What Keeps Activists Engaged
by Birgitta Jansen
Many environmental activists share a deep caring about the land and the natural world. I cannot speak for everyone, but for the most part we seem to be a passionate bunch. But to care deeply or love a special place in the landscape, comes at a cost. I’ve thought for a long time that, “If the flame of passion burns too bright and for too long, it consumes the container….” When we see the destruction of places that we have come to love and feel connected to, we grieve for what we see lost. Or we find ourselves in a rage against the holy grail of economic growth that appears to triumph over all. Some of us feel powerless when all we can do is bear witness to the events of our time. Many of us walk this rough and rocky road. We may shed our hopes and dreams, but we walk because we must.
I thought it might be interesting to ask a few “long-termers,” “How do you cope with the tough moments in your life as an activist? Where or how do you find the will and motivation to continue?
Nine environmental activists responded to these questions either by email or in a telephone interview: Kim Floyd, long-term Sierra Club member and Conservation Chair for the San Gorgonia Chapter for the past ten years; Terry Frewin, retired electrical contractor and until recently Chair of the Sierra Club Desert Committee; John Hiatt, vice chair of the Sierra Club Desert Committee and coordinator of Nevada water issues; Amy Irvine, author and long-term public-lands advocate; Vicky Hoover, long-term advocate for wilderness and with a long history of environmental activist activities; Bill McKibben, author (of 19 books including The End of Nature), educator, co-founder 350.org, and is co founder of Third Act, which organizes people over 60 for action on climate and justice; Ruth Nolan, author and Professor of English and Creative Writing at the College of the Desert in Palm Springs, CA; David Suzuki, Canadian scientist, broadcaster and author. David also hosted The Nature of Things, a popular television series for 43 years.
Patrick Donnelly, Great Basin Director for Biological Diversity, is also one of the respondents. Desert Report’s editorial staff decided to publish his letter separately and in its entirety.
Kim Floyd answered my question as follows: “My appreciation of nature and concern for the environment comes from my commitment to leave for future generations our one earth in better shape than we found it.” Yet he claims that he is not an environmental activist. He says, “I’m just a grunt going along.” But beyond a doubt, Floyd is seriously engaged in environmental issues. He reflects that “I’m a glass half empty person, and it’s getting emptier. I am deeply concerned about the ongoing destruction.”
One thing that gets him through the difficult moments is the enjoyment he derives from working with “many very talented and long-term volunteers of the Sierra Club and across the several environmental organizations, and the very talented young career Sierra Club staff people who hitch their professional well-being to our shared efforts.”
And what else does this 80 year old do to help him cope? He goes hang gliding: “Each flight is different. The launch is good or not so good. Then there is the effort to keep myself in the air, to catch the thermals. The landing is also a significant part of the process. Then afterwards there are the hours of deep satisfaction especially if everything went well.” The end result: “This process is totally engaging and that clears my mind. I have to be in the moment and that takes all my focus. This is what helps me to keep other things in perspective.”
Terry Frewin is in his 76th year but continues to advocate mainly for bat conservation and plant protections with Basin and Range Watch.
He writes that he’s always enjoyed being outside, and for him “the relationship with the outdoors approaches the spiritual” He feels deeply frustrated and angry with the development of the industrial solar projects in the desert, and he is dismayed by the Sierra Club’s non-action with the destruction of one of the truly unique ecosystems in the world.
Terry’s commitment is personal: “Solo trips into the Mojave and Sonoran deserts are fuel for the soul. To continue to walk the activist path is to honor the Mother for all She has given me, humbled me, and most of all, enriched me. Honored, She has allowed me to experience the joy of the All.”
At 81 John Hiatt is going strong. He’s been an environmental activist for approximately 40 years, and he is mainly focused on protecting public lands and resources, including water. While he made his living as a clinical and forensic chemist, his real passion has always been for the outdoors. He serves on boards of several non-profit organizations and is actively involved with the Sierra Club Desert Committee.
John makes it his business to be well informed about environmental issues that impact Nevada and the Mojave Desert. He brings a wealth of knowledge to every activity he is involved with and tactfully educates others. “Yet,” he explains, “I get frustrated and saddened when people deny that there are problems, but I focus on what I can do instead of worrying. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing my thinking. I don’t dwell on things to avoid a downhill slide. Instead I focus on what I can do.”
What John finds most helpful is remaining actively engaged with volunteer work. He spoke with enthusiasm working with the Partners Program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This important program is an effort to protect wildlife and its habitat on private land since that is where most water sources are located in the arid West. “I derive solace and pleasure from that” John says.
Amy Irvine, a 56 year old sixth generation Utahn, became an environmental activist in her early twenties. It happened “The day I understood that public lands were not simply for our consumption – be it industry or recreation. The day I understood our obligation to speak and act on their behalf.” And she did act by joining the fight against a big anti-wilderness bill in Utah.
Some time later there was a second revelation: “The day I understood in concrete terms that these are sacred ancestral lands to Native Americans. Now it’s impossible for me to advocate for these places without also advocating for the people who belong to them far more than I ever will.”
Amy has found a specific way of coping with the stresses and challenges of being a long-term environmental activist. She follows Tricia Hersey’s Nap Ministry on Instagram. Amy explains that Tricia is very clear how today’s model of activism and grind culture are related, and that we cannot think creatively without enough rest. Amy continues, “Tricia speaks as a Black activist, and she specifically speaks about how worn down people are by the generational trauma they carry. She also speaks more broadly to those of us who participate in and are worn down by sick systems that tyrannize our minds, bodies, and relationships. To paraphrase one of Tricia’s great thoughts: if we all lay down and rest deeply, we topple capitalism. But we also begin to dream deeply again, and in those dreams, we re-imagine the world and our place in it.”
To the question “What keeps you going?” Amy had a one-word but most eloquent reply: “Love.”
Vicky Hoover, an 86 year old California resident, has a lengthy history of advocacy for wilderness. She obtained a master’s degree in economics but never used it. Instead she was a stay-at-home mom. When her two kids were grown and she needed a job, she approached the Sierra Club. She had already led outings for them for many years. She landed a job which was to last for 24 years as the personal assistant to Dr. Edgar Wayburn, the Sierra Club’s honorary president and chairman of the Alaska Task Force. Since the job was part-time, she was able to volunteer for wilderness campaigns such as the California Desert Protection Act, the Utah Wilderness, and Alaska Lands Protection.
Vicky copes with the tough moments by “ignoring the bad stuff that I can nothing about to fix.” She’s also limits the topics that she works on. Then there’s the world of books such as historical novels; concerts, operas, all of which have nothing to do with work or the Sierra Club. And she ads one more commitment, “I have my family – two kids and three grandsons, plus two sisters and their progeny that I like keeping up with.”
In order to stay the course in the long run, “I make it a priority to go off on trips from time to time during which I’m unavailable for any environmental efforts.”
Bill McKibben, is a long-term Vermont resident, and at age 62 Bill remains fully engaged and active with various aspects of the environmental movement.
Bill wrote that, “I might have it somewhat easier than others, simply because I’ve been marinating in it for so long. I wrote the first book on climate change way back in 1989 when I was in my 20s, and so my whole life has been engaged in thinking about the unthinkable assault we’re making on this planet.”
Having said that, he continues, “I get despairing at times, especially at the failure of our political systems to do more – but I have found that organizing is 1) the only hope for change and 2) a reasonable antidote to despair. I try not to engage in false hope, for myself or others, but the swift advent of renewable energy seems to me to give us a chance, so I go on trying to weaken the fossil fuel industry and create an opening for sanity.”
To the question “What do you find helpful to stay the course and keep going?” Bill replies, “I spend some time outdoors every day. I’m lucky enough to live deep in the Vermont woods so I have the solace of forest and mountain. And I remind myself that even in its struggles, this is a gorgeous planet, and one of our jobs as humans is to bear witness to that.”
Ruth Nolan has spent most of her 59 years in the Mojave Desert. It is this long “soulful and enduring bond with the desert” which inspires and informs her writing, teaching, and desert activism. Ruth also knows about fires in the desert from an earlier time in her life when she worked as a seasonal wildlands fire fighter for the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.
Creativity is Ruth’s way of coping. She has learned that there’s often beauty and meaning to be found when writing about her experiences even though they might be distressing. Spending desert time hiking and camping is important as is spending time with family members.
She continues, “And then there is my work as an educator. All my classes have an environmental and social justice component – I love to teach people about the desert and feel a fierce obligation to do so.”
But the bottom line for Ruth: “It is important to realize that I am doing the best I can to advocate for desert lands, caring about and caring for them.”
The main inspiration that keeps Ruth going no matter what, and one that is echoed by a number of others: Ruth has a daughter and four grandchildren. She explains, “I am concerned about their future. I hope they can experience desert wilderness firsthand the way I’ve been so fortunate to do.”
David Suzuki laments in a recent CBC Radio interview that he gets terribly frustrated with the fact that the message he’s been trying to hammer at for so many years seems to be totally ignored. He feels strongly that “We’re all one species, and we all belong to that. That should unite us because we all need the same air, the same water, the same food that comes from the soil, the sunlight. This is what defines us as a species and should be what we are all struggling to protect and pass on to future generations.” 1
In response to the questions at hand, David writes, “I am doing the best I can and enjoy the people, some of the places, and believe in what we are working for.” He continues, “There is no dropping out when it’s for my grandchildren.”
Deanna Bayne, David’s Executive Assistant adds that for David, aside from daily workouts in the gym or at home, “spending time with his grandchildren is the joy of his life these days. He loves nothing more.” She concludes, “He never stops giving life his all.” In fact, even being 86 years old does not slow him down.
The above vignettes are a few unique glimpses into the perspectives of long-term environmental activists. I say “a few” because there are now countless voices for the land. For that I can only be deeply grateful. I suspect that what we do is more akin to being called to engage in this line of work whether it be in a job, i.e. paid employment, or as a volunteer. In fact, many activists are volunteers because of the shared belief that the natural world is in peril and we need to do something. As Greta Thunberg would say, “Our house is on fire,” and we know it.
What comes through in these vignettes is a strong connection to the outdoors, to the land and a place and how that also nurtures us and helps us to carry on. I think we all know about that.
One thing that no one commented upon is the benefit of a connection to a community of like-minded spirits. One specific event that made an impression on me occurred when I first started attending the Desert Committee meetings. Each person took turns reporting on a project they were working on, and what they had been able to achieve, or the progress that had been made or not made. Information was shared, dilemmas and obstacles were discussed. Positive feedback, helpful advice, and much encouragement were given, and there was ongoing networking between members of different organizations and with different areas of expertise. I suspect that this type of support can play a vital role in “staying the course.”
The key word in coping with the feelings of frustration, anger, and grief may well be balance. As Vicky Hoover comments, she makes a point of periodically making herself unavailable for any environmental issues. And this is something a few other people mentioned. Ruth Nolan, an activist focused on the desert, purposely travels to places that are very different ecosystems. Kim Floyd takes to the sky. David Suzuki spends time with his grandkids. We each find our way to create balance so that we can continue what we must do. Ancient Mother is calling us to continue to walk the rough and rocky road.
Birgitta Jansen has been an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. Currently residing in British Columbia, she is a managing editor of the Desert Report, has written previously on a number of environmental topics, and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP.