Environmentalists protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline to Texas in front of the White House

The Surrender of an Ecowarrior


When does heroism become folly? When does struggle become futile? When does surrender become liberation? When is enough, enough? Then what? These are just some of the questions that come streaming into focus from a poignant personal essay by Lynn Lau, a 37 year-old environmentalist who, after 21 years of conscientious effort, has finally decided to abandon her quest to “Save the Planet”. Her story is worth relating and pondering.

Lau’s essay recounts when, as a girl of 16, she stopped eating meat as her “personal contribution to reducing global carbon emissions” (Globe and Mail, “An Ecowarrior Retires”,

Nov. 6/12). Then her quest for a better environment escalated to writing letters, waving banners at protests, running for political office and donating money. She tried raising chickens, growing her own vegetables, cultivating worms in her compost, and adhering strictly to the principles of the 100-mile diet. She sampled communal living to reduce her ecological footprint.

When she married and had a baby, she used flannel diapers so they could be washed and recycled. And she even attempted to become a teacher, assuming her influence on schoolchildren would eventually elevate society’s environmental consciousness. Her conscientious efforts covered nearly half of the 50 years since Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring first sounded global ecological alarms.

And the result? Lau’s answer is a blunt assessment of the impact of her own efforts, together with the collective work of the army of environmental warriors who have been her companions on this quest to “Save the Planet”. Her conclusion is “abject failure”. Ecological deterioration continues largely unabated. The trajectory “over the cliff of our planet’s carrying capacity” has accelerated during the five decades of defining, measuring, documenting, predicting and talking, talking, talking.

Lau concedes that all this effort has “raised awareness” but admits to the “embarrassing” revelation that “solving the world’s environmental problem is going to involve something much more powerful than a magnanimous sentiment toward Mother Nature, no matter how widely felt.” In her opinion, “reverent feelings” and “useful tidbits about flora and fauna” are not going to meet the challenge.

Besides, she admits, “to be an environmentalist you need to be a misanthrope at heart”. You need to be “individualistic” and “distrustful of authority”, qualities that do not win the support of the general public. She hints that environmentalists have an impractical idealism that matches neither the profound complexity of the problem to be solved nor the fundamental change in attitude that an entire modern culture must undergo.

The other reason environmentalists are not going to be successful, she concludes, is that, “We live in a society that solves massive problems through the co-ordinated efforts of specialists.” Their expertise with satellites measures the general health of the biosphere while their detailed scientific study evaluates its specific health. Their vast digital networks are our communication systems. Politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, economists and others of many disciplines design, implement and operate the civic machinery that is the essential structure of societies. The business of humanity functions because of specialists. If “raised awareness” is not a part of this process, as she suggests, does this then mean that all the effort of environmentalists has been a waste of time and energy?

In the larger scheme of things, vision always precedes knowledge, just as information always precedes action. The “raised awareness” provided by all the effort of environmentalists is preparation for the work of the specialists. The “abject failure” described by Lau is merely the usual delay that occurs between understanding and behaviour.

This delay presents two questions. The first concerns the height to which “raised awareness” must rise before reaching a critical mass that is powerful enough to translate into action by the specialists. The second concerns people. Specialists are activated by political processes, when the collective will of the community directs the specialists to mobilize and correct an identified problem. We have not yet reached this critical mass of collective will. Confusion and ambivalence have not yet been replaced by conviction and resolution. We are still in at intermediate stage where environmentalists continue to raise awareness but their concerns have not yet translated into significant corrective action.

It’s helpful here to think of history rather than individuals. Lau’s sense of time moves faster than the slow march of civilizations. Her sense of frustration and futility is explainable and justified from her personal perspective. But the large change that she wants will require a paradigm shift, a wholesale adjustment in the way we collectively see ourselves and relate to the world. Not surprisingly, the momentum of humanity’s habitual behaviour doesn’t match her expectations. And she may be forgetting precedence. History suggests that humanity rarely acts with foresight.

Yet, despite Lau’s judgment of “abject failure”, she still offers hints of optimism. “I don’t know what specialists can save us from ourselves,” she confesses, “but I hope they’re out there, mixing intelligence and ingenuity with money, getting something accomplished on a really big scale.”

After 21 years of heroic effort she’s probably tired, disillusioned by the distance between where we are and where we need to be. Besides, she realizes she can’t get off the “sinking ship we’re on”. So, as she says, “I’m going to quit bailing for now and take a seat on the deck to enjoy the scenery.” She deserves the rest. And while she’s enjoying the scenery, increasing numbers of others will be bailing and raising awareness.


About Ray Grigg

Ray Grigg is in his ninth year as a weekly environmental columnist for the Campbell River Courier-Islander on BC's Vancouver Island. Before this column, titled Shades of Green - now appearing on commonsensecanadian.ca as well - Ray wrote a bi-weekly environmental column for five years. He is the author of seven internationally published books on Oriental philosophy, specifically Zen and Taoism. His academic background is in English literature, psychology, cultural history, and philosophy. He has travelled to some 45 countries around the globe.

7 thoughts on “The Surrender of an Ecowarrior

  1. Thank you for those eloquent, well-considered words of insight and encouragement, Lloyd. You raise a vital point – the need for us all to stop viewing these issues through the false paradigm fostered largely by corporations of a choice between the environment and the economy or “jobs”. Clearly – and particularly in a region whose economy is so tied to stewardship of our natural environment and resources – the economy and environment are not separate entities. Our collective health and prosperity depend on the sustainable management of our resources and ecologies, In a place such as this, where so many of us inherently understand this connection, as you say, we should be able to lead the way to a better future.

  2. I am encouraged if not surprised by the comments to this article. If I may add to my previous remarks, respectively in the wake of those made by Captain Watson and Damien Gillis, both of whose efforts are inspiring and educative.

    Human beings maintain a deep, hereditary connection to Nature and environment – intuitively, viscerally, spiritually – regardless of how each may live or construe their life. Many may not be or think of themselves as activists or eco-warriors, but they love animals, are avid gardeners, or seek recreation or solace in forests, on rivers, or at the seashore. And how many would honestly argue against clean air, untainted water, or healthy food? As we also know, those who are economically tied to environment – fishermen, farmers, loggers, etc. – also think and feel that connection. And so doing what is right, as Paul Watson advises from great experience, is never lost on people regardless of any one battle lost or won. People see, hear, remember, consider. Doing what is right, like speaking truth to power, in ways large and small, fosters results and pays dividends that are not always readily evident.

    Thanks again to all. And do carry on.

  3. “Focus on the doing and not the results.” Wise words from Capt. Paul Watson – an ecowarrior with more reasons to “surrender” than most, yet 50 years on just keeps truckin’ (or boatin’ to be precise)

  4. My philosophical answer to this is that a true warrior does what he or she does because it is the right thing to do, the just thing to do, and thus the only thing to do. We do not concern ourselves about winning or losing. We do not concern ourselves with the power of our opposition. We focus on the doing and not the results. I have discovered during my half century of activism that the impossible can be come possible through the exercise of imagination, resourcefulness and courage driven by passion and tempered with patience. It can be found by observing water. The steady drip of drops of water will eventually wear away the hardest of stones. And most importantly we must never surrender. Why do I fight to protect our oceans? Because if the oceans die, we all die and thus in recognizing this fact I have no choice but to do all that I can to defend biodiversity in our seas.

  5. Interesting. Her frustration is understandable. It would be eased if she had concrete markers by which to judge her efforts. Too many activists (eco-warriors if you like) use a scatter gun approach without establishing achievable goals and want to fix what’s wrong all at once. That leads to burn out and disillusionment. I would counsel taking aim at smaller, achievable targets, while not forgetting the big picture of things like the cumulative impacts of human activities on things like water, biodiversity, forests, and climate. Prevent a mine from destroying an eco-system, help save an old growth forest, work with a First Nation community to achieve rights and title, work to establish a protected area with expertise of your own; these are satisfying and, in sum,will to help form part of a whole that will enable us to live on the planet longer and more gracefully than now appears likely.

  6. Her story touched me because at times I feel like I am running on a hampster wheel when it comes to seeing an awareness in the commons of the current problems facing humanity. But experience has taught me that little by little with patience and persistence the commons will unite to fight those who would destroy us all in the name of faith, or ego, or ideology, or greed. I for one will not let it happen and I will remain vigilant. Please join me in any way you can. Thank you from Jeffrey Simpson

  7. There are tens of millions of activists like Lucy Lau worldwide. She should be featured for her efforts and for speaking honestly about her personal choices at this time in her life.

    Her assessment of modern society, that it solves massive problems through the coordinated efforts of specialists, is accurate enough, structurally speaking. Asking how raising awareness impacts this structure is a logical and worthy follow-up question.

    Still, we must recognize that these specialists manage a society that thrives on money, power, fear and violence, however well-disguised. In fact, “environmentalists” earn their label by typically challenging the status quo on the turf of these power-privileged specialists who nowadays coop activist language and even claim to be working for the future of the human race. A problem for eco-warriors who, when fighting the good fight, find themselves trying to raise awareness in domains where fear, violence, etc. hold sway. Yet fight on that front we must if while knowing that raising awareness and living eco-wisely is also ( best? ) achieved through relations “of place” where activists are neighbors and fellow citizens.

    Thanks to Ms Lau and all.

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