By Sean Weaver
This West Coast Story conveys my awkward attempts as a beginner of compassionate environmentalism, and shows how it can work when we might give it a try. For me it was uncharted territory, but they say that true adventure is only possible if one is willing to lose sight of the familiar. Falsely accused of being a terrorist after being escorted from a public meeting in Reefton by a police officer set the scene. The key was my conduct at the peak of the conflict – because compassionate action is a body practice.
On this occasion I chose to remain calm, and loyal to my Zen training, attempted to remain especially sympathetic and affectionate with those who were persecuting me with abusive language. The compassionate body practice that I have been taught is to feel anger, fear or anxiety as a physical sensation, and explore where it lives in the body. For me anxiety feels (physically) rather similar to indigestion – and indigestion is not distressing – but neither is the purely physical sensation brought on by fear when being persecuted. I can then notice and name the sensation, accept it as perfectly normal, take note of sounds and colours, and take a few deep breaths.
This enables a gap to open up that prevents me from falling into the incoherent tunnel vision of fury or anguish. It allows me to choose how to act, rather than be tossed around by uncontrolled emotions. I chose to act calmly and attempted to remain friendly – although I was considerably stressed at the time.
A common evaluation of such an episode in hindsight is that it was a “disaster.” It was certainly quite different from the constructive dialogue that I had sought. Perhaps it was a failure and a big mistake to have attended that meeting. Not so fast. Other things were at work that I had no control over but which were triggered by not losing my self-control in that community hall.
The following day I received a phone call from a committee member of our political opponents (the logging supporters). He said he was annoyed at the way I was treated at the meeting, and wanted to hear what I might have to say. He asked me if I would come to his home in Reefton for a coffee and a chat. I very much doubt that he would have invited me had I behaved in the manner of a cantankerous protester, shouting quotes from the Declaration of Human Rights, and expressing uncontrolled indignation.
So I went. I met Dave on his driveway and we crunched the gravel with our boots and entered his lovely rural home. We talked, and talked, and talked. By asking and answering questions about our motivations and what we valued, and listening to each others views, we discovered that we had far more in common than differences. So about two hours, several brews and visits to the toilet later we crunched the gravel with our boots again after deciding to work together for a common cause: to put an end to this logging but if and only if it could be done in a way that looked after the local economy by means of a regional economic development package.
This combination of conservation and development was what I had wanted all along (I had already developed a proposal to this effect), and I had gone to the public meeting to listen to their views, and articulate mine if invited. So instead of silencing me, those who threw me out of that meeting amplified my message, by motivating one among them to want to meet this friendly opponent.
Letters started arriving in Parliament from my new Reefton colleague asking for a regional development package in exchange for an end to the logging. Letters coming from a 5th generation local – a community leader who was not an environmentalist and who had modified their view after collaborative dialogue – was powerful. I know in my heart, and I have since been informed by senior officials in government at that time, that this had an important effect on the eventual government decision to end the logging of 130,000 hectares of lowland native forest, and provide a $120 million development package for the region.
The region prospered after the logging stopped, which showed that environmental protection and social-justice can be two sides of the same wholesome coin.
Dave and I are still good mates a decade later…
The outcome of the West Coast Forest Campaign was the product of the dedication and perseverance of the members and supporters of Native Forest Action – among the most wonderful people I have had the privilege to meet and work with. My own contributions to this campaign were a small part of a much larger effort. And to my NFA colleagues I take my hat off to them …
Sean Weaver is the founder and host of Ekodo – a professional development life-skills programme for compassionate agents of change. He lives in Wellington and is a Diamond Sangha student of Arthur Wells. See the Ekodo Facebook group here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=47683391767