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Review: The Resilience Imperative: Cooperative Transitions to a Steady State Economy

What I love most about this book is the feeling you get that there is hope: solutions to environmental, social and financial crises do exist, they have been tried and tested all over the planet and all we have to do is get on with it.

The book is remarkable from several points of view. The extent and the depth of knowledge on which the arguments are based is truly impressive: it provides a history of money and corporations and co-operatives and land trusts from all over planet - emphasising the initiatives which have worked and survived and those which have been crushed by authoritative regimes.

Much of this needs to be common knowledge, for example, many successful banks which charged low-cost fees rather than interest were simply rendered illegal by their governments; booming cooperative movements were destroyed in Italy in 1921 (8,000 coops), in Germany in 1933 (4.5 million members) and Russia in 1918 (26,000 coops).

As the history unfolds it becomes clear that many of the kinds of institutions I had assumed were just out-performed by the corporations and banks were never given a chance. In reality, those in power just got rid of them. But there are many survivors - like the JAK bank in Sweden (which doesn’t charge interest) and the Cooperative Group in the UK - both of which continue to flourish.

The conclusions derived from this and several other innovations in the book are unavoidable: interest free banking does work and slashes the costs of borrowing, community land trusts are growing and enable far cheaper housing than freehold land schemes, cooperatives continue to grow and employ more people than all the multi-nationals put together. There are better co-operative economy ways to do almost everything: we don’t have to destroy our eco-systems and economics can be re-designed to benefit everyone.

The book is packed with inspiration - on local food, energy, housing, farming and, weaving all of this together, a better way of dealing with money. Perhaps the most impressive achievement is the way that the authors manage to hold all these elements together and demonstrate that resilience requires changes in all aspects of our lives. They show we need to change basic attitudes to almost everything, and to create a new set of values where well-being and eco-system health are more important than a set of numbers in your digital bank account. And, as the title suggests, a policy change away from economic growth as the primary objective to a resilient, sustainable way of living is fundamental.

The answers are everywhere. We can build houses which require almost no heating, we can feed ourselves with predominantly local foods, we can use the sun and wind and tides to generate energy, we can create communities which live in balance with their environment. The big questions still remain unanswered, however. Can we turn away from the current paradigm and begin to put all these ideas into practice for everyone, rather than see them working just in isolated pockets of resilience?

The authors argue their case at several levels but, for me, a constant thread is the need to reform the money-system; this stands out as a pre-requisite for broad-based change. As long as the majority of humanity is trapped into massive debt repayment, the possibilities for change will remain muted.

The solutions emerge clearly. We need access to debt-free money, we need access to commonly-held land, we need cooperative businesses which are designed for the benefit of the people who work or use them, we need regional solutions. And we need everyone to play their part in the transformation: a resilient society will only emerge from the efforts of resilient individuals and families. Functioning participatory democracy is needed at all levels from the work-place to the community to local government right up to the global. The authors are clear that international organisations like the farmers federation, La Via Campesina, are of crucial importance in building global alternatives to the current economic systems controlled by corporations and unelected bodies like the WTO.

So what if we all decided to live like this? The authors lead us gently through the consequences for the (very average) Hartwick family. For several of the proven innovations they provide us detailed calculations that they bring down to the household level to show the achievable dollar and cent savings. For example, the combined savings for an average household like the Hartwick’s in Canada over 25 years would be $363,000 if fee based financing, community land trust and basic energy conservation measures were applied. For the Hartwicks, a middle class family on average income, this translates into 12,095 hours of work at their wage level; imagine, this saving of almost 500 working hours per year. If one then adds back in the increased cost of paying a fair price for organic food over that time period, one would be better off to the tune of $286,969 plus have time left over to raise some food. Less debt means less pressure to grow, thus one could help save the planet and also save significant cash.

In many ways the books feels like a (nonviolent) call-to-arms: everything is collapsing around us, solutions exist and have been shown to work, and as governments seem completely incapable of doing anything, it really is down to the rest of us to stand up and be counted. So get this book and read it slowly – there is a huge amount to inwardly digest - and then decide what you’re going to do.

To misquote a previous work proposing radical change: all we have to lose are our economic chains and the threat of catastrophic climate collapse.

Jon Walker has worked in the UK co-operative sector since the 1970s, setting up and co-managing shops, warehouses, small-scale manufacturing coops, and most recently a community owned green grocer. He is also a member of the local Transition Town which is working to establish a local food economy, and finding ways to make with the local housing stock more energy efficient. He also lectures and publishes on the application of systems theory to co-operative organisational issues: his current book written with Angela Espinosa "A complexity approach to sustainability" examines the application of the Viable Systems model to the creation of a sustainable world from the individual to the global.

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