Fire / Feu




Un livre dont il
nous faut tenir
compte :
"Watchdogs and
Gadflies -
Activism From
Marginal To

par Tim Falconer. 

Ce livre honnête
et intéressant,
quoique limité,
soulève quelques
questions qui
Étant donné que
Falconer n’est pas
engagé activement
dans la protection
de l'environnement,
il a de la difficulté
à comprendre les
sentiments des
écologistes plus

Ce livre en vaut
la lecture pour
ceux et celles
intéressés à
l’analyse théorique
des mouvements
verts et
au Canada.










Disembodied Activism

David Orton,
November 12, 2001


Commentary/Book Review: 
Watchdogs and Gadflies:
Activism From Marginal To Mainstream
by Tim Falconer, Penguin Books Canada Ltd., 2001, 277 pages, hardcover,
ISBN: 0-670-89417-6, $35.

(photo: Tim

Particularly for Canadian left bios, this is a book that we need to take account of. Recently, I have seen a couple of reviews and read of the author, Tim Falconer, being quoted in a column in the national newspaper "The Globe and Mail", on his views concerning the anti-Globalization movement, post September 11th. Anti-globalization activists, for Falconer, "are not against international trade", want "fair trade," not free trade, and do not want "protectionist policies." (See pages 94 and 97.) The author does not have an Earth-grounded ecological critique, which therefore influences his view of activists not fundamentally opposing globalization. He also, quite erroneously and dangerously, calls the Sea Shepherd Society an "eco-terrorism group." (p. 123) The chapter on globalization does present some radical voices who refuse to condemn property damage or violence given specific circumstances, and also give the view that the State and its ideological defenders cannot be reformed. When an author writes such a book, the media will turn him into an "authority" so it is appropriate, I think, to have a viewpoint on "Watchdogs and Gadflies".

There are eleven chapters in this book and only one, although it is the longest and perhaps the most substantive, is on the environment. Falconer teaches journalism part-time at Ryerson University. He describes himself as a capitalist, but "not a terribly good one." (p. 50). I think of him, based on his book, as tuned to basically making capitalism work better - and not challenging those core beliefs of interest to left bios. His early education is candidly described as that of a "a pampered upper-middle-class private-schoolboy." (pp. 2-3) The book describes the author as someone who has engaged in "cynicism" for many years but also says that meeting the people described in his book has made him see the impoverishment of his conception of citizenship. In Canada, Falconer believes, citizenship needs to incorporate the activism he has seen in the research done for his book.

He makes the following comment about the academic level of his students: "I often wonder what, if anything, schools are teaching these days. Most of my students have no sense of history or current events and few read newspapers or magazines, let alone books, even as they profess to want careers in journalism. When I teach second-year students, I must spend the first few minutes of each class going over basic rules of grammar. But I can't blame my students; usually only one or two in a class of twenty-five have had any grammatical training. Under ‘child-centered learning,' teachers don't worry about grammar or spelling, they just want the kids to ‘express themselves.'" (p. 74)

For direct local interest, the author interviewed three Maritimers, including myself, and our ideas, based on these limited interviews, are written about. A former left bio, living on PEI, is also interviewed and quoted, as is a local activist in my area. Actually, the only discussion of deep ecology in the above book derives from these three interviews. I consider Tim Falconer's accounting to be quite fair for the people interviewed in the Maritimes.

This honest and interesting, although limited, book raises a couple of issues of concern for me. The first concerns how Falconer, and we ourselves, define "activism". For most of us, doesn’t the term activist/activism have positive connotations? A considerable part of his book deals with right-wing groups and what the author calls "conservative activism." Is this a legitimate use of the term activism from a left bio perspective, even if we do not like it? For example, Falconer spends 22 pages of his book describing the work of the federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF). In 2001, the federation had a budget of 3.2 million dollars. The CTF considers government spending on arts and culture "an abuse of our money." (p. 63) For the author, all activists seek to "change the system from the outside" but conservative activists have less antipathy to participating in electoral politics. (See p. 51) Yet it is difficult to see how Falconer's basic definition of activism, "activism is the struggle for justice" (p. 201) lends itself to so-called conservative activism.

So, I am very uneasy about how Falconer defines the activism he writes a book about. It is strangely disembodied, without context, in a post-modernist way! Even though many left bios do not accept the left/right continuum in any fundamental sense, from a social justice perspective we see ourselves as part of a Left. In a June 2001 article on "Joanna Macy and the CIA", I pointed out that while communism and capitalism, as political and economic systems, are human-centered, growth-oriented, and basically anti-Earth, social justice has more of a natural affinity with the Left than the Right. Does Falconer's class grounding prevent him from seeing this, as shown in the disembodied definition of activism he works with in his book?

The second issue concerns the "reason model or power model" of decision making outlined in the book, articulated by Alberta oil and gas environmentalist, Mike Sawyer. Sawyer has a progressive reputation among radical environmentalists for challenging the oil and gas companies in appearances before federal and provincial regulatory boards, what he calls "regulatory monkey-wrenching." Rather than the ‘reason model’, Sawyer prefers the ‘power model’. It's not the people with the most reasoned argument who win the day, this line of thinking goes, it's those who have the most power—e ither in terms of money or the ability to offer benefit or inflict pain. "If you have power and the other side knows you're prepared to use it," he explained, "then you can sit down and negotiate. The way activists view decision making--reason model or power model--determines the tactics they'll use." (p. 123)

I prefer the reason AND power model. It is totally pointless, for example, for environmentalists to take part in conferences with the forest industry and governments, without a large organized base of supporters who can be mobilized, and with so-called environmental representatives who are sometimes fairly ignorant about actual forest struggles and who have their "status" tied to shallow ecological activities within industrial capitalism. Here in Nova Scotia, where I believe there is a growing, as yet unmobilized, fundamental discontent with industrial forestry practices, we have yet again a "get together" at the end of November, with the Registered Foresters Association of Nova Scotia, the Certified Technicians Association, the Canadian Institute of Forestry, and our N.S. Environmental Network in the form of a "Forest Caucus". The end result of this meeting will be another PR victory for the forest industry, who will be presented as "reasonable" and "open to dialogue."

Falconer, because he is not involved in environmental activism, has difficulty understanding the bitterness of the feelings of more radical environmentalists, who see activities as the one described above as Earth-betrayal, not in any way as moving things forward. Also, this book will help the Right appropriate the progressive connotations associated, in the past, with the terms "activism." and "activist." But it is still worthwhile to read, for those concerned with the theoretical analysis of the green and environmental movements in Canada.