Cooperation Against Catastrophe

Why Cooperatives Need to Invest in Disaster Relief (Part I)

2016 and 2017 have seen some of the worst climate-related disasters in recorded history. And if data trends are any guide, the years to come will only bring more record breakers, each storm season more brutal than the last. Low lying, coastal population centers, agriculturally unstable regions and equatorial regions are already among the first, and hardest hit, from hurricanes, floods and typhoons to droughts , leading to famine, war, mass migration and ultimately major global social and economic disruption. As well as being the first and hardest hit, these same areas are also most likely to be bearing the brunt of exponential escalations in scale, severity and magnitude of disaster events. An optimistic assessment of climate-related economic damage in the 21st century alone is an estimated $25 trillion. And, in a particularly heinous instance of Murphy’s Law, escalation of disaster events is most likely to occur in regions, states, municipalities and neighborhoods that are the least well-equipped to predict, prevent and manage these events. In plain-speech: places that are poor, under-developed, under-privileged and altogether marginalized by neoliberal capitalism bear the brunt of a disaster they did not cause, but are now responsible for.

From New Orleans’ lower 9th, to the Rockaways, San Juan, Bangdalesh and the Horn of Africa, most places expected to be hit with the very worst are increasingly the least able to deal with them. Local governments are often bankrupt or deeply indebted to international finance. Social infrastructure and community wealth has been systematically destroyed by years of corruption, poverty and privatization. Being hit repeatedly by increasingly intense events is only going to further erode what social safety nets such places possess. This decline in all forms of social and governmental infrastructure is already leading to a downward spiral of destruction, where disaster impact and socioeconomic inequality exponentially magnify one another.

On top of all of this, the current model of international charity and disaster management not only fails to address the roots of this crisis, but actually just ends up adding fuel to the fire. Decades of structural adjustment policies , privatization of vital public services, corruption and disaster-capitalism have consistently lead to increased inequality, while totally failing to address the social roots of the ecological crisis we face.

Take the sad tale of Flint, Michigan and its opportunistic crisis-management fiasco as a small-scale case study for a problem already playing out on a global scale, and only a storm or two away from a major escalation in seriousness. The cycle is fairly easy to understand: Cities get hit. They borrow immense sums of cash to pay for the damages. They rebuild, in most cases weaker on all fronts than before the storm. Developers and financiers profit. Then, they get hit again, harder. You can see where this goes. How many times can your infrastructure collapse before tensions boil over? How many millions must die, be displaced and forced to migrate before we get the message.

As a global community, we must commit to respond and rebuild in a way which addresses root causes, and leaves victims, rather than the culprits, with more power over their own lives. We must commit to a just transition away from exploitation and fossil-fuels, towards cooperation and ecological infrastructure. But how can we create a real alternative? Current philanthropic models rely on the immense wealth of the world’s financial and political elite, and are dominated by neoliberal ideologies and practices. How can ordinary people organize to counter this power and influence?

There are a few key factors, which in combination, may give us an edge.

  1. Our ideas address root causes, not symptoms. There are no such thing as “natural” disasters. The “disaster” which follows extreme events has an underlying social cause, often decades if not centuries in the making. Addressing root causes prevents recurrence, and saves both lives and resources in the long run.
  2. We favor community-directed, decentralized and non-hierarchical approaches. Community institutions and Peer-to-Peer networks are our best defense, not structural adjustments, debt and militarization. What this ultimately means is that when we work cooperatively we work faster, cheaper, and better. The US Department of Homeland Security agrees.
  3. We favor cooperation over competition, and solidarity over charity. Traditional liberal philanthropy suffers from competition for donors, bureaucratic waste and corruption, and ultimately donor fatigue, while, market solutions are bound by the profit motive, and are easily used as vehicles for massive expropriation of wealth by the owners of capital. Neither are adequate to address the severity of repeated escalating climate disasters . This means that smaller, less powerful groups and individuals participating on an equal footing, pooling resources and efforts in a mutual exchange of solidarity can respond in ways which others can and will not.

Armed with these key advantages, I think that a serious, well organized and well funded alliance of cooperatives, labor unions, social movements, political parties and most importantly, people, has the potential, and therefore the duty, of taking the lead. Ultimately, when facing issues of species survival and global scale, competition will doom us. Cooperation in the face of extinction is the only ethical choice.


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