Co-operatives are the way to a new economy

Forget the looming housing bubble this month the Globe and Mail is celebrating the oilpatch compensation bubble “where bonuses of 100 per cent even 200 per cent of salary are not unheard of.” Meanwhile on Wall Street (bonus Shangri La) the latest billion-dollar hedge fund trading fiasco has come to light compliments of JP Morgan.

Back in Calgary not everybody shares in the compensation bubble — not by a long shot. Economic inequality has been riding a bull market for 20 years we have hardly dented homelessness and there is a run on food banks. According to the provincial government’s own statistics we can’t even find the funds to provide a poverty line income for people with disabilities.

In the midst of all of this we are told there is no alternative. Suck it up. Don’t regulate because the market frowns on such behaviour. Don’t raise royalties because oil companies will take their investment elsewhere. Living-wage legislation will kill the economy. There is no choice but to let greed and competition lead us to the promised land of prosperity. This is a sad morally dubious state of affairs.

There actually is an alternative — what Mike Lewis in The Resilience Imperative: Co-operative Transitions to a Steady State Economy calls the solidarity economy. And contrary to the laissez-faire myths we tell ourselves it has deep roots in our agricultural community and is thriving in Alberta. It includes co-operatives credit unions and community-based social enterprises where the bottom line pays attention to social and environmental issues and not simply the legally mandated corporate bottom line where nothing but shareholder financial return matters.

In this the International Year of Co-operatives the solutions are all around us. Hands up if are you a member of a co-operative. Most people’s first response is to say no but when you canvas people about membership in particular co-ops people go ‘oh yeah!’

Perhaps the most established co-op in our city is The Calgary Co-op. With roots in the United Farmers of Alberta it is one of Calgary’s largest employers with annual sales of almost $1 billion and over 400000 consumer-members. A new kid on the block in the food sector is the 100 producer-member strong Calgary Farmers’ Market.

Mountain Equipment Co-op started selling climbing gear out of the back of a van 40 years ago. It now has 3.3 million members $260 million in sales and 15 stores nationwide. As its website explains of “the six original members… none of them has extracted personal profit from the business their original shares are still worth $5 no one has sued anyone else and they still get together for annual slide shows and potluck dinners.”

Then there’s banking. Alberta has a strong history of credit unions. One of the biggest is First Calgary with 80000 members and growing.

How about energy? There are 43 Rural Electrification Associations in Alberta and 81 Gas Co-ops — the largest rural gas co-op network in the world. Then there’s the new energy retail upstart Spark — Alberta’s first wholly member-owned electrical energy co-op dedicated to providing Albertans with 100 per cent renewable energy.

Many Calgarians will be familiar with the Sunnyhill Housing Co-op a pillar of the inner-city Sunnyside community. Housing co-ops provide affordable housing and nurturing communities in which to raise a family. There are 1200 homes in Calgary’s 14 housing co-ops — part of a network of 2200 housing co-ops across the country housing 200000 Canadians.

Calgary Alternative Transportation Co-operative (CATCO) is part of a fast-growing movement of car-share initiatives around the world. Why own a car when you can have access to a fleet of cars at the click of a button on CATCOs online reservation system?

In The Resilience Imperative Lewis maps out the solidarity economy and makes the case for why and how to make it the new economy. Among the book’s most important revelations is that a robust co-operative transition is happening around the world with success stories like Quebec’s Chantier De l’Economie Sociale (125000 employees and $17 billion in sales) Spain’s Mondragon Co-operative and Emilia-Romagna in northern Italy.

These organizations form a modest but growing network of socially and ecologically conscious democratically governed (one member one vote) enterprises in food housing energy banking transportation and more. The solidarity economy may not be for everyone but we’re betting it’s an attractive option for many. So if you’re feeling less than satisfied with the direction the usual suspects are taking our economy remember they’re not the only game in town.

The Globe and Mail article concludes with “Gentlemen start your Ferraris.” Might we suggest citizens ignite a different kind of revolution — join a co-op shop at a co-op start a social enterprise sell your car and take out a CATCO membership — and help create a more just fair environmentally sustainable resilient and prosperous place for all Calgarians.

Mike Lewis speaks at the Calgary Public Library’s Dutton Theatre on May 29 at 6 p.m.

Geoff Ghitter teaches urban studies at the University of Calgary. He can be reached at Noel Keough is an assistant professor in the faculty of environmental design at the university and is co-founder of Sustainable Calgary Society. He can be reached at