Defining Cooperative Culture

Back in 1974, when a group of four of us started Sandhill Farm, I started down a path that ultimately added up to my dedicating my life to building community. While that commitment has never wavered (the need for community today as more urgent than ever), I've frequently adjusted the lens through which I see what I'm doing.

One of the most potent and enduring ways to frame my life's work is that I am promoting cooperative culture—as an alternative to the competitive culture that dominates mainstream society. But what does that mean, cooperative culture?

While it's analogous to asking a fish to define water, I can at least nibble around the edges.

o Caring about how as much as what
While there is lip service given to how things are done in the mainstream culture (don't break the law, pay fair wages, and deliver what you promise) there's no question but that the bottom line is king. In cooperative culture you're just as likely to get into hot water cutting corners on process as you are if you deliver slipshod product.

o Thinking inclusively (no us-versus-them dichotomy)
Not going forward unless everyone can be brought along is quite a different mind set than trying to secure a majority of votes. In the former there should be no disgruntled minorities; in the latter outvoted minorities are collateral damage, and a way of life.

o Going to the heart (rather than being nice)
Done well, cooperative culture is about plumbing the emotional and psychic depths of topics, not just the best thinking. Wherever there is tension we work to resolve it, not paper it over.

o Placing relationships in the center
The weft and warp of cooperative culture is woven on the loom of human interactions. The stronger the connections, the tighter the weave.

o Being open to disagreement and critical feedback
In healthy cooperative groups there is an awareness of how vital it is to establish and utilize clear channels of communication among members whenever anyone is having a critical reaction to the statements or behavior of another member in the group context. Failing to attend to this leads to the erosion of trust and is damaging to relationship.

o Emphasizing access and sharing (rather than ownership)
A corollary to recognizing the primacy of relationship is that "things" take a back seat to people. In the interest of leaving more for others—both present and future—cooperative folks work to eat lower on the food chain and consume less. If we share, then access to things can be a reasonable substitute for ownership, and everyone can chase fewer dollars in order to secure a satisfactory quality of life.

o Taking into account the impact that your words and actions have on others
Another corollary is the realization that cooperative culture doesn't work well unless it's working well for all of us. That translates into mindfulness about how one's activity lands on others. In the wider culture the model of good decision-making is competitive: that a fair fight will produce the best result (survival of the fittest). In cooperative culture we explicitly reject that thinking—because we know that life is not a zero-sum game where one's person's advancement is predicated on another person's loss.

It's much easier to expand one's consciousness to hold all species once you accept that we need to hold all of humanity (no just those living in blue states, those promoting white culture, or those embracing green politics). Once there, it is that much harder to be at peace with people throwing trash out the window of their car (essentially fouling our one nest), or with company CEOs who decide to pay fines because it's cheaper than eliminating pollution from their waste stream.

When seen through the lens of cooperative culture private ownership entails the responsibility to conserve, enhance, and extend—more than the right to hoard, misuse, and exhaust.

What do I mean by cooperative culture? All of the above.