Seeking a Sustainable Future, One Interview at a Time

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Silver Donald Cameron

Silver Donald Cameron

Cape Breton writer Silver Donald Cameron’s latest undertaking, The Green Interview, is an ever-growing collection of videotaped interviews with “thinkers, writers and observers whose ideas and perceptions are leading the way to a new era of sustainability.”

Cameron interviews people who would be considered Green Royalty if the kind of people he interviews went in for concepts like royalty which I have a strong suspicion they don’t. The interview bank, to date, includes names I recognized immediately, both Canadian — Elizabeth May, Farley Mowatt, David Suzuki — and international — Jane Goodall, George Monbiot and James Hansen. But it contains a lot of names I didn’t immediately recognize, which Cameron told me, during a phone interview on Monday, was kind of the point: these are people he’s discovered in his reading on sustainability whose ideas he wants to bring “to a wider public in a form that’s very digestible.”

His initial thought was to do As It Happens-style phone interviews with his subjects and to that end he approached Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax about using their facilities:

I knew they had a really good sound studio and I had done a lot of work in it for CBC radio, but my forte is not getting good clean sound, my forte is getting good clean ideas.

His plans changed not because the university was averse to the idea, but because the head of their audio-visual department, Chris Beckett, was so taken with it. When Cameron asked for the use of the department’s phone line and studio:

Chris said, “Well, certainly you can do that, but I think you’re crazy.”

And I said, “Why am I crazy?”

And he said, “Because these are historic interviews, these are archival interviews. These are interviews that need to be done properly and on video and made available to succeeding generations.”

And I said, “Well, you may well be right, but I have no capacity to do video.”

And Chris said, “No, but I do.”

Beckett, who had “decades of experience” in public broadcasting and (post-retirement) time to dedicate to the project, joined forces with Cameron and The Green Interview became a reality in 2010.

 

Mother Earth

Cameron says choosing the interviewees is his job:

I do it in some kind of almost intuitive way and to some extent in an opportunistic way. Intuitive in the sense that I’m still reading and I’m still following all kinds of websites and so on…and very often I’ll think, “Oh, there’s a person who would be a wonderful Green Interview.”

John Borrows

John Borrows

The opportunism comes in when the team — which consists of Cameron, Beckett, researcher Linda Pannozzo (who you may know from her excellent work with the Halifax Examiner) and IT consultants Robert Samson and Neil Kenny — discovers a potential interviewee is coming to Halifax. Cameron says this was the case with Yvon Chouinard, the founder of the outdoor gear and clothing company Patagonia. Cameron heard Chouinard was coming to Halifax and arranged an interview through a friend — the manager of the Halifax Patagonia store.

They’ve also found international conferences, like the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference in Eugene, Oregon, to be happy hunting grounds for Green Interviews. Invited to present at the 2017 conference, Cameron took the opportunity to interview other presenters for his website, including astronaut Stanley Love and University of Hawaii law professor Maxine Burkett.

I asked Cameron who made a good candidate for a Green Interview and he said anyone contributing to what he sees as the “change of consciousness” necessary to creating a more sustainable world:

[A]nyone who’s taking action towards that end is, for me, a good subject for a Green Interview. So it might be an artist like Robert Bateman or a musician like Scott Macmillan with the Celtic Mass for the Sea. It might be someone who’s made some sort of technical innovation…But ultimately, I think it comes down to recognizing the human place in the world. Recognizing that we’ve got that wrong and as a result we’ve created an economy that is really a vast machine for junking the world. And until we change and see our way past that, we will continue to make mistakes where we misunderstand who we are and where we are.

Cameron said this need to understand our place in the world has meant that, increasingly, they are speaking to aboriginal and First Nations peoples:

[I]t’s clear the First Nations have always understood that the earth is our Mother, and that you treat it as sacred…And once you understand that the world is a sacred place, not…simply an inert bundle of resources, and once you start to look at the implications of that, it’s a tremendously exciting transformation that you get into, but one where you find the First Nations — indigenous people all over the world — pretty much had that understanding of it. That’s the transformation that we have to make, if we can keep some of the marvels that we have created through industrial society but stop making huge overdrafts on the world…

A sub-category of The Green Interview called “Indigenous Insight” includes interviews with John Borrows, the aboriginal legal scholar and member of the Neyaashiinigmiing community of North-Western Ontario, and Edmund Metatawabin, the Mushkegowuk (Lowlands Cree) chief and writer. Cameron says his wish list for future interviews includes Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall, adviser to the Unama’ki Institute of Natural Resources.

 

New alliances

Cameron’s journalistic roots go back to The Mysterious East, a left-leaning monthly Maritimes magazine he published out of Fredericton, NB in the 1960s, when he was a prof at UNB. The Mysterious East was part of a crop of what we’d probably now call “alternative” publications that included the Fourth Estate in Halifax and The Cape Breton Highlander (my family’s weekly) in Sydney. Cameron draws an interesting line from their activism to the present day:

In those days, those of us who kind of recognized that we were doing something unsustainable — we wouldn’t have used this language about it, but we knew there was something wrong with the way things were going and it wasn’t environmentalism at that point, it was social justice. And we didn’t recognize at that point that the two are inextricably linked…

[W]hen you think about the labor battles in Cape Breton in the early 20th century…[i]t’s not a battle about whether or not you should be…rampaging through the earth in this way, it’s a battle about who gets to keep the spoils…And I think we were all quite correct in saying that this had to be a more equitable distribution or else it was really not a moral thing to do.

But what’s happened since, I think, is that as our consciousness has broadened…we’ve come to see that it’s not just a question of the spoils, it’s a question about not getting the spoils in the first place. It’s a question about organizing ourselves in such a way that there’s enough for ourselves but there’s also enough for our children and grandchildren, as the First Nations would say, up to the seventh generation and beyond.

The battle against rampant capitalism today, he says, unites the old forces of the left with the environmentalists and the First Nations — an alliance he says was on clear display in the battle over fracking in Elsipogtog First Nation in New Brunswick in 2013 (a story told in yet another Cameron/Beckett co-production, the film Green Rights: The Human Right to a Healthy World)

[T]he great lesson from that is the First Nations have legal instruments and status that no settler has and that’s a very useful tool; but also, the settlers have instruments that the First Nations don’t have, being in the traditional mainstream and having access to the levers and all that sort of thing, where the First Nations have traditionally been excluded. And when you put together not only the settlers but the two main groups of settlers in this country, which is the French and the English, in Elsipogtog you saw a coalition of the French, the English, the First Nations and it was undefeatable, it was unstoppable. And I think that’s where the future may very well lie, is with settlers of conscience…and the First Nations, together…

(And anyone who watched Councilor Esmond “Blue” Marshall of Eskasoni bring discussion of a zoning amendment to allow an RV Park in Big Pond to a grinding halt during Tuesday’s night’s council meeting by asking that a vote be postponed until First Nations peoples were properly consulted would probably have to agree.)

 

Cooperation

The Green Interview is an impressive resource that I have been determined to exploit (in a sustainable way) since I first discovered it because environmental issues are something I want very much to cover but haven’t found much time to focus on as yet.

John Cumbler

John Cumbler

Reviewing the site for this article, I had an idea, which was that I could try, once a month, to write about a local environmental issue and link to an appropriate interview on Cameron’s site.

The Green Interview is subscription-based, so $9.95(US) per month (with one month free) or $99.95 (US) per year will give you access to the full archives of over 100 interviews — you can watch the videos, read the transcripts or download the audio as MP3 files. (I personally think a podcast is in order. In fact, I actually told Cameron I thought he needed a podcast which, given I have no idea what is involved in turning MP3 files into podcasts, seems rather cheeky in retrospect.)

I was going to start this project next month but during our interview, Cameron happened to mention a man named John Cumbler, a social and environmental historian and retired University of Kentucky professor who now lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Intrigued, I ended up watching Cameron’s Green Interview with Cumbler. Their discussion is wide-ranging (it lasts a full hour, as do most Green Interviews) but at one point they focus on the question of tourism developments versus the environment (and the locals) and my ears perked up because this definitely has local implications — whether in relation to the proposed RV Park in Big Pond or the rumored construction of yet another golf course in Inverness County.

Cumbler begins by saying:

I think the success of the tourist industry at beginning of 20th century until about 1970 blinded people to the fact that tourism has an environmental cost too.

And the canary in the coal mine in terms of that environmental cost? Cumbler thinks it’s the water, particularly on a place like Cape Cod, which depends on a single aquifer. Pollutants, he says, move into a water supply very slowly, a good thing, but they also move out very slowly, a bad thing. On the Cape, a variety of chemicals from a variety of sources have been making their inexorable way toward the aquifer for years: de-icers and flame retardants from the nearby airforce base; garbage from town dumps, nitrates from home septic systems and the fertilizers and herbicides from lawns (the “chemical input” Cumbler says has replaced expensive human labor).

The result is toxic plumes, algae blooms, depletion of oxygen. Says Cumbler:

There’s a lot of problems with development anywhere, but on the Cape, I think the water system is going to be the first thing that rings the bell.

Single-family hotel? 11-bed, 9-bath home in Osterville, Cape Cod. (Source: Robert Paul Properties http://www.robertpaul.com/)

Single-family hotel? 11-bed, 9-bath home in Osterville, Cape Cod. (Source: Robert Paul Properties)

But his take on this situation is nuanced: he also warns that protecting the environment from development has to be done very carefully, as it can have entirely unintended consequences:

We can limit our growth on the Cape in one way, where the Cape becomes a sort of museum for the wealthy. But is that what we want? We have to be very careful that in limiting growth we don’t privilege one group of people against other groups. And that’s a difficult task.

All the more difficult because even things that are clearly unsustainable can have positive short-term effects. As an example, Cumbler points to the homes the ultra-rich have constructed on the Cape — for which he uses the fantastic term “single-family hotels.” Increasingly, he says, the owners are not summer people but “weekend people,” who use the homes “three or four weekends a year.” The structures consume “obscene” amounts of resources (causing Cameron to note that this kind of waste has become the “badge of wealth” in the 21st century, using “resources that could house 20 families full time to house one family four weekends a year.”)

And yet, says Cumbler, if you’re a local oysterman, your children get to go to one of the best public schools in the State of Massachusetts because the owners of those immense houses pay property taxes and the property taxes fund schools.  And if you’re a landowner on the Cape, your property is worth a fortune — you can sell and go live comfortably on the mainland.

But Cumbler suggests this last option is starting to lose its appeal, as “old-timers” realize their children can’t afford to live on the Cape anymore and some raise the specter of an “apartheid” state in which the wealthy live on the Cape and “bus people in to work there.” A situation, as Cameron points out, that would constitute “a loss of human diversity.” From such concerns has grown a movement to protect affordable housing and open spaces.

At this point, Cumbler reminds us that he’s a historian by pointing out public concern for the common good tends to come in waves, the last of which “got pushed back down in the ’50s and ’60s” and expressing the hope that the time has come for it to “reassert itself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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