Could a pope getting respect on atheist blogs make co-operatives his weapon for fighting poverty?
It began as a lament about the disposal of a mountain of spring weeds, the conversation that got us thinking about the new Vatican leader’s inaugural promise to ‘embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest,’ and his wish expressed elsewhere to see ‘a church that is poor and for the poor.’ He sounds remarkably like someone on an Occupy soapbox. But unlike members of that well-meaning but chaotic movement, he has a massive organisation behind him to help point followers in the right direction.
We have been astounded by the evidence search engines supply of wide interest in a Christian spiritual figure among so many typically secular intellectual institutions – The New Yorker, for instance — and stretching as far as blogs like one called Non-Prophet Status declaring, ‘Why this atheist is (tentatively) optimistic about Pope Francis’. Soon, he could win a popularity contest with the Dalai Lama, among non-believers.
There was even a surprise for us close to home. Though there have been no Catholics among our blood relations for three generations, one scrupulously apolitical member of our family about the same age as the pontiff, and paying close attention, insisted last week that the papal mission was doomed. ‘Because,’ he explained, ‘most of the world is poor and always will be. As he won’t be able to make any difference to the impoverished far outnumbering everyone else, why choose certain failure?’
While we considered that opinion, a question occurred to us: what single lever could Pope Francis choose to concentrate on, to prove the pessimists wrong? What might be his equivalent of the Lone Ranger’s silver bullet?
Unexpectedly, an answer suggested itself not long after we heard from a grizzled, kindly Greenlander living on the edge of San Francisco about his reason for being incensed by an argument with his local garbage collector. This rubbish-disposal engineer, on his weekly round, had haughtily spurned, then left behind, several giant plastic bags into which the Greenlander’s neighbours had taken pains to squeeze a towering weed-pile. No bags, he said. Nothing but greenery.
When the Greenlander appealed for mercy — an exception made for neighbours who were still newcomers, the haul-away man said it was time that they learnt the rules. No, the Greenlander said later, shaking his head, the smelliness of the work did not excuse the man’s unfeeling intransigence. ‘Don’t you know how much money these garbage guys make? A fortune!’
The next person to enter the conversation filled in some fascinating details. He said that the average income of a rubbish collector working for Recology, the dominant garbage company in the region, is $80,000 – or roughly twice the salary of the average American schoolteacher or policeman. Though we have not, so far, been able to check the precise accuracy of that number, we suspect that it is correct, or nearly so, because it was part of a case handled by our informant, a lawyer with a good memory.
We thought this salary fair, and said as much. Imagine the stench for mile after mile, working on a trash-collecting truck in summer heat! But then came a bigger – and even more welcome – shock. Recology is entirely employee-owned. Historically, its workers had ancestry in common with Pope Francis. This cooperative’s website says :
Our company’s roots have always been in recycling and employee ownership.
The original Bay Area garbage men, or “scavengers”, came to San Francisco from Italy in the late 19th century. At that time, scavenging in San Francisco was a disorderly and inefficient business. Hundreds of independent collectors competed for business. The 1906 earthquake and fire temporarily improved business, but did little to bring order to the chaos of garbage collection.
The website boasts that Recology has an outstanding record for innovation, and one item on the list it offers as proof suggests a startling interest in the radical 1960s Arte Povera (art from poverty) movement in Italy:
The world-renowned Artist in Residence Program in 1990 allowing local artists to find materials in our processing facilities to create art.
… Anyway, we were, as we said, reminded by this chat of Pope Francis committing himself to helping not merely the indigent but ‘the weakest, the least important, …’. Could there be a better salve for the lowly status of garbage-collecting than a bank balance honestly earned through joint ownership?
Post-Gutenberg began as a spinoff of a paper setting out a detailed proposal for saving journalism from the machinations of press barons like Rupert Murdoch through a ‘keiretsu-cooperative’ – owned by workers and customers.
Pope Francis, being a Jesuit, a member of the religious order famous, for centuries, for being frighteningly intelligent, would know about the remarkable success of huge cooperatives in, for instance, Switzerland. He would certainly stand a far better chance of pushing a new cooperative movement than any blink-and-you-miss-it blog like ours, or any of the pundits making the case for employee ownership on newspaper sites often, but to little avail – so far.