Anita Burke "It is too easy to blame the corporations and the media."
VO: There was a pivotal experience that you had when you were sent to clean up the EXXON Valdez oil spill. You witnessed massive devastation first-hand. A baby otter died in your arms. Was that the most pivotal moment in your career?
Burke: No. That experience made me more determined. My most pivotal moment was when I was working at Shell Canada. They had taken on a kinder, gentler approach to the traditional legal and protest environmentalism by embracing stakeholder engagement. While activists were wary, they decided to trust Shell and create a climate change panel for Shell’s Athabasca Oil Sands project to negotiate an agreed upon climate reduction plan in exchange for the activists sitting quietly by. There were representatives from the Pembina Institute, the World Resources Institute, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, Environmental Defense , First Nations and other European NGO interests. In those engagement sessions Shell made a promise to reduce their emissions from the oil sands development through engineering and through the installation of renewable energy projects instead of oil projects in other places in the world. A year ago Shell broke that promise.
The Pembina Institute took them to the Environmental Regulatory Control Board ERCB in Alberta. Pembina sought recognition of the agreement from the ERCB in hopes of legally forcing Shell to be accountable to their promise. And remember I’ve told you, that they could meet this promise profitably. The ERCB said that there was no legal standing. Shell was able to walk away from their promise.
I was in the room when that promise was broken. It was at that moment that my heart broke and I broke through to realize that they are still just lying, cheating profit-mongers. I had worked for so long trying to awaken Shell from within by showing them that they could become sustainable and not lose money…and actually make money. Shell’s promise made activists back off and forgive them for their destructive practices. When they broke their promise, they destroyed the tenants of stakeholder engagement. Activists and environmentalists need to walk away from Stakeholder engagement tables and get in the streets again.
VO: You were speaking earlier about the weaknesses of aggressive activism. Can you expand on this?
Burke: Some protests can be a form of projecting our individual unacknowledged darkness and unacknowledged personal culpability. It is too easy to blame the corporations and the media. They asked me to speak today about corporate culture and I was imagining the inner construct of the corporate operation and had put together a pretty good speech about the inner tricks and techniques that can work to deliver transformation. And then it struck me like a bolt of lightning this morning, wait a minute that stuff does not really work how can I tell them that… and uh wait a minute - WE are the corporate culture. Corporations exist because we buy stuff from them. After 9/11 George Bush said that the best way to save the country was to go shopping. It’s the shopping, the need to justify who you are, the need to feel loved and to feel full that is destroying the planet. It is the addiction to acquisition that is killing what we love most.
VO: So in order to be an effective activist, we have to first take responsibility?
Burke: Yes, and then forgive ourselves for what we’ve done…and then embrace what Andrew Harvey calls “Sacred Activism’. Be an activist of love and compassion, in the face of unconscionable violations to our safety, our spiritual essence and our beautiful planet Earth – our home.