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Get to know: Centre for Local Prosperity

Centre for Local Prosperity (CLP) promotes local economic solutions and climate readiness for rural and local communities in Atlantic Canada. CLP organizes conferences and community working sessions and conducts evidence-based studies that often lead to community implementation. Recently, our engagement coordinator Jessie Golem spoke with Executive Director Robert Cervelli about the work CLP is doing, and what they are looking forward to in their community conversation.

Jessie Golem (JG): What are some of the reasons for your getting involved with the Green Resilience Project? What are some of the issues and also some of the strengths present in your community?

Robert Cervelli (RC): It was a nice fit when we found out about the Green Resilience Project because we’re holding our conversation in the community of Lockeport, Nova Scotia, where we are [already] working on a project called Future Proofing Lockeport. [Lockeport] is a small community, about two hours away from Halifax, on a small island that is only accessible by a sandbar with a population of 500…The idea [behind] Future Proofing Lockeport is, how can [the community] secure their future against sea level rise and saltwater intrusion into their wells? And how could they diversify their economy for more economic security in the future? We think this conversation is going to help move our project along in a great way. And of course, synergistically it will give you folks a good chance to learn more about why we do what we’re doing and plug it into the bigger project.  

A little bit of background about Centre for Local Prosperity: we are a charitable organization primarily focused across Atlantic Canada and the Maritime provinces. We do conferences, retreats, studies, community conversations, etc. mostly focused on the intersection between re-localization of economies and climate readiness. How can small rural and local communities gain more agency over both of those topics? Our work is focused on equipping communities to be ready for the increasingly rapid onset of climate change and buffering themselves against the fragilities of a globalized economy. 

We’ve done some large economic studies looking at economic leakage [and] the economic potential for localizing procurement by large public-sector institutions. We’ve also done consulting work with some of those institutions. And we have done quite a bit with the  historic Thinkers Lodge in Pugwash, Nova Scotia, which is a Parks Canada National Historic Site made famous in 1957.

JG: I think I’ve heard of the Thinkers Lodge. What are some of the major issues that you see in terms of climate change and income security that are motivating the CLP to be doing this work?

RC: Well, to start out, we’re plugged in with several experts and people in the field: academics, researchers and people working in communities around the globe. It [is] apparent that climate change and economic fragility are way, way bigger, more complex, and will be way more impactful than anybody realizes.  We’re starting to hear words like societal and civilization collapse more and more, [and they’re even starting] to poke into the mainstream vernacular. […Communities] that don’t prepare will have [fewer] options available to them…The strength of these communities, and how tight-knit they are, is going to be the major asset in the future. So then with that in mind, if you distill that down to a situation like Lockeport the exercise there is how…can we get those community residents to really begin to plan for their future?

JG: I also feel like the sense of fear that I feel like we should all as a society be feeling about climate change is not really felt at all. I know we just had the COP26 Climate Change Conference and I found it a little disheartening because it felt like people are saying words, but not a lot of action is happening. 

RC: To me, it’s not so much of a question of fear. My favourite definition for hope is that it’s a verb with its sleeves rolled up.

JG: What strikes me is that your organization is taking a very proactive approach, by planning for the future and trying to strengthen your local communities as much as you can. What are some of the specific issues and barriers that you see?

RC: I think the key words are local agency control, and ensuring the basic necessities, i.e. Maslowe’s hierarchy of basic needs are filled. It starts with water, [then] food. So for instance, where does your water come from? How safe is it, and how secure at the community level? Where does your food come from? How secure is that? For example, a year from now we will be hosting a Food Summit across the region. Back about 60 years ago, Atlantic Canada was 70 per cent food self-sufficient. We could grow what we needed within Atlantic Canada. Now it’s down to about 15 per cent. So that becomes a food security issue, and a food sovereignty issue. How do you rebuild local infrastructure? Not just local farmers, but local infrastructure as well. These are the questions we’re asking. 

The next big one would be energy, local energy. How do you build local energy sovereignty? There are some fantastic projects in the region. For instance, the city of Summerside, Prince Edward Island, is the most energy-independent of any community in North America. Believe it or not, they own their own grid. They’re producing well over 50 per cent of their own energy needs.

JG: Wow.

RC: A few years ago there was a big storm. The grid went down in Prince Edward Island and everybody was out of power, except the city of Summerside.

It’s pretty straightforward to produce energy on site domestically. A lot of farms do that. How do you do it in such a way that if the grid goes down, you still have power? That’s pretty straightforward at the domestic level, how do you extend that and then to the community level?

JG: Yeah, I imagine that’s mostly solar power, if it’s home-based.

RC: Or wind power. Another example: three municipalities in [Nova Scotia] teamed up and they built their own wind farm. They get power through the common grid, but it’s effectively their power that they can use in their communities.

JG: What communities are those?

RC: Berwick, Antigonish and Mahone Bay. There’s another community [Bridgewater] doing a very ambitious project called Energize Bridgewater. Within 20-25 years, they want to become not only energy self-sufficient, but be in a position of exporting energy.

JG: What does that resilience look like? And what are some of the strengths in the [Lockeport] community? How are people responding to these looming crises?

RC: The first part of it is really just understanding what the fragilities are, what the exposure points are in their community, and that [the community] needs some sort of proactive effort. Ideally, if they want to keep their community intact, they’re going to need some form of proactive effort. Then you start to see committees forming, you start to see projects getting underway, and people understanding the depth of what could be done. So it’s taking basic municipal government work, but expanding it into the community. From there, people start to become active in these topics, and you start to see businesses stepping up, all in the interest of preserving the community.

JG: And that sort of innovation is also really healthy and good for the economy.

RC: That’s part of the Lockeport project. For example, you’ve got a tech company that builds a lot of electronic hardware. For them to adapt, it’s going to be entirely different from fishery workers who are dependent on harvesting things. And what they harvest is dependent on ocean health long-term. For businesses to adapt, the solutions will have to be dramatically different.

JG: I like the idea of smaller local companies instead of having large conglomerates that take over everything. Very rarely does anything good come out of that.

RC: What [large conglomerates are] doing is as efficient and low cost as possible. Not only are they extracting the resource, but they’re extracting the profits as well. The only economic benefit is some hourly paid jobs. That’s nothing. So what we want to do is try to keep the wealth in the community, and keep the profits in town, which keeps the job count in town with the ownership of those local  businesses. That’s where economies really start to do well, and a lot of other countries around the world are starting to pick up on this in the same way. For example, the country of Scotland has gone full on into what’s called community wealth-building, which is that same idea: how do you contain all of the wealth that’s generated, have it recirculate and continue to build within a community, instead of being exported out?

JG: I’m a huge believer in that. I’ve never heard it phrased as “community wealth-building” before.

RC: It starts with the institutions buying locally as much as they can, because whether they want to be or not, locally owned businesses have a much greater economic impact than non-locally owned businesses. How can you use social capital to [community advantage], including physical capital?…For example, a school opens its doors in the evenings for community meetings or other kinds of events, so it becomes more like a community center. There are all kinds of ways that things could start to happen. It could even go as far as getting into local currencies as complementary means for economic transactions.

JG: Yeah. And these ideas have been used before. Even in my own city of Hamilton, I discovered that Hamilton had a currency in the 1850s. I had no idea.

RC: Yeah, there’s quite a long history of local currencies, right up until today, there’s some great examples here and there. 

JG: What are you looking forward to, from the community conversations?

RC: Well, if I had to put it in one word, it would be engagement. So the conversation is just the spark. It’s just the start. Not the end. It’s not like you had a conversation, you write a report, and you’re done. No, it’s rather, a spark.

JG: And that’s our hope as well.

RC: Something gets lit. And enough people care enough to do enough, that things start to happen.

More information about the Centre for Local Prosperity can be found here.