Sustainable Cape Breton

We are a group of concerned citizens exploring ways to promote environmental, economic, social, and cultural sustainability in Cape Breton.

Global climate change poses one of the most significant challenges of our time, and affects us all. It is therefore incumbent upon us to work together to find solutions. We believe that the most practical place to start is at the local level, expanding outward; and that the best way to address this and other issues is with an integrated, community-based approach.

And we are not alone. Our goal is to engage communities and organizations already working on these issues, as well as all those with a stake in Cape Breton’s future. As an organization we are goal-oriented, but we believe that sustainable, legitimate results are only possible through consensus-building.

We believe real change is needed, and that significant gains can be made, in three sectors:

  • energy
  • transportation
  • agriculture

Creative, grassroots solutions to the climate crisis can reduce our impact on the environment, develop (as oppose to grow) the economy, preserve and promote our cultural heritage, and protect society. All the while making our communities more resilient and adaptive, safer and healthier – and generally better places to live.

SPARCK PARK: Steel Plant Area Renewal for the Community and Kids

The Sydney Tar Ponds cleanup is almost complete. In its place will be a new park, with walking trail, creek-side boardwalk, dog park, bike park, sports field, playground, outdoor skating, and amphitheatre.

Since the tar ponds are no more, the area needs a new name. A contest to name the park received over 200 submissions from school-age kids. Here are the 5 finalists:

One of the finalists is my daughter’s grade primary class (she’s front-row right in the video above). They suggested the name SPARCK PARK, which stands for Steel Plant Area Renewal for the Community and Kids.

Voting is open to the public. You can vote daily. Voting closes midnight June 3rd. VOTE HERE.

Zadie’s grandfather worked at the steel plant for 40-odd years, around the time he returned from the war until his retirement.

For more info about the future use of the former tar ponds site, check out

Cape Breton’s First Hackathon

Cape Breton’s first what??

A hackathon is a place for programmers, developers, designers, as well as anyone interested in meeting and learning from them, to get together and collaborate.

The event takes place Saturday, May 18th from 10am ’til 9pm (hence the “marathon” metaphor). The location is TBA once total attendance is known, but it’ll be somewhere in downtown Sydney.

And it’s all free! You just have to register.

The day starts with 30 minutes dedicated to people pitching their project development ideas. Others vote on the ideas, teams get formed, and everyone sets to work building the projects or apps.

Rather than being centred around a particular programming language (which is normally the case), this hackathon will focus on the platform: anything you can build on a Raspberry Pi.

The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It’s a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming. (Raspberry Pi FAQ)

Let me emphasize that last part: “we want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.” There’s no age limit (in either direction) to participate in Cape Breton’s First Hackathon.

The day will end with demos of the projects and winners will be crowned. Food and beverages are provided all day, you get a t-shirt, and it’s all free! Don’t forget to register.

For more info, check out the Facebook page.

Programming a sustainable future

For anyone convinced that programming is just about wasting people’s time with Angry Birds and invading their privacy with Facebook ads…

Coding and design can be about so much more — even a new form of civic engagement. Just check out the National Day of Civic Hacking, taking place June 1st in the US.

A national event that will bring together citizens, software developers, and entrepreneurs to collaboratively create, build and invent, using publicly-released data, code and technology to solve challenges relevant to our neighbourhoods, our cities, our states and our country.

The White House is even hosting an event!

Coders and designers can help open up government; improve and increase community engagement; empower citizens to solve problems together; facilitate learning; and so much more. (Check out “10 Ways Civic Hacking is Good for Cities”.)

It can also spur economic growth. Check out this infographic[pdf] of Canadian high-tech companies acquired over the past five years. Including hundreds of millions of dollars worth of activity in the Maritimes from the sale of just three companies!

The new “superpower” that isn’t being taught in most schools

Despite its economic impact and potential for massive growth, programming is absent from most school curricula. Instead, websites, online courses, and hackathons have stepped up to fill the gap. You might have seen this video that went viral a few months ago, showing the workplace utopia awaiting those who learn to code:

Some have criticized the video above for equating programming with the paycheque, rather than with its transformative power to change the world. But it can be both. (It can also be neither). As the founder of Dropbox says at the 4-minute mark:

“Whether you’re trying to make a lot of money, or whether you just want to change the world, computer programming is an incredibly empowering skill to learn.”


“I think that if someone had told me that software is really about humanity, that it’s really about helping people, by using computer technology, it would have changed my outlook a lot earlier.”

If you have a young person in your life who wants to change the world, encourage them to register for Cape Breton’s First Hackathon.

Happy Earth Day

CustomMade Buying Local Infographic

Why Buying Local is Worth Every Cent Infographic by CustomMade

Nova Scotia Moves

New grant program, “Nova Scotia Moves”, supports community-led sustainable transportation initiatives. I’ll be applying to this grant for “Open Streets”.

…transforming downtown Sydney into a pedestrian-friendly centre of activity — by diverting motorized vehicles from Charlotte Street, and opening it up for people to walk, roll, stroll, play, shop and eat… Read more→

Interested in helping? Get in touch:

Sustainable Transportation & ‘Open Streets’

I’m attending a 2-day workshop in Halifax to support the development of the forthcoming “Provincial Sustainable Transportation Strategy”.

Municipalities across North America are coping with rapid economic, cultural and technological change. Those that are successful are the ones that treat these changes as opportunities for revitalization. Many cities and towns start in their downtown core, by creating more welcoming, vibrant, and inclusive public spaces.

As a web designer, I create “virtual open spaces” where people can come together and organize for social change. And in my volunteer work, I’m drawn to opportunities to create physical open spaces where people can share in, and co-create, the life of the community. I hope to bring my passion for ‘open spaces’ to municipal politics.

This might include, for example, transforming downtown Sydney (one day a year, or even one day a month) into a pedestrian-friendly centre of activity — by diverting motorized vehicles from Charlotte Street, and opening it up for people to walk, roll, stroll, play, shop and eat.

By encouraging shopkeepers and restaurateurs to have a presence on the sidewalk, and filling the streets with a diversity of activity (art, live music, community theatre, bicycle maintenance workshops, skateboard demonstrations, outdoor exercise classes, kids activities), organizers would create a ‘street scape’ that integrates active transportation, shopping, food, arts, and socializing.

Creating a walkable downtown core — connecting downtown Charlotte Street, North End Heritage Conservation District, Sydney boardwalk, Wentworth Park, Membertou and the GreenLink trail system — would promote density, diversity, and discovery and give tourists the integrated small-town experience they expect, while giving locals plenty of ways to connect (or re-connect) with their community.

To be continued…

Was Kurt Vonnegut right (and if so, Now What?)

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.

This is important to emphasize. We, and our children, are going to pay the debt incurred by our parents and grandparents. And those living in less affluent regions of the world are going to suffer even more, as they pay the climate debt incurred by Western countries over the last several hundred years.

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).

Food. Energy. Life-supporting environmental systems.

We’re talking about civilization itself. Far from radical, it seems to me perfectly reasonable to be concerned about this. It seems downright bizarre to not be concerned about it.

And because of the triple threat, not only is climate change a problem in addition to peak oil and economic instability, and not only do they exacerbate one another, but they are interconnected in ways that make it impossible to solve one without addressing the others.

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.

I had to decline another invitation this morning to join a panel on CBC Information Morning with Steve Sutherland to discuss the federal budget released yesterday. Here’s what I would have said:

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, 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.

After the event, I was invited by New Dawn, a community development and social enterprise organization based locally here in Sydney, to give a talk as part of thee IDEAS Powered by Passion series. In my talk I spoke about the changing context of the world and what it means for our community.

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?”

Well, here are just a few examples:

Cold-climate greenhouse

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.

Community ownership

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.

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.

Community Investment

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.

New Dawn raised $1.5 million in February, which it loaned to Protocase, a local success story.

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?”

I gave a talk two or three years ago, part of a panel discussion on the science, politics, and community responses to climate change. I talked about the community responses. At one point I showed this cartoon:


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.

oxygen cylinder tree

We do whatever we want, but only by virtue of having invented some machines to save us from environmental collapse. Any number of the geo-engineering “solutions” being seriously considered in some quarters. Or maybe we’ll end up living under a glass dome, and eventually download our consciousnesses into cyberspace. Or whatever.

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.

Sustainable Happiness

Dr. Catherine O’Brien took the principles of positive psychology and wrapped them around the concept of environmental sustainability. The result is “Sustainable Happiness,” a contribution to both fields and a novel concept in of itself:

“Sustainable Happiness is happiness that contributes to individual, community and/or global well-being and does not exploit other people, the environment, or future generations.”

Dr. O’Brien, a professor in the department of education at CBU, developed the concept “with the aim of stimulating discussions regarding the relationship between our pursuit of happiness and sustainability.” CBU is the first university to offer courses on sustainable happiness.

The research paper in which Dr. O’Brien first described the concept of sustainable happiness focuses on transportation, particularly school travel planning, and how “children’s view of transportation reminds us that transportation is not only about ‘moving people and goods’. It’s about wonder, discovery, joy and happiness.”

That’s right, “reminds” us! Because as this Globe & Mail article points out, “many of the conclusions of happiness studies seem obvious. It’s just that we have forgotten.”

You can remind yourself with this online course: The course was developed by O’Brien and her colleagues Rick Foster and Greg Hicks (authors of several books including “How We Choose to be Happy”). The website was designed by O’Brien’s husband Ian Murray, and coded by yours truly.

Cape Breton Farmers’ Market

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.

CB Local Diet

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:

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.