Crossing the Line

It is extremely difficult to ignore the ecological scars that have been left on our planet by illegal hunting, the exploitation and depletion of our natural resources, and the senseless destruction of nature that occurs in the name of Big Business. But how willing are you to try to stop this destruction? Are you willing to go to jail? Are you willing to risk your life?

An image from Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson.

The documentary Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson has added to the discussion on this theme: at what point does eco-activism cease to be useful and become counterproductive? Image: Kevin Eastwood © Screen Siren Pictures

This issue of ecological activism was discussed at the museum’s fourth Café scientifique of the season, held on February 24, 2012. During the event, participants discussed “When does ecological activism cross the line from helpful to counter-productive?”

The two guest speakers who initiated the discussion were Kevin Donaghy, Community Organizer for Occupy Ottawa, and Aaron Doyle, Associate Professor at Carleton University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology.

Eight women and men standing in a row.

Volunteers from the Sierra Youth Coalition attended the Café to provide their opinions regarding ecological activism. Kevin Donaghy (second from left) also spoke about his personal involvement in various activist movements, including Occupy Ottawa. Image: Katherine Day © Canadian Museum of Nature

In addition to the speakers, six volunteers from the Sierra Youth Coalition were invited to join the discussion. Many participants truly appreciated their involvement and input because they helped to bridge the multi-generational gap on many activist issues, and to dispel the common myth that many youth of today are “selfish and apathetic”.

To commence the evening, participants watched Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson, a documentary about a “man on a mission to save the planet and its oceans”. Detailing his beginnings with Greenpeace, the founding the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and his more recent grappling with the Japanese whaling fleet in Antarctica, this film recounts the life of this controversial, yet true, environmental hero.

Prior to the film, Kevin spoke briefly about his role as an ecological and political activist throughout various campaigns across the National Capital Region. “Activism is what you’re living, what you’re preaching to people,” says Kevin, who has indeed completely dedicated himself to his causes, no matter their consequences. Kevin’s stance on activism shares some elements with those of Paul Watson; however, not everyone can dedicate themselves and sacrifice everything to a cause. Nevertheless, you can educate yourself on the topic and be aware of the issues at hand.

Kevin even quoted American political activist Ralph Nader in saying, “if you’re not turned on to politics, politics will turn on you!” While hot-button issues such as illegal whaling certainly pull at the public’s heart strings, most people are intimidated by the complexity of becoming involved in such an ecological and political battle.

An image from Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson.

Paul Watson poses in front of one of his ships, the Steve Irwin. Image: Kevin Eastwood © Screen Siren Pictures

However, the good news for us “moderates” is that all shades of environmentalism are welcome in order to create strength and solidarity within any campaign. And indeed, the actions performed by radical activists do help to balance these extreme positions so that moderate approaches seem more reasonable. Whether signing an online petition, writing a letter to a government official, or even protesting at a peaceful march, all actions help to increase public awareness.

It’s true that the radicals will always take this to the next level and risk arrest or even their lives for the cause—and arguably, these individuals are essential to actually get something accomplished. However, as one participant stated, “not everyone can be a radical or the movement would fail.” Kevin whole-heartedly agreed and said that “the most ineffective thing you can do is nothing.”

Another valid point Aaron discussed was that of the “environmental hero” and his role within the campaign. Individuals, such as Paul Watson, act outside the law and uphold their own definition of the “true law”. These vigilantes are comparable to pop culture icons like the Dark Knight (Batman), Robin Hood and the Lone Ranger. Aaron further describes them as often violent and oozing masculinity.

However, it cannot be ignored that these individuals are often performing illegal acts and cause enormous amounts of property damage. But as one participant stated, “Good people disobey bad laws,” and without these “heroes”, nothing would be accomplished. And indeed, Watson has successfully prevented Japanese whalers from hunting 50% of their quota.

Professor Aaron Doyle standing in front of an audience in the Salon of the Canadian Museum of Nature.

Professor Aaron Doyle delivers his talk about ecological activism from the sociological standpoint. Image: Dana Lahey © Sierra Youth Coalition

Aaron also added that people should not only consider when ecological activism crosses the line from helpful to counter-productive, but also, when is it right? This morally ambiguous question definitely caused much debate.

Whatever your opinion may be, most participants agreed that without individuals like Paul Watson, amongst others, the public wouldn’t know these issues exist. So, whether you see him as pirate or protector, he attracts the attention necessary to make the public pay attention.

Therefore, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum regarding ecological activism, both the speakers and the participants were all in consensus that staying informed is our greatest resource regarding these environmental issues.

And if there is more public awareness, there can be more change.

Continuing the Discussion

We would like to invite everyone to continue the discussion of ecological activism below in the comments section. Please feel free to respond to any of the follow-up questions raised during the Café scientifique. We also encourage you to post other useful or informative links/resources you may find relevant.

Follow-Up Questions

  • How has “Cetacean Fetishism” contributed to the high level of active outreach and media coverage on whales and dolphins? What is it about these species that make people care? Would we still care if a less-attractive or less-intelligent species was being hunted en masse?
  • Has social media led to “slacktivism” by making us feel that we’re doing something meaningful without engaging in much sacrifice (i.e., signing online petitions, or contributing to email-writing campaigns)? What strategies or actions are effective? How far should we go?
  • Is it always necessary that an activist campaign be headed by a charismatic leader in order to be successful? (E.g., Paul Watson).
  • Does radical activism turn the majority of the general public away from pursuing any form of activism because of the dangers or negative stereotypes associated with these actions?
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2 Responses to Crossing the Line

  1. Painter Lady says:

    I so wish that I could participate in such lectures and events…I’m grateful for your blog. It keeps me in touch with ‘good stuff’.

  2. Sarah McPherson says:

    Painter Lady – Thank you so much for the lovely comment! It’s always nice to know these posts are being followed. One of the main reasons we decided to have a recap of each Café Scientifique this season was to give some insight on the evening for those that weren’t able to come in person. Our next Café is March 30th so stay tuned for the next posting about 2 weeks after.

    Thanks again!

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