In 1962, biologist and writer Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, a book about the widespread use of agricultural pesticides, and how toxic chemicals like DDT were threatening insects, birds and other elements of our natural world. It garnered widespread critical and popular acclaim and is heralded as the catalyst for the modern environmental movement.
Carson’s ability to describe in simple but passionate language the great damage caused by pesticides, and her courage to express controversial ideas that rankled powerful business and political interests, helped propel the book to massive success.
Agrochemical companies responded with furor, threatening the publisher with a libel lawsuit and launching well-funded public relations campaigns touting the safety and necessity of agricultural chemicals. Critics of Silent Spring also attacked Carson personally, accusing her of being radical, unpatriotic and sympathetic to communism — a serious threat during the height of the Cold War.
Even though Carson was a well-educated biologist with a master’s degree in zoology, she was dismissed as an amateur and a “hysterical woman” in industry journals and the popular press.
Fortunately, she remained steadfast despite the attacks, and we have all benefited. Dangerous pesticides like DDT have been restricted and laws to protect the health of the environment and communities have been enacted around the world. But sadly, harassment and intimidation of environmental advocates continues. Some would argue it has worsened with the rise of social media, which amplifies messages of hatred and intolerance, often under the cowardly cloak of anonymity.
We witnessed a recent example when David Suzuki Foundation senior scientist Faisal Moola was attacked on social media for supporting a campaign — on his own time as a private citizen — asking Tim Hortons to stop running ads for controversial oil sands pipeline company Enbridge on its in-store TV channel. The company had been running the commercials in about 1,500 Tim Hortons coffee shops in an attempt to resurrect its sinking brand among Canadians.
Moola was one of 28,000 Canadians who wrote or tweeted to ask Tim Hortons to pull the Enbridge campaign from its network, but he was singled out for attack by right-wing oil sands promoter and pundit Ezra Levant, who accused him on Twitter of being a “foreign-funded extremist” responsible for Tim Hortons’ decision to stop running the ads.
At one point Moola’s name was trending nationally on Twitter, largely because of the barrage of hate messages he was receiving every few minutes, including many xenophobic and racist attacks on his ethnic background and Muslim religion. He was accused of being “anti-Canadian,” an “extremist” and even a “terrorist” because of his opposition to oil sands expansion — even though 100 fellow scientists just released a public statement calling for a moratorium on new oil sands development.
Moola’s experience, like that of Rachel Carson’s a half-century earlier, shows that environmental advocacy has never been easy. As Heiltsuk community organizer and First Nations leader Jess Housty says, “Activism is hard. It pits you against forces that have a lot at stake, and who fight dirty and bite back hard.”
I’ve spoken to thousands of environmental and community activists during many years of meeting with Canadians across this country. I’ve heard too many stories of people being harassed, ostracized, sued for standing up to large corporations and even fired from jobs because of their environmental advocacy.
Canada is blessed to have strong laws that protect human rights and prohibit hate speech, and the courts have held accountable those who’ve defamed people with xenophobic accusations. And we rarely have to fear the levels of violence faced by environmental and social justice advocates in other parts of the world. But recent polls reveal the uncomfortable truth that many Canadians hold intolerant, even racist, beliefs.
Reading comments sections of online publications and Facebook and Twitter posts and listening to call-in radio shows can be disheartening. People often express the worst of their tribal instincts on these public forums, and discussion of difficult issues like the oil sands often degenerates into personal, irrational and sometimes hateful rhetoric.
Canadians must continue to speak out for our water, land, air and wildlife, for justice for Indigenous Peoples, and for a clean energy future — without fear of harassment, intimidation and hatred.