“Why are organizations, everywhere, whether political, commercial, or social, increasingly unable to manage their affairs?
Why are individuals, everywhere, increasingly in conflict with and alienated from the organizations of which they are part?
Why are society and the biosphere increasingly in disarray?
Today, it doesn’t take much thought to realize we’re in an accelerating, global epidemic of institutional failure. Not just failure in the sense of collapse, such as the Soviet Union, the Berlin Wall, or corporate bankruptcy, but the more common and pernicious form: organizations increasingly unable to achieve the purpose for which they were created, yet continuing to expand as they devour scarce resources, demean the human spirit, and destroy the environment.
Schools that can’t teach
Universities far from universal
Corporations that can neither cooperate nor compete, only consolidate
Unhealthy health-care systems
Welfare systems in which no one fares well
Farming systems that destroy soil and poison food
Families far from familial
Police that can’t enforce the law
Judicial systems without justice
Governments that can’t govern
Economies that can’t economize
Such universal, ever accelerating institutional failure suggest there is some deep, pervasive question we have not asked, some fundamental flaw in the ordering of societal relationships of which we are unaware. It suggests that intractable problems can only get worse until we ask the right questions and discover the flaw.”
– Dee Hock
Birth of the Chaordic Age
There are really only two questions in life, why and how. Find the answer to one and you will eventually discover the answer to the other. Why isn’t the world a better place? How can we create a better world for ourselves? These questions are interconnected and intertwined and lead to the same place. They’ve been asked repeatedly by great intellectuals, philosophers, prophets, politicians, and average citizens for centuries. So, why aren’t we any better off in our modern world with all our incredible technology? What is holding us back and preventing humanity from accomplishing more? I believe it is the system within which we operate. We can change the system if we have the desire and the fortitude to brave uncharted territory. The fear of the unknown can be overwhelming at times. Yet, it’s only by moving forward, venturing into the unknown, that progress is made. Every great leap in human evolution has been made because someone somewhere decided to go out beyond what was known, to question the status quo, and consider that which had never been considered.
The human body has evolved over thousands and thousands of years. All our organs and body parts serve a purpose. It’s a complete (and when healthy) properly functioning holistic system. Our human habitats, our socio-economic-political systems, need to evolve as well, to the point that they adequately provide for our needs in a healthy, productive, holistic, non-wasteful way – for all of us, not just a lucky or privileged few. It’s time for our communities to evolve. If they don’t, humanity may never survive, much less thrive, and will never reach its full potential.
The fact that we still face all the problems that we do is all the proof one needs that the current system is not working. We are fast approaching what may be a dead end in our evolution. (It certainly is for many species on our planet.) We are depleting the world’s resources at an alarming rate – fossil fuels, water, food of all kinds. We have created the most powerful and destructive weapons in the history of the planet. By our own actions we can bring about global warming or a nuclear winter. We’re all participants. This isn’t a result of capitalism, communism, socialism, or any other “ism” operating alone. All the major social-political-economic forces are playing an active hand in the process. It must change or it will destroy us.
If another species overpopulated and exploited its environment to the point that it began to actively destroy it, we’d rightly judge that species to be unintelligent or un-evolved. If a population of mammal – deer, fox, or bear – becomes too great for a given area, hunting quotas are raised to “cull the herd” and bring populations back down to acceptable limits (by human terms). If an organism invades a human body and begins running rampant, replicating itself and destroying its host, we call it a virus or a cancer and actively set about to kill it before it kills the person. Yet, there is no other species that can cull our herd or kill us or stop us from destroying the world. Except us. We can wake up, grow up, and become co-creators of a better world and brighter future, instead of clinging to old ideology, out-dated dogma, and seriously limited systems. It’s time we started cooperating with each other and with our environment to build a more sustainable and equitable society that can meet the needs of the people without exploitation, corruption, greed, competitiveness, or conflict. I believe the system outlined in these posts is a step in the right direction. I’m not saying it is the only way. I’m saying let’s go down this path and see where it leads us, because all indications are it’s far better than the road we’ve been on, and it will most likely take us to a better place. The path we are traveling now can only lead to further degradation of the environment and the disillusionment and dis-empowerment of people all over the world.
The current system is unsustainable economically, environmentally, politically, and morally. Nothing unsustainable can be sustained.
“A sustainable society is one that satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of future generations.”
– Lester Brown, Worldwatch Institute
Let’s examine some of the reasons why this is a better path based upon the two primary components of a balanced, holistic system – the working environment and the physical environment.
Why a Cooperative?
Cooperation is the norm within natural ecologies. The systems of forests, jungles, oceans and the like operate in ways that are mutually beneficial to the system. Various species may compete with one another for food but in most cases there is enough food available because the system – if it’s in a state of equilibrium (meaning the various variables of the system are more or less stabilized) – produces an abundance. Within human systems, various people compete for jobs, money, resources, and more. However, our systems are currently based upon lack and scarcity. Thus, for an individual or nation to “win” means that another will most certainly “lose” because it’s all about competition. There is no abundance built into the system. The feedback loops are few and faulty and the system too dysfunctional and broken to ever provide for the needs of all those within the system. Moreover, we have no control over the economic rudder and cannot steer the ship of state toward a better path. It’s a largely autocratic, hierarchical system wherein those at the top dictate what becomes of those at the bottom. It is completely non-democratic despite all the effort spent to make it appear otherwise.
By contrast, cooperatives restore democracy to the workplace and – in the case of the Mondragon system – incorporate the four branches of government (judicial, executive, legislative, and pecuniary) into the very fabric of the company organism, wherein they become an everyday part of people’s lives. If those same cooperatives utilize sociocracy, they become the most democratic workplaces in the world.
The International Co-operative Alliance’s Statement on the Co-operative Identity defines a cooperative as, “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically controlled enterprise.” It is the only structure that truly does this. All other forms of politics and economics and their various combinations not only allow, but foster greed, incompetence, bureaucracy, corruption, and exploitation. In their own way, Americans get screwed by their system just as much as residents in Communist China, or the Socialist nations of Europe.
Author Robert Heinlein once said, “Political tags – such as royalist, communist, democrat, populist, fascist, liberal, conservative, and so forth – are never basic criteria. The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire.” I would add that it divides into those who have control over their lives and those who do not. Most Americans – along with the other peoples of Earth – do not have control over their lives because corporations control so much of the world’s resources and wealth. Corporations are an extension of feudalism. At the top you have the CEO/King who makes millions (if not billions) off the backs of the serfs/employees. In between are the various Dukes, Lords, Earls, and Barons of upper and middle management. When the going gets tough, the serfs/employees are sacrificed/fired/expended so that the CEO/King might live happily ever after within his gated castle. The fate of the Dukes, Lords, Earls, and Barons depends on how well connected they are to the CEO/King and the current price of their stock options.
Corporations answer only to their stockholders and any governments they haven’t been able to buy off. The stockholders want nothing more than a return on their investment. They want the stock price to go up and often don’t know or care how that happens, or at what cost. They want this even though infinite growth is not possible within a finite space. They are not accountable for anything the corporation does in its pursuit of making them money. Hire child laborers, pay workers almost nothing to work in horrendous conditions, exploit the resources of a third world country, over-fish the seas, cut down all the trees in a rain forest, stop providing health insurance to the corporation’s employees, bribe a politician – whatever it takes to increase the price of the stock. If the corporation gets caught breaking the law or endangering human life, it’s no big deal. The stockholders can’t go to jail and the company will most likely survive after paying a fine.
Thus, one of the least democratic and most exploitative structures ever devised is running wild and free in all corners of the globe. Every nation, every economic system, every political system, every society is influenced by corporations. As Spock said, “The needs of the many outweigh those of the few.” The motto of most corporations seems to be, “The needs of the money outweigh those of everyone else.” This must change.
By contrast, cooperatives operate according to different, more enlightened principles. These were best stated by the The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers. Founded in England in 1844 by a group of weavers, Rochdale is considered to be the first successful cooperative enterprise and is often used as a model for modern co-ops. In order to guide their endeavors they devised what is known as the Rochdale Principles. These include: 1) open membership, 2) democratic control (one person, one vote), 3) distribution of surplus in proportion to trade, 4) payment of limited interest on capital, 5) political and religious neutrality, 6) cash trading (no credit extended), and 7) promotion of education.
In 1937 these original principles were adopted by the International Co-operative Alliance as the Rochdale Principles of Co-operation. In 1995 they updated the principles as part of their Statement on the Co-operative Identity. The current principles include: 1) voluntary and open membership, 2) democratic member control, 3) member economic participation, 4) autonomy and independence, 5) education, training, and information, 6) cooperation among cooperatives, and 7) concern for community.
These principles are very much at work in the model described within these posts. They create a humane, democratic business enterprise that seeks to serve its owner/members and not simply make money. When combined with a properly designed physical environment, the result is a community unlike any other.
Why Redesign the Physical Environment?
The short answer is because everything we are doing is wrong. Sprawl is not the answer. Hacking up farmland into lots for homes and selling them off for the sake of profit is shortsighted and stupid. It destroys arable land, contributes to our carbon footprint, pollutes the atmosphere, displaces wildlife, increases commute times, negatively affects the quality of life, and is completely unsustainable. Yet, what can the average person do about it? Nothing. Developers are making the decisions, often imposing their will on city councils and planning and zoning boards, and most are not interested in creating walkable, green, environmentally conscious communities. Those that are, face huge obstacles from municipal governments and agencies that don’t understand the concepts or technologies, and consumers that don’t want to pay any more for a home than they already do. There’s a mountain of political and bureaucratic red tape to wade through at every level. Many homeowners associations even dictate that you cannot put solar panels on your home or grow vegetables in your front yard. Sometimes such prohibitions are even in the deed restrictions on the property. As a society we simply are not thinking sustainably.
Take food for example. It makes absolutely no sense not to have agricultural space within city/community limits. To borrow an over-used phrase from the Department of Homeland Security, “It’s a matter of national security!” What will happen when the price of gas reaches $7 a gallon, or when it goes to $11, or when oil trades for $400 per barrel on the world market? People in communities large and small will quickly go hungry because they cannot afford to eat. The price of fuel directly affects the price of food because the entire process is dependent upon cheap gas in order to function. People in large cities are totally dependent upon an oil-based transportation system for their food supply. They don’t realize just how precarious a position they are in. A major climactic event or environmental disaster or another major economic crisis could spell doom for millions. The bottom line is that we cannot sustainably feed the residents of our communities under the current system. We need to change our perceptions, our thinking, our laws, our relation to our food and the environment – the whole system.
Creating a physical environment – a community – that integrates food crops throughout is a smart, sensible and sustainable solution, but almost no one is doing it.
That’s why we cannot depend on or wait for local, state, or federal government to take action. They’ve proven repeatedly that they won’t or can’t – and when they do, it is so often a case of too little too late.
A large-scale cooperative venture allows us to bypass political impotence, consumer apathy, and shortsighted special interests. Imagine a company acquiring land upon which to build their headquarters. They will construct offices, some factories, a processing plant or two, and all the infrastructure they need in order to create their products and conduct their business. They follow all local, state, and federal laws, guidelines, and codes to create their business, purchase the land, and develop it. By all appearances it’s business as usual. Now, imagine that company happens to be an employee-owned cooperative operating according to sociocratic principles. They opt to use sustainable, green technologies to construct all the required buildings. And, instead of just building offices and factories on their private property, they also build apartments and homes for their workers. Since one of their primary businesses is agriculture, they opt to organically cultivate the land surrounding the offices, factories, apartments and homes. And, since they are going to do that, it makes more sense to design the company campus using a formation of circles or rings instead of the standard grid system. They do so, and because of the intelligent design, they have an enormous amount of land available to cultivate while still allowing for a sizeable density of population.
The company sells their crops to consumers with the resident/owner/employees of the company receiving a substantial discount. Now, imagine that, being the creative, non-traditional, out-of-the-box, forward thinkers that they are, the employee/owners of that company (which by now is actually a collection of many employee-owned companies operating in cooperation with one another via an Articles of Association type agreement) decide that, by covering the interior of one of the circles with a giant geodesic dome, they can grow crops year round and not be at the mercy of the increasingly erratic and unpredictable weather. They opt to go one better and build a small terraced mountain within the dome thereby creating more square footage of arable land than the previously non-domed level ground provided. Since they’ve pooled their money into a credit union that they created and control, they have the money available for such a massive undertaking. They approach the city council (or whatever the appropriate governing body is for the given location), play the game the way everyone else does, make the case that it will create more jobs and bring more money into the community, and after satisfying all the necessary requirements and appeasing the various boards and committees, they obtain the variances they need.
By the time the community is complete and all development of the company’s property is finished it is able to produce all it’s own electricity (because they put solar panels on every roof of every building and wind turbines in the open areas), recapture the majority of its rainwater (because they built a system of connecting gutters, cisterns, streams, and ponds), recycle the majority of its waste (because they use waste from one company as raw material for another), and grow enough food to feed all the residents (because they incorporated agricultural space into their design). They do this because it is in their collective interest to do so and the system within which they function fully supports and encourages such efforts.
There isn’t a single sizeable community on the planet right now that is doing anything close to this. That needs to change.
By starting from scratch on an empty patch of undeveloped, underdeveloped, or even ravaged, unused (and preferably unincorporated) land, and using proven concepts and ideas like those spelled out in these posts in conjunction with existing technology, it is possible to create a large-scale, sustainable community that generates all its required electricity; grows enough food to feed all its residents; captures, reclaims, and recycles all its necessary water; provides employment, job training, and financial security to the inhabitants; and creates an economic engine powerful enough to positively impact an entire region and compete with the destructive, exploitative corporations that are the norm in the current system.
Such a community will also serve as a platform in which to test new green technologies that currently lack any large-scale proving ground. Because of the dynamics of the community, innovation and ingenuity can thrive. New technologies, concepts, and ideas then become exports to other, more traditional communities. The retrofitting of existing municipalities and infrastructures becomes possible in a way that it currently is not and never will be unless we take the steps to create a new system.
To be continued…
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.