Mary O'Brien

Changing the World

Or, thoughts while shovelling the driveway this morning… So, I’m shovelling the driveway at my house-sitting spot at 7 am, little country-mouse-recently-moved-to-the-Big City me, & it’s a shared driveway (my own car sits in the garage 99.9% of the time, as I love to walk & make use of public transportation), & I’ve been told there is no real need to shovel it (Torontonians are not really into winter, you see, & truthfully, winters here are a bit of a joke…)

But snow had fallen overnight

& freezing rain was predicted

& I’d rather have the freezing rain fall on bare pavement than make a great big snowy icy mixed-up mess

So I’m out there rather enjoying myself (to be honest) – it’s fresh air & exercise & also thinking time

& I remember how I used to have a shared driveway in my Deep River daze, & being frugally-living me, fully expected to be shovelling the driveway myself, but the couple with whom I shared the driveway (who didn’t actually live there; they were living down in Toronto at that point, & only visiting their Deep River house once in a blue moon), paid some guy to plow the driveway, & were very generous-minded & told him to just plow the whole durn thing

& so their generosity & their shall we say “paying it forward” gesture is popping up in my brain today

& I’m thinking about how we change the world (admittedly I have given up trying to “save” it), & I’ve got a conversation in my head about the deep, deep very long-standing systemic problems Canada’s First Nations people have had visited upon them for oh, the past 500 years or so (the conversation was on Michael Enright’s Sunday morning show; podcast of ‘First Nations Governance’ here), & a truth (or what sounded like one to me) was spoken, & it was this:

Nobody can wave a magic wand over really seriously, deeply entrenched problems from the outside only – people must take leadership themselves to find solutions (with, presumably, plenty of practical help from appropriate agencies, of course!)

& as I shovel the driveway I think we need (always) the right tools for the job (even shovelling snow requires the right tools – a plow-y kind of shovel & a lift-&-heave kind of shovel, or so it is in my world, anyway) & strategy too of course (in a big city it takes strategy even to find a place to put the snow one is shovelling!?)

& some of the right tools for world-changing are

  • appreciation of diversity in people & methods & solutions
  • cooperation
  • courage
  • energy
  • heart; lots & lots of heart. More heart, less mind
  • leadership
  • neighbourliness
  • paying it forward
  • resilience, resourcefulness


& some of what we need to lose, in world-changing activities, are

  • a need for hero worship
  • an “oh poor me” mindset
  • ego
  • hierarchy
  • thinking one’s way to do things is the only way to do things (that "It's my way or the highway" kind of thinking)


‘cos even my snow-shovelling gig is an example of how there is always more than one way to do things

I’m a very sort of anarchic snow-shoveller – I’m kind of here, there & everywhere, unpredictable & sort of sloppy as opposed to working in a neat orderly predictable fashion, & I can just hear all the men I know saying patronizingly “Oh no, Janet, that is NOT the way to do it, you see, you have to do it THIS way” (all the women I know would just say “Oh Janet THANK YOU for doing this," & wouldn't give a darn how I went about it)

& you see I think there are as many ways to shovel a driveway as there are people prepared to shovel it, & as many ways to change the world as there are people prepared to work on changing it

& finally, a big thing I think way too many people don’t GET about work (or what you might call service) is that doing it FEELS SO GOOD, & it feels even better when it’s shared with others in a spirit of cooperation, & better still when one feels appreciated for one’s efforts, & I think overall it just can’t be said any better than this:

“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted and behold, service was joy.” (Rabindranath Tagore, philosopher, author, songwriter, painter, educator, composer, Nobel laureate, 1861-1941)


p.s. & I thank the delightful writer Anne Lamott for reminding me of this amazing, inspiring quotation, which she includes in her lovely book Help Thanks Wow – The Three Essential Prayers, on page 23.

p.p.s. & thinking all these thoughts reminded me of the wonderful Mary O’Brien, & her 15 always-useful & really quite awesome campaign tips, which are posted here

p.p.p.s. & if you want to be totally totally totally blown away by a passionate & articulate plea for help, for Heaven’s sake go & read this amazing letter by the incomparable Dr. Sandra Steingraber.     What a woman!!!!!!!

Quote of the day with this post: “For every nine people who denounce innovation, only one will encourage it… For every nine people who do things the way they have always been done, only one will ever wonder if there is a better way. For every nine people who stand in line in front of a locked building, only one will ever come around and check the back door. Our progress as a species rests squarely on the shoulders of that tenth person. The nine are satisfied with things they are told are valuable. Person 10 determines for himself what has value.” – Za Rinpoche & Ashley Nebelsieck in The Backdoor to Enlightenment (Three Leaves) – quoted in Oprah Magazine Jan. 2008

Lead 101: Nukes & Lead - 10 Things…

The funny thing about my working on these two issues is, I never actually set out to do so! I just sort of got pulled in, in the past year or so – all the while having meant to devote myself fully to the climate change issue.

Ah well. Life is what happens while you’re making other plans…hmmm?

As explained in ‘Lead 101: 20 things you need to know’, I knew nothing whatsoever about lead until last June. Having now attended 2 events devoted to lead & been in the presence of people who are very knowledgeable about it indeed (nurses, Health Dept. people, a boatload of Ph.Ds & a bunch of MDs), here I am, now, caring a lot about lead.

I couldn’t help but begin noticing, at the Centers for Disease Control "National Healthy Homes & Lead Poisoning Prevention training center” I attended in Chicago in Dec. 2010, that there are several things common to these two issues. Here goes!

Lead & Nukes: 10 common elements

  1. Both are really quite nasty & stubborn issues indeed – yet many, if not most people appear entirely oblivious to the very considerable risks of both nuclear energy & lead.
  2. Once you learn about these risks, you almost wish you hadn’t! These are tough, tough issues to work & wrestle with. Truthfully, they could drive a person just about cuckoo… Luckily, as I like to joke, I didn’t have far to go…
  3. There is no safe level of exposure, either to radionuclides or to lead. The nuclear & lead industries will claim otherwise, & often refer to “safe” levels of exposure. This is (sorry to be impolite; don’t listen, Mom!!) bullshit. There is no safe level of exposure to these toxic substances.
  4. The degree of complexity in both these issues can be very off-putting, to put it mildly. It’s hard for the average person to grasp a lot of the technical detail involved. People in both lead & nuclear industries know this. They don’t just know it; they play on it! They try to intimidate those who question them by reciting complex-sounding “facts” & figures (which are very often neither factual nor accurate) & they use staff with fancy titles & degrees (& salaries!) to carry out & communicate their dirty deeds. I call it deliberate obfuscation, & have seen it in operation on many occasions at Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission hearings. CNSC staff members have Ph.D.’s in Obfuscation. They are experts at it! But you know what? Bullshit is still bullshit!
  5. Our planet – & our bodies – have become unwitting receptacles for the products of these two industries (not just these two, of course, but let’s leave the chemical & pharmaceutical industries for another day, shall we?). If we were to put an immediate halt to both lead & nuclear sources of exposure, we’d still be surrounded by their extremely persistent toxic by-products for many thousands of years (with nuclear wastes, we are talking hundreds of thousands of years; with depleted uranium (DU), we are talking about a half-life of 4.5 billion years!!!). That’s why we have to put a stop to these activities now, & focus on prevention of any further harm. We cannot eliminate or disappear what has already been done, &, I am very sorry to report, it’s extremely substantial. While working on & knowing about all this is not pleasant, exactly, these are compelling reasons to put a stop to the depredations of both of these industries NOW. I mean, last week.
  6. Not content to pollute our bodies, our air, our children & our communities with the toxic by-products of their appallingly dirty industries, both are now in the business – hard as it may seem to believe – of marketing their toxins…in consumer goods! I’m not at all clear what route it is that lead takes to wind up in candy & jewelry & toys & some herbal supplements – but as for nuke wastes being “recycled” into consumer products, the U.S.-based Nuclear Information & Resource Service (NIRS) has known about this for years! Look for excellent fact sheets on their Web site – in particular, one called ‘Reprocessing is Not the “Solution” to the Nuclear Waste Problem’
  7. Sadly, both of these awful industries can always find willing workers to do their dirty work. Salaries are often very good (at least in the nuke biz). We humans – well, we’re kind of … buyable, aren’t we? And don’t get me wrong. I know people in the nuke business; quite a few of them, as a matter of fact. Most of them are very nice people. It’s true! But as I already said somewhere else in this essay, bullshit is still bullshit. Elephants are still elephants. When the emperor has no clothes, he still has no clothes! (btw, I guess I should also add that we can all be grateful that the (awful) nuclear facilities DO have many reliable, responsible, conscientious workers. I have met some of these folks. Kudos to them for doing their best to help prevent any more Chernobyls from happening!! But I wish the darn nuke facilities didn't exist in the first place... & I could go on here, & say much more...but I won't... Well. Except for this - added many days later... The essay here on innocence & evil may be of some relevance.)
  8. Both these industries have “friends in high places.” Oh yes. Lobbyists who pressure our government representatives. Make them “offers they can’t refuse.” Oh yes. They do indeed.(1) It doesn’t pay to be too naïve about our so-called “democracy,” people. Power corrupts, hmmm?
  9. How about this startling fact? The human race could get by just fine without these industries!!!!!! There are ALWAYS alternatives to toxic products. We humans are wildly creative, you know; we can always find non-toxic alternatives. And they almost invariably cost less & save money, along with being better for our health!! (I’m reminded here of Mary O’Brien’s very inspiring presentation on “sunsetting” chlorine.(2))
  10. If we decide as a society to put an end to these two very dangerous, polluting industries (along with others I could name), & go about it thoughtfully & carefully, we will immediately see the obvious need to provide alternate employment for those who are to be displaced. The labour movement has long talked about the concept of “Just Transition.” I first heard this idea mentioned about half an eon ago (at an International Joint Committee meeting, actually); it is not a “new” idea. Just one whose time, surely, has come…ya think??


P.S. Lots of pithy quotations about the nuclear issue here.

P.P.S. All my lead-related blog posts are listed here.

‘Quote of the day’ w. this post: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” – Edmund Burke

Runner-up quotes: “The optimism of the action is better than the pessimism of the thought.” – Harold Zindler

“You can blame people who knock things over in the dark, or you can begin to light candles. You’re only at fault if you know about the problem and choose to do nothing.” – Paul Hawken, entrepreneur & author, The Sun (April 2002) – quoted in July/Aug. 2002 issue of Utne Reader

“How much harm does a company have to do before we question its right to exist?” – Paul Hawken

“The Earth is not dying – it is being killed. And the people who are killing it have names and addresses.” – U. Utah Phillips, quoted in Blessed Unrest – How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being & Why No One Saw it Coming, by Paul Hawken <Pg. 115> Nice comments about this book, btw, here. Lotsa quotes from the book here

(1) Check this Resources document – near the bottom is a list of books. A couple of these detail the whole dirty story about industry/government collusion on lead. It ain’t pretty…

(2) Mary O’Brien is a U.S.-based scientist I once (maybe even twice) heard speak at an International Joint Commission (IJC) meeting on the Great Lakes. She gave a rousing presentation entitled “10 Great Things About Sunsetting Chlorine” (or words to that effect). Unfortunately, I am unable to lay my hands on that item – but you can check out her awesome “Campaign Tips” here!

Mary O'Brien's Campaign Tips

I've had this gem for years & years now, & every once in a long while, run across it once again. This document (called by its author "Preparing for a Campaign") is just plain chockfull of great advice!! Please use it & share it! (with HUGE thanks to Mary O'Brien for being such a great force for change & for putting this together for all of us!!!!!!!!)

** Presentation at 19th Annual Pesticide Conference, Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides; Boulder, CO; May 18-20, 2001.

Mary O’Brien - Science & Environmental Health Network

There isn’t anybody here who hasn’t prepared for and engaged in a campaign; and many of you have led and/or been part of highly successful campaigns.So all I can share on the topic of preparing for a campaign are some reflections drawn from campaigns I’ve participated in, helped lead, or watched.

I’m going to list 15 suggestions for campaigns and some of them necessarily cannot apply in particular circumstances, but they are general ideas that pass through my mind when planning a campaign:

1. Our campaigns need to be large in scope.

They can be intensely local, as in one’s school district, or regarding one noxious weed in one national forest.But each campaign should be large in vision: that is, we need to try to contribute to solving very large, systemic, national and global problems through our campaigns, even if they are local.For instance, a campaign about pesticides in schools needs to contribute to solving the larger problems of how our public educational institutions are organized; how children see their bodies in relation to toxics (e.g., one third of the girls in an elementary school in which pesticides are halted will be smoking by the time they are in high school); how corporations influence what happens in our schools; our right to know; the problem of our whole society using toxics which don’t have to be used.

It isn’t that we need to talk about all those problems in our campaign, but the language we use in our campaigns; the methods we use; the outcomes we’re seeking, should fit in with what needs to be done globally.“Think globally; act locally.”

2. Whenever possible, our campaigns should focus on changing the rules.

For instance, we can try to get pesticides like the sulfonylureas, or atrazine banned or highly restricted, but those are almost fruitless campaigns within the current cost-benefit rules which EPA developed and operates under.Pesticides are registered for use under cost-benefit analysis - that is, if company profits exceed the value of our lives, then the pesticide must be registered.That is an immoral and scientifically bankrupt rule - and it needs to be changed.

A coalition campaign within Massachusetts, for instance, is working to install the precautionary principle as state policy for children’s health (and hopefully, eventually, for the health of all ages and species).

3. Our campaigns should have positive, feasible goals that connect up with the way almost all people believe.

We will always be outspent in our campaigns, and we will always be misrepresented. Therefore, to win, we need to be connecting up with something that runs strong and deep with most citizens.For instance, “We shouldn’t pollute children if we don’t have to;” or“We shouldn’t use our streams as industrial wastebaskets if the companies don’t have to.”

When Eugene, Oregon citizens undertook an initiative campaign to establish a comprehensive reporting system by manufacturers regarding all their inputs and outputs of hazardous chemicals, we knew that in survey after survey (locally, nationally), 90% of American citizens believe they should have the right to know what toxics are being used and released in their community.Our campaign hooked up with that simple message, and though we were outspent and the mayor, City Council, newspaper, and business groups opposed us, we won 55% to 45% (see\toxics)

4. Our campaigns should simultaneously address environmental care, social care, and democracy.

When we plan our campaigns, we need to consider people, workers, children, trees, birds, fish, and participant democracy in both our processes and campaign goals.If we take care of people and not our other relations, we are simply digging ourselves into more alienation from the world in which we are embedded.If we take care of fish and birds and little children, but don’t pay attention to people who are trying to make a living, we end up at cross-purposes with a basic need in our society to work.If we are not inclusive in our campaign; if we want to direct the campaign without input from lots of people, we contribute to a crippling of democracy.

5. We need to intend to win.

We will design our campaigns very differently if we are absolutely determined to win than if we half expect to lose.We have an obligation to win, because our campaigns are for health and democracy and nature, not for ourselves alone.So we need to do everything possible to win, including careful strategy, accuracy in all information, ambitious fundraising, strong participation by people with all kinds of skills (more about that later), never coasting, etc.We basically have to plan our campaign in such a way that we are addressing the question, “What will it take to be certain to win?”

6. We need to involve unlikely people…

We need to involve youth; business people; city councillors; church leaders; old people;artists; writers; media; local prisoners; whomever. We absolutely HAVE to leave our comfortable, warm circle of environmental activists, and contact others who may care about the issue, but who haven’t thought about it; or haven’t been approached for how they could help.

We also have to go talk to people who will never support us, but who, after talking with us, will be not likely to demonize us.Let me give an example from that Eugene right-to-know campaign.Near the start of our campaign, I knew that the frontrunner candidate for Mayor, closely aligned with the Chamber of Commerce, was not going to support our campaign.But I phoned him up to ask if we could talk about it. We met for lunch, and he listened to our plans for the law.He surprised me when he said, “Five years ago I would have thought this law was too strict.I don’t think so now. We have too many toxics in our environment.”He indicated that he was not going to support it, however, for a technical reason: We were campaigning to have this as part of the city’s constitution (charter) rather than as an ordinance.This is because if it were passed as an ordinance, the City Council could alter it, but if it were passed as a charter amendment, the City Council could not change it without taking it back to the public for a vote.However, this candidate said that if he became mayor (which he did), and if our right-to-know law passed (which it did), he would always defend it.He has been true to his word: He has twice testified on behalf of it in the state legislature when it was being attacked by industry lobby groups, and he has always defended it to detractors.

7. We need to have a bizillion ways people can pitch in to help.

The best campaigns are those that can be pitched in to by people we hardly know.The first time I ever helped with any political action (other than protesting the Vietnam War) was when I saw a petition printed in a magazine.It was a campaign by the Sierra Club to get a million signatures asking for the resignation of James Watt, Secretary of the Interior, under President Reagan. I lived in Los Angeles; I didn’t belong to the Sierra Club or any other advocacy group; and I had never taken any environmental action.However, this one seemed simple enough, so I set up a card table in front of Safeway (I didn’t even know if this was allowed).While I was setting it up, a man in a car parked nearby was watching me.It seemed to me he was glaring at me.When I finally got my card table and sign and petition and chair set up, he opened his car door, shuffled over in bedroom slippers, and gruffly said to me, “Give me that petition.I’ll sign it.”

“All right!” I thought.“I can do this!”

We need to NOT burn out people.If we’re burning people out, then we’re not running our campaign right, because we’re not involving enough people to share jobs.

We need to give people very specific jobs that they can feel comfortable doing, and then not ask them to do twenty other things.This is a major failing of campaigns: we often don’t figure out a whole hierarchy of tasks - from tasks that take 20 hours a week to tasks that take 20 minutes a week.

8. Thank everyone all the time.

In my town of Eugene, I am active with an all-volunteer group, Citizens for Public Accountability.This is an extraordinary group: we have met every week since June 1995; that’s six years.That’s a lot of meetings, and we do a lot of activities.But we also constantly thank each other; report what each other has done; are grateful for whatever people do.It (and winning our campaigns) keeps us going.

It takes so little time to thank people; and it keeps morale so high.

9. Provide the public with simple answers to every argument the opposition has or might make.

If you can anticipate the arguments that will be used against you, ahead of time, give the public the answers before they even hear the arguments.

Go talk to the opposition and find out what they think of your proposal. Most people cannot help themselves from answering a question, so you will find out valuable information if they answer.And if they WON’T answer your question, you can tell the media they won’t answer your question. Asking questions is a win-win strategy.You get answers you can work with; or you don’t get answers, and you can work with that.

10. Spread out power.

Have a steering committee; have lots of spokespersons; encourage people to figure out ways to help.Avoid even using your group’s name as leader, if the campaign will be more powerful that way.In that Eugene, Oregon right-to-know campaign, which involved gathering 11,000 signatures, being in public debates, running a six-months’ long campaign, we never indicated that Citizens for Public Accountability (CPA) was a leader.We had spokespersons who were CPA members; and some who weren’t.We never mentioned CPA; we simply referred to “citizens” working on this campaign, and so that’s how the newspapers, and radio and TV talked about the campaign.Likewise, many citizens pitched in who were not at all involved with CPA, because they understood that this was a campaign “by citizens,” so they could identify with it.

Why do you need credit, if the point is to win?

11. Be funny.

Your humor should avoid being nasty.Make sure some of the humor is on yourselves; have the humor be a signal to people out there that this is a grand undertaking.

I remember in the 1980s when Greenpeace was part of an extensive campaign in the Great Lakes region regarding persistent bioaccumulative toxics.In their campaign to get the International Joint Commission on Great Lakes Water Quality to address the issue of how chlorine was the root of most persistent bioaccumulative toxics in the Great Lakes, they used a huge banner, saying“Dow shall not kill.”

Once in Australia, I watched a news conference regarding Antarctica put on by Greenpeace.They conducted the entire news conference in penguin costumes, and relayed their message regarding the need for an Antarctic protection treaty from the point of view of penguins.

Both of these instances have remained etched in my mind long after I have forgotten so many other messages and news conferences.

It is probably the same with you, if you think back over the years:

You probably remember humor.

12. Be accessible so that all kinds of people can see themselves joining your campaign.

The Wilderness Society of Australia once undertook a massive, year-long blockade against the construction of a dam on the Franklin River.It was ultimately successful, even though road construction began during their campaign; even though hundreds of citizens were jailed.But one thing The Wilderness Society insisted on for their spokespersons: Always wear a suit.Hold news conferences in a suit; get thrown into the river in a suit; get carted away in a suit.Why?They wanted people who watched the campaign to identify with the campaigners; to understand that these were people like them.They wanted to make it easy for people to join the blockade. And it worked.Old women were being thrown in the river, business people were being thrown in the river.Ultimately, the party in federal power fell over the Franklin Dam issue, and the dam was never built.

Thus, I would suggest that you never isolate yourselves by your clothes, or knowledge, or righteousness.You want to be seen for what you are: a person who cares about the future, children, etc.Act on the assumption that everyone cares, and more of them will believe that they, too, can help.

13. Have great art.

Never underestimate the power of superb art; superb posters.A campaign to end nuclear power in Oregon had a poster I still see on people’s walls - it was great art.

The logo for our Eugene right-to-know campaign was roughly a fish with a human face with a down-turned mouth and an “X” for its eye.The simple slogan was “Ignorance is toxic.”We used that art and slogan on everything - bumper stickers, lawn signs, buttons, ads.The black fish on a yellow background.Thus, with not much money, we looked like we were everywhere, and the art became immediately recognizable.

Some months after we won, a lobbyist that had been hired by the Chamber of Commerce to oppose our campaign confided to one of our activists that when she saw our logo, she knew she was going to lose.

14. Do your whole campaign without ego.

The point is not your organization; or you.The point is winning for the Earth and its living beings.So ego should have exactly zero to do with our campaigns.To the extent that it helps to be essentially invisible, do it.Who cares if some politician who jumped on the bandwagon at the last minute gets credit?Just make a big deal of thanking the politician.The Bamako Convention of African countries, which forbids other countries to pay (bribe) African countries to accept their hazardous waste for disposal, was largely written by Greenpeace.Their name never appeared in connection with it.

If the campaign depends on you being recognized, you’re doing it for the wrong reason, and it isn’t being run right.

15. Have fun.

Life is too short to be all wound up in anger and tightness and finger-pointing.If you lose a round, but have had fun, then you’ll be around for the next round.If your campaign plan sounds like drudgery, re-do it until it has some grand fun in it.Your campaign then will not only add years to your life, it will be attractive to others.

And that’s 15 points, and so I’ll stop there.Have fun.Win.

·Presentation at Nineteenth Annual Pesticide Conference, Beyond Pesticides/National Coalition Against the Misuse of Pesticides; Boulder, CO; May 18-20, 2001.

Mary O’Brien, Ph.D.

Mary is ecosystem projects director. A botanist who knows her grasslands, Mary has been working with organizations in her Pacific Northwest backyard to preserve and protect the region’s ecosystems.Her book, Making Better Environmental Decisions, was published in 2000 by MIT Press. Mary is working with SEHN to relate the precautionary principle to conservation biology and court practices.

She lives in Eugene, OR.

Science and Environmental Health Network