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Bill Ellis

Sustainability has become the key word of the decade. The Brundtland Report and The Earth Summit introduced thousands to the words "sustainable development". The President’s Council on Sustainable Development has made it an official issue in the Federal government. And "sustainable communities" projects are underway from Seattle, Washington to Farmington Maine. But, for all the attention to the word "sustainable", there is little attention to its meaning and the social innovations needed to make it a reality.

The fundamental flaw that requires this new focus comes from the fact that the whole earth is currently controlled by the Competitive Global Economic System based on "self-interest", "reductionism", "survival of the fittest" and materialism. This system contains the seeds of its own, and society’s destruction in its inherent promotion of greed, waste, inequity, violence, domination, crime, war, and ecological destruction.

But there is a counter balancing system developing, a Cooperative Community Economics, which could create sustainability. It has been implied by authors such as Herman Daly and John Cobb, by Richard Douthwaite in the Growth Illusion, by Hazel Henderson in Creating Alternative Futures and by other writers on economics. It is inherent in Jacob von Uexkull’s "Right Livelihood Awards," in Frances Moore Lappe and Paul Du Bois’ concept of "Living Democracy", in Bob Theobold’s "parallel system" in David Korten’s "people-centered development". A core concept of many is that people can meet a large percent of their own needs without relying on government or big industry.

Co-operative economics is not new. It has been practised for 99 percent of the time that humans have been on Earth, and is still practised by the Earth-centred cultures which make up some 80 percent of existing peoples. Economic concepts we take for truisms in our Western culture are unknown in many other cultures. Before the colonialism of the white man, Tahitians did not know the concept of ownership; anything on the islands was free for the taking by anyone in need. The Australian aborigines, much like the Native Americans, consider themselves the ownees, not owners, of the land; their function in life is to be part of and protector of the land of which they are an integral part. African veterinarian, Nskeyuye Bizmana in White Paradise, Hell for Africa, writes of his cultural shock in discovering, during his schooling in Europe, that Europeans lived in constant conflict, fear and loneliness unlike the co-operative, open and friendly relationships inherent in African culture, Ethno-economist Hassan Zaoul contrasts his view of African cultures nested within cultures, with the stifling Western monoculture in which the profit motive crowds out the concept of reciprocity which values you for what you do for society, not for what you possess. And in traditional Japan the idea of service to others is still preserved at meals where no one asks "please pass the ...", for each person is expected to look out for his neighbours; it would be an insult to suggest that your needs had not been met. The West is blinded to many cultural concepts which have been repressed by ages past.

Chellis Glendinning in Recovery from Western Civilisation holds that our "original trauma" was a result of man’s adopting agriculture and separating himself from nature 5000 years ago; Riane Eisler in The Chalice and the Blade contends that human connectedness through the Earth Goddess was swept away when marauding hordes swept down from Asia 2000 years ago; French anthropologist Dominique Temple shows that before Columbus, 500 years ago, native peoples lived in harmony through the distribution of goods by "reciprocity" which was based on creating goodwill rather than getting the most for your skill or product; economist Mark Lutz and psychologist Kenneth Lux in The Promise of Humanistic Economics, explain how the economic theories that have guided our civilisation for the past 200 years are based on the false premises of "self-interest", the "unseen hand", "survival of the fittest" and "comparative advantage" which are contrary to the real world; James Robertson in The Sane Alternative worries that since World War II our Western Culture has reached a critical point of break-down because we are caught in an economistic trap of our own making, and economist Paul Ekins in The Living Economy lays out the alternative which can create a less destructive future.

None of these progressive thinkers, believe there is only one cause for the current economic, social, ecological breakdown. All recognise that it is the sum of the trends, and the basic errors in our Euro-American culture which has brought civilisation so close to breaking point.

But social criticism does not stop with anthropological, ecological, economical, and historical analysis. In the new sciences of relativity, quantum mechanics and chaos theory, in the new-found spirituality of Christian mystics and Buddhist scholars, in the gradual awakening of feminists and other disadvantaged people, and in many wellsprings of the coming age we are discovering new potential’s for the human race. Theologian Thomas Berry and physicist Brian Swimme in the Universe Story trace cosmic creation from the Big Bang to the mind of humans, revealing a genesis more wondrous and awe inspiring than any of the other tales of creation told by humans of the past. Duan Elgin in Awakening Earth opens our minds to the gradual emergence of human consciousness from its pre-human status of recognising only the moment and the immediate world of our senses, to the amazing consciousness of our own consciousness, and of the ineffable world in infinite time and space. Like de Chardin in The Future of Man, and Peter Russell in The White Hole in Time, he challenges our minds to envision the next step of cosmic evolution to a stage where we are no longer bound by the petty goals of materialism, consumerism, and economism.

The visions of these Gaian philosophers are not left in a sea of fantasy. Social critics closer to the everyday problems of humans, are emboldened to challenge the status quo and move out of the lethargy brought on by viewing only the short-term global problematique. Willis Harman comes out of his Noetic science background to portray the "constructive role of business in a transforming society". Robert and Diane Gilman in their magazine, In Context challenge us with concepts of "interdependence", "sustainability", and "co-operative society" from a pragmatic view missed by both mainstream and alternative writers. Frances Moore Lappe moves on from her studies of world hunger and of American values to the concept of "Living Democracy" in which citizens create for themselves, without the need of government, problem-solving techniques for a better life. And Robert Theobald brings in church groups, senior citizens, Rotary Clubs, students, and nearly every facet of society to express their fears of the present, and their forlorn hopes for the future. In The Rapids of Change and Turning the Century, he provides political and social steps to head-off the march toward oblivion.

Meanwhile, at family and community levels, social activists and innovators have been slowly developing, testing and proofing techniques and lifestyles that can create an alternative cooperative economic and social system that can let the vision break through. In England, Rochdale Cooperatives have been operating since the late 1800s, LET$ systems originated in Canada are now headline news items from Europe to Australia; Grameen Banks (peer lending) which originated in Bangladesh, have been adopted in even the most developed countries; Community Land Trusts, an idea of Gandhi in India, is now better known in the USA; and Community Supported Agriculture started in Switzerland during the 1970s is now making food available in almost every country. Such innovations are building-blocks for an alternative economics.

A major obstacle to the development of this alternative economic system is that the many options available to neighbourhood groups, are not brought together in one centre of publication and are unknown by the mainstream media and academia. It is hard to find clear information on many of them.

The purpose of this Coalition for Cooperative Community Economics is to overcome this handicap. It will bring together many relevant social innovations and programmes under one heading. The modality is first to have experts in various actions write short, 4-page, "How To..." pamphlets on their specific techniques. The first page of each pamphlet will be a 1,2,3... step description of the process; the second page will be a resource list of publications, organisation, workshops, and experts involved in it; pages 3 and 4 will be a more detailed do-it-yourself guide. These 4-page pamphlets will be made available through the newsletter of the coalition members, each one being asked to make all pamphlets available through its mailings to its members in return it will receive extra coverage given to its work by the others in the coalition.

In addition to circulating the pamphlets TRANET, and other members will establish broadscale clearing-houses of experts, workshops, publications and other services to help communities set up their own cooperative economic systems, and to link with one another and with grassroots activists. Through newsletters, computer networking, and other communications, we will answer questions and put community workers in contact with relevant organisations and experts.

A global network of self-reliant communities is a vision seen by many. This Coalition for Cooperative Community Economics may, in the long run, be a positive step in that direction. But, in the short run it can be a service today for communities wanting to solve real problems of real people. There is a need for a comprehensive resource on social innovations created by and for the people.

The time has finally come when the mainstream is ready for a real change - a move toward sustainability. Together we can help to create a sustainable world of family, neighbourhood, and community based on social service, concern for humans and respect for nature. This is how to start:

  • Gather four or five friends together in your home or other informal setting to explore the needs of your neighbourhood.
  • Assign each member of the group an area for research and exploration.
  • Meet two or three more times to narrow your focus and select one or two social innovations which are needed by your neighbours.
  • Start an outreach programme to bring in and involve more and more members of the community providing literature and summaries of the research completed.
  • Establish teams to go in depth into the legal aspects, local expertise, the general feeling of the community, public relations and other aspects of the selected innovations.
  • Go public with your decisions through letters to the press, talks to service clubs, your own news releases and other means for explaining the social innovation you plan to implement.
  • Have a public meeting to solicit general support and answer questions.
  • Establish a legal organisation as necessary.

Bill Ellis was until recently editor of TRANET, a networking journal on Cooperative Community Economics. For further details contact TRANET, P.O. Box 567, Rangeley ME 04970 USA.

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