Copenhagen and cooperatives

The much anticipated climate change summit has mostly failed. There is still some overtime haggling over how to spin the failure, but it is clear that there won’t be a substantive and binding agreement that rises to the severity of the problem we really do face.

The breakdown was apparently due to revolt against an undemocratic and manipulative process that is business-as-usual in international decision-making (like the IMF, WTO, etc). Indeed, the atmosphere inside and outside the convention center mirrors the WTO rebellion of exactly a decade ago. Through formal and informal means, the “haves” tried to control the conversation and effectively dictate outcomes to the “have nots.”  The result has been an embarrassing train wreck of a summit, in which heads of state were kept meeting until 2am before handing things off to their underlings for a further five hours of misery.

The Brazilian president said it well: “To submit heads of state to certain kinds of discussion like the one we had last night – I haven’t seen such a meeting in a long time.”

Now nobody knows what is happening, but they are planning another all-nighter before visas start expiring on Saturday. Some leaders are already leaving.

Now what?

Not surprisingly, I believe that cooperatives are a key part of how the world should respond to our leaders’ collective failure. Copenhagen’s collapse is due to a fundamental flaw in our economic system: Growth is considered normal and contraction is considered bad. But contraction is as much a part of nature as expansion, and sooner or later we’ll be reminded that we are still subject to nature’s rules. What goes up must come down, and co-ops are the best way I know to humanely negotiate an economic downshift.

I can totally understand why nobody wants to make do with less than their parents’ generation, but at some point that becomes inevitable. I just spent a weekend reading “The End of Oil” by Paul Roberts. It was published in 2004 so it is full of price spike warnings that are now quaint: $2 gallons! $40 barrels! For months at a time! (My goodness, what a crackpot predicting such dire and outlandish…oh, wait, it’s already worse than that.)

More recently, the International Energy Agency predicted a global peak in 2020. As The Economist notes,

Coming from the band of geologists and former oil-industry hands who believe that the world is facing an imminent shortage of oil, this would be unremarkable. But coming from the IEA, the source of closely watched annual predictions about world energy markets, it is a new and striking claim.

Roberts acknowledges what The Economist points out, that nobody really knows when global oil and gas production will peak and begin their irreversible decline. But whenever they do, we’d better be ready or it will make Copenhagen look like a PTA meeting. And since most producers (both nations and corporations) have been consistently failing to replace lost production for years now, it seems we should assume that the peak oil pessimists are right. So we all need to work on our own personal action plans (and I don’t mean guns, gold and beef jerky).

Another book that I’ve heard is useful but haven’t read yet is “$20 per Gallon” by Christopher Steiner – it takes peak oil seriously, but also looks at some of the positive changes that it might bring. On the really pessimistic side of things is “Long Emergency” by James Howard Kunstler (who also has quite a blog). Take your pick, but if you haven’t yet read about peak oil, you’ve got your homework.

Roberts analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of replacement technologies like solar, wind, and hydrogen. He repeatedly raises an issue that is will be central in the wake of the Copenhagen fiasco: The introduction and spread of essential technologies will depend largely on when they become economically competitive, and we’d better hope that happens while we still have enough petroleum to make the transition.

Unfortunately, capitalist business need profit, and a recurring theme in Roberts’ analysis is that replacement fuels are all moving toward profitability with excruciating slowness while peak oil approaches with alarming speed. And everything I’ve read about peak oil suggests that whenever it happens, that will be too late to start figuring out what to do; changing fuels is going to be the most difficult and complicated task ever undertaken by humanity, so if we want to put new wings on our jumbo jet in mid-fight, we should start before we run out of fuel.

The key contribution that co-ops can make is that they can operate at the break-even point rather than needing enough profit to attract outside investors. What needs to happen now is some sort of massive consumer co-op of people who are committed to buying new technologies as soon as they can possibly be created. These would need to be teamed up with worker co-ops of employees at, for example, the many auto plants that are now shutting down.

It might not be possible to start this with an automotive product, and if Kunstler is right even “green” cars are a distraction from what really needs to happen. In any case we should look for intermediate business models to keep these suppliers running until a new cooperative car can be designed and launched.

For example, a company that now makes car windows could produce a different sort of curved and tinted glass – parabolic mirrors for solar collection. Factories producing pumps, frames, and motors could be adapted to the other components needed to create a commercial version of smallish but powerful solar arrays, to be deployed as as backup power (or water heating) in small rural communities or apartment buildings. Eventually these firms could expand back into the auto industry, perhaps creating a hydrogen car before it is profitable. The co-op solar arrays could also be used to produce hydrogen at a locally-based network of fueling stations, which could be tied to car-sharing cooperatives, along the lines of ZipCar (which is not a co-op and has failed to spread beyond a handful of profitable locations). The cars could also be designed for small-scale sharing, with features like multi-user odometers (to help divvy up costs by use) and snap-in trunk dividers.

This is an extraordinarily complex undertaking that I’m suggesting, and maybe even impossible. But at this point I’m not sure what other options we have. The old ways of thinking are not going to get us out of the mess that they created. And if we are creating a whole new sustainable energy economy, it might as well be based on an economic structure that is sustainable. If we keep concentrating wealth, it will make petroleum even less affordable for most people while pushing alternative fuels further out of reach.

Cooperation is fast becoming a matter of survival. Our governments can’t do it, so it’s up to us now.

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