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Can we cooperate our way out of trouble? A review of ‘The Resilience Imperative’

The Resilience Imperative - Cooperative transitions to a steady-state economy, by Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty. New Society Publishers.

I spent many years as a corporate lawyer, employed by large corporations to fly around the world and do deals. That is, until I realised that the businesses I worked for, although admirable in many ways, weren’t properly taking into account their impact on people and planet. They were (very efficiently) running in the wrong direction. So ten years ago I left the corporate world and went looking for better models for business, working with charities, fair trade businesses and cooperatives. I soon realised that none of the old models are really serving us any more. Corporations place too much emphasis on shareholders’ needs, while cooperatives place too much emphasis on the collective needs of their community, and neither properly take into account the needs of individuals, of society as a whole or the ecological needs of the planet. What is required, I concluded, is a fundamental re-think our basic organising models for business and to adopt structures that are scaleable and designed to serve multiple stakeholders. But what might this look like? 

I picked up ‘The Resilience Imperative’ hoping that it might provide some clues to this big question. I admit to being a bit wary initially. I know that many in the cooperative movement are evangelical, straining to persuade us that cooperatives offer a solution to all our social problems. Whilst I am a fan of cooperatives, a member of the Phone Coop and a regular customer of a cooperative wholefood distributor, I don’t believe they are the best organisational solution in every situation. In fact, the book proved to be a good read and I am glad I overcame my initial suspicion.

The theme is resilience – how, in a fast-changing world under stress, we need to adopt practices and structures that give us the flexibility, adaptability and creativity to best respond. It has two main aims. One is to convince the reader that the world needs to move away from a growth economy fed by fossil fuels towards more local and resilient models. The second is to share inspiring examples from around the world of alternative approaches to affordable housing, money, land ownership and other major social issues.

As for the latter, the book succeeded magnificently, sharing a comprehensive and engaging range of stories from Canada, Japan, Latin America, the UK, Scandinavia and elsewhere. Many examples were completely new to me. One that stood out was the Seikatsu "living people" co-operatives in Japan that supply good value, ethical food to more than 350,000 members throughout Japan. This is an inspiring model of how our relationship with food and each other could be transformed through cooperation. I am aware of nothing remotely comparable in the UK. The Seikatsu movement received the Honorary Right Livelihood award in 1989. Another inspiring example is the Jak co-operative bank that was started in the 1930s by a group of Danish farmers facing repossession of their land. Jak now has 35,000 members in Sweden, operating on the basis of mutual aid and financial reciprocity amongst its membership. The book goes into great detail about the methodology of these cooperatives and the benefits to their members – in these sections it becomes almost a how-to guide. It also delves into the history of guilds, highly relevant for those of us who wonder how we might move beyond top-down organisational models and find ways of organising people that bring out their resourcefulness and sense of aliveness. Regarding the first aim, to convince the reader of the need to move away from a growth-focused agenda, I was less convinced. Other books, like the Transition Handbook, make the case more elegantly and thoroughly.

So did I find the answers I was looking for? The book certainly gives some clues and pointers, but falls short of a comprehensive picture that unites them all. There are just too many areas the authors don’t address – for example, the way in which the likes of ebay, Flickr, Twitter and Linux are using modern communications technology to develop transformational ways of organising and connecting people. The key question of governance hardly gets a mention. For me, the fascinating thing about John Lewis and Mondragon (two highly successful large organisations mentioned in the book) is how they have adjusted their governance structures to reflect the fact that they are co-owned. There is also the related question of global governance – so much good work in the world is undone because of the over-arching framework that nations negotiate between themselves.

On the overriding question of how best to organise ourselves in the 21st century, there is no grand theory to be found in The Resilience Imperative. But this is probably too much to expect. It works best as a rich trove to explore inspiring models for affordable housing, equitable money supply, ecological food distribution, energy sufficiency and much more. For all its limitations, ultimately the book encourages hope, something we could all do with more of in these uncertain times.

Patrick Andrews is a businessman, facilitator and writer.  He is on the board of eco-car company Riversimple, which has adopted a multi-stakeholder governance model

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