Register Tuesday | November 30 | 2021

The Green-Thumb Blues

Environmentalism can make you feel small. What can anyone do about anything, ever?

On my first day at Sierra Legal Defence Fund I was shown my office by the woman I would be replacing, Michele, and in it was a plant. ‘Don’t kill my plant,’ warned Michele. Michele was going on leave for six months, and then she would be back, and I would return to a life of freelance whatever and sneaking compostables into my neighbour’s green bin. Could I keep this thing, this plant, alive for six months? It seemed unlikely. My history with plants is one of killing – not out of malice, of course, but I am by nature a neglectful and distracted person, and when something goes wrong, like the leaves turning brown and dropping off, or aphids, my response is to flood it with water in a panic. Then the plant dies and I feel reckless and alone.

I had accepted this job with grand designs. Like most people, at least those not directly profiting from the plundering of the earth, I am concerned about the environment. Last September I began realizing that recycling yogourt containers and carrying my groceries home in a backpack were not enough. I was not living green; I was more suffering yellow: cautious but cowardly, aware but unsure. What could I, one man with a degree in reading books, possibly do? But then I was offered a temporary fundraising contract at Sierra Legal, ‘Canada’s legal champion for a healthy environment.’ It was a chance to get involved – to make a difference – without having to clomp around the tundra or go back to school for something useful.

Sierra Legal is a not-for-profit that relies on donations, grants and the support of various foundations to fund its activities; my responsibilities would involve rustling up more cash. The organization comprises scientists and lawyers who are dedicated to reforming public policy and prosecuting those who damage Canada’s air, land, species and water. To be part of a crew that takes on big business and government for ecological malfeasance was exciting and, considering my limited skill set, too good to be true. But now a plant was involved. A plant! How could I claim to care about the planet when I would invariably allow one of its creatures to perish? But, I told myself, this is where it begins: think globally (international forest depletion), act locally (plant). I had to try.

Michele’s plant was more tree than plant. It was potted, sure, but it had a trunk and bark and branches and stretched nearly to the ceiling. What would such a thing require? In the wild, birds might roost amongst its foliage; it would drink rain and eat sunshine and grow and grow and grow. I figured I would dump two coffee cups of water into its soil every Tuesday, play it nourishing, organic music from my computer, and hope.

A few weeks into my contract, Sierra Legal published Waterproof 2, a follow-up to a 2000 report on the state of Canada’s drinking water from coast to coast. (In case you’re wondering, the results are not so good.) There was talk of using this report to garner corporate sponsorship, something resolutely avoided in the past. Partnering with big business is dangerous for an organization that espouses environmental responsibility; in these dark times, profit tends to be inextricably linked with pumping chemicals into the water and air. Here was my chance to prove myself: I would find an appropriate corporate partner and have millions in endorsements by the end of the week.

This proved more difficult than I’d hoped. Quickly out were Nalgene (as well as water bottles, they also make animal lab-testing equipment), any subsidiary of Procter & Gamble, and all of the bottled-water companies, the scourge of conservationists everywhere. Giving up hope, I went to the water cooler to fetch Michele’s plant’s weekly feeding. Filling up my coffee cup, I realized that Culligan – home to that jolly fifties throwback the Culligan Man – might have potential; while Sierra Legal’s office water comes from an independent source, I would often see the ubiquitous Culligan truck trolling from building to building downtown.

Some initial research revealed that Culligan did indeed seem ecologically friendly: sustainable aqua-farming operations, reusable containers and an articulate environmental policy.


Culligan, I discovered, had been recently purchased by Vivendi Universal, the French multinational entertainment giant responsible for Universal Music, Universal Pictures and – coincidentally – the Sierra video game company, among countless other subsidiaries. But why would they invest in a modest water-cooler operation?

It turned out that Vivendi was widely recognized as a global leader in the privatization of water, particularly in Third World markets, allowing governments to forgo establishing or maintaining infrastructure to provide clean drinking water to their citizens – something stipulated by the United Nations as a basic human right. In 2001, through its water interests alone, Vivendi enjoyed $12.2 billion in revenue. The French-based conglomerate and its subsidiaries are also often targeted by environmental groups as one of the worst corporate polluters in all of Europe.

It couldn’t have been a worse fit. But, discouraging as all this was, as I read more about Vivendi, I found this out: the company, initially named Compagnie Générale des Eaux, was founded in 1853 under a decree by President Napoleon III to supply water to the city of Lyon – a project that later spread to other cities around France. This amounted to a 150-year conspiracy of global water monopoly, didn’t it? I came reeling out of my office, expecting to find a sneering Culligan Man pointing a Tommy gun at my gut, and then blam-blam-blam! and I would die there on the carpet and no one would be left to water Michele’s plant and it would die, too. 

Environmentalism can make you feel small. You are fighting against something unwieldy and ingrained – like trying to combat the idea of winter with a PowerPoint presentation and a shovel. The world’s major ecological offenders seem untouchable: corporations that plot the earth’s destruction in boardrooms wallpapered with money, governments that provided the wallpaper. When I discovered that the Culligan chap’s affability was rooted in corporate greed and ecological destruction, I felt duped. If he were evil, who else might be? Might Santa’s reindeer be coalpowered? Did Gandhi drive a Humvee? What could anyone do about anything, ever, anywhere?

It was hard not to question Sierra Legal’s effectiveness in the face of such far-reaching conspiracy. The organization’s Toronto office is a modest operation, by any stretch of the imagination. Picture the  HQ of an environmental law firm: maybe you envision it all glass and solar power with a rooftop garden and nature sounds piped through the pa. In reality, you find it small and cramped and low-ceilinged, and one guy traipses around in socks. Is this how environmental activism happens? Rather than a breeze on your face or mud between your toes, there is recycled air and rug. If you expected to find yourself chained to redwoods doing the ‘Shame!’ chant, you might be disheartened by ten-hour days spent staring at a computer screen, agonizing over an inherited plant.

And, big business aside, what is one little not-for-profit in the face of nature? Underneath our feet, tectonic plates are shifting. Somewhere in the ocean, El Niño is cooking up something capricious. Tsunamis sweep tourists and locals from pretty Asian beaches into the sea. New Orleans: what the fuck happened there? We are each of us a single pillar of water and tissue and whatever else, bones and hormones, taking taxis to the dentist or digging holes to hide our loot. There is cancer in our shampoo, and in every clothing store the clerks are muttering into headsets while they pack our petroleum-based yoga pants in polyethylene. Meanwhile a polar bear tramps along the ice floe trying to scrape together some supper.

How do you feel? Even now, with my six-month contract at Sierra Legal over, Michele back and, against all odds, her plant doing well, I feel as though nothing I can do is enough. I have heard the mermaids singing – and by mermaids I mean lawyers, and by singing I mean talking to reporters on Global News at Six. I do not think they will sing for me, exactly, but they are singing for all of us who care about the plight of the earth and don’t know quite what to do about it. Can we help them? Yes, we most certainly can.

In September, Sierra Legal changed its name to Ecojustice Canada (patently ignoring my suggestion, Justice Timberlake), and I will continue to do contract work for them whenever possible. As I’m writing this, I am helping find some money to fund a suit against the federal government for failing to meet its Kyoto targets – a huge, precedent-setting case with the potential for international resonance. Along with Friends of the Earth Canada, the little, low-ceilinged office on St. Patrick Street is leading the charge: mice against elephants, maybe, but the mice are mad smart and suddenly nobody much cares for elephants anymore.

We are small, sure: each of us is only an infinitesimal speck on the Astroturf in the big, big Astrodome of the universe. But we are learning. The facts are out there, and even the most clueless among us are starting to pay attention to them. We know what we are up against, or at least we have some idea. There are the little things we know we can do: energy-efficient lighting, letting it mellow if it’s yellow, taking the subway, staying in with a loved one and reading GreenTOpia to one another by candlelight.

There was no bounty hunter out for my blood when I discovered the terrifying reach of Vivendi Universal’s operations. That Culligan fucker did not gun me down; I am sure he thinks that people, even armed with the shocking facts of his operation, are unwilling to do anything about it. I think big business thinks we don’t care. But, thankfully, environmental activism is no longer the stuff of radical, dreadlocked drum circles tear-gassed from the woods; it takes place in courts, in boardrooms, over conference calls, with Peak Freens on the side. At last it has acquired a legitimacy that the mainstream can finally get behind.

What can you do? You can do what you can do. Can you type? Type something. Can you walk and talk? Walk around and talk to people. Can you use your Ph.D. in environmental science to test for and uncover the alarming release of polyvinyl chlorides from shoreline industry into the Great Lakes, then publish a report, coordinate a media campaign and pursue legal action based on your findings? Then by all means please do that, too. Ride a bike, write a letter, save a plant. We are not powerless against the They we’re up against. Let’s take Them down, whoever They are, wherever They’re hiding, in whatever way we can.

From GreenTOpia (Coach House Books, 2007).