How to Save the World in Your Spare Time

by Kate Heartfield

Elizabeth May is a tireless environmental activist and feminist. As executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada (now EcoJustice), she is in a unique situation to influence public policy. She held a public hunger strike on Parliament Hill to get Ottawa’s attention on the eco-disaster the Sydney tar ponds.

A lawyer by trade, May is author of At the Cutting Edge, a Canadian primer on the environmental impact of current forestry practices, and of a lengthy essay called “How to be an Activist” . Herizons caught up with May in Ottawa.

Elizabeth May is a tireless environmental activist and feminist. As executive director of the Sierra Club of Canada (now EcoJustice), she is in a unique situation to influence public policy. She held a public hunger strike on Parliament Hill to get Ottawa’s attention on the eco-disaster the Sydney tar ponds.

A lawyer by trade, May is author of At the Cutting Edge, a Canadian primer on the environmental impact of current forestry practices, and of a lengthy essay called “How to be an Activist” . Herizons caught up with May in Ottawa.

Herizons: What made you decide to write “How to Be an Activist”?

Elizabeth May: The work I’ve done over the last 30 years has involved a lot of grassroots organizing. And what I’ve observed, particularly once I started working with the Sierra Club of Canada and members across Canada, is local groups that aren’t members but call us for help—it’s like being the 911 number for the environment. There are a lot of places people can call, and they get bumped around from one bureaucrat to the other, and they don’t get helped. We try to help anyone who calls, which is very difficult. Every citizens’ group organizing around an issue starts from scratch, and they’re constantly reinventing the wheel.

Activism tends to come down to the same solutions: “This is how we organize. This is how we write a press release. This is how we go to lobby city hall or the local provincial legislature.” But if activists have some training, they can skip a bunch of steps. So we started doing activist training courses and published “How to Be an Activist” on our website, and it is now being expanded into a book. That’s what we’re about as an organization: supporting people in their communities to take on their own campaigns.

Can’t the Sierra Club do the work for those citizen’s groups?

Elizabeth May: In general, Canada has nothing like the capacity of the U.S. groups. When you look at the Environmental Defence Fund US, or Friends of the Earth US, and of course the Sierra Club US, they are huge. They have professional staff. They have staff lawyers, staff scientists, staff toxicologists—we’re just not there. We rely on a lot of volunteers who are professionals, volunteer toxicologists who will give us some of their time.

Do you remember a moment you began to think of yourself as an environmentalist?

Elizabeth May: From the time I was 12 I thought of myself as an environmentalist. Before that I thought of myself as a little girl. I loved nature, and I particularly loved animals. I was raised to be an activist, because my mother was a peace activist. So I knew how to organize, and I knew what campaigning looked like when it was a whole group of volunteers. I think if you scratch the surface of any Canadian, you end up finding an environmentalist.

If you tell any group of Canadians, “Oh, we’ve decided we’re going to put a toxic waste incinerator just over here by your school,” you’ve got concerned parents—but they’re suddenly labelled ‘environmental activists.’ You notice the media would never label businesses, ‘the polluter lobby.’

A quote that struck me from “How to Be an Activist” is, “Build love into your campaigns.” How have you done that?

Elizabeth May: You can use a number of energies to drive what you’re doing. If your energy is hate, or fear, or anger, those are the kinds of energies that lead to burnout. They also lead to failure. Not to sound too flaky about it, but if you’re operating from hate, or fear, or anger, you don’t generate the kind of reaction that’s productive. The reaction to fear-mongering is: “You’re exaggerating, don’t make me feel fearful.” You get a push back. If you’re operating from anger, people will say, “I don’t want to go anywhere near that person.”

What about civil disobedience as a method of social change?

Elizabeth May: I am in favour of non-violent civil disobedience. I don’t think smashing windows to make a point against globalization does any good. The reaction people feel when they see a window smashed is that that was a bad thing to do. It creates exactly the opposite reaction of what you want— which is to promote understanding. If it’s a non-violent protest that involves handing flowers to the policemen as they go by, or an information picket in front of the Starbucks, you get a much better chance to educate.

What advice do you have about nurturing volunteers?

Elizabeth May: If you build a loving network in the movement you’re in, you are concerned for the whole person of the volunteers and activists you work with. You don’t do it like a capitalist system— you don’t go at your volunteers and extract what you want from them, and leave the rest of them as waste.

You think, “Who is this whole person?” They’re volunteering. What do they need? If they have a personal problem and say, “Well, I have to drop out of the campaign for a while,” you shouldn’t just say, “Well, who’s going to take up your petition at the mall?”

Loving the people you work with may not seem tough, although it often is. I don’t care if it’s the local parish council or partners in a law firm, I’ve never seen a workplace involving human beings where there wasn’t conflict. And a campaign in its own way is a self-organized workplace. There are some people you just don’t even like, but you have to choose to work with them in a way that reflects love.

What about people outside the organization?

Elizabeth May: If we are going to live the change we want to see in the world, then our own campaigns and our networks and our organizations should be built on the premise that we love the whole person we’re working with. That includes loving our enemy, which is the really tough part. But it also is effective campaigning.

If you are trying to change the opinions of a prime minister or a mayor that you really can’t stand, choosing to operate with love means you’re respectful of the person. You don’t let the campaign degenerate into name-calling. It makes you stick to the issues, and it leaves open the possibility that that person can come around to your side. It’s practical political advice to love your enemies. It works.

But also, as a practicing Christian, to love your enemies, it’s like heaping coals upon your enemy’s head. Our enemies hate it when we love them. We operate best in a way that suggests we expect the best of them. ‘Enemies’ is an odd term, but [by that I mean] policy-makers, industry giants. So we say, “Okay, I’m not going to allow myself to become like you.” It’s a much healthier place to be in on a personal level. It makes campaigns work better, and it gets you better results.

Have you found that being a mother changes the way you work as an activist?

Elizabeth May: No. [laughs] I mean, I should say it has. It’s made me, if anything, more driven about the amount of time that’s going by, and about how old my daughter is getting, and about how much closer we’re getting to planetary meltdown of some very significant systems and life support. So I panic more, I suppose.

For most of her life, she has been dragged around with me to meetings all over the place. She’s in grade 7 now, and it hit a year ago when she said, “You know mom, I really want to be at school more.” Not that she doesn’t get straight A’s, anyway. That’s one thing that I find gets me down the most, is being on the road and not being home. She’s given me a lot of good insights, but she hasn’t changed how I work.

I understand that you lost your mother recently.

Elizabeth May: Yes, my mom died in August. She died in her sleep, and she was only 76 and she hadn’t been unwell. I didn’t think that she’d die. She was very, very energetic. So her death has been hard for me. This book I’ve been working on, How to Save the World in Your Spare Time (an expansion of “How to Be an Activist”), the first chapter was largely about things I learned from my mother. I’m so glad I read it aloud to her before she died to check some facts — and she just loved it.

My father had a dream after she died that she sent him a letter from her new project of where she was working, and she’d enclosed colour photos so he could see what she was doing, and it was a package of materials of her in Iraq. So I think my father and my brother and I have a fairly clear sense that she’s probably in Iraq, doing what she can to help. That may sound crazy—I mean, certainly Iraq isn’t heaven. But she’s definitely on another plane. You know, I miss her. Yeah. She taught me a lot.

One of the things I wrote down from “How to Be an Activist” is that you refer to makeup as “war paint”!

Elizabeth May: Yes. I came to work today without any, and then I found out I had to do a Newsworld interview. I do makeup for two things: lobbying, meeting with politicians, and doing TV. Other than that, I can’t see the point. It was a friend of mine who first described it as war paint. When we think about it in the context of a custom, well, this is what I wear to be effective in certain places. It’s slightly related to living in Cape Breton. My brother and sister are active in the preservation of the Gaelic language. I learned from them that the word “slogan” is a Gaelic word meaning “war cry.”

So again, there are carry-overs into our campaigning work. We have our own slogans and our own war paint. War? Elizabeth May: Unlike many of my friends in the peace movement, I don’t mind using words that come from military history. I think we need tactics, we need strategies. We need to be able to arm ourselves —in non-violent ways, obviously. But this kind of language speaks to winning campaigns, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. In books like The Art of War [the ancient military text by Sun Tzu], there is a lot of good strategy, the history and tactics of military campaigns that apply to non-violent, democratic political organizing. I’m obviously not talking about armed insurrection.

Ursula Franklin, who is professor emeritus at the University of Toronto and probably the most brilliant person in Canada, said what we’re living in right now is as if we’re living with an occupying force. It’s as if we’re living in a state of occupation. It’s not foreign troops, it’s transnational corporations. [We learn from] historical experiences of great bravery—such as the Resistance against the Nazis. We operate as though we’re dealing in a policy context, or some kind of safe zone, but the reality is that our struggle is just as real.

It’s actually more dangerous —the stakes on climate change are much higher than the casualties in the Second World War.

Is there anything you find different being a female soldier than if you were a male soldier?

Elizabeth May: That’s an interesting question. Certainly, as a young woman it was very different. Less so now than 30 years ago, but it’s still there. It’s a double strike against you to be young and female. But other than those differences in terms of a societal sexism, the operating principles for women in the movement and men in the movement are about the same, I think. At our board meeting last week, one of our directors said, “Well, Sierra Club of Canada is a matriarchy,” and one of the other men said, “Yeah, thank God for that!”

We have a female president right now, Amelia Clarke, and she’s in her early 30s. We have more women than men on the board. There are not a lot of environmental groups with women executive directors. Though I never would have said we were a matriarchy, I would say that we are a committed feminist organization, and maybe that comes to the same thing.

 How does that translate into day-to-day things, being a committed feminist organization?

Elizabeth May: Well, in terms of policy, we’re the only environmental group that has commitments around reproductive rights, because of work around population issues.

We’ve done a lot of work as an organization supporting the agenda from Cairo and Beijing for the rights of women and girls—for improved health care for women, improved education, literacy and human rights. It is an essential ingredient to any sustainability agenda that looks at the population issue. In terms of day-to-day operations, we seek gender parity whenever we organize conferences, in terms of who are the speakers. We make sure there’s child care at meetings. We have a very flat salary structure—more like a cooperative, at the national office, than like a traditional hierarchical structure.

We’re not a well-funded organization. So we rely on a lot of things that come from a woman’s experience of juggling a lot of things all at once. Many of the organizations run by men look at what we do, say, in a patronizing way: “Oh, you have too many campaigns. Why don’t you just concentrate on one thing?” But I’m not about to drop anything we’re working on with communities like the Sydney community and the Sydney tar ponds.

What are the things that really keep you up at night these days?

Elizabeth May: For the last four years, we’ve been campaigning in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia to fight against opening up the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and inshore coastal areas that are very rich fisheries, to oil and gas development. We’ve been working in a very tight coalition with fishers’ organizations, First Nations’ organizations, tourism groups, lots of environmentalists. We’ve had 20,000 letters to the PMO.

In general, the issue I worry about the most is climate change, and that’s related to this issue. Why are we destroying our fisheries to open things up for oil and gas? It’s the source of the pollution that’s threatening to destabilize our whole climate. We’ve got more than 30 percent, by concentration, more CO2 than we’ve had at any time in the last many million years.

The effect of that is already being felt in droughts, and floods, and fires, and storms, and hurricanes—and that’s just 30 per cent more CO2, which is virtually irreversible. Every time we emit CO2, it is with us for 100 years. So we’re stoking the furnaces for the planet’s future climate now. Meeting Kyoto targets is just a very small first step, and even that’s difficult. So that’s the issue that scares me the most, a “runaway greenhouse effect” is what scientists call it, which is the worst-case scenario. It’s not what most people hear about.

We mostly talk about the risks of doubling the CO2 in the atmosphere, and causing sea level rise and increased temperature. That’s not the worst case scenario. The worst-case scenario is that CO2 emissions continue to rise, that it gets dryer, hotter, more forests burn, as they burn the emit more CO2, so it feeds back more warming gases into the system. The Western Arctic is warming faster than any other region in the world–and as the Arctic warms, permafrost melts. And melting permafrost releases methane gas, which is a very powerful greenhouse gas–unit for unit far more powerful than CO2.

There’s a point at which no matter what we do, even if we stop burning fossil fuels, we will trip the planet’s climate into a dramatic and potentially cataclysmic shift. At that point, nothing we do will make a difference. So that’s why it’s so desperately urgent in the beginning of the 21st century to shift away from fossil fuels as aggressively as possible. There are a million solutions out there, and they’re all cool. They all help clear the air, and reduce smog, and reduce asthma, and make cities more livable—they’re actually affordable and they create jobs. I

think human ingenuity and the survival instinct will eventually kick in, and even the dinosaurs will move. We need some very dramatic shifts in public expectations of what life is supposed to be like. We’ve got to get people questioning whether, you know, you love your family and you love your kids and you think, “I need a vehicle that reflects those values.”

That vehicle is not an SUV. Now they’ve got on-board entertainment systems, so you can plug the kids into the TV, and the armrest next to the kiddies has a molded space that’s perfect for the juice box, and I mean it’s just diabolical—the device that’s going to deliver death and destruction to your children’s world is a real comfy, nice little nest for them. You have to put that together and think, “If I think about fossil fuel emissions and what kind of future I want my kids to have, we’re going to squish in a hybrid, or they’ll take a bus. But we don’t need this status vehicle that’s a pollution machine.”

What are your hopes for [prime minister]Paul Martin?

Elizabeth May: I’ve always liked him as a person. Paul Martin did stand up and vote to ratify Kyoto. I’m encouraged by his plan for cities. I think a plan for greening and investing in the infrastructure of cities is a good thing. The threats and the weaknesses are the extent to which he’s tied into corporate Canada. I’m hoping that he is more able to say, “Sure, you helped me get here, but as a matter of policy I’m going to make good decisions for the whole country.”

We shall see.