchises, no national or multinational corporations, no strip malls, and no generica.
The social aspects of the village take form as the businesses comprising the Cooperative Association begin to generate serious profits. By agreement, ten percent of net revenues are placed into a social fund to be used for arts, culture, and education within the community. Oversight of this fund falls to the Community Foundation, an entity established explicitly for the purpose of funding civic and social infrastructure. In addition to allocating money for schools and the arts, it might also be given the task of overseeing services such as the subway, monorail, trash pick up, sewage, recycling, parks, and recreation facilities. New employee-owned cooperatives may be created around these services and expanded to serve other communities as well, which then generates even more revenue for the cooperative community.
Recycling is one such example. Instead of contracting an outside company, the Community Foundation and the Cooperative Association work together to create a new company to collect recyclables from the village. These are used as raw inputs for other businesses within the cooperative, processed on site using green technologies, or sold for profit. The company then expands its service to other municipalities within the region. The process is repeated whenever possible. No longer subsistent on taxes like most small towns, the cooperative community is able to provide ample funding to the arts, cultural events, education, and more.
Speaking of education, one of the first priorities of the Community Foundation is the establishment of a charter school, research center, and university. It may well be possible to create a full-fledged school system serving kindergarten through twelfth grade along with a four-year college. This is a smart investment for the community as it creates well-educated individuals who can then work in the various cooperative companies, if they so choose. Moreover, the university might specialize in research and development and prove to be a hotbed of new ideas. Those ideas in turn generate more money for the Cooperative Association, which in turn provides more money to the foundation that funds the school. The system feeds, supports, and maintains itself.
Step 4: Cooperative Council & Community Circle
It should be noted that this cooperative community, as I call it, is an economic-social-environmental structure NOT a political one. (Although one could easily argue that when enough money and people are involved in a thing it becomes political.) Nonetheless, one of the best things about this system is that there are no politicians to screw it up. And, without the carcass of politicians to pick over, there are no vultures or maggots in the form of lobbyists and special interests groups. This is possible because there is no mayor or city council in the traditional sense. Instead, such conventions are replaced by a Cooperative Council and a Community Circle. Both are elected using sociocracy.
The Cooperative Council is a body of representatives forming the top circle of a sociocratic hierarchy of circles from the companies within the Cooperative Association. As has been stated, each employee-owned cooperative company operates according to sociocracy, meaning that within each company there are various levels of circles – departments, divisions, etc. These circles elect representatives to the next highest circle within their respective company. The top circle of each company then elects representatives to the Cooperative Council that oversees the business of the Cooperative Association.
The Community Circle fills the role of city council and mayor and faitfully executes all duties legally required by local, state, and federal law. All the residents of the community, regardless of whether or not they are employee owners of a cooperative, are organized into small circles and, via sociocracy, elect representatives to higher circles until a top circle is created. The smallest circles are most likely organized by household, then neighbors, then neighborhoods, etc. The top circle is the Community Circle and it oversees the Community Foundation, the money set aside by the Cooperative Association for arts, culture, and education within the community.
Thus, a resident of the community, who is also an employee owner of one of the cooperative businesses, will, via sociocracy, select representatives to express his/her views to both the Cooperative Council (in charge of the Cooperative Association) and the Community Circle (in charge of the Community Foundation).
At both the cooperative and community level, all policy decisions are made with the consent of those affected by such decisions in accordance with sociocratic principles. This empowers citizens at every level in every aspect of the cooperative community and creates the most democratic society in human history.
So yes, there are “elected” persons of responsibility within the community, but they are not professional politicians. They are either residents, employee-owner-workers of a cooperative, or both. They live and work within the community and are directly affected by the decisions they make. Nor are they free to do as they please, because all policy decision are made with the consent of everyone affected, which could be the entire community the entire cooperative, or both. This makes it impossible for them to be bought off by special interests, and in the event they were, they could and would be immediately recalled. Within a cooperative community “We the People” are in charge.
Additionally, the cooperative community will pay Caesar what is Caesar’s and abide by, adhere to, and integrate into any and all governing bodies with jurisdiction over the land upon which the community is built. Therefore, such a cooperative community might be established anywhere.
There is something to be found in these ideas for people across the political-economic spectrum. Conservatives can appreciate the fact that business is the driving force behind it all, albeit Earth-friendly business. Liberals will likely applaud the protection of workers’ rights and the environment. Libertarians should be happy with the absence of big government. Independents can enjoy tangible solutions that address the real lives of average people without partisan nonsense. Capitalists can surely understand the profit potential, although die-hards may dislike the people-and-planet-first elements. Though there is shared ownership of land and resources this is obviously not communism. And although an egalitarian system, this is not socialism as there is no giant government bureaucracy controlling everything. Those that believe in democracy can readily see that the system is more fair, more equitable, more accountable, and more democratic than any other civic or corporate structure currently practiced. Environmentalists will surely see that this is a road toward truly sustainable communities, businesses, and a green economy.
A New Thing
So, what exactly is this cooperative community concept if it isn’t socialism, communism, or the every-man-for-himself, use-the-environment-solely-for-profit capitalism we’ve come to know? Is it conservative, liberal, or independent? Or is it some sort of merging of all the above – a unified field theory of socio-political-economics? Or is it an evolution – the next step in our political development? I don’t know, and I really don’t care, so long as it works.
Scientist might call this a bifurcation point. To cite Fitjof Capra’s The Web of Life again, “Bifurcation points … are points in a system’s evolution where a fork suddenly appears and the system branches off in a new direction. … Physically they correspond to points of instability at which a system changes abruptly and new forms of order suddenly appear. [These new forms of order] may emerge spontaneously, resulting in development and evolution.”
In plain English this means that order tends to arise out of chaos. When a system gets totally out of whack (far from equilibrium) it becomes unstable (like the global economy or the world in general). This instability often gives rise to new forms of order that further the development and evolution of the system.
It’s time for a new form of order – one that can further the development and evolution of humanity. The track record for the dominant economic-social-political systems of the world is not good. Can they take us further without destroying us or the Earth? If they cannot, are they not evolutionary dead ends? If so, what then can replace them?
The cooperative community is not a static system, but one that is capable of continually evolving, learning, and growing. When errors or problems arise, they can be noted and quickly addressed due to the numerous feedback loops – the democratically empowered, sociocratically enabled, employee owner residents of the community. They can act as necessary, unencumbered by senseless bureaucracy or corporate foolishness. The cooperative community organism becomes self-organizing and therefore more adaptive and responsive to whatever situations come up because it is based upon a more equitable, non-linear form of organization. It more successfully replicates the basic principles of natural ecologies. It’s a system whose whole is greater than the sum of its components. Creating a proper working environment creates the ideal physical environment. A correctly designed economy produces a healthy ecology. The system is – or will be – a living system, capable of growth, evolution, and reproduction and is better able to sustain itself than the current economic systems that are destroying the planet and making life miserable for millions of people in the process.
Quoting Capra again:
“The more we study the major problems of our time, the more we come to realize that they cannot be viewed in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are interconnected and independent.
“Ultimately these problems must be seen as just different facets of one single crisis, which is largely a crisis of perception. It derives from the fact that most of us, and especially our large social institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.
“There are solutions to the major problems of our time, some of them even simple. But they require a radical shift in our perceptions, our thinking, our values.”
– Fritjof Capra,
The Web of Life
The cooperative community concept is not a work of fiction. It is a very real and valid idea based upon observation and research into the various aspects of human civilization. It offers an alternative to the corrupt, inept, outdated, and dysfunctional system that is now destroying our planet. All the elements required to create a cooperative community have already been proven independently. Together, they create a system that provides economic equality, political liberty, and social justice while cultivating an abundant ecology in harmony with the Earth and all its life forms. It is no longer a matter of could it be done, or should it be done. It is now a matter of this must be done. It is time to bring all the pieces together at one place at one time and demonstrate, once and for all, that we can do better. Perhaps then humanity will realize its full potential.
It Only Takes One
Too many corporations focus solely on profit and see the Earth’s resources as theirs for the taking. This is foolish and unsustainable. Too many governments and their various institutions are failing to address the needs of their citizens. This is both unfortunate and troubling. Too many industries and politicians are obsessed with the false assumption of infinite growth of markets. This is insane. Our planet has a finite size. It is not getting bigger each year, but the amount of available resources within it are most certainly diminishing each year. We are at the breaking point and must make a crucial decision. To do what we’ve been doing will destroy our planet and us along with it. The alternative is to choose to do things differently and evolve a sustainable system that promotes cooperation and profits people and the planet.
Fortunately, regardless of the endeavor it only ever takes one. One successful flight of an airplane at Kitty Hawk and humanity entered the age of aviation. One successful launch of a satellite called Sputnik ushered in the space age. One successful detonation of a nuclear weapon in the New Mexico desert and we were in the nuclear age. In the deep recesses of history some ancient ancestors carved the first crude stone tool, discovered bronze, and then iron. Advances in writing, language, art, technology, medicine, etc. have all progressed because of a first success. All human achievement has been made possible because someone or some group somewhere proved that it could be done. As Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins stated in their book Natural Capitalism, “If you don’t know something is possible, you can’t choose to do it.”
It is my belief that humanity is basically good and just. If we were not we would have destroyed ourselves a long, long time ago. But we didn’t. We are a resilient bunch capable of greatness. But, we cannot choose something if it doesn’t exist or if we don’t know that it’s possible. This is why something akin to the cooperative community is needed. Humanity needs to know that there is an alternative to the way things are now. Imagine what might happen if an alternative could be seen and experienced and known. Where might such insight take us? And how quickly? It only took sixty-six years for us to go from Kitty Hawk to the Moon.
99% of all species that have ever lived upon the Earth are now extinct. It is the height of hubris to believe that a similar fate will not befall us. Dinosaurs ruled the earth for hundreds of millions of years but now they are gone. Humanity has been a part of the geological record for a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of that amount of time. What is our fate as a species? Are we at an evolutionary dead end or a bifurcation point? Will we die off or choose to do something to positively affect our future? Is self-destruction our innate nature or are we victims of a system based on lack, scarcity, greed, fear, and competition? And if the system is to blame, and we created it, why would we not choose an alternative if it existed?
The cooperative community is one possible alternative – a large-scale, sustainable, green community wherein the economy and ecology operate in harmony with one another. I believe we should choose it. It may not be easy at first, but we will only have to succeed once because it only ever takes one.
Tim Wardell is a deep thinker, gardener, husband, father, would-be science fiction sex comedy novelist, and margarita aficionado. When not doing any of those things, he reads, studies, practices, and blogs about sustainability.