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THE NEXT ECO-WARRIORS
22 Young Women and Men Who are Saving the Planet
By Emily Hunter
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2011 Emily Hunter
All rights reserved.
Not the End, Just the Beginning!
Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have.
THE CLOCK HAD JUST STRUCK MIDNIGHT. I stood in an empty warehouse. The lights were flickering, telling me to leave. A cleaning crew began sweeping up around me, from the mess of thousands of people before. Chairs and tables were being packed in. And a winter's breeze flew in, chilling my skin.
It was over.
I could hardly believe it. I couldn't accept the end. My body began trembling, and my heart ached. A friend tried showing me the exit door, but I didn't want to leave. I couldn't mentally grapple with it all. I kept looking up at a TV screen showcasing an empty room that held the negotiations. Hoping someone would come up to the podium and tell me the happy ending of this story.
But the happy ending wasn't coming.
It was a cold winter's night in 2009, the last day of the Copenhagen Climate Summit, an event that had been pitted as our "best and last chance" in the battle against climate change. Nearly two hundred heads of state had converged to finally tackle our impending thermageddon, with the United States leading the march.
There were forty-six thousand delegates from around the world participating in the summit to influence the leaders' decision, thousands more on the streets to protest if they made the wrong decision. Maybe even more important, the world was watching. All eyes were on Copenhagen and how it would unfold our climate's future. This was the it moment ... and we lost it.
As I stood there in an activist convergence house on that final hour, I was grasping for hope. Hope that what became secret negotiations of a few individuals deciding the fate of the planet would spark something more than pure failure. But with silence in the room, I was beginning to know better. Hope was nothing more than a distant dream.
* * *
THINKING BACK TO MY FATHER, I felt as if I had failed him most of all. Five years earlier, I was in a hospital, staring death in the face—my dad's face. He was sweating bullets, just lying there, not moving an inch in the hospital bed. I couldn't seem to wet the cloth and wipe his forehead fast enough. These were the last moments I had with him. He was dying from a terminal cancer.
I had so much that I wanted to ask him before he left us. I wanted to carry on his eco-crusade into the next generation, but I needed to know how. Yet he couldn't say a word to me; he was unconscious and slipping by the second. I kept asking myself: Why him? Why now?
His name was Robert Hunter, and he was nothing short of a visionary and a leader. As a cofounder and the first president of Greenpeace, he was an unsung hero who was part of a band of individuals that began the modern-day environmental movement in the 1970s.
But to me, he was Dad. I used to skip school to hang around him in his cabin as he typed away, writing his books and articles outdoors. We would chat, with our heads lying on the grass, eyes wide open and staring at the sky, contemplating the cosmos, the meaning of life, and just how damn fucking lucky we were to be on this beautiful blue planet. He was my teacher, my guru, my best friend. And it seemed as if he was going away now when the Earth needed him most ... when I needed him most.
Then there it was, his last breath. A last exhale, and it was all over. It was the end of him, the end of our relationship, and the end of an era.
* * *
AROUND THE TIME OF MY DAD'S ILLNESS, he had sent me on my first environmental campaign. I had traveled the world on my own and was sickened with what I had seen. It was the same old story anywhere I went: rapid development for the pursuit of jumping on an economic steam engine headed nowhere but to a mystical "progress" land, all at the cost of hacking the planet and killing people.
I had seen a man on a bicycle run over by a speeding truck in Guangzhou, China, because he literally couldn't keep up with development. I had seen one of the most beautiful places on Earth: heaven with waterfalls, crystal-clear water and life in all forms streaming from the island of Phi Phi, Thailand, and at the same time, its rape by mass-market tourism. I had seen a perpetual sunset in the sky in Irkutsk, Russia, from impenetrable smog. And I had seen enough; I knew I didn't want to just watch it any longer.
Knowing I was pulsing with a desire to fight, my father bought me a one-way ticket to the west end of Canada to jump on the ship belonging to his old pal Paul Watson. Paul's vessel was called the M/V Farley Mowat, and he ran his organization the Sea Shepherd out of the nuts-and-bolts boat. The Farley, as I came to call her, looked as if it was falling apart, but yet it was this ship that helped build the organization's reputation for being pirates for the oceans. Known for ramming other vessels and being taken hostages by their opposers, Sea Shepherd's members had saved countless marine lives, from whales and dolphins to tuna. But Sea Shepherd hadn't had much "action" in a couple of years, and I wasn't expecting much. I certainly wasn't expecting much as a member of the crew.
Growing up, I was surrounded by older hippie friends of my parents, recounting their "glory days" of the '70s environmental movement, as if it were some phenomenal event in history that was never to happen again. I was expecting nothing short of the same old hippies in these Sea Shepherd activists. Yet to my great surprise, I found exactly the opposite: young, courageous, spirited, risk takers that had so much passion and conviction it would make Gandhi weep.
One of the first people I met aboard the vessel was Peter Hammarstedt, a Swede who probably inspired me most of all. He was younger than me (and I was nineteen at the time), yet he had already fought on the frontlines to protect wild buffalo, would later come to be arrested (numerous times), was eventually exiled from Canada for his fight for seals, and worked his way to being the youngest first mate for Sea Shepherd in his efforts to save whales. Despite his tough-guy stance and militant veganism that might scare off some, he was more humane than anyone I had ever met in my generation. He was a warrior, but he had a deep core about him and a beautiful heart. He showed me the potential our generation really has within itself.
During that campaign, we sailed from Canada to the Galapagos Islands, and after several puke buckets later, I arrived on the majestic islands. The Galapagos Islands are one of the last places on Earth that are still mostly intact, with high numbers of endemic species found nowhere else in the world, both on land and in the ocean. It was Captain Watson's wish to try to keep the islands safe from humans' destructive nature.
I remember staring out at the volcanic island for the first time, lush with green vegetation and beaming with life in its waters. Yet, there I was, feeling unsure of myself and of what I was doing there. I had a burning urge inside me to do something, but I wasn't sure what I could do here in the Galapagos and what I could do with Sea Shepherd. I wasn't a sailor, as the puke buckets proved, and I had no seaman skills whatsoever. But I was soon put to work anyway.
We carried out precious cargo of spay and neuter medicine for veterinarians on the islands, as the foreign species like dogs were annihilating the Indigenous ones. We then patrolled the islands for weeks, arresting three illegal fishing vessels by spotting their location and calling in the navy. And, just when the campaign seemed to be winding down, that's when things got heated.
There had always been tensions between the fishermen and the conservationists on the islands, but the new demands by the fishermen were beyond obscene. There was a "gold rush" on the sea cucumbers in the Galapagos, as a pretty dollar was being earned from Asian markets for each one caught. While before there had been restrictions by the Galapagos National Park on allotted catch numbers, now the fishermen wanted full exploitation of the sea cucumbers. And who knows what would be next. It seemed few were fighting back, so we decided to intervene.
I jumped with five male crewmembers on a Zodiac, a type high-speed boat that activists often use, to the outer edge of the research station where the fishermen were holding their protest. They had barbed-wired the place and were surrounding every entrance but one, our landing strip. We jumped off the Zodiac and walked right into the midst of a battle between the navy with their guns and the fishermen with their Molotov cocktails and iron bats. No weapons had been used, but tension was mounting, and we certainly didn't make things any better.
We immediately stood our ground, holding a frontline just ahead of the navy and in front of the research station where scientists and park rangers were being held. I remember standing there as the only female activist; it was exhilarating but a bit scary. Men approached me within inches of my face and body, making sexually suggestive maneuvers and putting weapons in my face. Alex Cornelissen, the head of our pack, told me not to say a word and just hold my ground. Even with much desire to give a piece of my mind, I remembered the words my father used to say: "Always hold the moral high ground."
In that moment, a lot of what my father had told me over the years started to crystallize. Yet what heightened my heart rate, quickened my pulse, and made my head sweat wasn't just the adrenaline from the high of the action, but also the realization that what I was experiencing wasn't just those old stories anymore. This was a new narrative: my generation's story that we were writing. It was the sparks of a new movement. The idea alone made me want to squeal with delight right there and then, but I knew I needed to shut up, hold my ground, and look tough. Trying not to smile was the hardest thing I had to do in that moment.
Just then, Alex gave me the order to head inside the research station. I thought we were just regrouping. Instead I was told that the navy didn't want us in front anymore. They thought we were provoking the fishermen. We, who had no weapons and were standing peacefully, were provoking? Huh! Why is it that activists are always treated like criminals when the real criminals get the VIP treatment? Sure, I didn't think the fishermen themselves were the real criminals—more so were the multinational corporations for which they worked—but they were agents in this war, and they had picked a side nonetheless. A side I would fight against, whatever was to happen.
Within minutes, hanging low inside the research station turned into a hostage situation. The fishermen had the place surrounded, even with the navy around, and none of us could get out: the scientists, the park rangers, and us. I knew, sitting on the floor of the station and staring at the miserable people around me, that nobody in the world knew what was happening in our corner of the world. And I was of the belief that when a tree falls and nobody hears it, it hasn't really fallen. So with only being able to make one phone call, similar to being in jail, I made the one call that would get this story in the news: I called my dad. As he was the leading environmental journalist in Canada after his Greenpeace days and hosted his own hour talk show that night, I knew he would love the story. So I called him and said:
"Hey, Dad ... I'm a hostage," starting off the conversation on a high note.
"What? What the fuck is going on?" he replied.
I explained the mess we were in. As a journalist and eco-media savant, he was jumping out of his seat for the story. But as my father, he was petrified for his "little girl."
"Now, but seriously, are you okay?" he said, with a slight panic in his throat.
I told him all was well, even though with the Molotov cocktails outside, I had no idea myself. We did the interview live on his show twenty minutes later. I got Paul on the show, Alex, and myself. The news began to spread, and after the interview we spoke again. He was bursting with pride, he told me, but the dad in him wanted me to call every chance I got.
"Your mother is going to be so pissed with me," he said, ending the conversation.
A couple of hours later, all of us were free and unharmed.
I remember looking at myself in the mirror the next morning, looking long and hard at my face. It looked a bit different. After nineteen years of not knowing what the hell I was doing with my life, I suddenly had a purpose and I could see it in my eyes. I knew I wanted to be an eco-shit-disturber till the day I die. We may not have won the battle for the sea cucumbers—victories in this eco-war are seldom, after all—but the beginning of a new movement was starting. It was right there with that young crew of Sea Shepherd activists.
* * *
YEARS LATER, I COULD SE THE GROWTH of the movement and the growth in myself as an activist. I joined Sea Shepherd in the Antarctic to help save whales. Over several years, I was a part of a mission with many young activists from around the world that saved more than a thousand whales. Later, I fought against the Canadian tar sands, a carbon-intensive oil project that is Canada's scar on the planet. I met many new activist contingents, including First Nations communities downstream of the project, who are confronting a slow industrial genocide and give a face to this fight. And as I traveled, meeting and greeting this movement's next generation, my own personal activism took on a new shape as an eco-media warrior of sorts.
Everywhere I went, I worked with mainstream media, shooting any and all environmental stories I could and exposing the movement's fight to the masses. There was a revolution in the camera. I had begun to understand that in the Galapagos but grew more passionate about it over the years. I believed that capturing environmental news from inside the battle exposed people to a world many didn't even know existed. To me, it was simply good journalism and effective activism—the two went hand in hand. So I was heading to Copenhagen, to cover the biggest story of them all, for it was sure to be this generation's biggest battle yet. But would it be enough?
Bouncing off the plane in Denmark, I was beaming. The airport was packed down the corridor with posters from Greenpeace and WWF alike, reminding us all what was at stake. A contrasting mosaic of individuals bustled out onto the subways, from habit-wearing nuns to Indigenous Peruvians in traditional wear, from cowboys to hippies, from corporate sellouts to top-tier negotiators. In the center of the city was a sixty-five-foot (19.8-meter) green globe you couldn't miss for miles, on which images of the Earth were projected, and a concert called "Hopenhagen Live," where companies like Coca-Cola sold "hope" in bottle form and the ignorant masses danced. It was a climate circus, and the feeling of being utterly alone began to sink in for the first time.
Everyone there had a purpose, everyone there had a mission, everyone there had a group of people they were with. Either you were affiliated with a nonprofit organization, a science body, or a governance of some sort, or you were in the way. Or at least that's the way it felt. Having lost a media gig and media partner just days before my flight, I was determined to still be in Copenhagen for this crucial moment in the saga to save the planet, and I was equally if not more determined to have an actual reason to be there, even if this all meant doing it by myself.
Desperate to find any job I could, I latched on to a volunteer correspondent opportunity for MTV News Canada. I would cover the Copenhagen summit, engaging youth back home in one of the most important issues of our time, maybe even inspiring others to get involved. This coverage would be a window into a world otherwise unrelatable to young people. I couldn't have asked for a better gig.
The only catch was I had to do it all alone: be my own camerawomen, reporter, editor, and techie, sending my clips through cyberspace and back in time for the six o'clock show in Toronto that day. Long days and little sleep were ahead, but I had done this before and I knew I could do it again. Yet what I was not ready for was what was about to happen inside the summit.
Excerpted from THE NEXT ECO-WARRIORS by Emily Hunter. Copyright © 2011 Emily Hunter. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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