(The following was a short talk given to the Unity Lunch in Mahone Bay, NS, April 4, 2017)
I talked with Jack about this grand address trying to zero in on a subject you might find interesting or helpful. Remember, we started off contemplating a two-hander, Paul Pross and I speaking to this province's egregious forestry policy, a subject about which I could wax somewhat eloquent, but about which Paul would be much more eloquent than I, I'm sure. But in talking with Jack, we thought, considering my personal history of railing against just about anything and everything, maybe a more personal accounting might be in order. The topic we agreed on was, The Challenge of Being an Environmental Advocate, and in considering this, I came to the conclusion that the biggest challenge to being an environmental advocate, or maybe being ANY kind of advocate, lies more within than it does without. So, in pursuit of what lies within, I wondered…
…where did my environmental passions find their roots?
When I was a child, I spake as a child and my words were charged with impatience and unreasonable idealism. I believed, like all callow youth, there are absolutes and they must be obeyed.
Things like, Racial equality.
I was raised in Baltimore in the 1950s. Nova Scotian dad born in Boston. Mother from Pittsburgh. Like most of the American middle class in that period, my parents had "Coloured help." Once a week the Reverend Meree Willams came to do the "arnin'” for my mum, and on Saturdays the wonderful Reverend Hezikiah Randall came to help my dad. Painting. Clipping grass from between flagstones. Minwaxing the flo’.
We all loved Hezzie. He was more than family - he was like a grandfather, a crippled Black Yoda, bent at the waist with polio or arthritis, a twist of copper wire around his wrist for the rheumatism, and a tiny corked bottle of kerosene on a string in his watch pocket. Two drops in a bucket of water and your winders won’t smear when they’re washed. An old slave trick.
But more than that, Hezzie was the keeper of a higher morality. Old Black wisdom - respect, fidelity, and survival by your wits. He told us Uncle Remus stories he'd learned from his father, a freed slave.
Boogadiddee-boogadiddee-boogadiddee-boo-gie! Boogadiddee-boogadiddee-boogadiddee-boo-gie! B'rer Rabbit come down de road…" to out fox B'rer Fox one more time. "I was bone and raised in this here br'ar patch." Do you know that one? The Tar Baby? Dealing with volunteers in various enviro causes, herding cats, I am often reminded of that Tar Baby.
But there was one huge flaw in Hezzie's world view - he worshipped establishment Whites like my parents - they could do no wrong. At the age of 12 as that third key Black reverend, Martin Luther King was altering our white bread consciousness forever, I knew Hezzie honouring all my parents stood for clearly was not on. Our society was built on lies - another absolute. It fueled my rage for at least the coming decade, maybe for the rest of my life.
We interrupt this moralistic tirade for a few messages from our sponsors. Dish soap. Toilet paper. Cosmetics. New clumping cat litter. The '50's were a cruel con job by exploitative capitalists, a culture built on the backs of the underprivileged, like Hezzie and his wonderful wife, Viola.
Thinking at 13 that I could change the world, I volunteered for the Kennedy campaign, and for some obscure telephone canvassing thing I have never understood, I cut up phone books and glued little pieces of paper together. Beats me. The guy in charge of the poll got my last name, Le Boutillier, and Bouvier, Jackie Kennedy's maiden name, mixed up and thought I was related to the candidate by marriage. I tried to set him straight. I'm really just a poor Boutilier from down the South Shore, but he'd hear none of it and encouraged me to check my roots. I might be blood.
Just before school started, in August '63 a New York lawyer friend swung by my parents' house, picked me up, and we joined a few hundred thousand people, even more than the Trump Inauguration, on the Washington Mall. We heard Reverend King say:
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”
And I was radicalized. Barely three months later, November 22nd, that galvanizing moment, the Kennedy assassination. Things got very serious very fast. It was a violent wake-up call.
A few years later, another absolute: War is wrong. Case in point, the Vietnam War, a classist conflagration driven by greed. Not ideology. Ideology was the excuse. A false flag. The war, all war, is driven by greed. Of my 1200 classmates in the Harvard Class of '69, three went to Vietnam. Three. And one was Al Gore who went as a journalist for the Stars and Stripes. You take any random cross-section of American boys in that year and I can guarantee you will not find such a ratio. It was horribly skewed, and it was classist. We were the children of privilege and what was happening was very very wrong.
The connection between greed, war, and the environment began to gel in my absolutist little brain.
A bunch of us, Al included, took a course, The Limits to Growth, from the famous Professor Roger Revelle, the man who coined the term "greenhouse effect." And we were all forever changed. Global warming. Climate change. The salinization of the Ganges. That massive bitumen deposit in a far-off place called Alberta. Who knew? Revelle hard-wired for us the connection between the environment, Earth's ballooning population, the uneven distribution of wealth, and what he called “under-development”, in other words, poverty. Al, ducking Revelle's social justice part, later dubbed it, "An Inconvenient Truth." Good title. Revelle taught us another absolute: Greed was destroying the planet. An activist was born.
As a Freshman when we wanted to save the trees along the Charles River - ancient oaks condemned so Memorial Drive could be widened - we staged a riot. I learned later it was organized by an environmental hero who moved here, just up the road to Chester - Rudy Haase. Maybe some of you know him. Started an NGO called Friends of Nature. That day back in ’65 somehow Rudy got the governor of Massachusetts' wife to chain herself to one of the oaks and the media went wild. I was down there a few years back and guess what - 50 years later and those trees are still there.
Sophomore year, when Dow chemical, manufacturers of napalm, came on campus to recruit, we staged a sit-in and convinced a thousand students and faculty to turn in their bursers cards, the university i.d., saying to the Board of Overseers, Dow goes or we quit. Dow went. Just off-campus, but they went.
But the straw that broke this camel's back came in Junior Year - the famous March on the Pentagon in October, 1967.
Before email or computers, just using snail mail, phones, buses, our wits, and our thumbs, we got a half million people out. After a giant rally on the very Mall where four years earlier I'd heard MLK, we marched across the Potomac en masse and surrounded the Pentagon. Busloads were arrested and shipped off to detention pens in Virginia. I was one of the handful left for whom they had no room. We spent the night at the Pentagon just under where Al Qaeda crashed that plane on 9/11. At dawn, we tied our jackets together, rappelled down a 20' wall to a parking lot and straggled back into Washington to lick our wounds. Twelve of us, college kids, sleeping on the floor of my sister's tiny Georgetown apartment while her husband was off fighting the Viet Cong wearing this very ring. A polarized society. He and I both, I suppose, were the young charged with opposite absolutes of youth.
Another lesson learned: Control the media or the media will control you.
The coverage of our march was truly despicable. After all our hard work. All our passion. All they talked about was some whackos trying to levitate the Pentagon, and the smell of dope enveloping the crowd. Like the whole anti-war movement was cooked up by some spoiled kids. Even now Google estimates of the numbers in attendance vary by the hundreds of thousands.
My girlfriend at the time was Kathy Cronkite, daughter of the famous broadcaster. When I was in New York I'd stay at their house. Once we marched on Washington Square with Dr. Benjamin Spock, author of Baby and Child Care, remember?, the manual by which we'd all been reared. Spare the rod, spoil the child. At dinner that night I had a heated debate with Walter over the body count. Each night on the news he'd tell the world how many American boys had been lost. He never mentioned the deaths on the other side, or the thousands mowed down as collateral damage. Napalm.
One month after the Pentagon march, I hopped on a plane and came to Canada for good. As soon as I was Landed, I walked across the street to the US Consulate and renounced my US citizenship. A very clear absolute had emerged. I'd finally asked myself, why was I working so hard to change a country that never will be changed. A country with which I had nothing in common. My country was Canada, where my father's family had lived for two hundred years, a place crawling with cousins, Boutiliers, my pipples, and to my way of thinking then, and still to this day, here there is a higher more enlightened morality.
So, all these absolutes. Racial equality. War is driven by greed - ideology is just an excuse. Greed is destroying the planet. The environment and social justice are inextricably entwined. My country is Canada...
So, I didn’t mean to give you a life story, and in fact, I will stop there, because what I am trying to describe is probably a scenario that fits each and every one of us in this room to one degree or another. When you're young and just discovering truths, they do seem immutable, beautiful stones carved from rough mountains, but were my life story to go on to cover the next 50 years, 35 of those in film & tv, it would describe the making of an environmental advocate. Now it seems, I do nothing else. Now it's trees - Nova Scotia's egregious forest policy. Before that it was fighting for a Halifax Greenbelt. Before that – a coastal policy. We need a Coastal Act. The sea is rising, inevitably, inexorably. They say around here, a meter in a hundred years, but the other day I heard eight times that. What do we do then? Dike the Tantramar! How about food security? How about fossil fuels? Pipelines? Here's another environmental windmill at which we should all tilt together, a concerted effort - an EBR, an Environmental Bill of Rights, establishing the substantive right of each of us to clean air, water, and soil. How about the insanity of drilling on the Scotian Shelf, jeopardizing with no remedy in sight our $6 billion seafood industry? What if what happened on the Gulf happened here? What're you going to do to fix it? Dispersants? Little booms vs. 20, 30, 40 foot waves?
So, the challenge, implementing cures for all these urgent causes, using all the hard won organizational skills gleaned from decades of defending absolutes, cutting up phone books for John Kennedy, marching with King, cajoling inveigling mobilizing engaging the unsuspecting into action, getting them to give money, to lend their skills, their intelligence, their votes. These are the necessary mechanical or interpersonal skills of an environmental advocate.
Learning to convince, to debate, knowing when to lead and when to follow, or better yet, knowing when to appear to follow when you actually are leading and vice versa, the art of artifice. The art of knowing when to step aside and let others take on the battle.
But at the end of the day, the biggest challenge is internal, remembering that when it comes to yourself, absolutes are some hard to come by. Brilliant opposition to off-shore drilling, for example, may come from someone who's in league with an on-shore devil. Or in my own case, while we try to keep our little stock portfolio clean, when it come to RRSPs or worse, outright investing in banks, which of us can honestly claim to be squeaky clean? Absolutes are always compromised. There are a million instruments blunting the sharp edge of youth, and yet we, grey-haired old farts, have a repertoire that equips us sometimes to push things forward in the right direction. I would say in that repertoire the most useful talents are:
Building coalitions and strategic alliances.
Using clear, targeted messaging which resonates with an intended audience.
Control the media or they will control you.
Humour. Catching flies with honey.
Patience. And humility.
And the core of old Hezzie's wisdom: respect, fidelity, and survival by your wits
I was born and raised in this here briar patch and I guess I'm going to keep on fighting to keep it from going down the tubes. Hope you found some of these ramblings interesting, and sorry they were so inconclusive, but I guess that’s one of life’s immutable facts: everything’s inconclusive till the final moment when it does finally conclude.