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Friday, October 15, 2010

How I became an Environmentalist

Allow me to introduce myself: my name is Jake, I have been working for Living Oceans Society for about a month, and I am an environmentalist. This last point might not be such a surprise, considering the context in which you're reading it, but it isn't a word with which I have always been that comfortable. For many, environmentalism conjures up images of people who have long hair, live in trees, and listen to whale music. And while I admit that these may all have been accurate descriptions at various times in my life (especially during university), they are not the basis I use for applying the term to myself.
Let me back up a bit. To start with, my parents are lighthouse keepers, and I spent most of my childhood here:

Okay, so perhaps I was doomed to be an environmentalist from the start. But let me explain...

When I was nine, before I had ever heard the term environmentalism, a terrible event took place near my home. The Tenyo Maru, a Japanese fishing vessel collided with a Chinese freighter and sank to the bottom. As if that wasn't bad enough, the Maru was carrying several hundred thousand liters of fuel, which gushed to the surface as the ship went down. Seabirds began to show up on shore soon afterwards, their white feathers stained brown with the stuff. They couldn't fly, so over the next few weeks my family captured them, washed the oil off as best we could, and kept them in boxes in our kitchen. This was not the biggest oil spill on the coast before or since, but it could have been the Exxon Valdez for all I knew (which, as it turns out, was less than one-tenth the magnitude of the Deepwater Horizon disaster in April).
As disturbing as that experience was, it did not drive me to chain myself to bulldozers or paint slogans on the bows of oil tankers. Instead, when I was 14, I took a job as a deckhand on a salmon troller. This was an eye opening experience, and allowed me to travel the BC coast right up to the Alaska border. It was also interesting to hear what some of the other fishermen had to say about tankers, and how the Exxon spill had devastated their fishing grounds in Prince William Sound less than ten years before. Some of them were concerned about a similar disaster occurring in BC waters and devastating the ecosystem here.
Ah-ha! So if you show concern about the ecosystem and how human activities impact it, does that not make you an environmentalist on some level (even if you are a meat-eating, gun-toting fisherperson)? Just a bottom-trawling minute, you might interject, isn’t that just self interest? Here I will defer to Dr. David Suzuki, a man whose name is almost synonymous with environmentalism. When asked in an interview what the future holds for the planet, he responded:
"The planet’s going to survive fine, I am not worried about the planet, life will go on. The big question is what will happen to us... I worry about the quality of life for my grandchildren. It is already radically diminished from when I was a child.”
Well, that’s some pretty radical environmentalist rhetoric. Worried about his grandchildren – where does he get off! Oh, wait, are those not much the same concerns that local fishermen have about their own families and communities? Isn’t that why they stood alongside first nations and ‘environmentalists’, protesting the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and similar projects. To paraphrase Suzuki again; if the concept of ‘self’ extends beyond your own wellbeing and that of your immediate family, your ‘self-interest’ becomes something greater. And that’s the point where I feel comfortable calling myself an environmentalist.
Now that is all sorted out, I would like to say a few more word about oil spills. Specifically that, while devastating to the ecosystem and local economy alike, they are not necessarily the greatest threat to seabirds. In fact, a recent study  suggests that numerous smaller spills from marine shipping (also known as chronic oiling) also pose a grave a risk to wildlife. Since these smaller spills are happening all the time, they eventually add up to the same volume as larger spills like Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon. And if we learned anything from these spills, shouldn't it be that protecting the marine environment is in our own self-interest?
I’m going back to my tree now to listen to whale music.


  1. Perhaps learning some actual environmental science, ecology, etc. would be useful. It appears that modern environmental activists are all "feeling" and no knowledge.

  2. Many professional environmentalists are actually well educated in the sciences, and have ample experience working in the field. So has my experience been, anyhow. But I agree that there a lot of emotional issues out there that cloud good science on environmental topics. Just look at the climate change 'debate' (but that's a topic for another day)

  3. Hey brother person,

    I blogged about the Tenyo Maru over here not to long ago. Good times.

    I like your blog. You should post more.

  4. Thanks,

    Obviously, I missed that post. It's amazing how little information is available about the Maru on-line.