An Interdisciplinary Symposium at UCL. 13-14 Sept 2012
A selection of speakers’ abstracts will be posted on this blog as they become available. Here’s the first one!
Consumer Co-operatives and the Energy Sector: Historical Legacies
(UCL European Social and Political Studies / Scandinavian Studies)
Consumer co-operatives emerged in most parts of Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Most of them began as small local societies supplying basic foodstuffs and other essential goods, but they quickly grew into large and sophisticated businesses serving hundreds of thousands of members. Consumer co-operatives grew dramatically during the First World War when they were co-opted by governments to help manage the rationing of scarce food supplies.
At least until the second half of the twentieth century, consumer co-operatives were often at the forefront of innovations in retailing, distribution and manufacture. Co-operators conceived of their movement as a rational, more efficient alternative to capitalism – because, they suggested, co-operatives were not motivated by the search for profits and thus produced only what was necessary. Through extensive educational programmes the co-operative movement also aspired to create “rational consumers”, in historian Peder Aléx’ words, who would not be lured by the false promises of capitalist advertising. This applied not only to the experience of shopping at the co-operative store but was extended more widely to the management of the home.
Many of these questions about the rational and efficient management and distribution of scarce resources seem to be relevant to current discussions about energy. Indeed, there are plenty of historical examples where the co-operative model has been successfully applied to the energy sector: for example in the petroleum co-operatives serving rural America in the 1930s, and the schemes to bring electricity to rural parts of north-eastern Europe in the same period. In recent years new energy co-operatives have emerged across the world, as part of the revival of interest in the co-operative business model. In this paper I will discuss the implications of this historic legacy, and reflect on the relevance of the co-operative idea for addressing contemporary concerns about energy.