The conference looked at the legacy of Owen 150 years after his death and was attended by delegates and visitors from across the UK, Japan, Canada, Ethiopia and a number of European countries.
The conferenceâ€™s key address was delivered by Professor Tom Webb of St Maryâ€™s University, Canada.
Addressing the intriguing question of â€œWhat would Owen say to us today?â€ he observed that Owen lived in difficult times: â€œOwen was appalled by much of what he saw and first imagined, then tried to bring about a better world.â€
Professor Webb suggested that were he around today, Owen would probably also be appalled by much of todayâ€™s world but would seek remedies to the various â€˜crisesâ€™ which, if not addressed could â€œrender the planet uninhabitable for lifeâ€. These crises include the state of the market economy â€” not a pure market of small producers interacting on relatively equal terms, but a market distorted and dominated by fewer and fewer bigger and bigger corporations.
The crisis of urbanisation had seen a frightening growth in the number of large cities â€“ from less than 100 with more than one million people in 1950 to a predicted 500+ such cities by 2015. This increase in population and migration to the cities was seeing a deterioration of rural areas.
Professor Webb observed that todayâ€™s food and energy crises were inter-related: â€œUnless we change, we will starve people for our cars.â€
And he gloomily noted that since the beginning of time, occasional dips had occurred where large numbers of species die off. While previous dips can be linked to the likes of asteroids and volcanoes, the next one could well be man made.
He said that we live in an unjust world dominated by the rich minority â€” with the rich continuing to get richer at the expense of the poor â€” both within countries and between countries.
This injustice had also seen a shift in decision making from one where governments elected on a one person one vote system were increasingly dancing to the tune of corporations and marketplaces operating on a â€˜one dollar one voteâ€™ system.
In such a world it was no surprise that people were experiencing feelings of depression, inadequacy and stress. But Professor Webb argued that it is not the crises we face that are most depressing, it is choosing not to act on them.
He said that, in seeking alternatives, Robert Owen would want to see businesses that were concerned with multiple bottom lines, believed in good working conditions, were opposed to the exploitation of children, worked towards green sustainability, promoted worker involvement, invested in strong education programmes, engaged in only non-violent practices and were community builders.
In short, if seeking solutions, he said there were none better than co-operatives. They might not be perfect, he conceded, but fundamentally they make sense.
Weaknesses that co-operatives need to guard against include the possibility of co-operative drift â€” losing their unique identity, of silo co-operative development, of weak education and of â€˜corporateâ€™ management.
But, Professor Webb suggested, co-operative ideals have never been more popular and when co-operatives really live their values they succeed but when they abandon them they risk failure.
He said that Owen might work for a world where large co-operatives regained their identity as part of a global co-operative economy; where free trade was replaced by fair trade; where financial co-operatives allowed people to invest in co-operative solutions â€œrather than tobacco and land minesâ€ and where communities of workers, producers and consumers formed co-operatives and co-operate with one another, sharing and reflecting their common values.
Such a world would need people to regard themselves as an integral part of the natural world, to show a respect for all life, to be better educated and, in the case of co-operative managers and leaders, more thoughtful.
It was a vision not for the faint hearted and doubters, suggested Professor Webb. It would need thought and it would need lifelong learning but he argued that it was â€œa vision worthy of the legacy of Robert Owen.â€
It is up to the co-operators of today to try to turn that vision into a reality: â€œLet us build it together,â€ urged Professor Webb. â€œOur world desperately needs it.â€