In early 1990, I was hired as a research assistant by a pair of Chemistry Professors at the University of Victoria (UVic). One of the professors was also the Chair of the brand new University of Victoria School of Environmental Studies. I served as a research assistant out of the school until 1994 when I was invited to do an Interdisciplinary PhD in Chemistry and Environmental Studies. In 1999, I was one of the very first UVic PhDs with the words “Environmental Studies” on their degree.
So why am I giving you this back-story? At UVic I was a science grad immersed in a school made up mostly of students uninterested in environmental science preferring environmental history or environmental politics. The fourth year students I helped teach talked of the issues with “toxic” chemicals but, when asked, could not explain how toxicity was established nor could they explain what “CEPA toxic” actually stood for? This was the era of the birthing of the modern environmental movement in BC. When I started working at UVic, Clayoquot had not yet happened. When it did our department was one of the places from which the foot soldiers of the protests were drawn and resources for the protests were sourced. I had a ring-side seat at the time and watched as a devoted environmentalist keen on advancing the cause. At the time I saw a need for both pragmatists and activists in the movement. I saw the pragmatists as the ones to get things done while the activists scared the government into talking to the pragmatists and the public into accepting concessions. I was very wrong at the time. The activists won the day at Clayoquot while the pragmatists were unable to get anything accomplished.
The victory appeared to reinforce the activist’s beliefs that working with governments was a fool’s game and that activism without referral to, or the constraints of, democratic decision-making was a faster way to advance the cause. I argued at the time with my friends that a dedicated voting block of activists could influence policy from within established political parties (specifically the NDP) but my colleagues chose a different path. Over the years the movement has become more divorced from mainstream democratic processes and now with their access to the financial support of rich philanthropists and well-meaning individuals they appear to see little reason to be accountable to anyone.
So what has that left us with now? Groups so devoid of oversight that they would desecrate a world heritage site in order to enhance their message. NGO’s so single-mindedly anti-science that they would let third-world children go blind rather than consider the option of Golden Rice. Activists who will block a safer technology (oil-by-pipelines) while doing nothing to address much more environmentally damaging approaches (oil-by-rail). Even President Obama blindly arguing that Keystone is only good for Canada when all Keystone will do is replace oil imports from an enemy bent on destroying the American way of life (Venuzuela) with oil from a reliable ally (Canada). What is more troubling is that the organizations are staffed by the same people I saw as a University TA. We have science-blind activists like 350.org whose aim to return the world to 350 ppm can only be accomplished by an immediate decarbonization of our industrial base, presumably coupled with a massive human die-off. How else could they not only stop the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations but actually see it decrease by 13%?
What the children of the Clayoquot seem not to have learned is that the reason they ultimately won was not their tactics but because their cause was right. The logging of the last of the ancient rainforests was a betrayal of our ecological heritage and the protection of this heritage garnered broad public support. Their tactics brought the logging to the world’s attention but the cause was what won them the fight.
The modern environmental movement continues to try to repeat the tactics that won in the Clayoquot. When I talk to these activists the impression I get is that they think the Clayoquot was won due to their tactics. They seem to believe that repeating the tactics will repeat the outcome regardless of the cause being forwarded. In doing so I see them ignoring what got them the win in the Clayoquot: a good cause, sold well. Be it pipelines, coal trains or climate change until they can get a coherent message that they can actually sell to the public, all the tactics of civil disobedience will not get the outcome they are looking for. The people fighting pipelines in BC’s north (Northern Gateway) have made their case; they have mobilized public support around legitimate environmental concerns and thus they will likely win that fight. The people fighting the Trans-Mountain (or frankly Energy East) have not done the leg-work and until they do they will sound like a shrill whistle and will not build the traction they need with the public to actually win this battle.
I wrote this piece three years ago but it is becoming more apt every day. The only change I can see might be the ultimate conclusion. In the case of Trans Mountain the location of the protest site so close to a large community and the lack of support from the provincial government may allow the protestors to block this project. In doing so we run the risk of un-elected NGO’s and activists dictating policy. Something we should fear in a world where there are more and more scientifically illiterate activists who have good intentions but insufficient knowledge to recognize the consequences of their actions: putting our marine and freshwater at risk because they don’t understand relative risks or have been convinced that we really don’t need fossil fuels even as they enjoy all the benefits brought to them by fossil fuels and providing no viable alternative for those resources.