Melissa Scanlan

Melissa Scanlan

Many people know Wisconsin native Melissa K. Scanlan for her work on environmental causes as the founder of Madison-based Midwest Environmental Advocates. She went on from there to prestigious faculty positions at Vermont Law School and Boston College Law School. These days, she’s a professor and the director of the Center for Water Policy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee School of Freshwater Sciences.

So, what’s an expert on the environment doing writing a book about the potential of cooperative business models in a fossil-free economy? Well, it’s all connected, right? It’s foolhardy to separate the economic forces driving climate change from the outcomes those forces produce.

Enter Scanlan, with “Prosperity in the Fossil-Free Economy: Cooperatives and the Design of Sustainable Businesses.” Published by Yale University Press, the book is an ambitious and important effort to show how cooperative business models can move the needle in the right direction to help mitigate climate change, pay living wages and serve communities.

In simple terms, cooperatives are owned and run jointly by their members, who share the profits or benefits, and — sometimes — the losses. Wisconsin and neighboring Minnesota are no strangers to cooperatives. They populate an array of business sectors here, from agriculture to food, energy to finance.

Among the case studies in the book, Scanlan cites LaFarge-based CROPP Cooperative and its Organic Valley products, Madison-based Just Coffee and the city of Madison’s efforts to promote and support cooperatives.

But she doesn’t sugarcoat the stories.

CROPP, for instance, enjoyed great success since its founding in 1998, but recent years haven’t been so rosy. Outside forces have changed the business landscape, and like many cooperatives, succession planning and members’ desires to cash out on their investments have produced challenges for the iconic business.

Despite challenges, Scanlan lays out a legal blueprint for creating and enhancing the roles of cooperatives in a fossil-free economy. She draws on extensive research on cooperatives in Spain and the southern hemisphere for that blueprint and for some of her wide-ranging case studies.

As a disclaimer, I am a volunteer board member of a foundation (the Ralph K. Morris Foundation) that promotes cooperatives, especially educational opportunities for young people interested in pursuing work in the cooperative sector. That said, as a journalist, I’ve been interested in cooperatives and their potential for a long time, and I think Scanlan is on to something.

As most people know, there’s urgency. As Scanlan told me via email, “The climate crisis is here, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is telling us we need to move the economy off fossil fuels ASAP to reduce suffering from the extremes.”

She’s no stranger to building a successful business, or efforts to address democratic engagement and income inequality while pursuing environmental goals. With that background, she said of the book: “I think I’ve uncovered a really important idea that I hope will change the way people look at the legal design of business and our economy.”

Let’s face it, this is a daunting task. Her case studies make that clear. And cooperatives themselves are part of the problem.

Some big farm-owned and energy coops, for instance, are heavily invested in fossil fuels. But in efforts to build sustainability principles into a business model — be they environmental or internal — cooperatives may have advantages that, say, publicly traded firms driven mostly by investor profits lack.

And, after all, as Scanlan notes in the book, “In a country fixated on Wall Street, people are often surprised to learn that today more people in the United States are members of cooperatives than participants in the stock market.”

I often wonder whether folks, even those who belong to cooperatives, understand their full potential.

Scanlan gives us plenty of food for thought about why we should pay attention. She’s been known as a no-nonsense, results-oriented legal mind for a long time. But she also provides us with hope for the future in this book, including sharing what she calls “my utopian dream” about a livable future for everyone.

Bill Berry of Stevens Point writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times.

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