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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Environmental Policy Expert Proposes Blueprint For A New Economy

Susan Bence
Melissa Scanlan's book about a new economy was five years in the making.

Melissa Scanlan is the director of the Center for Water Policyat UW-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences. She lays out her vision in a new book called “Prosperity In The Fossil Free Economy.” Scanlan weaves finances with social and environmental sustainability.

Scanlan said she has come to the conclusion that business as usual will no longer work. She said what’s needed is a more democratic economy.

“I’ve been teaching and working in environmental law for over two decades and continue to see environmental law being really weak medicine as it compares to the forces that are motivating the dominant businesses in our economy,” Scanlan said. “And so that’s why we keep seeing increases in places we shouldn’t be seeing them — like greenhouse gases related to the environment and losses of biodiversity.”

That conviction led to Scanlan’s search for a different model, which she said can help maintain a livable planet in which everyone can thrive.

Cooperatives are the centerpiece of Scanlan’s proposed model. She said the Green Bay Packers are a good example.

“If you live in Wisconsin and love the Green Bay Packers, I think you can understand the concept of community ownership,” she said.

A cooperative is created for its members and may or may not aim to make a profit, but Scanlan said, profit-making is secondary to other goals.

“So like the Green Bay Packers that are community-held and can never be sold to shareholders that would take it out of the state, it is designed to serve the community,” Scanlan said.

Scanlan referenced one of the largest and oldest cooperative initiatives designed to bring electricity to the rural United States in the 1930s.

“President Roosevelt used an executive order as a way to pull the country out of the Great Depression and promoted the creation of electric co-ops to rural America," Scanlan said. "Only about 10% of the homes in rural America were electrified at that time."

Scanlan said cooperatives led primarily by farmers brought electricity to over 50% of the country’s land mass. Scanlan contrasts that achievement with what’s happening today in Spain.

This longer conversation with author and environmental policy expert Melissa Scanlan aired September 28, 2021 on Lake Effect

“There’s actually in their national constitution a provision that promotes worker-owned cooperatives, which is really different obviously than the US,” Scanlan said. “And they have national laws that were created after the financial crisis in 2008 – which hit Spain really hard – to promote what they call the social economy.”

Scanlan said Spain and other European countries are trying to create businesses blending social, environmental, and financial goals.

In 2019 Scanlan spent a semester as a Fulbright Senior Scholar in Spain studying what she calls "sustainability pathbreakers" in the province of Valencia.

"[They] were way out ahead of the law on environmental pursuits, social equity pursuits, and continue to make money so they can stay in business,” she said.

Scanlan said there’s lots to be learned from Valencia's cooperative scene. “There are more worker-owned cooperatives than in the entire United States,” she said.

Scanlan’s book begins with a dream from 2035.

“It’s my idealized story of what happens — but really what I’m trying to do is show people that we have an opportunity to start reducing gaps in equality and creating a relationship with our natural environment that is healthier and brings us cleaner air and more stable neighborhoods.”

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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