The Resilience Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Cooperativism

Credit: New York Magazine, Nov. 3, 2012

In her book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit quotes one contemporaneous account of the spirit of the numerous community kitchens and gathering spots that spontaneously arose around San Francisco in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake: “When the tents of the refugees, and the funny street kitchens, improvised from doors and shutters and pieces of roofing, overspread all the city, such merriment became an accepted thing. Everywhere, during those long moonlit evenings, one could hear the tinkle of guitars and mandolins, from among the tents.”

Solnit goes on to write that San Franciscans’ “resilient resourcefulness” is characteristic of how many communities respond to disasters:

“In them, strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, people improvise new roles for themselves. Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, . . . where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away.”

In other words, even in the face of terrible tragedy, people can (and, indeed, must) fashion a sort of rough and ready utopia, a place where the old order of things falls away and is replaced, at least temporarily, by something different and new.

Commentators and politicians alike have noted echoes of this community resiliency in the New York metro area’s response to Hurricane Sandy. Sure, it wasn’t quite the “tinkle of guitars and mandolins,” but people shared rides, small businesses set up makeshift phone-charging stations, and groups like Occupy continue to organize cleanup efforts. Even big corporations got in on the act: Verizon Wireless, for example, offered voice and text service free of charge to its customers impacted by the storm. Amidst the upheaval, New York—however briefly and temporarily—recreated itself.

Although she exacted a heavy toll in terms of lives lost and economic damage, Sandy was a short, sharp shock to the system. But another ongoing and more insidious disaster continues to test the resiliency of communities across the United States. The economic crisis that exploded in 2008 has not produced Sandy’s sensational images (unless you’re riveted by pictures of stock traders clutching their heads), but its effect on individuals, families and communities has been far more pervasive in terms of long-term unemployment, foreclosures, and wealth destruction. The scale and geographic scope of the crisis—and the rot at the core of the system that it exposed—seem, too, to call for a new way of doing things.

It’s true that Rahm Emanuel said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Yet despite some modest reform efforts by the Obama Administration, at the level of national politics and elite discourse the response to the crisis has been by and large an affirmation of the status quo. But that is not the only story. At the local level—in our East Bay community and in communities around the country—we’ve witnessed an embrace of new ideas and economic systems that challenge that status quo. Some of this, like the Occupy movement, burns loud and fast like a roman candle, but other community-based responses to the crisis are growing quietly and steadily: the emerging networks of worker cooperatives, for example.

As with the grassroots responses to Hurricane Sandy, worker cooperatives demonstrate resiliency. The cooperative structure—in which the business operates for the benefit of its member patrons—encourages stability, because profits are not the only bottom line and workers are not the first to go when things take a turn for the worse. This isn’t just theoretical: the giant Mondragon network of worker cooperatives in Spain’s Basque country, for example, has fared well despite that country’s particularly deep economic downturn. And the European Union has published a study extolling the above-average performance of social and worker cooperatives during the global recession. Because they are anchored to local communities and more concerned with people than profits, cooperatives represent the type of institution that is well suited to survive and indeed thrive during a crisis.

One thing we sometimes talk about around GC3 is whether we should look at our ongoing economic crisis as a moment of opportunity. Solnit herself writes, “Grim though it is, the [current global economic depression] may also be a chance for decentralization, democratization, civic engagement, and emergent organizations and ways of coping—or perhaps it is more accurate to say that it may demand these things as means of survival.” Although by definition an “emergent” response rejects one-size-fits-all solutions, the natural and economic disasters we are experiencing today may benefit from a new doctrine of resilience and a shift towards “disaster cooperativism.”

– Daniel Mandel

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