As part of Why Are We Still Here?, a series of 12 blogs written by women around the world to mark International Women’s Day, Jamaican environmental activist Diana McCaulay reflects on the long haul of social change, and why she keeps going after 24 years.
Oh gosh, Diana, said the man: Can’t you be a little less hopeless?
We were at a meeting in Kingston and he engaged me in his plan to solve one of Jamaica’s numerous environmental problems – the details escape me now. I do remember his response, however, when I explained as gently as I could why his plan was unlikely to work: Can’t you be less hopeless?
I have been the Executive Director (ED) of a non-profit environmental organisation in Jamaica for 24 years, and the conventional wisdom is that any non-profit ED burns out in 10. After the man’s question, I decided to write a book about my environmental journey. I wanted to explore what it has meant, if anything, to stand up for those with no voice – land, sea, animals – in a place where far too many human beings never have enough, not one day of their lives. Has it been a hopeless struggle? Why am I still here?
I have stood in front of so many audiences – overheated children at school assembly, club members in air-conditioned New Kingston hotels, bantering committees of Parliament, older men in private sector boardrooms, fishermen on dirty beaches. I generally end my talks with some uplifting words. Perhaps I quote The Nature Conservancy’s former Chairman, John Sawhill – we will be remembered not only for what we create, but what we refuse to destroy.
Sometimes I say that environmental problems can be solved by personal decisions to change the way we live on the earth. I might tentatively mention the successes of my organisation, the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET), like the fact that our first beach clean-up attracted 16 people and this year more than 7000 turned out to clean over 100 beaches. I end with a call to action, but recently I have come to appreciate the inadequacy of my upbeat suggestions to join JET, donate, sign this or that petition, attend a public meeting, write your Member of Parliament, use your circles of influence, view YouTube videos and hit the “like” button, get environmental messages to go viral.
So have I lost hope? Some days I think I have and it’s a relief. I shrug when people ask what they can do. I tell myself I have different goals now, such as Build an Institution, instead of Save The Environment. But if I have lost hope, why am I still here? I’m facing down retirement with no pension – why not try to earn some good money in the last few years of my working life?
There are two reasons. One: I know the work of social transformation is foundation work that’s hard to appreciate at close range. You need time and objectivity to assess progress. And secondly, I’m still here because I can’t go back to those times of unseeing, before I had an environmental consciousness. Being the ED of an environmental agency gives me a platform from which to act. And acting keeps despair at bay.
Diana McCaulay is an award-winning writer and environmental activist, resident in Kingston, Jamaica. She has written two novels, Dog-Heart (2010) and Huracan (2012) published by Peepal Tree Press in the United Kingdom. Both novels had critical acclaim and broke local publishing records.