by Tejas Ewing
The creation and spread of ecological ideas may be one of the most important ways that we can work to stem the destruction of our environment. If we change the deep-seated opinions in people, then the desire to make positive change should come from within us. If that occurs, change will be easy, because it will not be forced. I experienced the joys and failures of pursuing this goal.
Last summer I worked as the co-director of a group called Youth Encouraging Sustainability (YES), consisting of myself and three other young people with environmental backgrounds. That acronym encompassed exactly what our mandate was. We were formed as part of the Eco-Care Conservancy of Powell River, with a grant from the former NDP government.
Our goal was to increase the awareness of environmental issues in the Powell River region. In the heart of the sunshine coast, this beautiful area is still stuck in a resource extraction mind set, and is losing its most precious ecosystems as a result. People simply do not realise what they have, and how fast it is being lost, and we wanted to change that. In our attempts, we learned many new things about people and their capacity for change.
Awareness building is difficult, much harder than we ever imagined. When you are young, and have spent almost all your life caring about the environment, it is very difficult to see the world from a completely alternate paradigm. However, that paradigm is deep set in the parts of Canada that most need protection.
Many Canadians see the 'environment' as nothing but a resource for extraction, one that provides them with economic well-being.
In these tough economic times, they have difficulty motivating themselves to change. Our group was hit hard by this problem, time and time again.
We created pamphlets, display boards, awareness events and TV spots. Our goal was to create a ground swell of support that would put pressure on our local MLA to give the people more influence on the resource decisions made in the area. Many people looked at our information and came to our events, yet support never mobilized. People were interested yet unmotivated. Our work simply did not strike a chord with enough adults, and we were at a loss to connect with them.
I experienced this most strikingly in my attempt to gain support for the implementation of a Land and Resource Management Plan for the area. This government tool allows the public to participate to a greater extent in decisions regarding the environment and resource use in their area. The Powell-River Sunshine Coast region is one of the last places in BC not to have this process in place. Over the summer I tried with great difficulty to get support for this idea from various government officials, our local MLA and the Ministers of Sustainable Resource Development, Water, Land and Air Protection, and Forestry. From all of these people I got the same general response: vague interest and general promises but a lack of motivation. Government officials had a different paradigm with which they approached the environment. As a result other interests came first, and my efforts did not seem to change their views.
Other members of both YES and Eco-Care were constantly struggling with this problem. At Eco-care meetings it became evident that every manifestation of an environmental group in Powell River had a hard time creating support. At every successive meeting, Eco-Care and YES tried to come up with new ideas. It seemed to me that we could meet until we were blue in the face, and still face struggles all the way. I was getting pessimistic. Was there really any hope of changing people's minds?
Well, the answer is yes, and I learned this from the participation of Canada World Youth in our project. This organisation had arranged for young people from Canada to go on an exchange to India. In return, an equal number of Indian youths were coming to Powell River (along with their Canadian partners), looking for educational activities to take part in. YES jumped at the chance to have some of these young people help us out. At the time we were building a native plant garden in a run-down part of Powell River, and their help sounded wonderful.
Soon enough, two teenagers arrived at our office, Allana from Winnipeg and Arjun from Kerala, India. Both of them had no previous environmental awareness. I was especially worried about our Indian volunteer. He came from a middle-class family in India, where the realities of starvation, disease and overpopulation occupy the attention of the public. His parents worked in the government, where environmental concerns are low on the agenda, and he lived with them in the city, far from the remaining protected areas in India. He arrived wearing business attire, complete with leather wing-tip shoes. He cut a very different figure from the members of YES. I wondered whether he would enjoy his time with us and how we would overcome these differences and get our message across. When we did our initial presentation, lecturing the youth about our perspectives and our plans, Arjun seemed unconvinced, and not particularly enthusiastic.
However, he had one key feature, which I came to realise was incredibly important: open-mindedness. He came from a different culture and also followed a different paradigm of existence, but he was not set in his ways. In India the environment is also seen as a resource to be extracted for economic benefit. However, the stakes are much higher there. The resources of India are seen as a way to pull the country out of its third world status, and perhaps reduce the abject poverty of many of its citizens. As a result the environment does not have a great deal of importance outside of economic terms. Arjun was part of this mind set, but as I began talking with him, I realised that he did not necessarily believe that this was the only way of seeing things. This is a feature that I believe many young people have. They are willing to see things differently, and to embrace those differences in the form of change.
At YES, we took it upon ourselves to show Arjun that the environment was deserving of protection, rather than simply tell him this. Instead of lecturing him and treating him as a subordinate, we treated him as an equal member of the group and tried to teach him through his experiences with us rather than through didactic methods. In experiencing this, he immediately opened up to us and showed a great deal of enthusiasm for our projects.
For example, at one point instead of making the volunteers' work at posting flyers, we took them on a field trip to see the environment they were working for. We took them out on the sail boat and stopped at various islands along the sunshine coast. They saw seals and the endangered marbled murrelet, as well as the beauty of the many small islands in the ocean. The enthusiasm that Allana and Arjun showed for this event taught me that even one day of active participation in our environment is worth more than ten days of talking about its importance. Seeing the excitement that Arjun felt when seeing the new species and habitats of the BC coast, showed me how easy creating environmental awareness could actually be.
On return from this field trip, Arjun approached his volunteering with renewed vigour and excitement. He was full of questions, and seemed more intent on observing our day-to-day operations and how we carried ourselves. After a few weeks I asked him why he wanted to know so much about the running of YES. He told me that in school he had never experienced anything like what we had shown him, and he was eager to bring his experience back home. He wanted to try to set up a branch of YES back at his high school. I was amazed. Finally our work had paid off. Somehow, our ideas had crossed a major cultural divide and taken hold in Arjun. YES had achieved success, at least with one person, the one I least expected it from.
After the initial excitement, I began to wonder why. I think that a lot of the success had to do with his age. He was young and willing to listen to new ideas. Also we treated our volunteers as equals, and allowed them to learn from experience rather than lecturing. We taught by giving them responsibility, and showing them what they were responsible for. It was impossible to overcome Arjun's mind set differences with words alone. But, with actions and experience it became easy. He needed the hands-on experience to drive the message home.
If I were to do the project all over again, I would go straight to the source of our success — the youth of Powell River. I believe YES's experience shows that with the proper methods, it would be possible to create a new generation of support among young people in Canada In my opinion, if we treat youths as equals, give them responsibility, and show, rather than tell them, what they are working to protect, it is possible to overcome paradigm differences and change their mind set. I'm sure many YES members, myself included, will be working towards this goal.
[From WS December 2002/ January 2003]