Are Canada’s environmental elders backing down from the fight?
“Environmentalism has failed.”
Those are three words I would have never expected to see written by one of Canada’s leading environmental advocates. And yet, they were the first words in a blog post published earlier this month by David Suzuki.
Recounting some of the environmental movement’s memorable accomplishments as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, the 76-year-old science broadcaster explained his view that despite their best efforts, advocates have been unable to adequately illustrate how dependent humans are on a healthy planet.
When environmental concern is portrayed as an “impediment” to industry, Suzuki claims, we ignore the fundamental reality that everything is interconnected. And by delegating responsibility over the environment to overstretched and under-funded government ministries, we’ve belittled the profound impact that nature has on every facet of our lives.
“In creating dedicated departments, we made the environment another special interest, like education, health, and agriculture. The environment subsumes every aspect of our activities, but we failed to make the point that our health, and livelihood absolutely depend on the biosphere -- air, water, soil, sunlight, and biodiversity. Without them, we sicken and die,” Suzuki wrote.
He’s not the only one talking about the environmental movement’s failures. Canadian children’s performer and nature-lover Raffi Cavoukian—a long-time advocate for the environment—responded to Suzuki’s “ominous” message with a blog post of his own, published last week on Rabble.ca and the Huffington Post. The title was, “The environment is dead: Long live Mother Nature”.
“Throughout his life, David Suzuki has been a leading educator on planetary health,” wrote Cavoukian.
“His conclusion about the environmental movement's failure must be agonizing. Perhaps that's why his blog offered no new way forward.”
Such woeful-sounding commentary appears to signal a somewhat defeatist attitude coming from the aging movement. The self-proclaimed “elders” of environmentalism seem to be dropping like flies, not necessarily giving up on their goals, but acknowledging weakness in a way that could strike fear in a generation that has always looked to them for inspiration.
Another green leader, Patagonia founder Yves Chouinard, was recently interviewed by Bloomberg and admitted his feeling that the “environmental movement has lost”. For years, Chouinard has been deeply involved in pushing environmental responsibility in the corporate sector through initiatives like 1% for the Planet, which asks companies to donate one per cent of their annual profits to green charities. But despite the success of his sustainable outdoor apparel business and unique social venture, the 73-year-old says companies—particularly oil companies—are winning this war.
“We've lost. Corporations are so strong. They're stronger than any government. They're running the government. And oil is tough because we're addicts to oil,” Chouinard told Bloomberg.
This thought hasn’t stopped him from continuing to support environmental groups doing good work, but it is yet another solemn indication that his cohort of green visionaries is perhaps starting to get tired.
And who can blame them? People like Suzuki have been working relentlessly for decades trying to bring environmental issues to the forefront of public discourse. Their successes should not be undervalued—this is the generation that has helped shape international policy, introduce global talks around climate change and implement a number of widely used, sustainable practices that we now take for granted.
Now in a matter of years, or even months, the Canadian government has attempted to dismantle the foundation that the movement has spent so long trying to build. In an article in Ottawa’s Hill Times, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May stated that Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservatives are “destroying decades worth of environmental law and policy”. Respected scientists from the academic community have said the same thing.
The budget bill (Bill C-38) could effectively kill years of progress on environmental protections, in a political context where dissenting voices are likely to be silenced. When faced with such heartbreaking setbacks, after such a long and difficult struggle to get to where we are today, it’s no wonder many are feeling discouraged.
At the same time, Suzuki and other environmental “legends” have also birthed a new generation, brought up with an arguably better understanding of our environment and dependence on nature than its predecessors. And while the older group may be starting to doubt their effectiveness in the face of adversity, young environmentalists are taking the reigns and standing up for a world they feel is increasingly at risk.
The road ahead
Amidst all the doom and gloom, the public is starting to look to these young and creative green advocates for new ways to tackle climate change and prevent environmental destruction. Cavoukian addresses this generational shift in his blog post, adding to Suzuki’s points by asking what the movement can learn from its “failures”, and what he and others should be telling their protégés about the road ahead.
He suggests that now is the time for a sort of “reinvention” of the movement, and for “daring” new thinking and action spurred by the shortcomings of the past. And Cavoukian sees this new action involving democratic partnerships and new media—using the same types of social tools that brought the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street to life.
Examples of fresh (and growing) networks abound, fostering increased engagement around environmental, political and social issues. Take 350.org for example. The powerful web-based coalition managed to gather over 10,000 people at the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, and had a huge impact on President Obama’s decision to delay the proposal. Founder Bill McKibben and his colleagues use new technologies to build community and help mobilize the masses against climate change, encouraging individual members to share their success stories and help motivate their peers.
In Canada, Leadnow.ca has been similarly successful in acquiring public support. Using social media and online promotion, the group has created a way for thousands of citizens to learn about and engage in national discussions that matter to them. Their latest campaign, to “Stop the Budget Bill from Selling Out Canada's Natural Heritage and Economy”, has already gotten over 21,600 Canadians to speak out against the legislation.
And they’re just getting started.
Instead of rolling over and submitting to industry and the Harper government’s attacks, this new generation of so-called “radicals” is heeding the call. They know that now is the time to be strong, get creative and rally the troops. Right now they may not be in an ideal position, but this battle is not over.