Alex’s volunteer work — with Junior Achievement, all-ages shows, and most recently Lumiere — is a testament to the saying: “Do what you love, and try to find ways to make it matter more.” When Alex started playing in bands — often as the only under-age bass player in a band full of 19+’s — he needed adult accompaniment when playing at Bunkers. Rather than accept this as an inconvenience, or even allow it to become an impediment, he saw it as an injustice that there weren’t more all-ages venues and all-ages shows. So he started organizing some, combining his passion for the arts with the guts to take a risk. Rather than complaining about the youth out-migration problem — or simply saying “This town sucks” and moving on — he looks for ways to make music matter more, treating music and the arts in general as a downtown revitalization effort, a community development initiative, and a youth retention and attraction strategy.
In his talk, Alex identifies a tension in the life of Cape Breton youth — one which has far-reaching implications for both youth “retention” & outmigration, as well as immigration in general. Young people are brought up believing their only hope is to leave… but when they do leave (even if only to attend university elsewhere) they’re characterized as traitors. What a conflict! (“Should I stay or should I go?“)
We have a responsibility and obligation to make it a viable place to live, work, raise a family, and retire. So that when faced with the decision of where to set down roots, that Cape Breton is on the list.
This is an edited version of a guest lecture given to Tracey Harris-Smith’s “Culture, Technology, and the Environment” class at CBU.
Here’s how Tracey pitched this lecture to me: “Mike, my class has spent the semester reading about industrial agriculture, production, consumption/consumerism, and they’re feeling pretty overwhelmed and depressed, can you come in and try to lift their spirits, maybe speak to the idea of the ‘personal is political’ or something.”
I took a look at your syllabus, and you’re all probably feeling like Kurt Vonnegut, who said about the world, “I’m sorry. It’s over. The game is lost.” This is quite a task.
I had planned to come in here today and get straight to the ‘lifting your spirits’ part, but it occurred to me that if you’ve been paying attention in class, your reaction will be along the lines of “yeah yeah but the game is lost.”
So instead I’m going to spend some time reflecting on that sentiment — that the game is lost. But I’ll ask you to bare with me, because you might find yourself thinking ‘This guy’s here to lift my spirits? Geez I’d hate to see him try to bum me out.’ I promise, it gets better at the end.
So is Vonnegut right? When it comes to the environment — the world — is the game lost? Consider what it would take to undo the damage done to the environment and society from two and a half centuries of mass production and consumption since the industrial revolution: over 200 years of industrial-strength pollution; 60 years of industrial-speed sprawl, consuming half of the world’s conventional recoverable oil supplies; and 35 years of hyper-growth fuelled primarily by debt.
The result is a triple-threat of global warming/climate change; peak oil; and global economic instability.
You’re probably right to feel overwhelmed! Especially when you look around and see governments, businesses, and institutions carrying on as usual. The only time they even talk about the environment is to call environmentalists “radicals”.
But what’s so radical about wanting to protect life-sustaining biosystems? About wanting to only consume as much energy and resources as is sustainable? And about wanting to build an economic system that is equitable?
And ‘equitable’ means equitable for all, including future generations.
There’s a profound social justice element to environmental issues. In the case of climate change, those that haven’t benefited from the industrial revolution’s two centuries of ‘growth’ — and who therefore lack our financial means, our infrastructure, and our ability to respond to disaster — are the ones that will be hit first and hardest by the effects of climate change (rising sea levels, extreme weather events, flooding on the one hand, desertification on the other, dying fish stocks from ocean acidification, etc).
For example, conventional oil has peaked (we’ll need some hindsight to know for sure exactly when). But generally speaking, until now, conventional oil production has been speeding up, and from now on, it will be slowing down. This means rising energy prices for us, consumers.
Will profits be invested in alternatives? Not enough. Instead, we’ll likely see increased investment in unconventional oil like the tar sands and a return to coal (which we never left). Meaning that right when we’re starting to feel the first effects of climate change from global warming, we’re also ramping up production and consumption of less efficient, more expensive, and highly polluting energy sources, which will increase global warming and worsen climate change.
And to complete the trinity, all this is taking place in an economic climate of fear and uncertainty. In the midst of a pathetic “Jobless Recovery”, the rhetoric of “Jobs Now!” will continue to trump all else. We’ll continue to under-invest in clean tech, meaning we won’t see the kind of technological innovation that would lead to a ‘green collar’ economy, let alone the kind of economic innovation that would lead to prosperity without growth.
We have a Conservative government pursuing conventional austerity measures — shrinking government and cutting social programs, ultimately making life harder for ordinary people — in order to reduce the debt that they themselves created by cutting taxes and giving corporations more power, including more power to pollute. Instead, we need a stimulus package to invest in ‘green-collar’ jobs — like designing, building, installing and maintaining renewable energy systems — in order to reduce energy costs associated with peak oil, reduce global warming and avert the worst effects of climate change, and create sustainable and meaningful jobs that are good for our communities and our economies.”
Granted, that’s a sound byte, something a left-wing radical environmentalist might say. But what it basically boils down to is that life is going to be worse for us than it was for our parents, and we can expect our government to not care.
So what can we do?
One of the simplest things you can do is get involved in an online organizing and activism effort. Engagement with these types of campaigns is often dismissed as “slacktivism”, because it doesn’t require much effort — a click here, a click there. But don’t be fooled. It takes less effort to vote, and no one’s dismissing that type of civic engagement as pointless… only people who would rather you did nothing!
One of the most impressive and inspiring is 350.org, the environmental movement started by Bill McKibben. The name refers to the level of carbon dioxide in parts per million that scientists say is a safe threshold, over which things start to get dicey, you start to see feedback loops, and climate change becomes a runaway train.
(For example, if global temperature rises 2 degrees celsius above normal, it melts permafrost. Permafrost stores massive amounts of methane, which is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Which would therefore increase the amount of heat-trapping gasses in the atmosphere. Which would worsen global warming. Which would — you guessed it — melt more permafrost. Feedback loops like this are hard if not impossible to halt.)
So let’s say you join with this global movement that is mobilizing around the idea that we need to keep carbon emissions below this threshold (we’re actually already at 385 or even 400, but scientists are always moving the threshold, so it is another instance where we won’t know until it is too late).
Two years ago we held a rally as part of a global day of action: thousands of people in almost every country in the world, all sending a message to the politicians meeting that month in Copenhagen. 70 people came out, wearing their parkas in sub-zero weather and blowing snow. (I joked in my opening remarks that it would have been a tragic irony if we had cancelled due to extreme weather.)
We talked about the effect of climate change on global citizens, Canadian citizens, and Cape Breton citizens.
I know some people went home feeling empowered. But others left feeling hopeless. After all, what impact does standing around in the cold have on global carbon emissions? And the answer is… none really.
But that’s not the point. The point is solidarity and engagement with the issue. That doesn’t begin at 6pm and end at 6:30pm on the same night. The point is to take the conversation that is happening globally and find a way to plant it locally. Climate change is a good starting point for the conversation, because it is a global issue. But it is not the only environmental disaster unfolding in slow motion all around us. It is a token, though, because climate change is connected to pretty much every other environmental, social, cultural, and economic issue you can think of.
Essentially I asked: If Vonnegut is right, now what?
Kurt Vonnegut shot himself in the head. I don’t recommend that. What I do recommend is that we instead say, not that the game is lost, but that the game is changed. Probably radically altered even. And it is this new game that we need to win now.
What we are faced with is a world that is different — literally chemically different — than the one our parents lived in, and to an extent that can’t be undone. So the game — the new question — becomes this:
Are our communities resilient enough to withstand this change (and ongoing changes)?
And are they adaptive enough to be able to themselves change with those new conditions?
When the pressure is applied, will our communities break? How can we make our communities adapt by becoming new communities for a new world?
We can’t rely — at least not exclusively — on the federal government, and even to an extent provincial governments, to help us through this transition, because they are highly bureaucratized, rigid, monolithic things. They move at a glacial pace. (This is an ironic statement: actual glaciers are now changing — melting — faster and faster.)
These institutions, some of which are hundreds of years old and haven’t changed much if at all in that time, are too rigid to bend and so they might break; too slow to adapt and so they might die.
I’m using a little hyperbole here, but this evolutionary metaphor is accurate: think not only of government, but, as Margie Gillis puts it in the above clip, think of the Catholic church, think of universities, hospitals, even capitalism itself. Institutions — or organizing frameworks — that have managed to survive for quite a long time, sometimes by changing slowly and slightly with the times. But institutions that might actually, finally, be bumping up against the limits of their ability to change.
Certainly bumping up against their ability to provide a sufficient quality of life for most people. And this includes capitalism, which is “bumping up”, to put it mildly, against the ecological limits of economic growth.
New Dawn Enterprises
Last year New Dawn went one step further and asked me to join its board of directors. New Dawn was doing some soul-searching and found that it too, like every organization reaching middle age, risked becoming too rigid and ossified to deal with the changing context of this community, which it is New Dawn’s mandate to serve.
New Dawn’s mission/vision statement is to foster a culture of self-reliance in order to create a vibrant community. It has done this over the last 36-37 years by providing affordable housing, community-based health care, career training, and various other projects like Meals on Wheels.
Pictured above is the ‘life cycle’ curve, which is usually used to talk about commercial products, but it is just as useful for organizations and institutions:
Introduction = the ‘problem’ out of which the organization grows.
Growth = the successful application of the solution.
Maturity = the institutionalization of the solution/organization.
It’s here, approaching the cusp between ‘maturity’ and ‘decline’, that the organization risks losing sight of its origins (literally losing sight, if we imagine this curve on a 3-dimensional plane, like going ‘over the hill’).
And it’s here, approaching this cusp, that the organization must decide whether to reinvent itself, or else commit to the slow decline that is more or less inevitable in the transition from vital organization to irrelevant institution.
I don’t know where New Dawn is on this continuum exactly, but it’s nonetheless asking itself: “What does it mean to be a self-reliant people in a vibrant community in the 21st century?”
It’s a working prototype, located in Westmount, designed to grow produce year-round. It may be replicated in Canada’s North where a tomato costs $14 and has to be flown in by helicopter. The greenhouse is built from glass designed and produced by a Cape Breton innovation company called Advanced Glazing Ltd. It uses a synthetic honey-comb structure sandwiched between two panels, which lets light in and disperses it evenly, and traps heat inside at the same time, acting as high-grade insulation. Significantly less energy is required to heat the greenhouse, providing a healthy, affordable, local, safe, and secure source of food year-round.
This has meant, by and large, fighting for what’s often referred to as the “community option” for port development.
A century ago, an industrialist king owned the means of production, owned the company store, owned the company houses. The king extracted natural resources from the community and extracted labour resources from the community, and ultimately made off with the wealth of the community, leaving a depleted economy and a toxic legacy.
Let’s not go down that road with the port.
1965. (Today is the beginning of the closure of the container terminal.)
Instead, the community should own the key assets (the greenfield site and the harbour bottom) and lease it for development. Then, whatever the development turns out to be, will produce royalties that can be streamed into a community equity fund, turning some of the profit from port development into direct investment in local businesses, education, health, and community development.
This will diversify the local economy, and avoid — you guessed it — setting up another house of cards economy that will come crashing down in 50, 25, or even 10 years.
With or without port development, New Dawn is pursuing a community equity fund. New Dawn runs a CEDIF, a Community Economic Development Investment Fund, which is a provincial program that allows community organizations to raise funds, mainly by having people redirect their RRSP investments.
The CEDIF allows investors, who are people in the community, to direct investment in the community, rather than have government simply give tax breaks and other ‘incentives’ to multinational corporations, who create temporary jobs that dry up as soon as the subsidy ends or the company finds a better deal elsewhere.
Sustainability: The Long View
I’ve spent 20 minutes talking about how screwed we are, and only a few minutes talking about community-based creative alternatives. That is in part because I do want to emphasize that many of these are only at the early stages of development, as are many of the exciting things happening in Cape Breton these days. They’re only just sprouting up, and others still are hidden from view.
But these sprouts — the initiatives, projects, and organizations creating a self-reliant people in a vibrant community for the 21st century — aren’t rigid, ossified, institutionalized. On the contrary, many are about trying to become resilient and adaptive in order just to make it in the new world I just described. But also in order to actively take part in its creation and betterment. If you want a sustainable job, look to those new initiatives, and others like them, and get involved on the ground level.
Last but not least is the early childhood development item I listed. This is something being pursued by Jim Mustard, a councillor in Inverness and son of the late Fraser Mustard, a world-leading expert on early childhood development.
Substance abuse, low levels of education and literacy, poor health, unemployment, crime. These and other indicators of community health — some of which are nearly epidemic in Cape Breton — are related to the care and level of provision a person has in childhood. The years between 0-5 are absolutely critical to brain development. A child that gets off to a slow start is at a disadvantage and may not be able to catch up. In Canada we do a pretty poor job at providing for people in the most formative portion of their life.
At New Dawn we’re just starting to have this conversation. What does it mean to really think about sustainability? In Inverness, Jim Mustard is in the process of co-developing a family support coop. In both cases, the goal is not to simply target low-income families or single mothers or at-risk people, but to provide universal provision; to come together as a community and support families.
You might be thinking, “But what does this have to do with the environment?”
In other words, by working to “save” the world we would, almost by accident, create a better world.
But you know what the problem is with that argument? It’s that your vision of a better world might be a techno-futuristic one, where we still use as much energy as we want, we still consume as much as we want, we still drive as much and as far and as fast as we want, we still eat whatever we want and as much as we want.
The point is, you can agree we need action on climate change. But the idea that we’ll do so by creating “livable communities” is controversial, given that our ideas of “livable” may diverge drastically.
Which means I need to defend the benefits of this vision of a livable community over that vision.
But that’s precisely where I’ll stop!
Such an argument would be a purely intellectual exercise, when what’s needed is experience. I can’t make the argument, only the world itself can make the argument. What do I mean? The way to make a better world, reduce global warming, lessen the impacts of climate change, make our communities more resilient and adaptive to the coming ‘storm’ (both literal and figurative), while retaining our basic humanity, is to…
Go for a walk.
I don’t mean ‘active transportation’ (which is great too). I mean that by living at a human scale, living at a human (and humane) speed — which is what happens when you go for a walk — whether in your own neighbourhood or far away, you get to know people, communities, cities. When you get to know some little piece of the world better, by extension you get to know The World better.
I have a feeling the more people get to know the world, the more they’ll find it perfectly reasonable to want to take better care of it.
“I didn’t write nothin’, I just held the pen,” says J. P. Cormier in response to fan adoration. You might say he can’t take a compliment. Then again, it’s probably his way of saying that his fans inspire him as much as he inspires them.
A multi-instrumentalist singer-songwriter with the ability to “make the brilliant appear effortless”, he’s been described as the quintessential Maritime musician, for his songs about love lost, towns disbanded, fishermen killed by their trade. But his music — played on every instrument imaginable, with a precision that seems impossible, let alone at such speeds — is also about joy, hope, and love that survives. He’s a “mountain of a man” who certainly contains multitudes.
Heritage Cape Breton Connection is an umbrella co-operative for historical societies and heritage groups from all over Cape Breton Island. Its mission is to “create an environment where the culture and natural heritage of Cape Breton Island thrive”.
This entails a combination of preservation and promotion of Cape Breton heritage and culture. A featured project that sets out to do both is called ‘Voices of Heritage‘, a series of 12 video interviews with key figures from the heritage sector, including influential and well-known names such as Jim St. Clair, Don Arseneau, and the late Bob Morgan.
Published in The Cape Breton Post comment section (print only) on Monday, March 5, 2012
CBRM Mayor John Morgan should seek input from the community on a more regular basis, and with a deeper commitment to giving that input its full due. He should help open the municipal government’s policy development and review processes to make them more participatory, transparent, and above all, inclusive. And he should re-imagine a social role for municipal government.
This was the message a small group of us delivered to Mayor Morgan last week. The meeting was a follow-up to Donnie Calabrese’s “Open Letter”, published first on Facebook and then in the Post. In it, Donnie challenged the Mayor to think outside the equalization box and look to the community for creative alternatives. But the real challenge now falls on us, to bring those creative alternatives forward and put them to the test. So while we’re expecting a lot from the Mayor and his office, we’re also expecting a lot of ourselves — that we will assume more responsibility for co-creating our communities and local economies.
In order for this new conversation to unfold, there must be an open channel of dialogue between the Mayor’s office and the various constituencies that feel they are not being listened to, let alone spoken to. Only then can we work together to achieve our common goal of creating a vibrant community that offers a viable choice to both newcomers and home-grown folks alike.
During the meeting (which included myself, Donnie, and Erika Shea), we acknowledged the cogency of Mayor Morgan’s argument with respect to equalization. But all parties were able to agree that, while equalization fairness is perhaps necessary, it is not sufficient. We therefore can’t afford to pursue it at the exclusion of immigration and diversity, arts and culture, student life and youth engagement, environmental sustainability, and the nurturing of a business climate more conducive to small- and medium-size enterprise.
Judging from some of the responses to Donnie’s letter, the Mayor is not the only one with a blind-spot when it comes to small and varied locally-based initiatives. Many still buy into the false choice between rescue from government and rescue from big industry. Curiously, this dual rescue package is seen as the only hope by both doom and gloom pessimists and “turned the corner” optimists alike. But both offer false hope.
We need evidence-based analysis from our best and brightest, which our Mayor is. But it must be combined with innovative and practical solutions, which the equalization legal battle is not.
Instead we need our leaders to be inspired by a constructive alternative vision, like the kind Fr Jimmy Tompkins and Fr Moses Coady sought to establish during the Antigonish Movement. Leadership is tricky now just as it was then. What does it mean in a 21st-century hyperconnected world, and in a collaborative setting like the one alluded to above? And how can it help people in Cape Breton achieve Coady’s vision of becoming, as he titled his book, ‘Masters of Their Own Destiny’?
Whatever shape it takes, collaborative community-based leadership requires of us that we educate ourselves and organize ourselves. A well known example of the Antigonish Movement’s effort to educate and organize was the People’s School, established in 1921 at St Francis Xavier University. Its goals were, I believe, ones we can identify with today, almost a hundred years later:
to deal pragmatically and head-on with the challenges facing Cape Breton;
to liberate, and put to good use, the creative energies of the people; and
to inspire them to work together for their common good.
This is not an argument for pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. CBRM, like every municipality in Canada, has three levels of government, all of which must work together to achieve sustainable prosperity. But an engagement with government at the local level is perhaps the best way of ensuring that the community leads in determining its future.
So roll up your sleeves. There’s a new conversation to be had.
The Cape Breton Farmers’ Market is a not-for-profit co-operative that has been in operation for almost thirty years, evolving from an outdoor seasonal market to a year-round indoor market that attracts over a thousand visitors weekly from all over the island.
The Market is the largest market of its kind servicing producers and customers in Cape Breton, and is home to approximately 30 vendors, including farmers, bakers, jewelers, crafters, and much more.
It aims to promote, support, and enhance the development of the local food/artisan industry, while promoting sustainability, healthy eating, and community.
And its former manager is the prettiest girl of all time.
“Mnohaya lita! Celebrating 100 Years of Ukrainian Faith in Cape Breton” is an exhibit honouring the centenary of the Holy Ghost Ukrainian Catholic Parish in Sydney, Nova Scotia. An in situ exhibit is installed and open to the public, February 2nd through November 17th 2012, at the Cape Breton Centre for Heritage and Science (The Lyceum), 225 George Street, Sydney.
The exhibit was curated by Dr. Marcia Ostashewski, a postdoc fellow in CBU’s department of History & Culture; and the creative director (who designed the banner on the website) was Darene Roma Yavorsky of The Word & Image Studio.
My dad grew up in the Pier, and his first school experience was a kindergarten operated from the basement of Holy Ghost Church by local Ukrainian nuns. In this picture he’s front-row-left.
AIDS Awareness Week takes place every year around the world during the last week of November concluding on December 1st, World AIDS Day.
The AIDS Coalition of Cape Breton is taking part with several events planned for next week including the flag raising and proclamation from the CBRM next Thursday, December 1st at noon.
Year-round the Coalition is hard at work promoting and providing harm-reduction services to people living with HIV/AIDS and people at risk of contracting HIV; providing a safe place for gay, lesbian, queer, trans, 2spirited & bi-identified people; and delivering educational training to youth service providers to enable them to better support queer youth who may be struggling to develop their identities in environments not always considerate of gender and sexual diversity.
When marches and street parades celebrating working class solidarity began springing up with increasing regularity at the turn of the 20th century, it seemed to provide “historic proof that the workers of the world were to unite in a common cause.” That’s how J. B. McLachlan biographer David Frank put it.
Here’s how radical union organizer J.B. McLachlan himself described May Day parades in Cape Breton coal-mining towns in the 1920s:
“The workers of this land are our comrades and brothers, the capitalists of this land our robber enemies. The complete solidarity of the former is our hope, the complete extermination of the latter our aim.”
An essential part of the labour movement — in times of struggle and celebration alike — were the songs of protest that miners and steelworkers sung as they gathered and marched. 18 of those songs, the only surviving parts of which were lyrics published in the Maritime Labour Herald in the 1920s, are now brought back to life on protestsongs.ca.
Baddeck resident Alicia Lake has embarked on a month-long challenge to eat local. From September 1st to the 30th, Alicia’s diet will consist entirely of food grown or produced in Cape Breton (or manufactured using only local ingredients).
This means no oil for cooking, no chocolate, no salt, no grains, and hardest of all, no coffee! But it also means potatoes, onions and herbs from North River Organics in North Shore, garlic from Blue Marsh Farm in Nevada Valley, corn from Hanks Farm in Millville, lamb from GlenRyan Farms in Margaree, Honey Wine from Winter Winery in Scotch Lake…. and that was only day one.
Passionate about local food and how it pertains to community economic development in the region, Alicia has a firm belief that the choices we make when it comes to feeding ourselves and our families have wider social, environmental and economic implications.
“I believe that sustainable agriculture can be a foundational element for Community Economic Development, by providing health, food security, local jobs, social capital and sense of place for citizens. Purchasing local food is also a way of supporting the local economy that is available to all citizens and not only to those who can afford to invest,” she writes on her blog.
“However, since the disappearance of many producers it is no longer a simple task to purchase food that is produced only in Cape Breton. The purpose of this adventure is to demonstrate how many wonderful foods are produced here, and also to learn about the holes in our island food security.”
I set her up a with a blog, which she uses to post her daily menus, along with stories, photos, and occasional observations and discoveries along the way in her Cape Breton Local Food Adventure: cblocaldiet.ca
Alicia grew up in Iona and now lives in Baddeck with her husband and two children. She is founder and president of the Baddeck and Area Community Market, and is a Community Development Officer in the Political Science Department at CBU. She holds Bachelor degrees in both Community Studies and Political Science from Cape Breton University, and is currently pursuing an MBA in Community Economic Development at CBU.