To End the Earth’s Suffering

“Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, and suddenly I realize that if long ago I had changed myself, I could have made an impact on my family. My family and I could have made an impact on our town. Their impact could have changed the nation and I could indeed have changed the world.”

~ Unknown Buddhist Monk

Our suffering is killing us, and it’s destroying what sustains life on earth.

We suffer, in part, because we crave or desire material objects – a newer iPhone, a nicer car, a bigger house – as well as emotional safety, such as the illusion of stable relationships and certainty about life’s path.

No amount of material possessions can ever satisfy our longing because happiness and peace in life cannot be obtained from external belongings. Nor can we ever count on our relationships with other people, with our work, or even with our family for emotional grounding because these things are constantly in flux: friends move away, careers change with time, children grow up and leave home and loved-ones die. Happiness and peace are not found outside of the self; only within.

Across much of western society, and around the world, we have either forgotten this simple truth or have never learned it in the first place. We continue to try and ease our suffering through the accumulation of wealth and by denying the most basic fundamental truths of human existence: everything changes; everybody grows old, gets sick and dies; and everything is part of everything else.

Our difficulty grasping the interconnectedness of everything, not only on earth, but across all of time and space, leads us to feel a profound loneliness and a sense of isolation from one another. In turn, we try to ease this pain by filling our lives with material possessions, rather than practices that help us erase the barrier between ourselves and the rest of existence.

As humanity struggles to address the most pressing global issues of our time – a changing climate that will irrevocably alter life on earth, crushing poverty and inequality, and the loss of biodiversity that will cripple global ecosystems of which we are inextricably a part – we need to address not just the outcome of these challenges, but their root cause: our suffering’s impact on the world that sustains us, and on one another.

For almost twenty-five years I’ve been an environmental and social activist. I’ve taken a straight-forward approach to advocating for what I believe in: a patch of wilderness that I cherish is threatened, so I work with my community, scientists, and with other activists to fight oil and gas development, logging, mining or road building. An important animal like the grizzly bear or the bull trout is threatened with extinction so I rally the public to fight for stronger laws and regulations to protect it. I’ve had some success, but I’ve also watched so many things that I cherish slip away.

My advocacy was often fueled by anger, and its underlying cause fear, because of what we were losing. Around ten years ago that started to change; I realized that letting my love for other people, for wild places, and for the dignity of humanity fuel my work to make change was far more effective – and personally sustainable – than being driven by my fear. In 2006 I wrote Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership to outline what I thought was a better path for people who want to make the world a better place to follow.

Since then I’ve been trying to use the three pillars of the Tao – restraint, compassion and love – in my everybody life, first as a consultant to non-profits and business, and once again as a leader in North America’s conservation movement.

In doing so I’ve stumbled upon a difficult reality: all of our victories to protect the fabric of life on this planet, all of our efforts to provide dignity, food and shelter for people who are in need of it, are temporary. Everything we do to protect the backbone of the globe’s biodiversity only lasts until our own insatiable appetite for whatever riches lie buried beneath that place as goal, oil and gas, or growing on it as merchantable timber, are needed by an ever more desperate human population.

Nothing is safe and no place is so sacred that we won’t one day sacrifice it if we grew desperate enough. There is no law that can’t be rescinded; there is no United Nations status that is so prestigious that it won’t be ignored if humankind continues on its current trajectory. Witness the status of South Africa’s black rhinoceros: hunted to near extinction for the aphrodisiac believed to be continued in its horn. Laws and even an armed militia aren’t enough to keep poachers from shooting these animals and leaving them to rot, and for what? So that someone somewhere can satisfy their sexual desire.

Witness also the full-out assault on Canada’s laws to protect our environment; laws that once made us the envy of the world, and now leave us the laughing stock. In just a few short years Canada’s Conservative government under Prime Minster Stephen Harper have dismantled the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, the Navigable Waterways Act, the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act and the Fisheries Act, once the strongest piece of legislation in Canada for safeguarding the Environment. The Species at Risk Act, which I helped advocate for from 1997 through late 2002, is next on the chopping block. Why? To make it easier for petrochemical companies to drill for oil and ship it to refineries around the world.

Until we address the underlying cause of the rampant destruction of the natural world, until we address the extraordinary disparity between rich and poor around the globe, every effort to protect life on earth will be fleeting. We need another approach; we need something in addition to our political and community advocacy in order to address what Wade Davis calls the “fire burring over the Earth, taking with it plants and animals, cultures, languages, ancient skills and visionary wisdom.”[1]

Through the practice of meditation, which I began in earnest during a period of personal upheaval in 2006, I began to understand the nature of my own suffering, and that of every other human being. Suffering is at once deeply personal and universal. We all suffer; it is the nature of humanity to feel the pain that comes from life, and our perceptions of it.

Twenty-five hundred years ago an Indian prince named Siddhartha Gautama felt that pain too. Raised in opulent luxury and sheltered from the world of sickness, disease and death, the young prince came face-to-face with these realities and fled his life of privilege and began to follow a spiritual path. After six years of wandering, meditation, and self-deprivation, the man who would become the first Buddha was no closer to solving for himself what is a universal paradox: life ends, everything we love is taken from us, and we and everybody we care for will one day die. Nothing we can do will stop that; we have to make peace with it.

Siddhartha sat down under the Bodhi tree and meditated on this quandary. He recalled that in his youth he had found the greatest peace of his life enjoying a profound interconnectedness with nature, and with all life on earth, and in that moment realized what Buddhists now call the two Great Truths: that everything is temporary and everything is interconnected with everything else.

In that moment he ceased to be Siddhartha the prince and he became a Buddha; one who has conquered suffering; an enlightened being.

All the riches in the world could not fulfill the young prince’s soul; he had to confront the most basic facts of human existence, and make peace with them, before he could be happy. From that moment on he dedicated the rest of his life – another forty-five years – teaching a simple message: that we are all the Buddha. Every human being who has ever lived and ever will are Buddha, and all that is needed is a profound understanding – not just intellectually, but an actual emotional and spiritual acceptance – of the basic conditions of life.

Let me be clear about this: I have not surmounted the obstacles to suffering. I have not achieved enlightenment; not even of the 25-watt kind. Enlightenment isn’t even my goal; peace of heart and mind is my simple ambition. But the world is careening toward disaster and I am no longer convinced that activism alone will abate the destruction, so I find myself writing about an end to suffering out of a moral imperative to preserve what, and who, I love.

In concert with activism of all kinds, I believe that a spiritual and practical application of the Buddha’s teaching could ease the pell-mell ruin of the earth’s wonders. Once we have experienced, first hand, the simple truths of the Buddha’s teaching, and put into place some basic tenants to guide our behaviour, we no longer feel the need to satiate our appetite for material objects to fill the hole in our hearts. It does not mean that we must live the life of an aesthete, shunning any material possession or pleasure. It means that we control our desire, rather than the other way around.

The Buddha taught that there are Four Noble Truths that we must confront before we can do so.

The first is the truth of suffering. We all suffer. Some have misinterpreted this to mean that all life is suffering, but that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught us that life entails suffering.

Second he taught that there is a cause to this suffering. Our suffering is caused by our lack of understanding of the two Great Truths: that everything changes and everything is connected. We become attached to things, to people, to loved ones, to objects of desire, and that attachment, our desire for these things, causes us to suffer when we can’t have them, or when they change. We suffer also because we perceive ourselves as separate from one another and the fabric of life on earth and across the universe.

Third, the Buddha taught that there is an end to suffering. If we can experience the interconnectedness of life and make peace with the nature of change, we can conquer our suffering.

Finally the Buddha taught that there is a path that we can follow to peace, joy, liberation from suffering and ultimately nirvana: the magic of living fully in the present moment in a state of enlightenment. That path is the Noble Eightfold Path, and it remains a guide that we in the 21st century can use to achieve peace while addressing the underlying cause of the suffering we inflict on the world.

The Noble Eightfold Path is not a mystical passageway that leads to a conversion or to a religious belief: it is a set of guidelines for living a life free of suffering. The Eightfold Path is right view, right thinking, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right diligence, right mindfulness and right concentration.  Right in this case means “in the right way” or “straight” or “upright.”[2]

For example, right view means developing a deep understanding of the Four Noble Truths about the nature of suffering and how to end it. Right view means developing personal insight into these truths and believing in our hearts that there is an end the pain caused by our misperceptions of life and having faith in ourselves that we can overcome this pain because many others have already.

When we have come to grips with the nature of suffering through right view, we then automatically begin to think more clearly about our lives and the choices we have to make, and so on. In this way we see that each of the Noble Eightfold Path’s steps are at once a logical progression from one to another and all interconnected.

My purpose in writing this book is simple: I want to help ease human suffering so that we in turn can ease the suffering we cause the world and one another.

The purpose of Buddhism is not to make more Buddhists, nor is that my purpose. While I identify myself as a Buddhist – one who has accepted the basic truth about human suffering and who is trying to ease it – I also am a father, a husband, an activist, a writer, a community member and a friend. The teachings of the Buddha are not aimed at converting people to a certain religion. People from any faith can learn about the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path – along with many other teachings – and adopt them as part of their own personal trajectory towards happiness and peace. While there are certainly schools of Buddhism that verge on the worship of the man who was Gautama Buddha that is not what the Buddha taught. He taught that we are all Buddha, and that each and every one of us can wake up to the peace that comes with liberation from suffering.

Nor is my purpose in writing this book is not to replace what I think of as traditional activism with a spiritual practice. Buddhism has existed on earth for more than two-thousand, five hundred years; the process of seeking and finding nirvana – everyday freedom from suffering – is a slow process. We will need to use all of our skills and tools to save what we love about the earth, its cultures and its people. We must continue with political pressure, with protests and marches, with letter writing and economic pressure; but to win in the long term, we must remove the desire that drives the hunger for more; more things, and the precious resources that must be consumed to make ever more material objects.

My purpose is this: if we want our success in preserving life on earth and human dignity to be lasting then we must quench the fire that burns in the heart of humanity that must constantly be fed by more and more material demands. Until we do nothing will be sacred. Once we begin to make peace with our selves and the basic truth of human existence everything will be sacred.

This is the first piece of writing in a series of essays I am completing for a book. What do you think? I want your feedback to improve the ideas, and to collect first-hand examples. Please chime in.


[1] Wade Davis, The Clouded Leopard. pp 231. 1998, Douglas and McIntyre Ltd.

[2] From The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching; Thich Nat Hanh, page 11. Broadway Press, 1998.

Respect, not Contempt, needed from Ottawa for Idle No More

My MP in Ottawa is an earnest young man from Airdrie named Blake Richards. He’s a backbencher with the Conservative Party, and I get a lot of mail from him extolling the virtues of his efforts on my behalf in Parliament, and those of this Party.

It’s pretty rare that we agree on much of anything. We’re both in favour of open, accountable government, but he isn’t a part of one. The F-35 fiasco has proven that beyond a doubt. Apparently we’re both in favour of responsible spending, but the Conservatives hand $1.4 billion dollars every year to oil and gas companies in Canada, which in turn record massive profits at the expenses of our environmental and health: hardly a wise investment.

Otherwise, I find that my voice is completely absent from Ottawa as my MP could really care less about someone like me: fish-kissing, gay-rights supporting, pro-democratic-reform whack-job from Wildrose.

Now I’ve found something else Mr. Richards and I can staunchly disagree on: I am one Canadian who has NOT grown “increasingly frustrated and disappointed with the actions of those who blockade highways and railways” as Mr. Richards suggests in his January 18 “Richard’s Report.”

“There can be no doubt that Canadians have had a lot of patience with the recent Idle No More protests taking place across our country,” he says in his Report.

I’m pretty sure that the First Nations people he’s referring to are also Canadians; the First Canadians in fact.

The MP then goes on to say that thanks to the dedication of the Conservative Government, 80 land claims have been settled and 10,000 units of housing built on reserves. This is all well-and-good, but it doesn’t seem to have helped the poorest people in Canada pull themselves out of poverty, nor does it address some of the fundamental concerns that have lead to the Idle No More movement across this country.

Bill C-45, among other pieces of federal legislation, is at the centre of this dispute. The massive omnibus bill threatens to further destroy Canada’s environmental protection by gutting the Navigable Waterways Act. Already the Fisheries Act, the Canadian Environmental Protection Act and the Environmental Assessment Act have been reduced to shadows of their former selves. The Species at Risk Act is next. First Nations people argue that the federal government has a duty to consult them on the most recent desecration of Canada’s environmental safeguards, and that destroying those provisions amounts to a violation of their treaty rights.

Mr. Richards concludes his newsletter by saying this:

“Our government respects the rights of all Canadians to legal, peaceful protest. In the case of Idle No More, this movement has done a lot to engage our First Nations citizens. This sort of awakening can be useful in helping us make progress on matters of mutual concern like economic opportunity, housing, education and accountability.”

So true: what the Idle No More movement has come to realize is that as Canadians we can have our awakening and “make progress” until the cows come home, but it’s not solving the problems that lead to the moment of reckoning in the first place. The rest of us Canadians should be out there in the cold with our First Nations colleagues, neighbours and friends fighting for what makes Canada great: the vast beautiful green land that until recently was considered one of the most pristine on earth, but is rapidly becoming a toxic sewer, ever fast now under the Conservatives.

Mr. Richard’s government is running Canada into the ground. We’re an international pariah on the environment, deliberately sabotaging any effort to curb green house gas emissions and make meaningful progress on other important global issues such as poverty and meaningful aid to developing nations.

And meanwhile, this nation’s First People’s are still living in government sanctioned squalor. Yes they have problems; some of their fiscal management is almost as bad as our federal and provincial governments. But for ten thousand years these First Canadians lived good lives on in this extraordinary landscape of prairie, forests, lakes, mountains, tundra and sea-shores and in the last two hundred years all of that has been ruined for the sake of profit and the progress that Mr. Richard’s espouses. Nobody expects First Nations people to live as they once did; but nobody should expect that when our country continues to break promise after promise made to them that they will sit still and say thank-you for building a few houses and settling the occasional treaty.

What the Idle No More movement seems to be saying – at least to me, an outsider who shares many of their concerns – is that respect is as important as anything else that we can share with our First Nations countrymen and women. And what Mr. Richards makes clear on behalf of his government is that he has very little of it when it comes to his relationship with this country’s First Peoples.

The root of the sickness

“The time to address gun control laws in the United States was Thursday.” This statement, made to a CBC reporter when he asked a question of a Newtown, Connecticut resident yesterday, will almost certainly dominate the debate over the most recent mass shooting in America in the coming days. And while I think this conversation is vital, there is a deeper, more radical question that must be asked.

The predictable and often repeated debate over gun control in that country will once again be replayed in the wake the death of 27 people on Friday, December 15. On one side of that debate will be advocates for gun control arguing that without the easy access to guns, madmen like the one who killed innocent children and their teachers on Friday in a Connecticut school would not be able to take as many lives. On the other will be the zealots from the National Rifle Association and other industry funded “right to bear arms” groups saying that possessing firearms is protected by the US constitution and that Americans should preserve that privilege in order to defend themselves. Never mind that in any one of the twenty mass shootings in the US in 2012 nobody has successfully defended themselves and their fellow citizens with their own weapon.

This debate is bound to reach a fevered pitch in the US, and elsewhere, in the wake of the most recent school shooting. I predict it will reach its apogee just before Christmas, and then, as it always has, will fade from our minds, replaced by more mundane concerns, and by the holiday season.

And if that happens, twenty young children, some as young as five years old, will have been gunned down by a madman in vain. There can be no sense made from such violence; there can be the impetus drawn from such malice to cure what ills us as a society and has, this year alone, claimed sixty-eight lives in mass-shootings (The FBI defines a mass-shooting as one where there are four fatalities, not including the gun man) and 543 since 1982.

If you use the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence’s statistics, the story is even bleaker. They report that since 2005 there have been 431 incidents where more than one person has been shot at a time in the US alone.

The gun law debate aside, we must address another question: what is it about the human condition that makes the sickest among us want to pick up a pair of handguns, walk into a school, shoot your own mother and then proceed to kill her students? What makes someone want to walk into a crowded theatre and randomly shoot strangers?

There is a profound illness that underlies these acts of random violence and has made them the norm, not just in the United States, but here in Canada, in Europe and elsewhere. Psychopathy – the mental illness that renders a person unable to feel empathy for others – must surely be part of the root of this predilection of mass violence. But there must be more.

If our communities are like giant, interactive living organisms, these people who emerge to cause such unspeakable violence are the symptoms of a vast illness that permeates our being. At the root of this illness there is a lack of value for the sacredness of human life, and a fundamental failure to grasp the interconnectedness of all living beings. Every day as a society we cause great violence to one another and the world around us. These gunmen are simply the most obvious – and most disturbing – outward manifestation of our illness.

There is an anger and a fear that lies just beneath the surface of humanity that every now and again finds an outlet through these psychopaths and sociopaths and just-plain deeply disturbed individuals. We live in a way where our desires can never be satisfied, because what we want – more – is never enough. We seek our fulfillment from without – from things, from other people – and not from our own peace and well-being, and that frustration simmers below the surface of our everyday lives like a cancer waiting to metastasise.

When that illness finds the perfect host to express its rage – the utter lack of caring for the holiness of all life, of humanity, of the pure unbridled potential of a child – it can have disastrous results. The combination of a society without an understanding of our interconnectedness, and a mentally ill person with easy access of guns and you get Colorado, Columbine, Connecticut and too many other examples of list, or even make sense of.

We can, and we must, (but likely won’t) address gun control, not just in the United States, but everywhere that firearms are so easily available. But as a society we must also consider the underlying illness that makes it possible for sick individuals to fester up like a lesion and destroy lives so wontedly. Until we view all life as sacred, until we see ourselves not just as individuals who are isolated from one another but as a part of all life, we can justify perpetuating great violence against each other, and against the earth and its creatures. We are not separate, and when we harm our so-called enemies, and when we rip into the earth and poison it, we are slowly killing ourselves too.

The death of so many children and those who loved them and were sworn to their care yesterday is just another deeply painful example of why we must seek to find peace in our own hearts, and teach that peace to one another and our children. It’s for the sake of our future as a species that we must bring an end to this terrible suffering that we have created.

Dependence Day

Happy Independence Day America. As someone who spends a huge portion of his working life traipsing around your environs, I feel like I am getting to know you. And seeing how we’re all this – whatever the hell this is – together, I think I’ve earned the right to ask a simple question:

What exactly are we celebrating our independence from?

In 1776 the United States of America declared its freedom from the United Kingdom, earning the right to make its own laws and govern itself: of the people, for the people and by the people.

Two-hundred and thirty-six years later, we seem to have developed a few unhealthy dependencies.

White the first War of Independence was fought against taxation without representation; the next War of Independence will be fought against more complex, self-imposed forms of repression.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels that have chained our economy to the health of petroleum companies that by default rule much of the world;

The next War of Independence will be fought against our predilection to pick a fight with anybody and everybody, especially if our reliance on dwindling fossil fuels is at stake; and the defence companies that quietly urge us on.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our dependence on a handful of genetically engineered food crops and the companies we’ve allowed to take over and slowly destroy our heartlands, the greatest food producing region in the world.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our insatiable hunger for resources that no law, no park, no promise will ever protect our land, our wilderness, our wildlife, skies, and water from.

The next War of Independence will be fought against our fear that we will never have enough, and that we must always be accumulating more in the vain hope that somehow our homes, our cars, our smart phones and our grown-up toys will protect us from the inevitability of life, and death.

The first War of Independence was fought with muskets, swords, and pistols; with military cunning, bravery and courage. The next War of Independence must to be fought with courage too, but with our hearts and our minds and our love for one another, for our families, our future, and our nations.

The next War of Independence will be fought within ourselves: this revolution begins inside, and in the spirit of independence and the thirst for freedom that characterizes a nation with such extraordinary promise, blooms outward to create a world liberated from the factors that are leading us to destroy ourselves.

The next War of Independence will be fought hand-in-hand, across the borders that segregate us. None of us are independent from one another, and so we must wage a war of peace with love for our liberty from our self-imposed oppression.

Follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault

Gone Dark

1st anniversary: Stephen Harper’s war on nature

I was wrong.

One year ago I wrote a blog post in which, among other things, I advocated trying to find a way of using the ancient Chinese philosophy of “capturing whole” to minimize the damage a Stephen Harper majority government might do to the environment.

Here’s what I said:

We’re going to have to, as Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War, suggests: “capture our opponent whole.” That means moving carefully to make it so our values, our vision, our passion, slowly becomes their own. We must find what they respond to – be it positive reinforcement or public accolades, as difficult as that may be to stomach – and exploit them as an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.

If we do not, we’ll find ourselves on the outside looking in, and watching all that we cherish about this beautiful nation slipping from our grasp. And we will only have ourselves to blame for its loss. Every moment in life is a choice. This choice is clear: accepting the reality of a polarized politic and gaining what we can, or raging against it, and losing it. It’s that stark a dichotomy.

Reading those words now, today, on the first anniversary of the Conservative’s majority government election victory, makes me feel both naive and foolish.

The first year of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been the worst 365 days for Canada’s environment in our nation’s history. It’s been that bad. If Stephen Harper and his Minister of Natural Resources Joe Oliver have their way it’s going to get a lot worse. While I still hold with the philosophy of capture whole – of defeating your opponent without a fight – I must remember one critical disclaimer from the Art of War: avoid a fight if you can. If you can’t, fight hard, and fight to win.

It’s time to fight: to fight smart, to fight clean, to fight fair, but to fight to win. What we’re fighting for is far more than we could have imagined one year ago today. We’re fighting for the soul of Canada: our National Parks, our magnificent wilderness, our wild creatures, our natural heritage: our future. That might sound like hyperbole, and maybe it is. Looking at what we’ve already lost after one year of the most neo-conservative government this country has ever seen, I believe a fair statement. Apparently my friend Tzeporah Berman thinks so as well but then, like me, she’s a radical environmentalist too.

Lets consider for a moment the damage that this government has done in 365 days. As Elizabeth May points out in her widely circulated story “How the conservatives stole the environmental protection in broad daylight,” they have waged an all out war on nature, and on those who protect it. They started by withdrawing from the Kyoto Accord, something that must have burned Prime Minister Harper’s gut during his five years in a minority government. Then they attacked environmental groups, focusing their wrath on those who were opposing the Northern Gateway pipeline, but tarring them all (pun intended) with the same brush: radicals, suckling at the teat of US based lefty-foundations.

Never mind that much of the money used to promote the whole-scale sell off of Canada’s petroleum resources, in the tar sands and everywhere else, comes from the US, Europe, and China. If you take foreign money to continue to narrow Canada’s economic development and destroy the environment, you’re a patriot; if you take money to advocate for the protection of the environment, First Nations cultures while diversifying the economy, you’re a radical, bent on destroying Canada.

Now the Conservatives want to re-write of the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act, making it easier for industry to win approval of mega-projects like those in the tar sands, and gut the Fisheries Act to remove the scant protections we currently have for nature. Rumour is that the Conservatives have their sights set on the Species at Risk Act, a law that is particularly close to my heart as I dedicated more than five years of my life to its passage.

Budget cuts are a convenient way to disguise the Conservative war on nature. Stephen Harper and his Ministers have cut positions that monitor and clean up oil spills, research the impacts of climate change on the arctic, and most recently, present and safeguard our national parks.

And this is only the first year.

But it’s not. Not really. Stephen Harper is the wiliest and most strategic Prime Minister Canada has seen in a generation. He’s a patient man. He waited. Five years of minority governments and he waited. It must have tried his considerable fortitude not to push ahead with his offensive, but he waited. And when he seized – stole — complete power in May of last year he was able to reshape Canada in the image crafted by the elite, far right wing of Canadian politics who funds his party.

It was almost as if the Prime Minister himself was a student of The Art of War: his war on nature could serve as a text book example of how a superior army confronts an inferior force. His opening attack, delivered by Joe Oliver, and escalated with Senate hearings and the allocation of an additional $8 million to Revenue Canada for “education” and other Orwellian indoctrinations of Canadian environmental charities, is a perfect example of how to use a strategic strike to weaken your opposition in advance of an all out assault.

If I wasn’t so livid I might almost be in awe of the man’s strategic prowess.

What to do? As I said a year ago, and I still believe, there is no time for hand wringing. Capturing whole isn’t going to work either; there is no room to “exploit an opportunity to advance a progressive vision for Canada.”

Many are already acting. Dr. David Suzuki left the board of directors of the organization that he founded a quarter century ago so he could speak with impunity. Forest Ethics, one of the most ardent and outspoken organizations in the environmental community has made the calculated move of splitting in two: one organization will continue to undertake charitable work while another will go head-to-head with those who are destroying Canada’s environment. I say power too them.

But there is more work to be done. The Conservative war on nature has just started. And while I no longer believe we can find a way to capture this enemy without a fight, we must be very careful in how we confront them. They hate us and what we stand for, and they will use every resource at their disposal to eliminate us as an opponent so that their greed and nepotism can endure.

If Stephen Harper is a smart strategist, we must be smarter. If it appears as though his Conservative government has torn a page from the Art of War and is using it against Canada’s environment and those millions of Canadians who stand to defend it, we must learn how to beat them at their own game.

Over the coming months I’m going to continue to write on this topic, and I invite you to do the same. Post a comment, write an essay, send a tweet: if we’re smart and if we work together, we can stop this war on nature in its tracks and reclaim the soul of this great country.

The day after Earth Day

This is the day that matters.

Even Joe Oliver, Canada’s Minister of Natural Resources, Stephen Harper’s puppet in his war on nature, can appear green-tinged on Earth Day. Today is the day where what we do counts.

Really Alberta?

My family and I moved back to Alberta about sixteen months ago. Every morning I wake up and am grateful to be back living in the mountains. Alberta is an extraordinary place, filled with extraordinary people, but I will confess that on the eve of a provincial election, I have no ungodly idea what makes Albertans tick.

According to a poll published in today’s Globe and Mail online edition, the upstart Wildrose Party has a nine point lead over the incumbent Progressive Conservatives. Because Canadian political alliances can be confusing, the Wildrose party is backed by the federal Conservative Party, while the provincial PC party seems to have been cut adrift by the mother-ship.

When I moved back to Alberta, and back into the conservation community, I knew what I was getting into. For nearly twenty years I’ve had to go toe-to-toe with the likes of former Energy Minister Steve West, and former environment Minister Ty Lund when they were in Ralph Klein’s cabinet. Being an environmentalist in Alberta was, as author Sid Marty has written, like being a boy scout in Hell.

Hell is going to look pretty good if Danielle Smith is elected on Monday.

But this is what Alberta does; it lurches from one government to another, about once a generation or so. If as the pollsters predict Alberta changes government on Monday it will only be for the fourth time in our 107-year history that this has happened. The Wildrose will form Alberta’s fifth government, and if they do, Alberta’s willingness to protect land, water, air and its ability to combat climate change will be in considerable doubt.

A part of me thinks: it can’t be any worse than the Progressive Conservatives. Premier Alison Redford has been a tremendous disappointment in this regard. While she has talked tough on education and health care, she has been a dismal failure when it comes to protecting the underpinning of our physical health and our economic system: our ecosystems. She’s cow-towed to the oil and gas sector on the tar sands and despite overwhelming opposition to logging in the Castle Wildland in south western Alberta, bowed to pressure from the local MLA Evan Berger, going so far as to put him in Cabinet to satiate the party’s good-old-boy right wing.

I know it could be much worse. Alberta’s protected area’s network is held together with spit and bailing wire. We have scant protection for our parks from industrial tourism, OHV use, logging and oil and gas development; the land base outside of our parks is fair game to just about anybody with a big idea and a few bucks in their pocket. As the party of extra free enterprise and with a Libertarian leaning, Wildrose cannot be counted on to protect these assets that are the cornerstone of our Province’s natural beauty, ecological health, and economic future.

Add to this Danielle Smith’s defence of candidates who are homophobic, xenophobic and want to take our province back decades in its relationship with the rest of Canada and the world, and it would appear as if politics in Alberta are about to go from bad to catastrophic.

When the federal Conservatives won their much sought after majority, I quickly posted a blog entry suggesting that things weren’t so bad, and that all we needed to do as environmentalists was to burrow into the belly of the beast and work from within to convince Stephen Harper’s government to protect Canada’s environment.

I was wrong. Sometimes this tactic espoused in The Art of War and other Taoist manuals works, but sometimes all that happens is you find yourself surrounded by a rotting pile of entrails while the beast is off devouring what is precious to you.

If Danielle Smith wins election on Monday, I won’t be making any entreaties for Alberta’s environmental community to try and “capture the enemy whole” (as Sun Tzu might advise). On the contrary: my advice will be to use whatever advantage we have to safeguard what we hold dear. Capturing whole only works if both opponents are on roughly equal footing and if both are honourable in their undertakings. As Stephen Harper has demonstrated over the last year, this is far from the case. And what is Danielle Smith’s Wildrose but another guise for a political movement bent on eviscerating Canada and Alberta’s environmental laws, protections and safeguards in the name of smaller government and more free enterprise?

Really, Alberta: just as I was starting to think I understood you. In addition to having good common sense fiscal prudence, I thought that maybe we were on the cusp of having a government that reflected the majesty and beauty of this province. But it looks like I was wrong.

No Action

This post is part of an ongoing series exploring topics on leadership and activism from Carry Tiger to Mountain, published in 2006 by Arsenal Pulp Press.

“Do not force action,

Instead allow action to arise on its own

And follow its course.”

(Tao, 48)

From the stillness of the night, the day begins. All action rises from non-action. This is one of the hardest concepts to grasp in the Tao te Ching: that of “no action;” or “allowing action to arise of its own accord.”

As activists we act. It’s what we have been breed to do. We see something in the world that is wrong and we act to fix it. Forever busy, we are constantly in motion, pressing our case to save people from famine, to solve the problem of homeless or protect some wild place that we love.

But one of the fundamental laws of the universe is that action arises from stillness. Stillness is the source of action.

Be still

Wait for the right moment to act

All of our work has a common source

All of our effort returns to that point

If you know this in your heart

You will be patient

Tolerant of others

Respectful of their opinions

Amused by the uproar

Able to respond with dignity.

(Tao, 16)

There is a great deal to explore behind the concept of no action or allowing the right action to arise of its own accord. When writing Carry Tiger to Mountain between 2003 and 2006, the chapter on this concept — titled Retreat to Ride Tiger after the paradoxal movement in Tai Chi — was one of the hardest. But next to the notion of the Three Treasures – restraint, compassion and love – the notion of no action forms the fundamental foundation of understanding the Tao te Ching and how we can use it in our efforts to make the world a better place.

The idea of acting without action is about learning how to use the energy of the universe – the Tao – to accomplish what we want to achieve, whether we want to write a great novel, stop a clear cut or start a business that helps make the world a better place.

As activists we sometimes refer to our work as a struggle or a fight, but that’s because so often we ignore the direction of the energy of the universe and instead resist it. The metaphor I use in Carry Tiger to Mountain is this: if you were trying to stop a boulder that was rolling down a hill from crushing something in its path, would you step in front of it and act against it? Or would you run along beside of it and try to redirect its energy.

Much of what we are trying to change in this world is like that boulder: a tremendous force rolling downhill towards something we love. And we throw ourselves in front of it, hoping to stop it. Sometimes we do. But at great cost. And often we don’t. The Tao te Ching counsels us to learn about the nature of the universes’ energy and use as little force as possible to create the change we hope to. Sometimes that means taking no action what-so-ever. Knowing when to act, and when to step back, is one of the most important lessons that the Tao te Ching can teach us.

To learn more about how to apply the lessons of the Tao te Ching to your efforts as a writer, activist, leader, or socially conscious business person, click here. Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership is available from Arsenal Pulp Press.

To receive updates on this and other topics follow me on Twitter @stephenlegault. Click here to read past posts about the Tao of activism and leadership.

The Three Treasures: 3) Love

In Carry Tiger to Mountain I wrote this:

No matter what propels us to become activists in the first place, it is love that sustains and nurtures us over the long term. Hatred burns too hot to last, and fear has an insidious way of burrowing into our hearts and souls and stealing from us our ability to act out of courage. Only our love for the places we are trying to protect, our love from one another, can provide the fuel to sustain a lifetime of effective activism.

Jonathan Star translates the third treasure of The Tao te Ching as love. According to Star, many Ancient Chinese characters have multiple meanings. In his Definitive Edition of the Tao te Ching he translates the character for “tz’u” found in verse sixty seven as being “loving/affectionate/compassionate/merciful.”

These are difficult times to allow love to guide our work as activists. In Canada the environmental movement is under assault from our own government. It has been this way in the United States for many years. So much of what we love is disappearing. But fear, which is the root of anger, cannot save us. Only love can.

“To meet hatred and force with love and yielding

This is the way of the Tao

(Tao, 40)

To read more about Carry Tiger to Mountain: The Tao of Activism and Leadership please click here.

I’m posting regular(ish) thoughts from this book on Twitter at #carrytiger. You can follow me @stephenlegault.