Zita Cobb on Valuing Our Small Communities
Zita Cobb, President of the Shorefast Foundation
Interviewed on October 17, 2014 by Adam Kahane.
Kahane: What can you tell me about yourself that would help me understand what you’re paying attention to?
Cobb: I grew up in a fishing community on an island off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. For centuries, we’ve had a gift of place: a place that we love, a place we learn from. This wasn’t a capital-accumulating society. We caught as many fish and grew as many turnips and cabbages as we needed to get through the winter. It was a remarkable way to live, and as a result I understand deeply what community means: it’s a shared place and set of interests. Community means living like we have a shared fate. When I was nine, the factory ships arrived, and it took only 30 years to bring the cod to the brink of extinction. Over night, everything we knew about making a living on the North Atlantic was completely irrelevant. Parents could no longer teach their children anything. We became economic refugees. My father said to us, “You have to get an education because there’s no work for you here; there’s no life for you here.” I studied business because I wanted to understand how this destruction could have happened.
Our small communities across the country, not just in Newfoundland, are disintegrating in front of our eyes, and yet this is so entirely preventable. I believe that business and technology are powerful tools that, deployed properly, can contribute to place and can help create resilient, contemporary rural communities. And our rural places are powerful sources of knowledge, creativity, and innovation: they are assets, not liabilities.
Kahane: What concerns you about Canada these days?
Cobb: I am worried that we are failing to invest sufficiently in our “sacred capital” (natural capital, social capital, cultural capital, community capital) and in protecting our ways of knowing. In our small communities, there is an increasing poverty of hope, and a despair is taking hold. I don’t understand why we’re not more alarmed and doing something about the fact that we’re losing a fundamental part of our Canadian identity, ways of knowing, and sources of strength, imagination, and resourcefulness. Our identity and strength emerged—and emerges—from our relationship with this amazing piece of nature that we call Canada.
We haven’t done nearly enough to fortify, invest in, and enable our special places in a time of rapid globalization, where bigger always seems better and the local and specific is too often allowed to become subservient to a quest for efficiency. I talk to people who grew up on small farms in Saskatchewan, and this way of life seems to have been lost. The fishery is another example: in many cases, it is controlled by people who do not live on the ocean and fish for their livelihoods, who don’t have “embeddedness” in place, who are not sensitive and responsive to place, who manage financial capital in boardrooms far away from the smell of fish. They are not likely to optimize for place, and yet they have the power to bring 350-year-old communities to collapse with the stroke of a pen and without the benefit of a proper conversation about alternatives.
We’re living through a time marked by the flattening of communities and a flattening of culture. Our landscapes are flattened by a monoculture of box stores and transnational chains that compromise small, locally owned businesses—of course with their scale, they can destroy these institutions, which have been an integral part of our community fabric. In addition to the loss of locally owned businesses, I worry about what this kind of market domination does to our freedom of spirit—to initiative itself. For example, who is going to set up a small coffee shop with unique offerings when there are large multinationals on every corner?
Kahane: If things turn out badly over the next 20 years, what would they look like?
Cobb: We would have allowed reductionist thinking to get out of hand. We would have forgotten that nature and culture are the two great garments of human life. We’d all live in mega cities and suffer from a kind of placelessness. We would have lost our intimate knowledge of and ability to learn from the natural world. We’d have lost what Pam Hall refers to as “the ways of knowing that come from an embodied, interdependent relationship with the still-wild world.” We’d be eating industrial food that’s produced by enormous companies that transcend all borders. We’d be subservient to financial capital, and we wouldn’t have a clue who we were. We’d have no sense of continuity with the past. The wisdom and nuances of heritage, and of the natural world, would be lost.
Kahane: What lessons do we need to learn from our past failures?
Cobb: Canada as a whole is like a lovely patchwork quilt. There are so many cultures and communities in Canada, and the way you sew all these little patches together to make a quilt is through our business and government systems. We used to put them together in a way that respected all the patches, big and small. Now we seem to expect all the patches to be the same. If one or two fall off, we don’t seem bothered by a hole in the quilt. Do we have a vision anymore about the value of culture and identity? Are we able to work in a collaborative way among all the players—including businesses—to make decisions that are in the best interests of the fabric of our communities? There is an increasing presence of reductionist thinking that is causing us to lose the things that are essential and sacred. Maybe we can’t save every community, but I would like to see a national statement that says, “As Canadians, we value our small rural communities.” That would be very encouraging and a good beginning to finding a way to optimizing for community well-being.
Kahane: If things turn out well over the next 20 years, what would the story be?
Cobb: Canada would be a national network of intensely local places, some big, many small. We would have found ways to localize and at the same time link communities together. Everything exists in relationship, and in healthy relationships I can be more me and you can be more you. That’s the kind of relationships we need build. Our lives wouldn’t be dominated by distantly owned hyper-businesses that optimize primarily for return on (distant) capital. Instead, we’d have right-scaled businesses that operate in ways that fortify the fabric of our communities. Of course there are instances when we need national distribution companies, but there are creative ways to achieve scale when and where scale is necessary: creative ways to keep the well-being of our communities at the top of our priority list and at the core of our decision making.