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I often get asked: why did you become interested in the environment? I respond with the same story, how I became dimly aware of damage being done to places I loved, until an afternoon when I took a house guest to watch the sunset on the Palisadoes strip. This is a narrow strip of land that holds Kingston Harbour in loose embrace, open sea to the south (Big Sea we called it), Kingston Harbour to the north, Norman Manley International Airport one-third of the way down, the town of Port Royal at the tip. Palisadoes is (was) sandy and stony, a place of greys and browns, not your tourist tropical fantasy of blue and green and white. My parents took me there when I was a child to see the breakers of Big Sea. They crashed onto the stones with a clacking noise and we kids chased the waves out and they chased us back in. Anyway, on a day in 1989, I drove onto the Big Sea beach and saw it had become a garbage dump. I don’t mean litter, I mean truckloads of waste – appliances, the remains of buildings, plastic, tyres, rotting animals. I saw the confusion of the visitor with me – why had I taken him to a pile of waste on a beach? I felt shame and anger but after close to 25 years of environmental activism, I’m still not sure what impelled me to act.
I think of one of Greenpeace’s early photos – I saw it long ago, I’ve never been able to find it again. Maybe I imagined it. Three young women in white jumpsuits, their backs to the camera, Greenpeace written across their shoulders. They’re holding hands and they’re standing in front of some kind of industrial pipe. You’re invited to imagine the effluent from that pipe defiling their white clothing, their humanity, their future. Were they models? Employees? Or were they activists, simply defined as people who act? I choose to think they were the latter. Who knows where and how the seeds of activism are sown? I attribute my activism to the fertile ground of an empowering childhood because until puberty, I was raised as the McCaulay son – encouraged to take risks, told not to whine and cry, and I absorbed a message that I could do whatever I wanted. Were this to be The Answer, however, most men would be activists.
Perhaps it’s nothing more than ego, the same ego that drives an artist, a belief that you have something worth saying that others will wish to hear, to see, to engage with; and that your actions will be seen, heard and will count. That you can change things. Standing on the polluted beach of the Palisadoes, as the sea of my childhood washed the coast of my island, I absorbed a call to action. But what to do? I knew nothing about the environment; I worked for an insurance company. I turned to the oldest of my friends – books – and I started to read about the environment, and the more I read, the more concerned I became. Soon, written words were insufficient, and I started to talk to others, experts, as I saw them. Then I felt the impulse to organize and formed an environmental group and an entirely different life path unfolded. I left my comfortable private sector job for the uncertain, stressful world of the environmental activist. And with a small group of people, we took the garbage off the Palisadoes strip.
Decades later, the Government of Jamaica destroyed that beach on which my environmental journey began. Now, it is four kilometres of seawall, an ugly pile of stones torn from the land, yet to be tested as a defence against the sea. Now, there is nowhere to watch the sun sink into the horizon and the Palisadoes coastline is a fortress, a battlement. For me, every trip to the airport – leaving, arriving, collecting friends or family is an affront, a monument to personal failure, to loss. It would take a long time to describe all my failures – as I am writing this, our main city dump burns, exposing thousands of Jamaicans to unhealthy air. Were I to show you the first newsletter I wrote for the little environmental group I formed in 1991, you would see a few paragraphs of outrage about that same dump. Now, after almost 25 years of acting, I am drawn to write about those years, to think about what they have meant, to take a different kind of action. I heard the call to action on a beach and I turned to the words of others. Now it’s time for my own words. Perhaps they will form a baton of words, passed on to people I will never meet. Perhaps they will even cause the restoration of the Palisadoes beach and children will once more chase the waves of Big Sea, in and out, in and out, while the sunset saturates sea and land. I’ve decided my new book will be called: Loving Jamaica.