Put brains and skills to work to solve real problems

Posted Nov. 23, 2008, at 8:09 p.m.

On the radio recently I heard an economist refer to Sept. 23 as the day speculative investment capitalism died.

Hooray!

Of course, I’m not really happy. How can I be when this (inevitable, according to Karl Marx 150 years ago) surrealistic tragicomedy is causing so much suffering, often among people who did nothing to deserve it?

But now, with survival less an abstract concept than it used to be, maybe we can start asking questions that matter such as “Why aren’t we taking better care of our youngest and oldest loved ones?” Or, “Why do the twin killers of obesity and hunger co-exist in a globalized economy?” Or, “Why do corporations get to decide who has access to our globally shared water cycle, our airwaves, fossil fuel reserves, and atmosphere?” Or even “Why can’t we support our family farms better?”

Maybe now we can apply our brains and skills to find solutions to the real problems in our world. Clue: lack of credit for speculative investment that exploits workers and natural resources around the world is not one of them.

In the future, let’s hope good economic indicators include rising wages and honest-to-goodness benefits for folks who get up every day and go to work so their families can be safe and well.

And let’s hope that these jobs are richly rewarding in more than money, because where and how you spend most of your waking hours should feed, not bleed your spirit and energy. The surest way to create such workplaces is to have the workers own them.

Worker cooperatives have much better statistics when it comes to things like longtime employment (cutting training costs), loyalty to the company (they own it!), and fewer sick days. Co-ops crank out more self-starters and more creative problem-solvers, who share a commitment to cooperative values such as fairness, honesty, self-education and social responsibility.

A new, informal group has formed, called Cooperative Maine. A statewide membership holds monthly conference calls, maintains a Web site (www.cooperativemaine.org), and seeks to support and expand the state’s cooperative economy: its worker-, consumer-, producer- and other group-owned businesses.

In its first year, Co-op ME met with the state housing authority, published a directory of co-ops in Maine, and staffed exhibit booths at the Agricultural Trades Show in Augusta, the HOPE Festival in Orono, and Common Ground Fair in Unity.

Early in 2009, the group will co-host the annual Changing Maine conference for current and prospective organizers. The focus of the conference will be on what co-ops are and their advantages and challenges, as well as nuts and bolts information on how to start, expand, diversify, convert, relocate or otherwise develop a cooperative.

Whether it’s a housing co-op, a neighborhood buying club for food or building materials, a community-owned department store, an artists’ gallery, a group of weavers, or farmers, or fisherfolk, a worker-owned auto repair shop or restaurant, the cooperative business model has wide application in Maine as the economic picture shifts.

The brilliant economist and futurist Hazel Henderson used to remind her listeners that there’s more than one way to look at an aging concrete sidewalk breaking up. One person says, “Oh, no! The sidewalk is disintegrating!” Another says, “Look! See those new green blades of grass growing up through the cracks? That’s new life emerging.”

Here’s to new life taking root — cooperatively and courageously — as the old, unsustainable way crumbles.

Jane Livingston of Veazie has been active in the cooperative development community for 14 years, creating and editing several newsletters for Northeast regional, national and international co-op organizations. She has served on the board of trustees of the Cooperative Fund of New England and was one of the original conveners of Cooperative Maine.

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