Q&A

Environmental movement needs hope to survive, activist says

The greatest challenge facing the environmental movement today isn't global warming, deforestation or the pollution of the Earth's oceans, but an absence of hope in the messaging meant to motivate people to care, a local activist says.

'What are you fighting for?' Nature Canada director Graham Saul asked 116 environmentalists

The environmental movement needs to adopt a more hopeful outlook if it's going to effect change, Nature Canada executive director Graham Saul believes. (Credit: Getty Images)

The greatest challenge facing the environmental movement today isn't global warming, deforestation or the pollution of the Earth's oceans, but an absence of hope in the messaging meant to motivate people to care, a local activist says.

Curious about what he perceived as a waning interest in the cause, Graham Saul, who founded Ecology Ottawa and is now executive director of Nature Canada, interviewed 116 environmentalists to ask them what they're fighting for. 

He spoke to Alan Neal, host of CBC Radio's All In A Day, about what he discovered.

A new research paper says the environmental movement needs to be more hopeful if it has any chance of getting through to people. We hear from the head of Nature Canada on lessons to learned from past social movements. 8:37

'What are environmentalists fighting for?'

Q: Why can hope be forgotten by environmentalists? 

A: Environmentalists don't do hope very well. If we are honest with ourselves, we peddle mainly in fear. There are good reasons to be deeply worried about the state of the world, but at the same time, we also need to find ways to provide a message that is hopeful and moves and motivates people, and inspires people to take action.

Q: Is there a worry at all that once words of hope are spread on the issue, the sense of urgency will fade and people will become more relaxed and feel as if everything will work out?

Graham Saul interviewed 116 environmentalists to ask them, 'What are you fighting for?'

A: I have always been fascinated by history's great social movements; by the epic struggles that redefine how we relate to one another: the civil rights movement; the abolitionist movement; the anti-colonial movement after the Second World War.... I realized that those movements used powerful words to sum up their ultimate goal … words like equality, independence, freedom, liberty. Those movements were responding to situations that were very bleak and were very horrible … but they summed up those goals in hopeful terms and in ways that would inspire people. I began to ask myself, what are environmentalists fighting for? What are the words that we use that bring together the diverse dimensions of our work and put forward a positive, hopeful goal?

Q: The 116 environmentalists you interviewed, did they have a hopeful goal? Did they use words like hope and unity?

A: No, unfortunately, they didn't. In fact, the answers I got were all over the place.... The Number 1 word that was used, by one in five of the 116 environmentalists that I interviewed, was "survival." Many people agreed that that might be an accurate way of depicting the scale of the problem, but it wasn't going to provide that kind of hopeful vision that words like equality, freedom and independence ​provided.

'A truth that can't be denied'

Q: Why do we need a hopeful vision? Shouldn't we just be scared enough about the threat to "survival" that was mentioned? 

Some people say that Martin Luther King didn't say, 'I have a nightmare.' He said, 'I have a dream.'- Graham Saul, Nature Canada

A: I would like to think so, [but] some people say that Martin Luther King didn't say, "I have a nightmare." He said, "I have a dream." But in fact, he said both. He spent a lot of time talking about the evils and horrors of segregation, but then also positing a hopeful vision. These kinds of words … they provide something that you are for or against … and most importantly I think they help ground our work in values. They provide … an appeal to human goodness, and in that sense they end up providing a truth that can't be denied.

Q: Where does the hope need to start from?

A: When you add it all up, humanity is essentially destroying the life support systems of the planet right now.... If you've got a common problem of that magnitude, you also have a common solution. We need to come together and be a life-affirming force in the world.… That's actually a pretty hopeful message when you think about the opportunity to be part of a generation that actually begins to move things in the other direction, and actually begins to restore and heal rather than undermine and destroy.

The interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

CBC Radio's All In A Day