How cooperatives can combat a casino economy

‘Cooperatives are the future’ says Dr Vandana Shiva – but first we need to make sure that future is safe

The theme of the 2019 ICA Global Conference is Cooperatives for Development. One person who is a passionate advocate for the role of cooperatives in building a better, fairer world is Dr Vandana Shiva. 

But she believes the role of coops – and also of apex and sector bodies – is greater than just creating more cooperatives and more employment. “Cooperation plays a true role in what development is,” she said in her keynote address at the conference. “I feel the cooperative movement could play a role in changing the rules of trade to ensure sustainability, justice and food for all. Unless you protect the last tree and the last child, you don’t have development.”

Dr Shiva is a physicist by training, as well as an anti-globalisation author, food sovereignty advocate and environmental activist. She is the founder of the Navdanya movement – community seed banks which “reclaim seeds and biodiversity as a commons, and resist the privatisation and monopolisation of seed by corporations through intellectual property rights”.

“My science has taught me that while coops have an interconnectedness, that is also the way that the entire world works, even at quantum level […] Ecology is the science of the cooperation of nature.”

She noted that the words ‘ecology’ and ‘economy’ have the same Greek root: Oikos (eco-), meaning ‘home’. “The management of the world is economy,” she said. “The science and knowledge of how the world works is ecology … Aristotle wrote that economy is the art of living, but today the word means money-making at any cost to nature and society. This is what has led to the various ecocides and genocides – the art of limitless greed, with no guiding values except to make more money.”

Countries that were colonised witnessed this phenomenon first hand, she added. “New maps were drawn, extraction began. Two hundred years before the English industrial revolution, they plundered Africa. This is not economy; extractivism is the wrong model. The corporate art of moneymaking is the art of stealing.”

The result of all of this, says Dr Shiva, is that “food and land are now part of the global casino economy. Instead, cooperation with nature, cooperation of humans with nature and cooperation of humans with each other: that must be the true world economy.

“Coops must consciously say: ‘we cooperate with nature. And if they do not, they need to change.”

But coops cannot just be producers either, she said. “Part of our work must be to raise the consciousness of consumers so show they are not just consumers. They are citizens of the earth.”

Dr Shiva shares Ghandi’s belief that the “Earth provides enough for people’s need, but not enough for people’s greed” and highlighted how, if we don’t change our economies within the next 12 years, “humanity has no future”. With pollinators are disappearing and 200 species lost each day, “we are literally sleepwalking to our own extinction”.

Arguing that we are stealing from the future, she added: “Sustainability is nothing more than ensuring that the earth is fit for the future; left to itself, the atmosphere can regulate the climate.” 

She spoke about James Lovelock, the scientist and environmentalist who proposed the Gaia hypothesis (that the Earth functions as a self-regulating system), and reflected on how some cultures had the seventh generation principle – the idea that decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. “If a decision harms the earth, or the seventh generation, then don’t do it.”

She said cooperatives can transcend these divides and transform the artificial constraints of competition into natural, cooperative organisational forms. “Cooperation is our very being,” she added. “We wouldn’t exist unless trees took in the carbon dioxide that we exhale and emitted the oxygen that we breathe […] We have forgotten our cooperative intelligence and our compassionate intelligence.”

But Rwanda was able to renew itself by remembering the economies of care, said Dr Shiva. “We need to cultivate relationships – we are members of societies and communities,” she added, warning against the data-based anthropocentrism and artificial intelligence-driven personal data mining that could be the “precursor to new exclusions, new genocidal thinking”. 

She believes that cooperation has a role to play in opposing competition and separatism. She has watched big chemical companies trying to control and own seeds and make the saving and sharing of seed among farmers illegal. She has seen India lose 320,000 farmers to suicide, which she believes is another form of genocide “when the entire population of those who give us food is threatened”.

Similarly, Argentina has been devastated by genetically modified soil exports, while the junk food industry produces food that is nutritionally empty but produces 11-15% of all greenhouse gasses. Investment banks deal in fictitious finance. And she believes that Brexit is grounded in a corporate rush for deregulation that benefits big businesses. “What world are we living in where laws that are in place for the good of society and the population are seen as an interference?” she asked.

To generate any meaningful change, she believes that our identity has to be one of mutuality, solidarity and an awareness of how much we give back. Her two principles on this are. 1: diversity (nature doesn’t know superiority) and 2: the law of circularity – which in human terms includes recycling. 

“In circular systems there is no waste,” she said. “This is also true when large quantities of what we need are grown locally, with just a few things travelling long-distance – and by encouraging more traditional methods.”

At Navdanya, “we are encouraging farming as our fathers and grandfathers did, under the principle that if you have good biodiversity, you don’t need pesticides – as it will be self-regulating,” she said. “Biodiversity intensification can feed twice the number of people using the same amount of land.”

So how can you make a change when this system is so powerful? “We have an upside down pyramid,” said Dr Shiva, “but an upside down pyramid is unstable.” 

Because of this, cooperatives are the future, she said, ending her speech with a quote from Ghandi: “Life will not be a pyramid with the apex sustained by the bottom. But it will be an oceanic circle whose centre will be in the individual, always ready to perish for the village, the latter ready to perish for the circle of villages, till at last the whole becomes one life composed of individuals, never aggressive in their arrogance, but ever humble, sharing the majesty of the oceanic circle of which they are integral units.”