Saturday, February 28, 2009

Closer to the land: Freedom of expression and the environment

On Friday night I attended "Closer to the Land: Freedom of Expression and the Environment" organized by PEN Canada as part of Freedom to Read Week at the public library . The format was a kind of roundtable discussion facilitated by CBC Radio's Matt Galloway.

The meeting opened with two poems written by Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and tv producer who was executed by the Nigerian regime in 1995 for defending the Ogoni people from the brutal and environmentally destructive policies being implemented by the regime and Shell oil. It was very moving causing me to co-dedicate this blog to Saro-Wiwa in addition to Rachel Carson (see bottom of the right column).

A petition was also circulated addressed to Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad calling for the release of writer Hossein Derakhshan, also known as the Blogfather of Iran. An empty seat sat on stage for Derakhshan, representing the writers who have been silenced by repressive regimes around the world.

The roundtable included

Ken McGoogan
Biographer and historian, author of Race to the Polar Sea: The Heroic Adventures of Elisha Kent Kane

Trevor Herriot
From Saskatchewan, naturalist, writer, illustrator, author of the multiple-award-winning book River in a Dry Land, and the recently released Grass, Sky, Song, Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds.

Taras Grescoe
From Montreal, non-fiction writer and author of Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.

Sarah Harmer
Music icon and environmental activist - active in the preservation of the Niagara Escarpment and in particular, opposed to the expansion of gravel pits and stone quarries on Mount Nemo north of Burlington. 
There were some interesting stories about what each had learned about their respective issues and struggles. Some debate ensued as to whether they should be called "activists". As well, a repeated theme was related to information flow - on the one hand, there is tons of information available about the environment which may be causing some people to be experiencing overload while at the same time government agencies are often less than forthcoming about releasing information.

Another theme was on the importance of individual action as well as a very strong hope that Barack Obama be able to deliver on some of his promises related to the environment. I felt there was some muddled thinking when it came to discussion of political action and the responsibilities of governments and corporations but overall it was an interesting discussion.

At the end of the discussion and question period I had a chance to meet Juno winner Sarah Harmer and Taras Grescoe whose new book I purchased.

PEN Canada helps writers around the world who have been persecuted for the peaceful expression of their ideas.

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