By Tooker Gomberg and Angela Bischoff, Montreal, Canada.
Environmentalism for the New Millennium.
Three long-time eco-gurus recently graced Concordia University’s orientation week entitled Environmentalism For The New Millennium. Each with decades of working on ecological issues, David Suzuki, scientist and broadcaster, Paul Watson, eco-warrior, and Ralph Nader, consumer and civic advocate informed and challenged their audiences.
Their thoughts ranged from the insightful, “Intelligence is the ability to live in harmony with your environment” (Watson); to the honest, “I knew that television was a cesspool” (Suzuki); to the provocative, “Justice is truly our great work as humans on this earth” (Nader).
There were even some practical ideas: old styrofoam cups can be chopped up and stuffed into a hole bored into an old growth tree (it gums up the works when it gets pulped). And grass seed tossed into fresh concrete will grow and split the concrete!
With the environment having the greatest level of support of any social issue – 80-90% support in the polls even if it costs more – the time seems ripe for change. But what to push for and how to achieve it?
David Suzuki pointed out that we humans are indeed smart. We have created a concept that no other species has – the future. And we can choose the future we want.
But we are vastly ignorant of the world and how it works. Suzuki lays much blame at science’s door. “Science is in the business of fragmenting the world.” Yet we remain unaware of the great crisis of our time: that we no longer realize the total interconnectedness of things. We need to restore to science a sense of wonder, awe and humility.
Our consumption has reached a ridiculous point: the average family size has halved while the average house size has doubled. Why? “We’ve got so much crap we’ve got to put it somewhere.”
Captain Paul Watson, one of the founders of Greenpeace, inspired people with stories from the front lines of ramming and sinking illegal whaling ships. He uses the media and popular culture to get noticed: scandal, violence, and celebrity. Watson is dramatic, and the media bite.
Calling his audience to action to address the devastation of our ecocidal age, he claims there is only one tactic: stand up and fight for the earth. The most pressing priorities of our time are to protect biodiversity and limit human population growth.
Watson’s powers of persuasion and passion are legion. While spending eighty days in jail recently for sinking a Norwegian whaling ship, he joined up new members for his Sea Shepherd Conservation Society– three prison guards.
If Thoreau was right about the need for a “friction that stops the machine” then Watson is it.
Ralph Nader explained how trade is overshadowing issues of environmental health. “Trade über alles.” Secret, undemocratic tribunals are deciding our future, thereby dismantling our democracy. Three judges in the GATT court in Geneva make decisions in private, removed from the public and the media. No minutes are issued, and their decisions supercede national laws.
Business suffers from a myopia because they focus only on the next quarter. “Corporations use our air, water and soil as their private sewers.” Yet pollution is a form of violence, and it challenges our very long range survival.
We need to prevent instead of control pollution. And there have been a few successes: we got lead out of our gasoline. We stopped the use of DDT in our countries.
Suzuki pointed out that nature provides us with $30-100 trillion dollars per year in free services: cleaning the air, filtering water, pollinating flowers. That’s greater than all of the world’s economic activity combined.
But our economic system makes a mockery of the real world. The things that really matter, like a healthy ecosystem, are labeled “externalities”. Fundamentally, what is an economy for? And how much is enough? We need to internalize the real world into the economic system.
Nader claimed that environmental strategies are employment strategies. Many more jobs are created by recycling than by dumping or burning, for example.
Political solutions need to be found, but politics is fundamentally flawed. Said Suzuki: “Fish don’t vote. Future generations don’t vote.”
Nader quoted Einstein: “Physics is simple compared to politics.” And citizens need to learn civic skills: how to practice democracy effectively, how to form coalitions, how to organize a press conference, how to do profiles of our Members of Parliament.
As for Watson, he writes off politicians and our system of government, while at the same time he uses elections to publicize issues. Last fall he ran for Mayor in Vancouver and came fourth with a whopping $0 budget.
The media are complicit. Last year over 1600 senior scientists, including over half of all the Nobel Prize winners alive, sounded the alarm in the World Warning to Humanity. It concluded that human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Yet, Suzuki lamented, most of the major media completely ignored the story.
Watson recognized that we live in a media culture. You need famous people, who are really just an illusion created by the media, to make something real. This spring he and his entourage of celebrities will be in the Gulf of St. Lawrence attempting again to stop the seal hunt. He’s proposing brushing the young pups for their extremely valuable hair. The Sealers Union is against the idea saying it traumatizes the seals (unlike clubbing and skinning them?).
Following the expedition, a cast will move in to film a $30 million Hollywood version of Watson’s style of activism. With Woody Harrelson in the lead role, direct action eco-activism may become chic.
Nader took media activism one step further. He pointed out that the airwaves, along with the forests and much more, are our commonwealth. We are the landlords, not the tenants, and it’s time to reclaim what is ours. Use of the airwaves is worth billions, but the corporations pay nothing. Why is there no citizen channel on tv? Because we’ve grown up corporate. Raise your expectations, the level of indignation, expectation, and action.
Nader made a particular call to students to make their mark while in university. Students are at near peak of idealism, and can be risk takers, the engine of change. There are only two ways to change our direction – citizen action and electoral politics.
Nader has some powerful strategies. Why not do like they did in Illinois –force Hydro Quebec to include inserts in hydro bills that focus on renewables energy and efficiency. The challenge is to band together. We can even pull the licences of corporations if they misbehave.
We need an enormous, grand vision “to propel a civic force for change”. And a sense of urgency. “A smogging is not like a mugging”, it’s silent and cumulative. Watson suggests: You must “do what you do best… do it for the earth and for our children’s children’s children’s children.” Who was there to protect the buffalo? Who tried to protect the passenger pigeon while Audubon painted and shot them? The strength of the movement is in millions of people each doing what they do best.
Three hundred years from now people will ask: who put their lives on the line? Who was sacrificing to protect biodiversity on this planet? Will we be revered as good ancestors?
And as Nader points out: change can be like an avalanche – it just starts off slowly.
TAKE BACK THE STREETS
Perhaps the most profound part of the week was Friday’s free party on MacKay Avenue just outside the auditorium where the speakers’ words rang. Ten thousand strong came down to party to live music, with local beer and tofu dogs. For decades students have worked to transform the street into a park, and it looks like at last the change is immanent.
“It’s incredibly important to tear up the street here” said Suzuki. Nader noted that “street demonstrations are more important than I ever would have thought… Every social movement of significance in our history has started with people in the streets, whether it’s the worker’s sit-down strikes, the civil-rights movement or women’s suffrage marchers.”
Great expectation looms on at the dawning of a new millennium. And as the two millennia-old oriental saying goes: “To know and not to act is not to know”. The speakers reminded us what we intuitively already knew. There is only one thing left to do. It’s to act.