Why Am I an Activist? (part I)

<Dec. 2008> Lots of people think I’m some kind of weirdo. Heck – even the people who love me the most think this!

I’m considered a weirdo (I guess) because I'm so embarrassingly passionate about the cause that has fuelled me for the past nigh-on 20 years – environmental activism.

I guess you could accurately say that I wear my heart on my sleeve – & also that lots of the people I know appear to be deathly afraid to say “Bulls-it!” even when they’re up to their eyeballs in it. As it were…

Apathy continues to reign – well, if not supreme, disturbingly widespread...

But never mind that – I’m supposed to be explaining why I’m an activist.[1]

I embarked on the path of environmental work, projects, writing & activism in the fall of 1989, when I threw myself wholeheartedly into the fray. It had just plain called to me…

It’s been quite the ride!

I’ve met the most fantastic, dynamic, inspiring people – gobs of them! I’ve made friends with, become acquainted with, people I feel not just delighted, but very much honoured to know.

I’ve taken part in (often led) tons of projects – most of them “small” rather than big ones – some of them less “successful” than others – every one of them challenging, satisfying & worthwhile – & in every case we’ve helped raise awareness & welcome new blood to the movement, even if the goal we set out with was not met in quite the ways we’d had in mind.

When I began doing environmental work, I was a “stay-at-home-mother” upon whom the world seemed not really to be smiling; after all, if I was smart, energetic, capable, creative & dynamic, why didn’t I have a “real job” and make some serious money? Such was the mindset at the time, early in the days of our so-called “liberation.” (Don’t get me wrong – I’m a lifelong feminist, & proud of it. There was a bit of throwing out the baby with the bathwater there in those early days, that’s all… Fodder for another day’s rant, hmm?)

But you see, money has never been what turns my crank. I was determined to really “be there” for my children (perhaps in reaction to having had a “working” Mom quite a few years before that was considered de rigueur, or even acceptable, actually), and it’s turned out that environmental activism (& writing) have proven that I am in fact creative, intelligent, capable & energetic. I may not earn very much money, but I do do a decent amount of good in the world – & certainly, no one ever accuses me of being boring.

There are so many environmental issues & problems that it can be pretty overwhelming. I’ll even admit there are a few that scare the heck out of me, that I deliberately avoid learning any more about. I choose to work on a few (pesticides, waste reduction, climate change, alternative energy, local food) that offer plenty of challenges, & even though the progress I see doesn’t always measure up to what I hope for, throwing in the towel is simply not an option for me. How could I quit – what kind of message would this send to my daughters? Besides – I so love this work I do… It’s very, very satisfying.

I suppose maybe I’ve had a “crusader gene” all my life. Maybe I was just “born that way.”

As I look around me & see the number and depth of the environmental challenges we face (and not just environmental ones! There are 101 social justice issues of equally burning importance!) – what I have to say to anyone reading this little rant is, I think the question ought not to be, “Why is Janet McNeill an activist?” but “Why the heck isn’t everyone?”

Why aren’t you?


p.s. More on why I am an activist here

A Few Relevant Quotations:

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” – Edmund Burke “The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.” – Harold Zindler

“Science may have found a cure for most evils; but it has found no remedy for the worst of them all – the apathy of human beings.” – Helen Keller

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed – it's the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead, Anthropologist

“Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it’s the only thing.” – Albert Schweitzer

WHOSE JOB IS IT? This is a story about four people named EVERYBODY, SOMEBODY, ANYBODY and NOBODY. There was an important job to be done and EVERYBODY was asked to do it. EVERYBODY was sure SOMEBODY would do it, but NOBODY did it. SOMEBODY got angry about that because it was EVERYBODY’s job. EVERYBODY thought ANYBODY could do it but NOBODY realized that EVERYBODY wouldn’t do it. It ended up that EVERYBODY blamed SOMEBODY when NOBODY did what ANYBODY could have done.

Susan Sarandon, when asked for advice to would-be activists: “People single me out for being an activist, but I always say that the impulse is inborn – it just needs to be nurtured. It starts when you’re little, and you see some kids being unkind to another kid on the bus. Maybe you do something. Maybe you don’t. But there was that hint in your brain that something was wrong, that you weren’t comfortable with the situation. Throughout your life, you have the opportunity to learn from that experience, to react to that little voice inside of you that says something has crossed your moral bottom line, to ignore what others are telling you to do and honor your impulse. The very core of your being an activist is being true to yourself.” – in Utne Reader, May/June 2002 issue

[1]  The word 'activist,' btw, appears to make some folks very uncomfortable; I was even asked when giving a talk in Malaysia not to use it in describing myself. I don’t quite “get” this unease with the word; surely, all activist means is, I am active. Isn’t being active preferable to being passive and apathetic? Well, not to everyone, apparently…  Whatever