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Why I Work to Keep Smokestacks Away From Schoolyards

03/10/2014 05:41 EDT | Updated 05/10/2014 05:59 EDT

As an environmental speaker, writer and consultant, I sometimes get asked why I do what I do -- or more accurately, why I keep doing what I do. After all, it's a challenging time to be a so-called environmentalist. Loved by some, less so by others (particularly those who occupy the seats of power in Ottawa these days); Easily dismissed as an impediment to prosperity, because environmental reality often challenges economic theory; Waving a flag in a world distracted by electronic gadgets and overwhelmed by conflicting information.

My answer extends back to my childhood.

I was raised on a dairy farm in Belledune, a small community on New Brunswick's North Shore. My parents worked on the farm, but most people in the area earned their livelihoods at either of Belledune's two major employers at the time, the smelter or the fertilizer plant. Both had sprung up in the 1960s, and had brought high wages and relative prosperity to our needy little corner of the province. But they came with baggage.

For my first four years of elementary school, I attended the original Belledune School. It was a typical country schoolhouse that had been built years earlier in a wide open space on the shore of the Bay of Chaleur. But when heavy industry came to town, the land around the school proved irresistible for development. By the time I showed up in the fall of 1968, the school was bordered by a smelter on one side and a fertilizer plant on the other.

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The fertilizer plant was upwind of our school. Sometimes, on heavy, overcast days, the smoke that billowed from its stack would descend over our schoolyard and hang like a fog. On those days, we couldn't go outside for recess. Or if we did go out, we'd come back in with a burning taste in our throats. Not good.

When I was a kid, I didn't know anything about the environment. I'd never even heard of climate change. But I intuitively knew something any elementary school kid knows: you don't keep a car running in a closed garage, because you'll poison yourself; people die that way. Then I'd think, but wait a minute -- isn't our planet like a really big closed garage? Except for the odd meteorite, nothing comes in and nothing goes out.

And then I'd wonder, so where does all that stuff from the smokestack go? And the answer I got was always the same. "Away. It goes away."

That answer didn't work for me. Instead, it made me reflect on what we -- all of us collectively, none of us deliberately -- are doing to our planet. I started hearing a little voice inside me saying, "Do something!"

But I had no idea of what to do, so for many years I ignored the little voice. Then, when my first son was born in 1999, it got louder. And it got even louder when my second son was born in 2001.

Thankfully, I found a way for my little voice to become a bigger voice a few years later -- first being trained by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore to present live versions of his Inconvenient Truth slideshow, and since, reaching as many people as I can through speaking and writing. I am fuelled by the image of my children, and all children, in a closed garage with a car running.

I'd like to be able to announce that that metaphor, inspired by the schoolyard of my own childhood, is no longer applicable. Alas, I can't. Around the world, smokestacks are belching more pollutants than ever into our precious, finite closed garage.

So even as I continue advocating for a healthier planet, I'm hoping school kids around the world -- and the rest of us -- will look at those smokestacks, hear their own little voices saying, "Do something," and then heed them.

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