Considering what makes an activist tick

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Diane Wilson has dabbled in protest of British Petroleum and others for the past twenty years.

On this episode of Field Notes, I ask you to consider the activist.

From Joan of Arc to Martin Luther, these polarizing people have objected to perceived and real wrong doings throughout history. There’s no question that activism eventually spilled into the traditionally conservative world of farming and food. Contemporary activists write about their disdain, like Michael Pollan, although I wonder if he would be okay with that label, and others come right from the land itself. They abandon the farming life for one that may ask to stick up for another farmer’s land, a livelihood other than their own.

Environmental and agricultural activists often confront powerful multi-national corporations that have money and focused public relations campaigns … decision-makers rarely have to interact with those who detest their business sense. And when activists are ignored by these big companies, or government agencies, it’s because the company or government was within its legal rights. Their decisions may be morally indefensible, especially when there is money to be made and the law is on your side.

That’s when the protest hits the fan. What else can one person or one group do if the law says, “what you are protesting isn’t up for debate, so go home”?

Though, the activist may have more power over what ultimately becomes of a contentious issue than one might think. Just getting their face on television and their voices captured as they shout something in opposition may not be enough to sway shareholders. Perhaps success can come if just one person watching has a chance to make a choice about the message.

But, to make an informed choice, you need information. In the case of the environment and agriculture, you might need science to back up your reasoning, right?

Professor Mary Lyn Stoll teaches in the University of Southern Indiana philosophy department. She's pictured here in her environmental ethics class responding to students and facilitating discussion on climate change. (Photo by Jessica Naudziunas / Harvest Public Media)

This week, I visited the University of Southern Indiana, where philosophy professor Mary Lyn Stoll teaches an environmental ethics class. Her students have regular conversations about tricky ethical debates and moral dilemmas. On this day I watched as she responded to students who were sympathetic and students who were flippant to environmental concerns. She challenged both reactions. No one got a pass unless they backed up what they said with real information.

She told me about a time when a group of her students were talking about global warming, a topic that comes up regularly in Stoll’s class. One student brought up a point: what if global warming doesn’t exist?

After the comment was made, Stoll said the other students laughed. That was the first time she heard laughter after climate change doubts were addressed. Five years ago, if a student had said, “global warming is a farce,” not a chuckle would be heard. Perhaps many would’ve agreed.

After the laughter subsided, Stoll asked why they thought their peer’s statement was so funny. They gave answers that cited the science from the readings and discussions they had in class. They made the choice to laugh based on what they had learned. “I want them to think better and more about the kind of life they are living,” Stoll said, “and I want them to understand their complicity in injustice. That understanding has to be their own. If a student walks out of my class ever feeling sated about morality, that’s when I fail.”

So, this week you’ll hear from Mary Lyn Stoll and how activism and the environment converge, and from actual activist and author Diane Wilson. Wilson is author of Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth and is now a retired fisherwoman the small shrimping town of Seadrift, Texas. I ask her why she decided to take a stand against the corporations she says took her fellow fisherman off the bay.