March 28 2012 12:00 AM

How little we know of the larger world around us. Point of order: How many readers knew that the UN has made this the International Year of Cooperatives? I stumbled upon this fact recently when I was working with the East Lansing Food Co-op and looking for examples of how businesses organize themselves. There is much going on out there beneath the headlines as creative people look for alternatives (B-Corporations, L3Cs, to name a few) to an economy that leaves so many behind. 

Both the Tea Party and the Occupy movements have helped publicize the concern that the economy is not working for everyone. One group thinks it’s all the government’s fault while the other believes that the finance industry and unrestrained greed are responsible. I’m not here to referee that more narrow debate. In fact, I might suggest that such a debate is only marginally useful and more of a distraction from creating real solutions.

If we were to step back and ask, “What is an economy for?” and actually reach some agreement about the basic objectives an economy should move us toward, would we create the same economic system we have now? Probably not. For starters, this world is dramatically different from the one in which the fundamental assumptions of classical economics was born and in which David Ricardo and Adam Smith formed their theories. Professor Emeritus Gilbert Rist of Geneva’s International Institute of Development Studies notes in a recently translated book, “The Delusions of Economics: The Misguided Certainties of a Hazardous Science,” that while physics has changed dramatically from the Newtonian mechanistic view to the quantum physics of today, economics has resisted adapting to new knowledge.

Looking at our economic system from the perspective of what we want it to accomplish now in the 21st century would most likely lead us to design a different system of exchange. If we simply jump into an either/or debate between the worldviews of the Tea Party, the Occupy movement and the finance industry — where one side wins and the others lose — we handcuff ourselves to simplistic and likely failed solutions. So what does this have to do with the Year of Cooperatives?

Two dominant assumptions form the basis of our current economic model: That people will act in their own narrow self-interest, essentially reducing us humans to narrow-minded consumers; and that growth is limitless, even on a limited planet. Now, since Ricardo, Smith, and the other fathers of our economic beliefs (notice the gender and the patriarchy) lived in a different time where these things might have seemed true, they are no more at fault than was Newton for reaching conclusions based on how his physical world worked. But we know better now. Hence Rist associates our economic system assumptions with a kind of blind faith, thereby identifying it as more of a religion than a dismal science.

We know that humans are also altruistic, that consumption beyond the basics doesn’t make us happier or more fulfilled. We also now know that our sheer numbers and our levels of consumption are altering the functioning systems of the biosphere. The complexities of our relationships with each other and the planet are staggering. There isn’t a single soul on earth who has all the answers. But cooperatives offer an example of the other side of our nature and what a cooperative economy could look like. We are hit over the head daily with the importance of competition as if it is the one and only way towards progress. There are uses for competition, to be sure, but reducing us simply to competitive beings where he who dies with the most toys wins negates the fact that we are also cooperative beings, that we are tied to a web of life. One of competition’s inadvertent consequences is that it creates or supports, or both, “patterns of separation” between us. It does not leave space for something more than the sum of the parts. It creates winners and losers.

Cooperatives like the East Lansing Food Co-op, Student Housing Co-op, credit unions (there are 17 in the capital area), numerous agricultural co-ops, and other organizations that invite their members to share in decisions and move ahead co-operatively — together — have much to teach us as we try to redesign an economy as if people and the planet matter. They also tend to be more community/locally based, thus less likely to get up and move when they aren’t making enough profit. Perhaps this Year of the Cooperatives could inspire us to make spaces in our community to talk about what a new economy might look like for us as members of a human family, on a single planet with a common future. I hope so.