By Sean Kelly, January 1993.

An environmental perspective on economics is rapidly gaining both a voice and influence. Many important schools of 'green' thought have emerged: social ecology, ecofeminism, bioregionalism, deep ecology, native worldviews, to name a few. While diverse in nature (and nature should always be diverse!) this emerging green paradigm, with its emphasis on participatory planning, grassroots activism and land uses appropriate to regional characteristics, shares several common themes:

Fulfillment of Human Needs: Basic needs (food, water, shelter), and non-material needs (health, political and spiritual freedom, and meaningful work).

Ecological Balance: Economic development that is in the long-term best interests of the community will of necessity emphasize sustainability and regeneration of local natural resources. This involves the ideas found in the concept of the conserver society --

* decentralized systems that are human-scale
* recycling/reuse of resources
* renewable energy
* long-term planning
* inclusive accounting (value for people, ecology, community)
* emphasis on producing superior, durable products

Diversity: Diversification of economics and ecosystems to spread risks, provide meaningful local job opportunities, provide choice, and avoid ecological degradation.

Local Self-reliance: As much as possible, development should maximize the use of local resources and opportunities.

Community Participation in Development Planning and Decision-making.

Cultural Self-determination: Citizens have the right to maintain and nurture cultural differences. This in turn maximizes our capacity for flexibility, innovation and adaptability.

Appropriate Technology: Technology should enhance, not replace, human capacity and creativity. Technology must be environmentally and culturally appropriate.

Incremental Gains: Effective development does not magically occur at once; it occurs through small steps over long periods.

Supportive Networks: Community/regionally-based development, despite its emphasis on local control, requires some level of external support from governments, other communities and elements of the private sector.

Global Responsibility: Commitment to global and local social justice and economic equity.

It is clear that a major social and economic transformation will have to occur if we are to deviate from "business-as-usual" and achieve sustainability. Many green writers offer cooperatives as an integral part of this transformation. For some, this view comes from the natural world itself: co-existence, inter-dependence and symbiosis in ecosystems. Others are attracted to coops because of their size, adopting E.F. Schumacher's Small is Beautiful approach. Still others stress the inherent limitations that cooperative structures place on economics, believing a cooperative is much more likely to be sensitive to the needs of the community in which members live. The profit motive is linked to a broader collective concern.

But are cooperatives inherently conducive to an ecological lifestyle?

The Problems

Of all the subjects debated within the cooperative movement itself, few are more contentious than the question of state involvement. It is complicated by the numerous forms of cooperatives, and variations between countries -- from total economic sovereignty, to complete government control. Many coop theorists claim that only true self-management will produce effective results, while others feel state intervention ensures that the interests of the poorest members of society are met.

From the green perspective, de-centralization and autonomy are the preferred options. But this leads to several assumptions that must be examined by both the ecological and cooperative movements. Is de-centralization inherently environmentally-sound, and are cooperatives a natural element of a de-centralized society? Could cooperatives not undermine ecological principles?

A de-centralized, sustainable society requires ecologically and socially responsible production at the local level; this in turn entails some level of 'de-linking' from competitive capitalist markets and traditional forms of business to community-based enterprises. Moreover, it is clear that such production necessitates a structure of decision-making that goes beyond mere commercial considerations. This may prove difficult:

Ecologists may hope for too much from workers' cooperatives as the making of profit is necessary for their survival. Yet they are probably realistic in believing the production of socially useful goods and services and the careful use of resources is more likely to be taken as a major aim among the highly committed members of a cooperative than in a conventional firm.

Although it is true that sustainability would only be achieved within a cultural and economic climate that embraced appropriate values (as always, the need for education is crucial), by what means other than moral pressure can autonomous businesses such as worker cooperatives be made responsible to community needs? Furthermore, how can potentially harmful effects of market-place pressure be negated? One solution is the concept of market socialism:

Market socialists are opponents of both central planning and stateless forms of local self-sufficiency. Their concern is to have a democratic society which permits a maximum amount of self-regulation and interaction between local institutions, while still having a strong central state which can plan key industries and also iron out inequalities created by market mechanisms.

It does seem that to balance the economic self-interest of the cooperative with the needs of the community and region as a whole, wider legal systems are unavoidable.

The Potential

Workers are increasingly influencing the social and environmental policies of their employers, towns are incorporating ecological goals into their planning, and consumer demand is growing for environmentally and socially responsible products. Members of cooperatives are certainly not immune to these changing societal values.

But we need more. We need to add ecological principles to the established principles of cooperation. An ecological cooperative would:

* provide socially-responsible products and services that are not damaging to the environment
* be part of a coordinated but decentralized community-based economy
* increase the political and environmental consciousness of cooperative members
* promote increased community self-reliance

The cooperative method of economic organization carries with it the seeds of a new society. However, individual cooperatives adopting the characteristics cited above will face countless obstacles within a capitalist economy; there must be a transition from individual worker coops to a cooperative community -- an integrated system of cooperative enterprises -- relating to the wider society as a whole.

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