Friday was the end of RRSP season, and the last day to invest in New Dawn’s CEDIF offering for 2013.
CEDIF stands for Community Economic Development Investment Fund. It’s a way for people to invest their RRSP savings in local economic development projects, rather than stocks and bonds elsewhere.
After all, what happens to the average RRSP dollar after it gets sent to a bank on Toronto’s Bay Street? It travels around the world — from Texas oil to Alberta tar sands, from pharmaceuticals to tobacco to weapons manufacturers — more or less leaving a path of environmental, social and world economic destruction.
Anyway, where was I.
This year New Dawn launched the New Dawn Innovation Fund. It gives RRSP-investors in Nova Scotia the opportunity to invest in local, export-oriented, innovation companies. The goal is $1.6 million. The money raised is being invested in three companies:
MediaSpark: award-winning educational software development and publishing company. Their soon-to-be-released “GoVenture World” educational global business game was recently selected as one of the 50 brightest new startups in the world.
Advanced Glazings: designer and manufacturer of state-of-the-art daylighting glass, including a product line which offers R18 insulation value — the best insulating commercially-available glass product in the world.
Marcato Digital: developer of web-based planning and logistics software for music festivals. Their products are currently in use by world-renowned events such as the Celtic Colours International Festival locally, JunoFest in Canada, Berlin Music Week in Germany, and the Life is Good Festival in the United States.
All four tech companies are Cape Breton success stories. Their founders and CEO’s — Mathew Georghiou of MediaSpark, Doug Milburn of Advanced Glazings, Darren Gallop and Morgan Currie of Marcato, Steve Lilley of Protocase — choose to live and work in Cape Breton because of the quality of life. And while starting a business here is hard, they’ve managed, at times against all odds, to create stable incomes for themselves, and pay good wages to staffs of highly skilled workers. And now they’re growing.
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 was invited along with two others speakers to kick off the Social Enterprise Bootcamp at CBU. Meghan Farrell of Nova Scotia Coop Council and Leah Noble of Dream Big Cape Breton spoke first about looking for assets in our communities rather than deficits and from there gaining the confidence to say “Yes, we can do this.” They gave great examples from their own lives and work, and made for a tough act to follow. Because we’re expecting our third child any… minute… now… I couldn’t stick around for the weekend-long event. So I used my time to give the participants some advice:
Starting a conventional business is an uphill battle. And when you’re in social enterprise, dealing with three bottom lines and not just one, the battle is uphill both ways, in the snow, with no shoes.
But you persevere because you are confronted by some set of circumstances, you are compelled by some social need, to come up with a solution. Essentially, you look at a problem, and you don’t ask yourself “Can this be solved?” but rather “How can this be solved?”
In this way, you are like designers. As a web designer, I work with non-profits, artists, and locally-owned businesses. I’m also on the board of New Dawn Enterprises, a social and business development organization. Both in my business and on my board, we deal in solutions; we’re in the business of saying ‘yes’ to problems. If I said ‘no’ too often, I’d be out of business; if my board said ‘no’ too often, New Dawn wouldn’t fulfill its social mandate of community service, and would render itself irrelevant.
But saying yes is only the beginning. Then you have to set about finding a practical solution — an impractical solution being no solution at all. This can be daunting. Social needs related to poverty, mental illness, employment, housing, health-care, the environment — these can make you feel like you’re David versus Goliath.
But that’s where it’s important to remember that David won.
It starts with a story about a girls basketball team, with very little talent or skill, and their coach, whose unconventional approach brought them all the way to the national championships. The coach was an newcomer to the game, so he saw it from an outsider’s perspective. He watched as game in, game out, one team would score and then fall back to defend their court, while the other team picked up the ball, brought it across court, acted out their pre-rehearsed playbook, scored, and then fell back to defend their court… and so on, back and forth.
What the coach perceived was how this conventional approach to the game favoured the team with the better offence: the bigger, taller, faster team with more skill and resources at its disposal. And the coach knew his team stunk. So he had them adopt an unconventional approach: the full-court press. Instead of falling back and yielding most of the court to the opposing team, the underdogs would defend the whole court: at the start of a play, when the other team only has a few seconds to get the ball into play, the underdogs would block every angle and force a bad pass; and then, when the other team only has a few more seconds to get past half-court, the underdogs would play hard defence. Suddenly, the bigger, better, faster team wasn’t playing against a smaller, weaker, slower team…. they were playing against the clock. And they were losing.
The underdogs took this method all the way to the national championships.
I won’t stretch myself to suggest an analogy between basketball and social enterprise. But there is something to be said for thinking like David when staring down Goliath.
So let’s apply this to what you guys are going to be doing this weekend. You’re working in groups, to design a solution to a problem. The conventional approach to group work is the brainstorming session. Brainstorming is about filling up a flip chart with as many ideas as possible. And conventional wisdom tells us that in order to do this there must be an effective ban on criticism and negative feedback, because if someone thinks their idea might be ridiculed, they’re less likely to share it. And that would prevent your group from reaching that critical mass of ideas necessary for success.
Now you might offer anecdotal evidence to the contrary. You might say, I’ve seen my fair share of impressive-looking flip charts from brainstorming sessions. But the research isn’t comparing ideas; it’s comparing good ideas with bad ones.
And most ideas are bad. Most ideas are plain crap.
Most ideas — for a social enterprise, for a business, for a product, for anything that people consume or engage with in one way or another — most don’t amount to anything, if they even materialize in the first place. Most businesses are based on bad ideas. That’s why most businesses go out of business. And most do it rather speedily.
In fact, we shouldn’t think of bad ideas as ideas at all. They’re just writing. Like I said at the beginning, an impractical solution is no solution at all.
So what should you do instead? How should you approach the design process in a group setting?
First, you should avoid the trappings of brainstorming by allowing some time this weekend to do some work individually, and then come together to criticize it. (Avoid ‘Groupthink’. Instead: Think. Regroup.)
Second, by “criticize”, I mean constructive criticism. The research doesn’t suggest that you shouldn’t still be a good listener, shouldn’t be open-minded, shouldn’t be a generally respectful human being. It just suggests that you shouldn’t shy away from putting ideas through the fire, from putting pressure on them. Respect is reserved for the person who came up with the idea; don’t respect the idea itself until it earns your respect. What the research shows is that, in fact, imagination thrives on conflict. So if you truly want to respect your teammates, you should rough up their ideas a little.
Conventional wisdom also tells us not to reinvent the wheel. This feels intuitive because our natural inclination is to be afraid of the new. And so we often start by looking for existing examples of an enterprise, we then label them ‘successful’ (they must be successful or else they’d have gone out of business already), and then we replicate them.
Now, y’know, the wheel…. someone would’ve eventually come up with that idea. And the wheel… it is pretty hard to beat.
But your goal should be to design a solution to a problem that needs a solution; not to look for a solution to a problem that already has a solution. As I said at the beginning, the question you should ask yourself is not ‘can this be done?’ but rather ‘how can this be done?’
We have all sorts of ‘solutions’ to problems that don’t really exist. In philosophy these are called pseudo-problems. I don’t want to discount anything so I’ll leave it up to you to decide what is and isn’t a pseudo-problem in the real world, but I’ll give you one quick example from philosophy: a topic called “Vagueness” wherein one tries to answer the question “How many grains of sand would you have to remove from a heap of sand before it is no longer a heap?” The answer to this question is, of course… why would anyone ever need to know this?
If you were attracted to social enterprise in the first place because you want to do something meaningful with your life, don’t shoot yourself in the foot right from the get-go by solving pseudo-problems.
Now there’s nothing implicitly wrong with replicating or importing a solution. But look closely because that successful enterprise you’re modelling may be just that — a successful enterprise — it may not in fact be a successful solution. So again this is where your critical faculty becomes absolutely… critical.
Don’t pick something easy. Social enterprise is about making positive change in your community and the world; it’s not about looking cool while doing it. Gladwell points out that when that girls basketball team was playing the full-court defence, they often looked ridiculous, waving their arms in the air. He suggests that, even though this style of play got an underdog team to the national championships, it’s the uncool factor that explains why such a successful style of play isn’t adopted more frequently.
Mau goes on to talk about “Collaborating,” saying that “The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife, exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.”
I would simply alter that slightly to say: IF The space between people working together is filled with conflict, friction, strife — respectfully — THEN it will also be filled with exhilaration, delight, and vast creative potential.”
Referring of course to the year that marked the beginning of the end for the steel plant. I figure forty-odd years from now we’ll look back on the container terminal as just another relic from the fossil-fuel age. (A friend replied that since we’re living in a more environmentally friendly era, we’re bound not to make the same mistakes. I refer you to Alberta’s tar sands.)
I’ve already stated my ambivalence about the actual form any port development will take. But here’s the thing: however the port gets developed, the community should have the final say, and the community should be the primary beneficiary. For better or for worse, the community will have to deal with the consequences.
New Dawn — at an open community meeting last night — just goes that one step further and reminds us that self-determination is not a gift. It is a responsibility. If our right to self-determination is withheld, it must be taken back. But this is not to repeat the familiar refrain of victimhood. What we truly lack is not self-determination, but self-confidence.
For anyone who continues to doubt the community’s ability to determine its own future, have some faith: capacity, if and where it’s lacking, will come. But it requires us owning our resources — rather than having them liquidated — and then reinvesting the capital. In what? How about a diversified local economy? Imagine Creative Economies in arts & culture; Knowledge Economies in innovation and technology; Green-Collar Economies in agriculture and energy. Now we’re talking capacity.
No matter what happens, some of us won’t be happy with the results. That’s life. But we’re adults. We’ll deal. The distinguishing feature of an adult conversation is not that it resolves every contradiction, but that it contains them.
Below are some commentaries from friends who attended last night’s meeting.
I was honoured to be invited to kick off the 2011 season of IDEAS: Powered By Passion series, put on by New Dawn. Modelled as Cape Breton’s version of the TED talks, the events “aim to encourage new thinking through speech and music, by uncovering the passions of our people through the sharing of their stories.”
The series began last year and while purposely flying under the radar nonetheless attracted a sizeable and loyal following with the likes of speeches from Tom Urbaniak, Jim Mustard, Chris Milburn, Annette Wolf, Joella Foulds, Jeanette MacDonald and Gary Walsh.
Marcie MacKay led off the evening with a note-perfect presentation on the ABCS of Building Neighbourhoods, a project focused on improving developmental assets in the community; and Carolyn Lionais delivered her unique blend of hilarious sonic soul-searching.