Cooperation Against Catastrophe

- Pamphlets

By Reed Ingalls


This text was written as part of the LSC Pamphlet Program. It reflects only the opinions of the author(s) and not the consensus of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus.

In a previous article I summarized the state of the current disaster response industry and its ability to respond adequately to the challenge of runaway climate change (and let me tell you folks, it isn’t looking good). At this point we are guaranteed a minimum level of climate-amplified disasters around the world (storms, floods, droughts, food shortages and resource conflicts), even if we were to reduce carbon emissions significantly by mid century. In all realistic assessments of the situation, this must be our baseline assumption: we are headed for an era of disaster on a scale never seen before in the history of human civilization. This may seem hyperbolic, pessimistic and defeatist, but I must stress the need for everyone’s calm, collected and informed consideration. I think that upon reviewing the data that this is by far the most pragmatic and sensible conclusion. Even if the very worst does not come to pass, it would be incredibly risky not to prepare for the eventuality of a moderately-catastrophic-to-extreme global scenario by 2050. Taking the pessimistic outlook allows us to be realistic in our planning. Without knowing what we’re getting into, we cannot set meaningful goals that lead to positive outcomes or seriously consider root-cause analysis over band-aid fixes. Without addressing structural issues (such as poverty and under-development) and drastically improving organizational efficiency (reducing admin overhead, informational asymmetry and supply chain distribution mechanism), it will be next to impossible to scale-up in time to save millions of people. The Cooperative/Solidarity model offers solutions to these issues that I think everyone who takes climate change seriously should consider.

Boots on the Ground

It has been demonstrated that with enough resources and structure, community-lead disaster response efforts can be more efficient and effective than international NGOs, military and civil emergency agencies at providing direct support and resource allocation in emergency situations. A network of well-organized and coordinated local efforts is able to cover far more ground, and the ground covered is also covered far more thoroughly, by people who know the terrain, the culture, the language and the people well. With resources, preparation and training, the abilities of such networks to exceed other institutional forms’ capacities could be game-changing. My recommendation is that we begin to form the necessary institutions, funding sources, training and international connections immediately. Groups like Mutual Aid Disaster Relief are already getting started, developing a volunteer, education and distribution system for North America and the Caribbean along these lines. But direct aid organizations can’t do it all.

The Institutional Assist:

Consistent financial support is necessary to sustain, amplify and grow decentralized response efforts to a necessary scale. Advances in peer-to-peer philanthropy may help reduce the reliance on traditional granting foundations and allow response organizations greater degrees of flexibility in their approach and administrative requirements. For-profit crowdfunding platforms are the current cutting edge, but even more experimental systems may end up prevailing in the long run. Cooperative institutions, with their relative transparency and ability to cooperate between firms on major projects, seem like a natural fit for coordinating transactions and pooling capital. But apart from sustaining human life on earth, what’s in it for them? Cooperatives, as most who work with them know, are not made of money. They have to keep the lights on and sustain their members livelihoods. How can they contribute to major humanitarian efforts in a way that leaves cooperation stronger than ever?

Blocking the Shock Doctrine:

The cycle of underdevelopment, disaster and privatization that plays out in most disaster scenarios has been well documented, most famously by Naomi Klein’s eponymous book “The Shock Doctrine”. It is one of Neoliberalism’s primary strategies of primitive capital accumulation-by-dispossession, and relentlessly feeds back into itself, setting up more severe disaster situations down the road (See: Haiti, or the recent move to Privatize Puerto Rico’s power grid).

The linchpin of the whole process is poverty and underdevelopment. Someone always stand to profit from disaster, and it is rarely those directly affected. So a root-cause solution to disaster is to develop, not divest, leaving an impacted society on a better economic footing, with better infrastructure and greater autonomy. And what are cooperatives particularly well-known for addressing? I hope you see where I’m going with this: The international cooperative movement needs to invest, and invest heavily in blocking the shock doctrine through a massively collaborative/ cooperative model of reconstruction.

Incentivizing national and state/provincial governments to contract with cooperatives and inter-cooperative/NGO networks(by offering lower prices, preferential deals, greater local autonomy, etc) for reconstructive efforts than private firms (out-bidding disaster capitalism) and in return receiving first/preferential-access will allow for the creation of strong cooperative networks in communities hit hard by disasters. These networks, initially focused on providing direct-aid and reconstruction services, staffed by local workers, will be able to keep resources where they need to be, develop local social, economic and political infrastructure. When the immediate need has passed, they will be able to transition into local economic institutions able to contribute surplus finance, resources and volunteer labor back into a global network of generosity and mutual aid, ready to be applied in the next disaster zone. And when, as with most places hit by climate disaster, the next storm hits, they will be as ready as they can be to respond in the best way possible: with strong social infrastructure connected to globally networked resources that do not rely on arbitrarily exclusive barriers to access. No borders, no paywalls, no user-fees, no catch.

Cooperation is exponentially strengthened by more cooperation, just as the value of a network is the square of the number of connected nodes/users. Investing in massive reconstruction may be the best and most ethically necessary opportunity to being outgrowing capitalism from the ground-up.

Inverting the Pyramid:

To accomplish something so ambitious, massive international coordination, networking at all levels of society and strategic planning will be absolutely necessary. A collaborative effort of this scale cannot be the work of a few powerful individuals at the top of a hierarchy. Ethical concerns aside, it would be logistically impossible. The informational asymmetry between the base and the top of the pyramid would be too great to remain effective. But decentralizing to the point of absolute autonomy of all actors would lead to disarray and wasted energy. The pyramid can’t be flattened, but it can’t remain a pyramid either. To extend the metaphor, the pyramid must be inverted, or turned inside out. Simply put, the policy must come from everyone, and the administration of policy from a few within a discrete organizational body. But for this structure to work (and work, it must) the base (policy-makers/first-responders; those closest to the issue on the front-lines) member mobilization and education are crucial (another cooperative user-principle, coincidentally).

Scaling Up:

To get something like a cooperative climate response plan going, it will take decades of sustained organizing. There aren’t really any road maps or templates to follow. The closest analogue I could think of are mobilization efforts during the Great Depression and the World Wars. Civilian Conservation Corps may actually provide some useful strategies: They took huge numbers of unemployed people and put them to work on infrastructural development projects. The crisis was of a different sort, and the scale was smaller, but similarly huge numbers of unemployed and underemployed youth exist today, often with useful skills and knowledge from post-secondary educations, but burdened by debt and unable to apply themselves. Perhaps a United Nations Cooperative Civilian Conservation Corps, or something along those lines, could be part of the solution to mobilization.

Which Truths are Stranger than Fiction?

This is a preliminary sketch of an idea I have been sitting on for several months now. I will admit that currently it is little more than a work of speculative fiction (and at least partially inspired by ideas found in fiction). But the future is an uncharted terrain. Power can be organized. Disruptions are by nature unexpected. What I do know is that the need is real, and a resolved and organized humanity will have to come together to find a solution. Cooperation is the trait which has allowed us to come this far as a species and as a civilization. It is rational, it is ethical, and it works. Left, right or center, it works.

Hope and despair are both roads we can choose to walk. Hope is difficult, but it contains potential. Despair in the face of catastrophe is foolishness beyond compare. Let us take stock of the facts, collect our courage and stay focused on realistic solutions.

If you have any suggestions for me on ways I can develop these ideas further and begin to realize them, please get in touch. Don’t be a stranger.