Publisher’s Commentary 1: Nurturing Healthy Collaboration in a Community Economy

Ecolution reporting made possible by Seward Co-op, which has been a community-owned grocer since 1972: Together, we continue to cultivate a cooperative economy.


In 1968, an ecologist wrote an essay in Science Magazine indicating that our natural resources would be depleted because of overpopulation and satisfying self-interests. His solution was to combine government regulation with private ownership so that resources could be controlled for sustainability.

The problem with that theory, said political scientist Elinor Ostrom in 1999, is that local communities are capable of cooperating to solve problems that serve mutual goals. Ten years later, she became the first woman awarded a Nobel Prize in economics for her research about that theory.

Today, if we look at the gaps between people’s perspectives, it tends to be ongoing disagreement about whether we have limited resources that should be controlled by some, or whether we are capable of collaboration in providing mutual aid for all. Some might boil this down to Fear vs. Love, or Generosity vs. Selfishness. I believe we are all choosing on a spectrum, regardless of political affiliation or faith. It is not a binary one-or-the-other. We can nudge people into gradations of cooperation if we start off in the right place.

As Minnesota Women’s Press and Changemakers Alliance moves into 2024 — with the overarching theme of Healthy Collaboration — we are diving more deeply into concepts we began amplifying during the pandemic about how Minnesota can move toward a shared perspective of collective will and resources.

The Commons and the Community Economy

We wrote in 2020 about the partnership of Julie Graham and Katherine Gibson, who used the pen name J.K. Gibson-Graham. In their 2006 book “A Postcapitalist Politics,” (University of Minnesota Press), the authors outlined how feminists were beginning to bring recognition to unpaid household labor, caregiving, and volunteer work that sustains households and communities. The interdependence of household, community, and market-based economic activities are rarely explored, they pointed out.  Only a small percentage of the economy is derived from wage labor production in capitalist firms. Schools, neighborhoods, family-based businesses, churches, retirees, gifts, self-employment, government employment, volunteerism, bartering, household labor, and cooperatives are vital to our functioning — whether or not we acknowledge it out loud.

If we could “smash capitalism and see it in a thousand pieces,” they wrote, we would see how much energy and political investment go into an inflated economic system that is only a sliver of how communities work. “The Community Economy is positioned as the ‘other’ to the so-called ‘real economy’ of international markets, competitive dynamics, and agglomerative tendencies that operate at the global scale.”

The authors wrote of “the commons” — land, air, trees, water, and also a public health system, the internet, databases, working roads, communication tools, traditions. The commons are valuable resources that yield the nourishment and support working societies need.

In “Take Back the Economy: An Ethical Guide for Transforming Our Communities,” (2013) the authors equate a successful economy with a successful community garden. How do we care for the commons? What is produced for survival? How do we work alongside others? How is surplus distributed? How is it invested for the future?

The Community Economy is “a space of decision making where we recognize and negotiate our interdependence with other humans, other species, and our environment. In the process of recognizing and negotiating, we become a community.”

The Pro-Social Movement

I am a member of First Unitarian Society, a humanist congregation — which essentially is a Sunday gathering of people who believe in human solutions to human problems. In a recent noon forum, a group of us were able to ask questions via Zoom of evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, professor emeritus at SUNY Binghamton in New York. He is part of the Pro-Social movement, which grew out of The Evolution Institute from the Humanists of Florida Association. He strongly believes that human nature can lean in more to community cooperation compared to competition.

The Pro-Social movement, he explained, brings attention to anything that boosts the welfare of groups as a whole. He cites Elinor Ostrom as the person whose research showed that society was capable of being unselfish when given the proper set-up. “When groups work well, it’s because they have a common sense of purpose,” he said. “If you’ve learned about Elinor Ostrom’s core design principles, you know that the first one is that a group needs to have a strong sense of identity and purpose in order to function as a cooperative group. That’s precisely what many groups do not have when they start out — being divisive and polarized.”

According to Ostrom (who died in 2012), the core principals of a working community are to:

  • Define clear boundaries (aka respecting a strong group identity and sense of purpose)
  • Set rules about use of common goods to local needs (aka fair distribution)
  • Ensure that those affected by the rules are part of modifying them (aka inclusive decision-making)
  • Protect rights of community members with outside authorities (aka good relations with others)
  • Monitor members’ behavior with a system developed by the community
  • Have graduated sanctions for violations (not canceled or evicted or imprisoned, but seeking behavior adaptations)
  • Offer fair, accessible, low-cost conflict resolution
  • Connect governance from lower levels to entire system

There are growing numbers of individuals and groups working on convergent culture practices, Wilson said, “creating ways for people to get to know each other and to see each other as fellow human beings.” [See our recent story with Minnesotan Ellie Krug.]

I had several questions for Wilson. One of them: It seems evolution can be a slow and frustrating process, yet the world often seems like it is speeding up. How do you feel hope for a process that takes its own time in a world that doesn’t?”

He said that we always will have both, because sometimes environments favor selfishness. “If conditions favor selfishness, then that is what evolves,” he says. There are, however, ways to create win-win situations. “Once you really appreciate that, then you realize we can change the environment. Niche construction. We can stack the deck in favor of pro-social behaviors.”

Wilson responded that evolution takes place in many ways — biological to cultural. As one example, he said, our body’s immune system is mind-boggling in its complexity, but does have an adaptive component that is constantly evolving. “The immune system is evolving antibodies in single days and weeks, thankfully. That turns evolution into potentially a very fast process,” he said. Chemistry operates the same way, he said. Small amounts of catalysts can speed up new reactions.

“When you look at cultural evolution, you find sometimes it is indeed slow, taking place on the scale of decades and centuries and even millennia,” Wilson said. “But evolution is only sometimes slow. Sometimes it can be fast — and be made faster. That is precisely what animates me. Rapid change is possible.

Blue marble image taken by Apollo 17 crew in 1972

He pointed out that seeing the Earth from space for the first time — with the photo taken from the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on December 7, 1972 — “was transformative, thinking of the Earth as a single group, or a single home. [Today], the International Space Station is probably the best example of international cooperation that we have.”

Someone in the group asked about the notion that interdependence is the equivalent of being parasitical. Wilson responded, “There is sometimes the idea that if you have made yourself dependent on others, you are a parasite. But you’ve gained so much more. Nobody wants to be the equivalent of a skin cell that just gets sloughed off, but if you can actually become part of the brain, you are part of everything that happens. There’s nobility in that. Dependency can take on a much more positive glow.”

Wilson often starts group workshops by asking participants to share a series of “I am…” statements with each other, finishing the sentences in whatever identities they choose. He suggests that if more of us begin to name “I am a citizen of the world” as the first identity, the better off we will be. We legitimately segregate ourselves with identities related to family, work, volunteerism, religion, statehood, race, and gender. But when constructing a pro-social environment that shares common resources, he reminds us, it is about adhering to Ostrom’s core principals of a healthy society. The first step is to get to a shared group identity: perhaps caring about the same town, or body of water, goal, transformation, neighbor.

“If we’re disagreeing with each other,” he said, “let’s pull back and find some common ground. Then proceed from there. Often, the best way to do that is with shared experiences.”

 Coming next week: A conversation I hosted at First Unitarian Society this week about the social control aspects of birth control 100 years ago that are similar to today’s divisions around abortion — but with a controversial twist. 

 Our April 13 event will be held at First Unitarian Society for Badass members who support our ongoing series about community-based practices. We will share insights from the past year of coverage about public safety, gender-based violence, and diversity in politics — and share action goals. We also will announce partnerships for enhanced coverage about housing, mental health, and ecolution, which is our term for cooperative and restorative ecosystems and economies. Support this work by becoming a Badass member today

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From my 2022 talk “Meeting in The Commons: How to Become Badass Collaborators”

Our next step, after we generate the underwriting and funders to enhance our team, will be to create a series of action steps that people statewide do together. We want to look at the work involved in defusing toxic masculinity, and funding restorative justice practices on the front end of conflict, to reduce and deflect and prevent violence, instead of spending all public safety funds in law enforcement and incarceration after the harm has already been done.

  • My theory: Media does not need to be a passive product that is consumed.
  • What if we sustain the funding, the relevance, and the importance of journalism by creating a different relationship between readers and media?
  • What if we build a model that has the capacity to engender trust in journalism again?
  • What if we focus on solutions journalism, designed to reduce the weariness of being overwhelmed with problems and connecting people as they make stories happen?

My view of the media business I love is that we tend to be reactive, writing for a passive audience. But our most engaged readers are NOT passive, and want to get in front of the stories, to change outcomes.