Radical environmentalists

Pictured is the Halifax Climate Strike on September 27, during which over 10,000 people conquered the city’s downtown demanding action on climate change.

In a recent Canadian Press article, an interviewee blamed “radical environmental groups” for a downturn in the number of new oil wells being drilled this year across Canada, and sluggish overall growth for fossil fuels. The quote stuck with me.

I’m more disappointed than angered by this sentiment. I’ve been accused of radicalism, idiocy and emotional extremism plenty of times, after all, just for ranking climate and sustainability among my priorities and daring to say so. What struck me about this accusation in particular was how publicly it was presented, and how unchallenged it remained throughout the piece, clashing factual reporting with a regressive yawp. Radicalism is a heavy, denigrating and hostile charge to level at the global movement demanding action on climate change, revealing for me a toxic divide in Canadian culture between those who understand this crisis in their bones, and those who don’t. All I can do is explain my own “radicalism” and hope it smacks of sanity.

I learned our planet was dying at the age of 13, from Rick Mercer as he harnessed his platform to promote the One-Tonne Challenge, a short lived federal initiative encouraging Canadians to voluntarily emit less carbon.

From that impressionable age, I forced myself to study this climate change business, beginning with the usual suspects like Jane Goodall, James Lovelock, David Suzuki, Carl Sagan, John Muir and Daniel Quinn, graduating to more modern and scientific conservation crusaders like Edward O Wilson, Bridget Stutchbury, Tim Flannery, Lawrence Anthony, George Monbiot, Jared Diamond, Paul Hawken, David Boyd, and a suite of others, expounding on everything from vanishing insects to vanishing redwoods, our destabilizing climate and universally inadequate responses. And then I’ve had the benefit of a decade of journalism, sitting down with the best and brightest conservationists in our region, mining their experience for the finer points of climate and ecology. I was looking to be empowered, optimistic even, but only found fear, time and time and time again.

It was always my intention to become an astronomer, the mysteries of the universe and some fine future of space exploration having always appealed to me, but no matter how lavishly I dreamed, the specter of climatic collapse hung over me, making it impossible to take myself or dreams of a bright, shining future seriously. I could not downplay the seriousness of what was happening to the natural infrastructure of the world, wilting beneath my feet and promising bitter disappointment for any and all ambition. Even the most impassioned childhood couldn’t compete with such a revelation, that the human experiment would come to nothing, no matter what I decided to do with my life.

In short, my generation, however you choose to define it, was raised with absolutely no hope for the future, born into an environmental deficit which swelled just as we struggled with early adulthood. In much the same way earlier generations came of age under threat of nuclear annihilation, we were raised on a numbing fear for our future, one which scarred us, and for a while, paralyzed us. Instead of watching the stars as planned, I decided to face the mess I was about to inherit – that as many as 1 million species could go extinct in my lifetime, that I would live to see island nations and coastal cities swallowed by a rising ocean, that plastic would outweigh fish in our oceans by 2050, that my children would know hunger like I never have, that travel was not for seeing the wonders of the world, but rather seeing them before they were gone.

During a climate talk in Halifax back in 2015, where MP Andy Fillmore solicited our priorities for climate change in the formation of national policy, I took the microphone and tried to explain all this. I told him that I had no plans for retirement and probably never would, because in 40 years’ time it’s projected many of the Earth’s species will be gone, and the political perils of an unstable climate would make talk of fixed incomes laughable. I don’t know if he understood, given our federal government’s actions since that day.

Canadians, especially young Canadians, prioritized the climate crisis this past election, a trend some consider inconvenient or sudden, but I promise, it is inevitable. The priority was there all along, working its way up the social ladder, reaching the ballet box in the throes of proper adulthood. We are not radical, merely finding our footing, and addressing the specter hanging over all of us. And because too little progress is being made, many have begun striking, actively protesting or placing ourselves in the path of leadership, what some call non-violent direct action. Should society survive our “rough ride to the future,” to quote James Lovelock, it’ll recognize these actions as heroic, just as we now praise those brave women and men who fought for suffrage and civil rights, for denuclearization and universal health care.

The only difference between myself and the young people presently taking our federal government to court over inadequate climate action, is the size and depth of our generational scar, worsened with waiting. I should be an astronomer right now or on some equally fanciful career path, and the striking youth should be in school, indulging in adolescent optimism; instead we’re getting a head start on the cleanup, because we never really had a choice.

What we sometimes demonize as “radical” is simply a tectonic shift in values and perspective, this one fighting to preserve the wealth, dignity and natural heritage of this country and all others. As more Canadians who grew up in the shade of climate change step into the public arena, the shift will hasten, and its denizens will have fewer and fewer apologies.

You haven’t yet seen radical.

Zack Metcalfe is a freelance journalist, columnist and author active across the Maritimes. He can be reached at: zack.metcalfe@gmail.com.