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Income equality is getting worse. Can the co-op model solve this problem?
Co-ops are more pervasive than you think. They just suffer from a marketing problem.
- The cooperative model accounts for $154B every year in America.
- America leads the world with cooperatives, with over 30,000 businesses operating under this model.
- Co-op advocate Nathan Schneider believes this model can help level the economic playing field.
What is a Co-operative?
Nathan Schneider plays a game at strip malls. The activist-journalist and University of Colorado Boulder media studies professor tries to guess how many businesses were directly or indirectly inspired by co-ops. The number is higher than you'd expect.
Whether it's organic food or fair trade coffee or Visa labels in the windows of the small business or chains like Dairy Queen and Best Western, cooperatives are built into their model.
Reading Ours to Hack and Own, a book on the cooperative tradition that Schneider co-edited, I learned that the nation with the largest number of cooperatives is right here. America has over 30,000 businesses built under this model. Co-ops account for $154 billion every year in the U.S. I met Schneider because I too work for one, and during our talk he educated me on the vast influence of cooperatives on American businesses, a fact I had never stopped to contemplate.
While there are a number of variables in the cooperative model, the basic principles, followed by co-ops around the world, were created by the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers in 1844:
- Voluntary and open membership
- Democratic member control
- Economic participation by members
- Autonomy and independence
- Education, training, and information
- Cooperative among cooperatives
- Concern for community
The Next Economy: Worker-Led, for Public Interest
According to Worldwatch Institute, in 2012 one billion people around the planet were part of a cooperative. The 300 largest co-ops are worth $2.2 trillion. Dating the cooperative model to an origin point is impossible since tribes generally worked under this model. The problem, Schneider says, is that players in the capitalist model take credit for the work that cooperatives have done. For example, credit cards.
Visa, he says, was originally Bank Americard. This early Visa credit card, founded in 1958, was not working under the guidance of Bank of America. A decade later, Dee Hock founded a network of banks that ran under the cooperative model.
That was what made the credit card phenomenon really work. After the cooperatives built that industry, it got demutualized, privatized, turned into this kind of rapacious and exploitative industry. But it was actually the cooperative movement that enabled that feature of capitalism to grow.
While researching his latest book, Everything for Everyone, Schneider discovered his grandfather, a "farm boy from Colorado," was the director of a large national purchasing cooperative in the hardware industry. Growing up, he knew his grandfather ran a company called Liberty Distributors; he just didn't know it was a co-op. This is a persistent problem with co-ops, Schneider says. Few people, for example, know that large companies like Land O'Lakes, ShopRite, and ACE Hardware are co-ops. The most publicized, REI, is predominantly reserved for outdoor fanatics.
Whereas the co-op model might inspire thoughts of conformity, Schneider argues that it actually promotes individuality through participation. Regional cooperatives match the environment in which they are founded and service, whereas chain stores demand subservience from customers. It might seem convenient that I can go into a Home Depot anywhere in America and know where everything is shelved, but this mindset is antithetical to the co-op model.
Liberty was all about using the cooperative model to enable local stores to be more individualistic, to actually enable them to have more control over how they branded themselves and what stock they carried. The hardware store in my town that's a member of ACE Hardware is much more tailored to the culture of the town than the Home Depot conglomerate down the road. The corporate model expects a kind of mass conformity; the cooperative model is a strategy for enabling businesses to help people be their fuller selves.
Corporate responsibility? Don’t make me laugh.
This model can help level the economic playing field in a country like America, which is suffering from staggering income inequality. While Schneider's grandfather never became super wealthy, he was actively engaged in a community in which the rewards of the profession were distributed equitably. Self-help books about economic empowerment and business success proclaim that anyone can become the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates with a dream and drive, but Schneider recognizes such a promise as nonsense. The capitalist playing field is limited to few winners while forcing small businesses—the romantic 'Main Street' model of suburban America—to shutter their windows.
Schneider points out that even in a time of extreme party-line politics, the Main Street Employee Ownership Act, which argued for employee ownership through a cooperative model, received bipartisan support when signed into law in August 2018. While Schneider says that Republicans are more likely to work with electrical and agricultural co-ops in rural states, both parties need to better educate themselves on the history and importance of this model moving forward. Unfettered capitalism espoused by paid lobbyists is not doing the citizenry any favors.
This is especially problematic, Schneider says, during a time when so much wealth is locked into smaller technology companies that are poorly understood by government.
We have an incredibly widespread accountability problem. Our businesses, especially the dominant ones, are just not accountable the way we need them to be. We can drag them in front of Congress as many times as we want, but they're clearly on their own agenda; we need a different strategy. And another difficulty here that we're in is that we're no longer in the realm of national companies. We need governance that is transnational; we can't just rely on a hodgepodge of national regulations to deal with the emerging digital economy.
Honoring value creators is the way to move forward, according to Schneider. One thing is certain: we're currently not headed in that direction. Empowering members and consumers instead of treating them as a flock will benefit the greatest number of people. Forty years into the trickle-down experiment have shown its utter failure. When will we come to terms with this fact?
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.