Last week I attended a lecture at OISE in Toronto hosted by The Inner Garden in which activist Joanna Macy spoke to a packed audience of more than 500 people on topics related to her new book Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy. Her remarks centered on the stages of what she calls The Great Turning (i.e., a huge paradigm shift she believes is underway in which the current “business as usual” exploitive industrial society and its consumer culture will eventually be replaced by another society characterized by greater spiritual, non-materialistic values, along with sustainability and social justice/equity).
The talk was very interesting for me as I have recently myself crossed a line into some new territory taking direct action about some issues about which I care, becoming, as it were, an activist of sorts.
The specific subject of my activism is cruelty to animals, mainly food animals, and especially pigs raised on factory farms. Throughout the month of June I’ve participated in several “vigils” held by a group called Toronto Pig Save, which is focused at the moment on protesting conditions for animals inside (and being transported to) a slaughterhouse close to where I live that operates as Quality Meat Packers.
This involvement coincides with breakthroughs I’ve experienced that are analogous to Macy’s observations about the interconnectedness of everything. I’ve recently realized that you can’t fix the economy, for example, without fixing the healthcare system, which takes such a toll. And you can’t fix the healthcare system without moving from trying to cure illness after the fact (mostly with drugs) to a culture of prevention, which means getting people to eat healthy food. And you can’t get people to eat healthy food without taking on the industrial/chemical food industry (which also relies heavily on petrochemicals). And one quickly realizes that fixing the food system means protecting the environment, and animal welfare, and taking on some pretty big entrenched business interests, that influence government.
On and on the issues (and connections) cascade and collide. One eventually realizes that the solutions to global problems include social justice and equity, in our country and also overseas in the countries we exploit for raw materials and cheap labor (like slave owners whose serfs are on the other side of the world).
Ultimately, we can’t heal ourselves or the planet without taking on the totality of the world’s problems, because they’re all interconnected. But that gets daunting, so then one inevitably is drawn to influencing something a bit smaller and local.
Whenever I feel discouraged I think about two old acquaintances who are no longer with us, who were leading lights in the founding of the modern environmental movement, and who continue to inspire me. They are Gary Gallon and Bob Hunter.
Gary Gallon was a founder of the Society Promoting Environmental Conservation (SPEC) in British Columbia and a former political aide to the current Ontario Environment Minister Jim Bradley in his first term as environment minister in the 1980s. Gallon died from cancer in 2003 (when he was only in his late 50s).
Gary Gallon lived an amazing life by any standard. He grew up in Bakersfield, California. As a draft dodger protesting the war in Vietnam, Gallom settled in Vancouver in the 1970s where he had a short career promoting stocks on the Vancouver Stock Exchange and also (amusingly) hustling as a pool shark. He eventually became involved in local environmental issues, co-founded SPEC and eventually was named Environmentalist of the Year. He was also around and involved in the founding of GreenPeace, and used to tell me fascinating stories about those days.
One of my favorite stories was the one about how US submarine officers surreptitiously helped the crew of the original Rainbow Warrior locate Russian whaling ships (which would otherwise have been impossible in the immense North Pacific ocean). When the ship returned to Vancouver harbor, film footage was smuggled past the police by females who placed them in a place that was, um, unlikely to be searched.
Gallon had another hilarious story about the untidy first GreenPeace office that began receiving enormous volumes of donations. The mail would casually pile up in the middle of the office floor, with no organized system whatsoever. Gallon said when the group needed money, someone would simply walk over to the pile, grab a few envelopes and cash in the cheques.
Gallon eventually moved to Ontario, and served in Bradley’s ministry as part of a famous trio: Gary Gallon, David Oved and Mark Rudolph, who took a somewhat gonzo but bold approach to policymaking, shaking up the bureaucracy and overseeing such things as the establishment of North America’s first blue box recycling program and new rules to prevent chemical plants dumping their chemical waste directly into the Niagara River.
I met Gallon in the early 1990s shortly after my partners and I launched the magazine (in 1989) that became today’s HazMat Management, and (a few years later) sister publication Solid Waste & Recycling, both of which I edit to this day. Gallon had been hired as Executive Director of a start-up trade association known at the time as the Ontario Chapter of the Canadian Environmental Industry Association (now known by the acronym ONEIA). Our magazine wanted to promote and support this new association, whose mandate included the commercialization of home-grown environmental protection technologies. In addition to covering the association’s events in the magazine, we rented out a small office to Gallon for him to use as his headquarters.
We worked crazy hours in those days and I got to know Gallon hanging out after hours and going for drinks. I eventually met his wife Janine and their lovely children. Gallon was a tall man with curly hair and very broad shoulders. He fitness was in part due to his being a competitive swimmer; he was for a time the Canadian swim champion in his age group. Perhaps this gave him a false sense of security, as he neglected to go for a colonoscopy. Symptoms one day led to a diagnosis of colon cancer, for which he had an operation.
“I cheated death,” Gallon told me after the operation, in which the surgeon believed he had got all the cancer.
Sadly, the surgeon had not, and the cancer returned, eventually spreading through Gallon’s body. With his second diagnosis I recall Gallon saying the doctors had given him only one year to live; he survived four years due to his physical conditioning and determination. He remained vibrant right up to the end; I remember seeing a charming photo of Gallon in his hospital bed during his final days sharing a bottle of wine with his old friends Oved and Rudolph who had gone to Montreal to be with him.
Ever since Gallon’s passing away I’ve been haunted by the question, Who will take his place? To whom will the burden fall to carry the torch (of environmental protection)?
The other person who caused me to have such thoughts was Bob Hunter, who died of prostate-related cancer in 2005, just two years after Gary Gallon with whom he;d been friends since their GreenPeace-founding days in the 1970s.
I met Hunter late in his career when he was back in journalism writing an environmental column for Eye Weekly in Toronto. He also hosted a show from his kitchen on City TV in which he sat in his bathrobe browsing the morning newspaper and commenting on various stories. He would also show up at some of David Oved’s wine tasting parties with Bradley and Gallon.
Hunter and I had a “teasing” kind of acquaintanceship. I was (and remain) a skeptic of the received wisdom about man-made global warming, a position for which Hunter called me an “environmental criminal.” (That line made me burst out laughing, as I imagine Hunter expected.)
Hunter was one of the funniest men I ever met, a true wit, and what I call a “coloring outside the lines” kind of person, subversive, with a “schools out” kind of aura vaguely reminiscent of Jack Nicholson. On the occasions I met him I was mostly the one doing the listening as Hunter recalled various stories from his days in BC founding GreenPeace. One time I met him to provide background on a story he was writing. I suggested a nice hotel bar and he insisted on meeting at The Rex, “Because it’s sleazier,” he said.
It was only much later that I developed a true appreciation of Hunter’s bravery. Last year I watched a documentary that included footage of Hunter fighting the Newfoundland seal hunt. He repeatedly risked life and limb getting in the way of the seal hunters and interfering with their operation, much as fellow GreenPeace founder and current Sea Shepherd Society leader Paul Watson does to this day.
In one scene Hunter stood on the ice as an enormous ice breaking ship came right at him, its bow towering above him like a 20 story building. Those ships don’t exactly stop on a dime and Hunter had no way of knowing for sure that the ship would stop, or even try. Ultimately Hunter prevailed (in that standoff). In other scenes both he and other activists are pushed around by sealers, at one point into the ice-cold water, which can cause death.
I knew Hunter had guts, but honestly, this footage revealed a man of great courage. A man who made a huge difference in the world from his bold action.
So again, I find myself musing about who will take the place of men like Gallon and Hunter? Anyone with the courage and imagination, I suppose.
I feel immensely privileged to make my living writing about environmental protection topics. In terms of those subjects, while there’s much yet to be done, much of the “low-hanging fruit” has been picked in the realm of pollution abatement since the 1970s when pipes and smokestacks spewed untreated chemical wastes directly into the water and air.
Yet, I hear the siren call in another related area where things have gone in the other direction: factory farming, or what I prefer to call the industrial food system (because little about it looks anything like a “farm”).
Books like Michael Pollan’s excellent The Omnivore’s Dilemma and documentaries like Food Inc. have educated me about the problems in how our food is produced, including the extraordinary cruelty inflicted on animals. I most recently watched the documentary Earthlings (available for free viewing online at http://earthlings.com/?page_id=32) that I recommend to anyone with a strong stomach interested in seeing just what we humans do to animals around the planet.
I’ve taken to writing about food and health recently. But when faced with things like gestation crates for pigs, who live their short sad lives in darkness and pain, sometimes writing isn’t enough. Thinking of Gallon and Hunter, I’ve longed for a more visceral experience.
One day about two months ago I was walking my dog and happened to see a large truck filled with pigs turn into a lane-way across the street from (ironically) a popular dog park. I followed the truck down the lane to a building into which the truck unloaded the pigs. The low-profile rather rundown building complex had no apparent street frontage, positioned as it was behind a municipal yard and other facilities, and Old Fort York to the south. You would simply never know it was there, but for the steady stream of trucks entering that lane.
I later learned that a group of people had started picketing this slaughterhouse, which operates as Quality Meat Packers, complaining about, among other things, the fact that the pigs are transported on extremely hot and extremely cold days on the highway in trucks with no climate controls. Pigs are intelligent animals, as smart as any pet dog, and (if allowed to) generally as long-lived. They have no sweat glands and can only cool themselves via their snout (which is why they often wallow in mud).
I took an interest in this situation and coincidentally met Anita Krajnc, leader of Save Pig Toronto (the group that holds “vigils” near the plant) at an evening photography course. I joined their Facebook group and started attending vigils. This past weekend I attended one on Spadina Avenue dressed as the grim reaper, replete with scythe, hooded black robe, and a pigs head latex mask which I wore to get more attention from passersby. (It worked!)
I don’t know what difference my participation will make, but if ever I lose my nerve I’ll think of Gary Gallon, or of Bob Hunter standing up to that ice breaker.
END NOTE: If you don’t think you can handle the horrific Earthlings, I recommend Peaceable Kingdom (which you can view here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXIzMC46sds). This documentary contains a few disturbing segments on animals suffering but focuses mostly on the positive work a couple has done creating a sanctuary for abused farm animals. I strongly recommend you watch it and share with your friends and family.