Maude Barlow: A Life of Activism Gives You Hope, Energy and Direction


Maude Barlow received an Honorary Doctor of Laws from York University in Toronto yesterday morning. Here are her speaking notes for the Convocation ceremony.

Chancellor Gregory Sorbara, President Mamdouh Shoukri, the Senate of York University, and all the graduation students, 

It is a great honour to share this convocation with you today. I am moved by your grace, energy and hope on this lovely June day.

In the few minutes I have to share with you I would like to urge you all, no matter what your education specialty, what vocation you choose, or where you live, to give some of your precious life energy to the great environmental challenges that face us today.

Every generation faces a unique political reality and set of concerns it needs to tackle together and yours is the multiple threats to the earth itself from over-exploitation, pollution and the growth imperative.

From the diminishing life in the oceans, and the destruction of old growth forests, to the clear limits of a fossil fuel economy, our Mother Earth is suffering, as are countless millions around the world.

Water is the issue I know best. Fresh water supplies are rapidly being destroyed due to a “perfect storm” of pollution, climate change, over-mining of groundwater, and watershed destruction where humans move massive amounts of water from lakes, rivers and aquifers to quench the thirst of cities, industry and mega farms.

When we are done with it, we dump that water (usually untreated) into the oceans as waste, leaving landscapes parched behind us. As a result, many parts of the world are literally running out of available fresh water — something we were taught as children could never happen — and almost three billion people do not have access to clean water within a kilometre of their homes.

Every three seconds a child of the Global South dies of dirty water. The lack of access to water kills more children worldwide than all forms of violence together, including war.

Even here in Canada, we have taken our water for granted and are among the worst water wasters in the world. We don’t protect or properly map our groundwater. Our Great Lakes are in crisis, with one study warning they could be “bone dry”in 80 years. Our national water act is forty five years old and in desperate need of updating.

Canadians consume about 3 billion plastic bottles of commercial water every year. Since we only recycle about 35 per cent of these bottles, we discard mountains of plastic garbage in our lakes, rivers, forests and landfills where they will take at least 500 years to break down.

Mining and heavy oil extractions are destroying many freshwater lakes and rivers in Canada, allowing giant dams of poisoned water to contaminate groundwater sources. Yet recent changes to freshwater regulations mean that 99 per cent of all our lakes and rivers are entirely unprotected by federal law.

Sadly there is still a water and santitation crisis on many First Nations communities, where residents are 90 per cent more likely to be without running water than other Canadians. Yet Canada was the last country in the world to ratify the UN General Assembly resolution recognizing the human right to water, an enormously important step for the global community to take.

We who are blessed to live in a water wealthy country have a special responsibility to find solutions to this global crisis and as well, to be good stewards of our own precious water resources by protecting our watersheds, wetlands and aquifers and ensuring safe, clean drinking water as a public trust and a human right. There is much work to do.

Do not listen to those who say there is nothing you can do to the very large and very real social and environmental problems that beset our world. I am not now talking about a false sense of optimism based on ignoring the several very real crises we face.

But there is so much room for hope and such a need to bring joy and excitement to our commitment to a different future. I swear to you that it is true — the life of an activist is a good life, because you get up in the morning caring about more than just yourself or how to make more money. A life of activism gives hope (a moral imperative in this work), energy and direction. You meet the best people. You help transform systems and ideas and you commit to leaving the earth in at least as whole a state as you inherited it because every generation has the right to breathe clean air and drink sweet clean water.

And you may very well find yourself inside an important fight for all humanity. Recently, I was part of a delegation to the United Nations, where we presented a new idea to the Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, and the General Assembly.

Because our civil society movements believe that there are no human rights if there are no protections for the earth, air, water, forests, wetlands and other species, we presented the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth which we hope will become, with time, the companion to the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This concept was met with great enthusiasm from the Secretary General and many country delegates and I believe with my heart that it is only a matter of time before it becomes a cornerstone of public policy both at the United Nations and in every country and community in the world.

As Cormac Cullinan, a leading advocate for the rights of nature, explains: The day will come when the failure of our laws to recognize the right of a river to flow, to prohibit acts that destabilize the Earth’s climate, or to impose a duty to respect the intrinsic value and right to exist of all life will be as reprehensible as allowing people to be bought and sold. We will only flourish by changing these systems and claiming our identify, as well as assuming our responsibilities, as members of the Earth community.

I want to close with the words of the late, great American scientist and environmentalist, Carl Sagan, who said: Anything else you are interested in is not going to happen if you cannot breathe the air and drink the water. Don’t sit this one out! Do something! You are by accident of fate alive at an absolutely critical moment in the history of our planet.

Thank you York University, for this great honour.