Karen McAllister: Eco-Activist
August 07th, 2012
The following interview was conducted in Victoria with Karen McAllister serveral hours before The Great Bear Rainforest received the Bill Duthie Bookseller’s Choice Award, page as selected by a ballot of B.C. Booksellers. An America edition will be released by Sierra Club Books in the fall.
BCBW: Who was your ideal reader for this book?
MCALLISTER: We thought, click first and foremost, the audience was British Columbia.
BCBW: Why do a book – rather than organize another protest or make another film?
MCALLISTER: The Great Bear Rainforest is so inaccessible, you need to start with education. Without a public that knows about the rainforest, you can’t make progress. We talked it over with Cameron Young. We were really afraid that if we used our personal journals it could turn into a book about personalities rather than the coast. So we made a conscious decision to limit the personal stuff; that way the campaign was front and centre.
BCBW: How did Sierra Club Books get involved?
MCALLISTER: We were sailing up the coast, at Ellerslie Lake, finishing off the book when we happened to meet a bunch of Sierra Clubbers up there. One of them was Adam Werbach, the president of the US Sierra Club. About a month before he had done an article in Time magazine saying he didn’t think coffee table books were an effective way of invoking environmental change, as coffee table books were a negative medium. Personally, I’ve always wanted a coffee table so I could have a bunch of coffee table books! The next thing we knew he was keen and Sierra Club Books called us the following week.
BCBW: A coffee table book sits prominently on a table and easily promotes discussion, unlike a video cassette.
MCALLISTER: As well, we wanted to create a book you could open at any page. You can learn something from a journal entry without having to read the whole book. With Ian’s photgraphs, it’s one way for people to see these parts of the coast without actually foing there. I know some people would say a book like ours will bring a lot of people to the area, but so far when people in places like Poland and Japan get sent copies for Christmas presents, they mostly just want to help.
BCBW: Just because I read about Brazil doesn’t mean I’m going to take a raft up the Orinoco River.
MCALLISTER: Exactly. Initially we were worried about that. We were worried about giving away secrets. A lot of people who know about the area were afraid of that too – fishermen and First Nations’ people. We’d go into some of the smaller places before the book came and we’d introduce ourselves. Some booksellers said they couldn’t possibly carry the book – this is a logging town. But now we’ve found that they have carried the book and it’s done quite well. I think anybody can read it – any fisherman, any logger – and get something out of it. And people’s response to the issue of encroachment has been pretty sensistive.
BCBW: But not everyone is a fan.
MCALLISTER: Not everyone. There’s some press coverage quoting Patrick Moore or Jack Munro of the Forest Alliance. The Province quoted Patrick Moore, ecologist and director of the pro-industry force, saying the book resorts to shrill rhetoric and makes unsupported claims. He talks about the “vaguely romantic” text, that sort of thing, and that The Great Bear Rainforest is a manufactured issue.
BCBW: Have there been direct exchanges between yourself and Moore or Munro?
MCALLISTER: On the European tour, sponsored by Greenpeace, Ian went to England, Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Belgium. It was a public education tour, more than anything, but he also met with buyers of pulp and paper from BC. The Forest Alliance knew about the tour and Patrick Moore tagged along. He was dogging Ian everywhere he went. So I don’t think it was a matter of them not getting both sides.
Ian would open up the field for questions and Patrick Moore would usually get his two bits in. the companies would think abuot it, and a week later some of them would say, “Well, I’m afraid we’re cancelling our contracts until we can confirm that your logging practices are sound.” Companies cancelled contracts with Interfor and Western Forest Products.
BCBW: So maybe it was a good thing that Patrick Moore went along.
MCALLISTER: I think so. According to Ian, when Patrick Moore attacked Greenpeace, people sort of looked at him like he didn’t know what he was talking about. Moore was saying Greenpeace didn’t back up their information with science, but most Europeans know Greenpeace does do that. They do their homework.
There are three forest campaigns that Greenpeace is involved with internationally. One is in Siberia, one is in Brazil and one is in the Great Bear Rainforest. The Great Bear Rainforest campaign is the biggest campaign. They’re using sophisticated techniques. Tehre’s land-use planning, reserve design and mapping that’s been done – and lots of scientific information.
As well, Greenpeace supports the Forest Stewardship Council. It’s not a boycott of BC forest products that Greenpeace and Raincoast are trying to advocate, it’s a boycott of poor logging practises. It’s a way to pressure companies into using more sustainable methods of harvesting. They do this worldwide.
BCBW: So British Columbians are living in an exotic part of the world – as exotic as Siberia aor the Amazonian rainforest.
MCALLISTER: Yes, I think so.
BCBW: Ironies abound. People in BC don’t realise anymore what a highly respected organization Greenpeace is around the world. At the same time people around the world aren’t respecting Patrick Moore as one the instigators of Greenpeace.
MCALLISTER: Meanwhile we could basically run our entire campaign on what Patrick Moore probably makes for his annual salary.
BCBW: There’s a difference these days between the sense of urgency with regards to environmental issues in Europe than in North America. The radicalized element in Europe seems to be bigger and more organized.
MCALLISTER: That’s because Europeans have already lost so much of their original forests. Even in the States, they have a huge awareness of disappearing wilderness and wildlife species. It’s a challenge for nature writers in Canada to portray a sense of urgency to protecting the environment.
BCBW: Has there been any response from the government of British Columbia to this book?
MCALLISTER: We gave books to all the cabinet ministers and invited them to our slide shows. Most of the ministers actually responded with a letter thanking us for the book, but David Zirnhelt, the Forest Minister, basically let out a press release saying the book is just a bunch of pictures of grizzly bears and salmon. We haven’t heard anything from Glen Clark.
BCBW: After the NDP preserved an area in northeastern BC that is the size of Switzerland, protecting the Great Bear Rainforest would be a hard sell for Clark. He might be personally sympathetic but politically wary.
MCALLISTER: That might be the case with some of his cabinet ministers but I don’t think that’s the case with Glen Clark. He’s gone out of his way to diminish the efforts of environmentalists by calling us enemies of the province. That’s absolutely outrageous. It only polarizes everyone.
Essay Date: 1998