Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Transition to co-operation

Every so often, you get to speak at an event where the energy coming off the audience makes you feel like you're standing in front of an open fire. I had that last week when I spoke at the Transition North event in Slaithwaite. The event was an ambitious one, bringing together not only transition supporters from across the North, but also a broad range of people from the co-operative movement. Sponsored by The Co-operative Group, it was a real chance to explore links between the two movements.

Following on from leading light in the Transition Towns movement Rob Hopkins and Christine Tacon, head of The Co-operative Farms, my role was to show the links between the two movements. To do so, I went back into co-operative history to show the similarities between the two. I cited Robert Owen's vision of Villages of Co-operation which would tackle social injustice at a community level and focus local production. I shared how Dr William King had taken this vision and turned it into something practical where the only way to achieve this was for small groups to come together and create these communities step by step - selling food to each other and using the profits to buy a shop, then using that profit to buy land to grow, then using that profit to create housing etc. All of this came to a head with the Rochdale Pioneers whose vision was not to create a shop, but a 'self-supporting home colony.'

Naturally, Sir Horace Plunkett's role also appeared, both with his vision for how to tackle change in society but also his warning to the US Government that its economic system would be undermined due to 'peak coal'.

But the presentation wasn't all history as I showed how co-operative models were helping to shape the local food movement through such diverse forms as community-supported agriculture, food co-ops, farmers' markets, Country Markets and village shops. Our next challenge was to bind these together into local food systems.

The points that seemed to hit home were:
1) The scale of the modern co-operative movement - a number of transitioners were struck by the statistic that co-operatives employ 10% more people in the world than all the multinationals and their subsidiaries put together (100 million against 90 million).
2) The image that transition and co-operation were not two different movement but simply two waves on the same ocean as generation after generation sought to create societal change through collective action.
3) My final point was to see co-operatives as a way of securing long-term solutions for the individual parts of a Transition community. Voluntary action alone could not create models which would last for generations, which is what we need. But the Transition approach could bind these together. The enterprises were the bricks and transition was the mortar.

I was delighted to trigger ideas from so many people from both the co-operative and the transition movement. I'm sure that the event will help build links that are so vital for everyone.

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