Act Locally: A Personal Story
July 4, 2023
“Think globally, act locally” ~ Patrick Geddes, Scottish planner, and conservationist (1915)
A road trip to Michigan was partly responsible for bringing me to City Hall that evening in 1994.
I spent a great deal of my childhood exploring the cedar groves and bogs of the creek behind our home. This early immersion in the natural world led me to study biology at university. When I informed my high school friends that I was heading off to study the big cats of Africa, they were skeptical. Only a few years later, I instead found myself in a research lab studying fish endocrine systems.
My research job required fish pituitary glands, and before long I was heading to a fish hatchery in northern Michigan to collect them. Every year, a local hatchery released a million salmon fry for sport fishing into the Platte, a small river that fed into Lake Michigan. After three years, at least half of the adult fish returned to the same place to spawn and die.
The extremely high number of fry released into the Platte each year created an unnatural environment for the fish; especially as the salmon were not native to the lake. In their natural habitat, the primeval migration from deep ocean waters to shallow inland forest creeks brings nutrients crucial to the survival of forest ecosystems. This was far from the case for the fish in the tiny Platte River’s ecosystem.
During their short time in the wild, these voracious eaters had packed on the pounds, growing from the size of an adult’s baby finger to the length of their thigh. At the same time, the fish were ingesting a cocktail of industrial toxins that had found their way into their food supply. The large, fertile salmon were diverted from the river through a channel where they would swim into concrete tanks. Here they met an ignoble end as a rotting mass of fish in a toxic waste facility.
One night during our stay, the cordial hatchery manager invited us over for a bowl of homemade fish stew. As we walked up the stone path to his front door, a colleague who was investigating the rise of cancer in wild fish stocks pulled me aside to warn me not to eat the fish if I wanted to have children. Fortunately, the meal was buffet-style.
Back at the hatchery, a few fish were destined for something more than the toxic waste dump. Once their eggs and sperm were collected to raise fry for next year’s release, the fish were passed on to us to take samples for our research. When we were finished with the carcasses, volunteers took over, cleaning the fish for delivery to the local food bank.
Let that sink in for a moment. No toxic waste dump for these fish. They filled hungry bellies, instead. Did the parents who were feeding these fish to their families get the same warning that I had?
Before long, unraveling the mysteries of fish endocrine systems and knowing more and more about less and less began to feel less compelling. Scientific materialism presumes that all human experience can be reduced to atoms, chemistry, and physical laws. Yet, to understand our relationship to nature, we must embrace the complexities of uniqueness, context, and interrelationships, much like a child does when they are playing or walking in the woods. We use the left side of our brain when we engage in science, but it is the right hemisphere where wholeness, connections and diversity are understood. While I deeply value the role of science in a democratic society, I was beginning to understand that I would need a deeper connection; that is where my community came in.
I began to seek out non-conventional thinkers – environmental and social justice activists like Vandana Shiva, David Suzuki, Elizabeth May, Ralph Nader, and Frances Moore Lappé. While they often painted a bleak picture of our planet’s future, and this was thirty years ago, they also offered a holistic vision for a healthier world. Their message – think globally and act locally – resonated with me and would inform much of my personal and professional life going forward. I thought they were brilliant, and they must have been, judging by the firestorm of industry-financed denial that was unleashed to undermine their message and obscure the damage humans were causing to the natural world.
I was also drawn to the people who brought these thought leaders to speak in my community. Their incredible commitment to building a more just and sustainable world deeply impressed me. They didn’t just talk about it, they acted. They ran volunteer recycling depots years before the blue box landed at our curb. They convinced school boards to stop using pesticides in playgrounds well ahead of government bans. And they planted thousands of native trees and shrubs along our rivers, long before we fully understood the contribution of green infrastructure to a sustainable urban water system.
Their passion drew me out of the quiet and comfortable surroundings of my research lab. I began volunteering while I was completing my university studies. After graduating with my doctorate, I took a two-year leave of absence from a research position in Toronto to stay at home with my newborn son. When he was eight months old, I began working for a local environmental and social justice organization. The next thing I knew, the two-year leave of absence had come and gone, and I found myself in front of a podium in council chambers nervously waiting to speak, instead of at a research bench studying fish.
Why was I at City Hall that evening? I had joined a delegation of community members to urge the City Council to act on climate change. Their response sealed my commitment to seek public office.
Activism does not always take the form of making signs and showing up at protests. My activism has sought to forge connections between people and groups in various communities through the pursuit of a common goal. My hope is that my work will spawn new ideas and, much like the salmon, we can all be steered into better, cleaner and more hopeful waters.