Voice of Change speaker shares stories of eco-innovation

September 25, 2013

As part of his keynote speech for Voice of Change on October 3, author Chris Benjamin will share several stories about eco-innovators from his nonfiction book of the same name.

In Eco-Innovators: Sustainability in Atlantic Canada, Chris tells the stories of hard-working Canadians who make “a positive contribution to sustainable living in a new way.” Here, Chris shares his inspiration for the book and for encouraging sustainability.

How did you become interested in sustainability?

CB: This is a question I asked all the people in Eco-Innovators and it’s always hard to know for sure. But one of my earliest memories—a wonderful one—is crushing cans with my feet in the basement with my mom. If I was anything like my four-year-old son, I probably asked why we did it and I’m sure my mother explained that it was so the cans could be broken down and used for other things, to save space and energy. My mother has always had an environmental conscience by virtue of being frugal—the two go hand-in-hand—and my dad is a painter of landscapes, so his appreciation for nature was always really obvious.

In university, I was in business school learning how to grow corporations and report their earnings. Someone asked why we assume that corporations must always grow. “Isn’t there a point where we think it’s big enough and just focus on maintaining success?”

I don’t think it was meant as an environmental question, but to me it was. Incessant growth started to seem like a cancer. I wrote regularly for the student newspapers, and my friends in business teased me for being “anti-corporate.” I took offense because I wasn’t sure I was anti-corporate. But there were a lot of problems in the world that I was sorting through in my head and I was overwhelmed by it. Environmental destruction was just one of them. Writing helped.

What is an “eco-innovator”?

CB: It’s someone who makes a positive contribution to sustainable living in a new way. They tend to have strong environmental values (although some are more accidentally green). But the way they put these values into action varies a great deal. Some are fishers or farmers; others are academics, artists, activists, government officials, business people.

They share an ability to look at systems and see what is broken, as well as potential solutions. They are passionate and committed. They are thinkers but they are also called to action by their beliefs. They tend to be risk takers, but not in every case. They are in many ways like anyone else. But their environmental values have set them apart from others in their fields.

Can you share with us one of your favourite eco-innovators?

CB: One who I think I haven’t spoken of enough is Linda Panozzo. She has long been an environmental activist and a very holistic thinker.

In 2004, Linda co-authored a report on working time. She dissected the destructive cycle of working too hard for security, engaging in excessive consumption with the additional income and at the same time feeling trapped by the money. To quit the job would be to lose the security. As a result, many in our society are overworked and at the same time, many others find themselves chronically underemployed and impoverished.

Linda was tremendously moved by her findings because she could see it in her own life. She eventually scaled back her working hours significantly, in part because she wanted to adopt a daughter. She now works as a freelance environmental writer and has done well enough to make a modest but sufficient income, and has more time for family and travel. Her report on working life still stands as a clarion call for us to get our priorities straightened out.

You’ve been all over the world. What is one of the most inspiring places you’ve visited (in terms of sustainability efforts)?

CB: Mongolia, where politicians must pander to nomadic herders if they want to win the next election. It’s a fascinating country and perhaps a glimpse of our own more pastoral past. Herders, who comprise half the population, live truly sustainable lives over the vast landscape. They practice classic rotational land use techniques, moving by the season. They own only what they can carry four times a year. Their animals are everything—food, shelter, income, companionship.

But it is also a country in transition. All children must go to school now. For herders, that means they must send their children away during the school year. They lose their labour and love for several months a year.

The government wants to “develop,” to grow economically. That usually means resource use, especially mining, and that has a significant environmental impact. The government also wants to change the traditional commons land and make it all privately owned, which threatens the very nomadic herding lifestyle that has always made Mongolia what it is.

What would you like our students to take away from your keynote address?

CB: Inspiration and an understanding of how rocky the road to making change is, but that it’s a road we have to take, and one that is more rewarding than any other path.

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