Environmentalists – defying stereotypes

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by Theresa Peluso

What do poets, saints, teenagers, old women, politicians, housewives, scientists, cowboys and Indians, fishermen, farmers, lawyers, and artists have in common?  Read on for the answer.

Since the dawn of human civilization, the question of environmental sustainability has always lurked in the background.  As humans developed increasingly bigger and faster ways of harvesting resources, building settlements and moving people and goods, they generally saw nature as standing in the way of progress, and imposed their changes on the landscape, with scant regard for the consequences.

As far back as three thousand years ago, vast areas in the Middle East were on the path to desertification as people chopped down trees, grew crops on the hillsides, irrigated their fields, and grazed their animals.  Cumulatively, over the centuries, this activity has led to wind and water erosion, salinization, and loss of soil fertility.  In large areas of Iraq, Israel, Syria and Iran, what was once known as the “Fertile Crescent” and the “Cradle of Civilization” is now desert.  This scenario has played itself out on all but one of the continents.  In addition, human activities such as over-harvesting, coastal development, shipping traffic, and pollution, are also affecting our once bountiful oceans.

Time and again, thoughtful and observant people have pointed out the problems of overconsumption and lack of regard for nature. According to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Timeline_of_history_of_environmentalism#7th_century), the first known environmentalist was St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne and Anglo-Saxon England’s most revered saint.  He enacted protection legislation for birds on the Farne Islands.  In the 14th century the English Parliament passed an act forbidding the throwing of filth and garbage into ditches, rivers and waters.  (Isn’t it embarrassing that here in Mississippi Mills, seven centuries later, there are still people who haven’t grasped the concept of appropriate waste disposal!)  Three centuries later, English writer Izaac Walton published his book, the Compleat Angler, on fishing and conservation, and Colonial Governor William Penn required Pennsylvania settlers to preserve one acre of trees for every five acres cleared.

The 18th century gives us, among others, famed satirist Jonathan Swift complaining about the contents of London’s gutters:  “sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts and blood, drowned puppies, stinking sprats (small fish), all drenched in mud…” It is also during this century, in 1720, that hundreds of Hindus literally gave their lives to protect trees from their ruler, who wanted the trees for the production of cement for his palace.  Benjamin Franklin, founding father of the United States of America, took time from his many other responsibilities and other pursuits, to fight against waste dumping and water pollution. During this century, the first national park in the world was established in 1778 in Mongolia (the Bogd Khan Uul Mountain).

Environmental degradation dramatically increased in the 19th century with the advent of the Industrial Revolution.  Soon after the invention of the steam engine, carbon emissions and other forms of air pollution made their appearance on the scene.  The steam engine also dramatically accelerated the rate at which natural resources were extracted; land razed; buildings, factories and roads built; industrial effluents and other discharges spewed; and the mobility of humans escalated.  Here are just a few of the hundreds of well-known environmentalists of that century to speak out against this environmental degradation: Henry David Thoreau, American essayist, poet, and philosopher; William Morris, artist; Emily Williamson (née Bateson), British philanthropist; George Bernard Shaw, British playwright; John Ruskin, British art critic, painter, social thinker and philanthropist; Sir William Blake Richmond, British artist; Alfred Newton, British zoologist; Oscar Baumann, Austrian explorer; Samuel Bowles, American journalist; and John Muir, American naturalist, writer, conservationist, and founder of the Sierra Club.  During this century, numerous environmental regulations were passed, many environmental organizations were created, and several national parks were formed in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.

Despite all these efforts to rein in the ongoing environmental destruction, humans, for the most part, continued their wicked old ways. In 1900 the human population stood at 1,600,000,000, approximately 600,000,000 greater than 100 years earlier, which, in combination with technological developments, meant an exponentially greater strain on the planet’s air, water, soil, natural areas, and wildlife.

During the 20th century and the first 16 years of this century, even more nature conservation societies and scientific organizations have been formed, even more anti-pollution regulations passed, even more substances have been banned, even more national parks have been created, and even more studies and books have been published on the environmental impact of humans.  And yet, the list of extinct plant and animal species, as well as pollution, climate change, and habitat destruction, continue to grow.

During the last century, and the beginning of this one, countless environmentalists, from countries all over the world, and from different walks of life, have spoken out – many of them in the knowledge that they risked persecution and even death –  because of their deep concern for the environment:  To name just a few from North America: American photographers Ansel Adams, David Brower, and Nancy Newhall;  American biologist Rachel Carson (and countless other scientists); U.S. President Woodrow Wilson; Canadian lawyer and politician Elizabeth May; American suburban housewives in the 1950s battling against phosphates when they noticed suds pouring out of their faucets – the residue of non-biodegradable detergents in their septic tanks and drinking water reservoirs; First Nations Chief Norma Kassi; and Cowboys and Indians – an alliance formed when ranchers and farmers in South Dakota and Nebraska joined forces with tribal communities to create a unified coalition in opposition to the XL pipeline that was to transport tar sands oil through their lands from Canada to Texas.

The following short list does not include the many thousands of environmentalists on other continents, who have defended their communities’ right to clean water, sustainable livelihoods and safe homelands:

Preecha Siri, Thailand, community leader

Shigeatsu Hatakeyama, Japan, fisherman

Tsetsgeegiin Mönkhbayar, Mongolia, herdsman

Aleta Baun, Indonesia, farmer

Syeda Rizwana Hasan, Bangladesh, attorney

Loren Regina Bautista Legarda, Philippines, journalist

Wanze Eduards, Republic of Suriname, lawyer

Josephine Ekiru, Kenya, chairperson of a community-organized conservancy.  Eleven years ago, when Josephine was only 16, in defiance of her community’s tradition that women defer to men and keep their opinions to themselves, she began trying to reform elephant poachers by explaining that they were being manipulated into destroying wildlife, their country’s “treasure”. Since then, Josephine’s approach has convinced many former poachers to abandon their destructive ways, and help to protect the animals they once hunted.

Francisco “Chico” Alves Mendes Filho, Brazil, rubber tapper

(Quote: At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity.)

Berta Caceres, Honduras, leader of the indigenous Lenca people, murdered on March 3 of this year.  Sadly, she is far from being the only environmentalist to have paid the ultimate price.

According to Deutsche Welle, an international broadcaster based in Germany (http://www.dw.com/en/the-deadly-price-of-environmental-activism/a-18657369):

Between 2002 and 2013, 908 environmentalists were murdered in 35 countries for reasons related to their activism. But 99 percent of the cases remain in a state of impunity: only 10 perpetrators were sentenced in that same period of time.

The number of murders registered has been based on official sources and cases where the victims have been fully identified, and clearly linked to a violent death due to their environmental activism. Thus, actual figures are estimated to be higher, as many deaths have not been officially reported, especially in African and Central Asian countries.

Brazil is considered to be the most dangerous place for green activism, with 29 environmentalists killed in 2014 alone. Colombia is in second place, with 25 cases in the same year. However, Honduras is the country with the highest number of activist murders per capita, with 12 violent deaths reported in 2014. (end of quote)

Unlikely environmentalists also come in a range of ages, from Marjory Stoneman Douglas, an American journalist, who worked almost to the day of her death at age 108 for the restoration of the Everglades.

Close to the same end of the age spectrum are the Raging Grannies, which, according to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raging_Grannies), is a title adopted by “activist organizations in many cities and towns in Canada, the United States, and in other countries. They are social justice activists, all women old enough to be grandmothers, who dress up in clothes that mock stereotypes of older women, and sing songs at protests. They typically write the lyrics themselves, putting their political messages to the tunes of well-known songs. Their activism includes peace and environmental causes.

At the younger end of the age spectrum, there is Robyn Hamlyn, a Canadian high-school student from Kingston, Ontario, now 17 years old, who dared to take on the bottled water industry when she was only 12.  Why?  Because she became aware of the increasing danger of water shortages world-wide.  With the help of the Council of Canadians, she pushed for Kingston to become a Blue Community, which is an initiative of the Council of Canadians and the Canadian Union of Public Employees.  In accordance with the United Nations declaration of access to drinking water as a fundamental human right, the Blue Communities initiative advocates the banning of plastic water bottles from public facilities, and supports publicly funded and operated water systems.  Although not yet a teenager, Robyn Hamlyn dared to make a presentation to Kingston council requesting them to pass this human-rights resolution – and succeeded.  (It’s embarrassing to admit that Canada is one of the countries that haven’t signed this declaration, leaving it to municipalities to do the right thing.)  Robyn continues to encourage other Canadian municipalities to follow Kingston’s lead and become a Blue Community, despite opposition from the bottled water industry.

For more information on Robyn’s courageous stand against water privatization, refer to Roy MacGregor’s column in the November 27, 2015 edition of the Globe and Mail (http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-teen-activist-takes-on-the-bottled-water-industry/article27518523/).

Closer to home, Mississippi Mills is privileged to have even younger students, in Grade 5 at Pakenham Public School, who have written articles in this very paper (millstonenews.com › Science & Nature › Environment) about their environmental concerns.  Two months ago (in April) two articles appeared, one by Reagan Russell, who, with her class, is publicizing ways for people to reduce their carbon footprint, and the other by Braxton Barr, who is promoting protection of the Rapids Clubtail Dragonfly, an endangered species that lives in Mississippi Mills.

Isn’t it remarkable how so many people of all ages and backgrounds, from 1,400 years ago to the present, from almost every country in the world, have made it their mission to speak out in support of the natural environment?  None of them fit the stereotype of a deluded bunch of tree-huggers; these are people who understand just how inseparable people are from their environment, who see the threats to human survival and to the integrity of the natural world, and who possess the courage and determination to act against those threats.

I’ll give the last word to David Suzuki, Canadian academic, science broadcaster and environmental activist (http://www.davidsuzuki.org/blogs/science-matters/2011/06/how-to-become-an-environmentalist/):

You see, environmentalism isn’t a profession or discipline; it’s a way of seeing our place in the world. It’s recognizing that we live on a planet where everything, including us, is exquisitely interconnected with and interdependent on everything else.

Life-giving water moves from ocean to air to land, across the globe, linking all life through the hydrologic cycle. Every breath we take contains oxygen from every plant on land and in the sea, as well as whatever issues from every factory chimney and vehicle on Earth. The web of all living things constantly partakes of and cleanses, replenishes, and restores air, water, soil, and energy. In this way of seeing the world, we are not only recipients of nature’s most vital gifts — we are participants in her cycles.

Whatever we toss without a thought or deliberately dump into our surroundings doesn’t simply vanish or dilute away. Our use of air, water, and soil as garbage dumps means that those emissions and pollutants move through the biosphere, ecosystems, habitats, and eventually our own bodies and cells.

Environmentalism is recognition of this. We need all people — plumbers, teachers, doctors, carpenters, garage mechanics, businesspeople, artists, scientists — to see and understand the world that way because once we “get it”, we treat our surroundings in a radically different way, with the respect that we should have toward our own bodies and loved ones.

…We tend to think of environmentalists as folks concerned about nature or an endangered species or threatened ecosystem. Environmentalists are accused of caring more for spotted owls or trees than people and jobs. That’s absurd. In seeing a world of interconnections, we understand that people are at the heart of a global ecocrisis and that genuine sustainability means also dealing with issues of hunger and poverty, of inequity and lack of justice, of terrorism, genocide, and war, because so long as these issues confront humanity, sustainability will be a low priority.

In our interconnected world, all of these issues are a part of the unsustainable path we are on. If we want to find solutions, we have to look at the big picture.