Ecological Restoration

Integrated Models of Cooperation

By Joe Mancini, Good Work News, December 2006

There has been a tradition in the December issue of Good Work News to provide insight into the parallels between work, consumerism and the environment. This year the knowledge of the looming effects of Global Warming are everywhere. How else can one respond but to understand the implications locally. The following article tries to put into context these stark environmental questions using the core ideas of The Working Centre and a description of how the centre is organized as a model for environmental action.

It is hard to escape the warnings about how fragile the earth’s ecosystem is. While it may be easy to ignore or deny such warnings, when we take the time to review the literature of environmentalists and scientists, the realities that they write about are staggering. (Some of these books are featured on pages 6 and 7). They cut into the heart of what we call our western standard of living. They warn us that the wealth that is enjoyed is a direct result of “drawing down nature’s capital by overusing our soils and forests, over fishing the oceans and pouring immense quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.[1]”

Thomas Homer Dixon has just published a multi layered book that documents the wide ranging ecological crisis, while exploring theories of the way societies collapse (almost always by ignoring dire environmental pressures). The Upside of Down, Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization is a warning on many levels of how “population imbalances, energy shortages, environmental damage, global warming and widening gaps between rich and poor” are like the tectonic stresses that cause earthquakes. They are slowly colliding against each other until a catastrophe is unleashed that is impossible to ignore.[2]”

We are left observing and sifting through troubling crises that pile on each other with little resolution. Homer-Dixon, who makes his home in nearby Fergus, is a University of Toronto Political Science Professor and is the Director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies. The realities he has been writing about for 15 years leave him no choice but to question the West’s reliance on false economic growth strategies which have successfully lifted much of the West beyond the grim reality faced daily by 80% of the world’s population.

This approach allows us to believe that tar sand oil production that takes nearly thirty cubic meters of gas to produce one barrel of oil, is good for the economy[3]; or that we need all this oil to subsidize the increasing availability of consumer items, manufactured further and further away in low wage countries. We start to believe this wasteful use of energy is normal and inconsequential. We think it is helping the ‘poor’, when there is little documented evidence to support this.

“All this consumption and movement needs a lot of energy. The energy is produced mainly by burning oil, coal and natural gas, which generate carbon dioxide. In most rich countries, wealth has grown faster than energy efficiency, which means total energy use has risen too, as have total emissions of carbon dioxide.[4]”

For over 20 years we have been locked into an unsustainable twin demand of maintaining economic growth through extracting energy resources. Homer-Dixon quotes common sense theory to remind us “that the longer a system is ‘locked in’ to its growth phase, the greater its vulnerability and the bigger and more dramatic its collapse will be.[5]”

Rather than fixating on a path that worsens the problem, our challenge is to grasp alternatives. This fall, Gregory Baum, speaking at the St. Jerome’s Centre for Catholic Experience, noted that up to the 1940’s, the Catholic Church, many intellectuals, and most of the general public worried about rural people migrating to the city searching for factory work. This disrupted long established patterns of mutual aid that had held families and villages together. John Dewey in the 1920’s feared the long term implications. “The significant thing is that the loyalties which once held individuals, which gave them support, direction, and unity of outlook on life, have well nigh disappeared.[6]”

Now 100 years later, we have gone from questioning the modern project to fully embracing it - to our detriment. Cars have become our symbol of freedom, happiness is walking in a mall to buy stuff, and the idea of work as craft becomes more and more remote.

There is a myth that people can maximize their pleasure through consumption. Up to now the system not only delivers the goods but also an ever rising standard of living for the few. But what happens when this growth is increasingly less likely or the very cycle that will make the situation worse?

Ecological Restoration

How we walk on the land is a simple way of understanding the personal significance of environmental issues. Is it possible to recreate communities of work and support that are less dependant on oil fuelled growth? Or as Wendell Berry puts it, “Can we change the ways we live and work so as to establish a preserving harmony between the made and the given worlds?[7]”

I am increasingly struck by the nature of The Working Centre community where the work each day is concerned with creating places where people can meaningfully contribute through mutual aid and acts of preservation.

The Working Centre has become a social architecture of support that links the many who are not able to participate in the regular labour market with opportunities to participate in projects that help others to live with less money, that support skills building through informal learning, that provide small earnings potential, that support acts of restoration in multiple environments, and that enable the helping of others in countless ways.

We provide the buildings, leaders who act like servants, the actual tools to make the projects function, a knowledge base of community development and design, and above all a commitment to support individuals through their stories and pain.

Integrated Models of Cooperation

The 97 Victoria project is an example of what can be achieved by challenging the myth that there is only one bureaucratic model of production or that people are satisfied sitting on the sidelines not able to contribute.

From the moment the project started, in May 2005, we had an overwhelming task of completely stripping down an old two storey 15,500 square foot building, while starting up a new thrift store concept and planning for the new St. John’s Kitchen in its own space with enhanced services. At every stage new volunteers, job cafe workers and JCP workers (paid through E.I. on a work experience grant) came forward to fill identified gaps.

Worth A Second Look was blessed with over 50 volunteers, many offering hundreds of hours to launch the furniture and housewares recycling store. The construction project moved in rhythm with the planning process as the potential for St. John’s Kitchen realized itself in the evolving space. How do we design an open kitchen, a bright calming dining area, public access washrooms, showers and laundry area?

In July 2006 as St. John’s Kitchen moved in to its new space, the realization of the project’s potential was clear. An old, spent building had in little more than a year been completely transformed into a space where over 300 meals are served each day; where a medical clinic provides primary care; where soon showers and laundry would be available to the homeless; where thousands of goods were being picked up, delivered, sorted, fixed, priced, and sold; and where Job Café workers are sent out on jobs. And all of this was made possible by a dedicated group of staff and volunteers who all are willing to go the extra mile to complete the tasks at hand.

Meanwhile, within the whole Working Centre project we have witnessed the growth of new initiatives and projects that amplify this spirit of restoration. Over the last two years we have been involved in the revitalization of 66 Queen St. S - a further 15,000 square feet of renovations. This spring we expanded the Job Search Resource Ccentre and employment counselling as this area of our work continues to grow. Maurita’s Kitchen, our community kitchen located at 66 Queen is operational and is filled with volunteers learning and participating in food preparation. The Queen Street Commons Café, also new this spring, is rapidly becoming an important third place of exchange and conversation in downtown Kitchener. The Housing Desk at 66 Queen compliments our 20 units of integrated supportive housing. The Downtown Street Outreach Worker and the Job Café are projects that continue to support people in important ways.

Thomas Homer-Dixon fears for the lack of resilience in the way our economy is structured. We are all dependant on an oil shock or an economic implosion. In such a situation how would we earn a living or care for our communities? The answer is not more efficiency, but rather integrated models of cooperation that reuse and rebuild social supports. The Updside of Down forecasts an end to bigger is better. This means that we can focus on small initiatives that will build community, relearn the importance of simple living, develop respect for the environment, and a love for work that builds human dignity.

1. Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down, 2006 p147

2. Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down, 2006 p269

3. Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down, 2006 p93

4. Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down, 2006 p135

5. Homer-Dixon, The Upside of Down, 2006 p225

6. Lasch, The True and Only Heaven, 1991 p368

7. Berry, The Way of Ignorance, 2005 p72

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