Environmentalist Graham Saul is the most recent Metcalf Innovation Fellow. The Metcalf Innovation Fellowship program provides critical thinkers with the opportunity to ask hard questions and propose solutions to systemic issues in the areas in which the Foundation works. Over the years, Metcalf Innovation Fellows have tackled a wide range of topics including precarious work, social finance in the arts, improving Toronto’s public parks, and the promise of shared charitable platforms.
Graham has spent the past twenty-five years focused on social and environmental justice issues and has worked both in Canada and abroad, including at Oxfam International’s office in Mozambique, the Washington D.C. based Bank Information Centre, Climate Action Network Canada, and Ecology Ottawa.
A few years ago, Graham, a passionate reader of history, found himself reflecting on the elements that made great social movements, such as the abolitionists, the U.S. civil rights movement, anti-colonial struggles, and the women’s movement, successful. Saul observed that each movement had simply expressed, definable goals – such as freedom, equality, justice – and that these words galvanized people. But when he thought about the environmental movement and whether it had a similarly focused goal, Graham realized that the answer was less definitive.
The Metcalf Innovation Fellowship provided Graham an opportunity to explore this question in greater detail. In writing Environmentalists, what are we fighting for?, Graham conducted extensive interviews with over 100 leading environmentalists and critical thinkers, and the results of the research surprised even Graham himself.
We reached Graham by phone in Ottawa, where he is Executive Director of Nature Canada.
Metcalf: What was the genesis of this paper?
Graham: I am not sure exactly when but it suddenly became clear to me that there were a number of lessons that could easily be drawn from past social movements and that one of them was that great social movements have had ways to clearly and concisely explain what they were fighting for, what the ultimate goal of their movement was, and that those words served all kinds of purposes. So I started randomly asking my friends if they thought what environmentalists are fighting for could be summed it up in one word, and if so what did they think it was. This process made me realize that as environmentalists we haven’t really explored that question. I wanted to spend some time asking people what they thought about that question. And then that naturally led to the question well what would it be? How do we begin the process of having a conversation about how we sum up our goal? And do we even have one?
Metcalf: What made you think that finding this word would change your work as an environmentalist?
Graham: If we look to history, we see that the process of capturing the imagination of an entire society, of bringing a great moral issue to the forefront, engaging decision makers and shaping legislation and opinions that ultimately transform an issue, are the same in successive social movements. That many of the tools, tactics, and strategies are used over and over again. So, in my work on climate change, I wondered how do we move people away from a place where they are talking about climate change as though it’s just an economic issue. Because we know that climate change has huge ethical implications about how we all relate to the natural world, and about responsibility to our children.
Currently the debate is still largely caught up in a very technical context. But for people working on climate change, people caring about the environment, our goal isn’t just to pass a piece of legislation here and there. Our goal is to fundamentally change the way people view this problem. And this challenge is really not so different than fundamentally changing the way people view race relations, or the way people view gender issues. It’s really a question of challenging precepts that people hold that allow us to continue to engage in destructive practices.
Metcalf: Your research resulted in you talking to 116 environmental leaders. What findings surprised you the most?
Graham: I was genuinely surprised by the fact that there wasn’t really a satisfactory answer to the question as to what environmentalists are fighting for. Only a tiny fraction of people I spoke with were satisfied with the answers they gave me. And only a small percentage of people thought that such a term existed. Yet, more than 90 percent of the people whom I interviewed said that words like “equality”, “freedom” and “independence” were either somewhat or very important when associated with other historical social movements. And there really was an ‘aha moment’ as I went through my questions.
Metcalf: What were some of the words that the interviewees said they were fighting for?
Graham: That was another thing that surprised me. There was no word that stood out, like say ‘equality’ did when I asked people to name what women in the 1960s were fighting for. And the most commonly used word by my respondents was not the word I heard in my ad hoc conversations up until then. The word was “survival”. People working on environmental issues day to day, who are coming to terms with the scale of the problem and the way in which humanity’s interaction with the natural world is in fact destroying many of the life support systems of the planet, among the people most involved in the environmental movement and most aware of environmental conditions, they most often chose “survival”.
We’re now at the point where we are literally having a conversation about survival. The fact that the species extinction rate is occurring at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate, that’s a manifestation of survival. If you begin to think about the logical consequences of runaway climate change, we begin to really ask existential questions about the future of humanity’s survival. Still, I wouldn’t have guessed that “survival” emerged and that people had so many mixed feelings about that word as their goal.
Metcalf: What kinds of mixed feelings?
Graham: There’s a concern within the environmental community that the actual problem is so big and the consequences of inaction are so grave, that to be honest with the general public about the fact that humanity is destroying the life support systems of the planet and that the very survival of species and large portions of humanity is at stake; that this is a disempowering message. There’s real concern that this message is so terrifying that, rather than rise up and take action, people might just think that ‘this is too big, this is too unwieldy’ and curl up in a ball.
But there’s another school of thought, which says the only way we’re ever going to make the progress we need to make with the time we have, is to be honest about the scale of the problem. That one of the reasons we’re not making the kind of progress we should be making despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, is because people really haven’t gotten their head around the fact that we’ve entered a new period in our relationship to the planet. And that the implications of inaction are potentially terrifying.
So environmentalists have mixed feelings. It’s not so much that people think that the goal of “survival” is untrue. It’s that some people don’t think that the word is a useful vehicle for engaging the general public.
Metcalf: What else surprised you?
Graham: One of the things that cut across all social movements and historical periods are profound ethical and moral questions. They are united by a search for justice. If you examine the history of the abolitionist, anticolonial, or women’s movements, many people in society at the time of the struggle, did not think about those movements in the profoundly ethical and moral ways; ways that we see them now. Many people do not think of the environmental movement in ethical or moral terms but that’s largely because of the moment we’re in in history and we have to keep that in mind.
Metcalf: What do you think the ethical and moral issues are in the environmental movement that people aren’t seeing?
Graham: I will give you an example from the abolitionist movement. It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when a Member of Parliament in Britain could stand up in the House of Commons and without bringing himself into any disrepute argue that if Britain were to abolish slavery, the French would just pick up the business. And that was not an outrageous thing to say. That was just where the debate was. There were people talking about the evils of slavery. There were freed slaves sharing their experience. There were the Quakers and certain advanced thinkers within the elite that were all raising the question of the moral implications of slavery but the actual discourse was still very much grounded in essentially an administrative technical economic calculus about whether or not Britain really could afford to do something about slavery. Most people don’t realize that that kind of insane fog exists around every major social movement during its early stages. If it did not, society couldn’t justify those actions, which we later see as unethical and immoral.
Within the context of the environmental movement, I think there are intergenerational, interspecies, and global environmental justice questions, which are deeply ethical. Most of the emissions causing climate change are being generated by a relatively wealthy, relatively small, portion of humanity. And yet, it is in fact the poorest and least responsible portions of humanity that are going to suffer first and worst. So what is our ethical responsibility to ensure or to address the fact that those least responsible for the problem are going to be the first to have their livelihoods destroyed and/or lose their lives? They are the least able to actually deal with the implications of severe weather? I think that’s an ethical question in the same way that poverty in any society is an ethical question.
Secondly, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves whether we have a responsibility to take care of our children and grandchildren? Isn’t our relationship to our children and our ability to avoid harm to them actually a deeply ethical question? If we know, for instance, that we’re on a trajectory that is going to cause serious problems that they’re going to have to deal with one way or another, I would argue we have an ethical and moral responsibility to consider this. Climate change is an intergenerational question. So our failure to do something is basically saying ‘we’ll let our children deal with it’. I don’t think that’s an ethically or morally neutral proposition.
And, finally, what are the ethics of one species choosing to drive hundreds of thousands of other species to extinction? We know that there is more we can do to stop it but we’re choosing not to. I believe that, once we’re out of the fog, this age will be looked back on as having a grave moral blind spot. There is a fundamental injustice associated with humanity choosing a course that we reasonably know is going to drive hundreds of thousands of species to extinction.
Metcalf: Given the bleak picture you paint, I have to ask you – how do you sleep at night?
Graham: Well, I believe that I have been born during one of the most exciting moments in human history. I believe that although humanity may be causing problems at unprecedented levels, and that though we may be facing an unprecedented crisis, we are also facing an unprecedented opportunity to redefine our relationship to the natural world, to redefine our relationship to the planet, and the ultimate implications will be as profound for the moral and ethical and spiritual development of humanity as any major changes in history. That it is the logical extension of hundreds of years of having conversations about how we get along with each other in a way that respects each other’s rights. And now we’re beginning to look outward and realizing that we also have to have that conversation about how we respect the rights of the rest of life on Earth. And to me, that’s an amazing moment to be in.
I have no illusions that this issue will be resolved by the time I die but I can’t imagine a more important and more exciting moment in human history to be in. And I’m very happy about the opportunity to be among hundreds of millions of people around the world that are grappling with this problem and trying to address it.
I believe that solutions exist. I believe we’ve demonstrated our ability to apply them. I do believe that humanity is ultimately the problem but I’m not a misanthrope. I don’t dislike humans because we’re engaging in self-destructive activity. I think there’s a lot of love and a lot of creativity and a lot of intelligence out there and it’s a really amazing moment in human history.
Metcalf: Based your research and your conclusions what are the next steps for Canadian environmental organizations?
Graham: Environmental groups and individuals around the world are tending to fight on a tiny piece of the problem. We need to be talking about a solution that is about humanity redefining its relationship to the natural world. The next step is to really challenge ourselves to find a way to have that conversation in a way that will resonate with as many people as possible and I would like to see whether there’s other people out there who want to have that conversation with me.
Metcalf: If you could recommend one thing that everyone reading this interview could do to tackle the environmental crisis, what would it be?
Graham: There are three things I would suggest. The first would be to look around your community and think about how the natural world has been undermined. Whether it is the concrete in the parking lot surrounding you or the monoculture that the prairie has been turned into. Then think about what specific actions you can take to begin to restore some portion of the natural world in your immediate environment. The reason I choose that recommendation is because it’s something that everyone can do. And you can enjoy watching the restoration take place right in front of you.
Secondly, in our own personal lives, we must endeavor to make decisions that reduce our consumption and burning of oil and gas.
And finally and perhaps most importantly, demand that your politicians start taking the problem of climate change seriously. That they stop playing politics with the wellbeing of your children and grandchildren and the lives of many people around the world. This is probably the single most important thing that we can all do.