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Watt's Happening: Co-operatives aren't business as usual

A zillion varieties, so seamlessly woven into our world that they are virtually invisible, yet representing a profound and fundamental shift in the way the world is doing business
Bear Mountain Wind Park, B.C.’s first wind facility, was initiated by Peace Energy Co-op, which receives a yearly royalty from the clean energy it produces.

don​I push my cart down the aisle and pick up a few groceries, then grab a coffee and say howdy to a few familiar faces. On the way out I stop at the gas bar, fill my tank, and buy a magazine. Then it’s across the street to the Credit Union to pay a few bills and pick up some cash.

On my way home I look to the west and there along the ridge are 34 slowly spinning wind turbines, together powering the city behind me, plus tens of thousands of homes all around me, (including my own) all with some of the cleanest energy ever invented.

I have some pride when I see them spin: as a member of Peace Energy Renewable Energy Co-operative, I had a role to play in making that wind park happen, and I receive a little bit of income from that state-of-the-art facility. Not much, but a lot more than nothing.

I have just been going about my day-to-day affairs, but each stop was actually a revolutionary act and a political and economic statement: I have just had the co-operative experience.

A zillion varieties

The Dawson Co-op Union is a food co-operative, credit unions are financial co-operatives, and Peace Energy Co-op is a renewable energy investment co-operative. There are also worker co-operatives where employees own and democratically govern their own businesses, and there are producer co-operatives, where farmers and others band together to market their products.

And on and on... a zillion varieties, so seamlessly woven into our world that they are virtually invisible, yet representing a profound and fundamental shift in the way the world is doing business.

Co-ops are profit-making entities, but they are not profit maximizing. It’s a model designed to serve customers, not take as much profit from them as possible. It does not funnel wealth up to the top, but rather distributes it to those at the bottom.

Co-operatives are intensely democratic, governed from the bottom up, not from the top down: each member has one and only one vote, period. Co-ops are designed to serve not just their members but also their communities, and often have a clear commitment to the environment and principles like “fair trade.”

The Dawson Creek home office of Peace Energy Co-op, B.C.’s first renewable energy co-operative. This investment co-operative is based on the very successful European co-op model. Don Pettit

Big and getting bigger

Even though it has grown side-by-side with the corporate economy for some 200 years, few people realize the size and scope of this distinctly different economic model. In the United States, more than 130 million people are members of a co-op or credit union, more than Americans who hold shares in the stock market.

Worldwide, some 2.6 million co-operatives have close to a billion members, and about three billion people use products or receive services from co-operatives. The U.S. is home to some 30,000 co-operatives that provide 2 million jobs, $75 billion in wages and benefits, and $500 billion in annual revenue. Total annual revenue for co-operatives worldwide approaches $3 trillion. These diverse enterprises, if grouped together into a single nation, would be the ninth largest in the world.

And it’s growing. Why? Co-operatives are more resilient in crisis. While banks foundered, credit unions faired relatively well during the 2008 financial collapse. They had handed out fewer toxic mortgages that required fewer bailouts, and had half the number of delinquent loans. Millions have flocked to credit unions since.

A path to sanity

Many people are also disillusioned with our corporate-dominated world, marked by ridiculous wealth inequity and careless environmental destruction.

It is becoming clear to many that the corporate model has reached both its environmental and financial limits: it is eating itself, while alienating and disempowering the very consumers it relies on for its profits, and destroying the very planet it relies on for all of its wealth. When labour and land, people and the earth itself become mere commodities to be bought and sold, used and destroyed at will, something is dreadfully wrong.

The co-operative model restores control of land, capital, labour and the environment to the community, where it all used to be not that long ago. It will continue to grow, from the grassroots up, not from the top down, and it will help us make the critical transition to a saner world where people, their communities, and the environment on which they depend are important again.

It’s about time.

Don Pettit lives and writes in Dawson Creek, and is Executive Director of Peace Energy Cooperative.

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