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On braving the wilderness and embracing discomfort

Exposing alleged wrongdoing in the environmental movement could help save the planet, not hinder the cause

Reaction to The Narwhal’s investigation into allegations of verbal abuse and safety issues at Pacific Wild was swift this week, with The Globe and Mail, Politico, The Tyee and the Capital Daily sharing our story and dozens of readers reaching out to thank us for taking it on, despite its difficulty. 

“If something like this were happening at an organization I worked for — or even led — I think it would be important for these stories to be told. Our sector has to be accountable,” tweeted Chris Rider, executive director of CPAWS Yukon.

“Well-evidenced and enlightening. Truly a reflection of The Narwhal’s commitment to the truth and professional reporting and investigative journalism, even when uncomfortable,” tweeted Clayton Lamb, a wildlife scientist at the University of British Columbia.

“Thank you for your conviction to tell the truth. It’s why I am an avid donor,” wrote long-time member Renee Mikaloff. 

But it wasn’t all praise. We also heard from a few readers who thought the environmental good accomplished by Pacific Wild outweighed any alleged harm done to workers.

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It’s worth noting that the vast majority of those who felt this way are older men. If you’ve never been in a workplace where you were targeted by a boss or yelled at by someone twice your size perhaps it’s difficult to imagine how deeply harmful these experiences can be. As a woman in her 30s, I don’t have to imagine what these experiences are like — I know. This is why it’s important to have a diverse array of people making decisions about what’s newsworthy. This story, perhaps more than any other we’ve published, has demonstrated how the values and lived experiences of readers influences what they think is important.

The question for some readers is whether these experiences are worthy of reporting on — or whether they weaken the environmental movement. This line of reasoning reminds me of the point made by a former Pacific Wild worker, who we called Taylor in the investigation, who said environmentalists often feel they can’t “air dirty laundry” because it will “undermine our achievements and goals.” 

The conclusion I’ve come to over the years is this: allowing environmental organizations to be poorly run with low levels of accountability doesn’t help the movement. It drives young talent and future leaders out of the movement. Furthermore, if environmental groups are going to call for transparency and accountability from governments and corporations, they ought to be willing to hold themselves to at least a minimum standard themselves.

If The Narwhal’s investigation into Pacific Wild serves as a clarion call for non-profits to examine their governance structures and ensure they have bullying and harassment policies in place, that’s a good thing. In fact, I’d argue that is going to help save the planet, not hinder the cause.

It’s no surprise that our investigation has caused cognitive dissonance — the tension that occurs when a person holds two beliefs that are inconsistent — for many. Cognitive dissonance is uncomfortable, and when humans are uncomfortable, we grasp for ways to ease that discomfort. 

“Resentment is like a drug. It feels good to go home and say: ‘Those assholes! Those jerks! Those liberals. Those conservatives … I’m right, they’re wrong,’ ” Roger Conner, a now-retired law professor and conflict resolution practitioner at Vanderbilt Law School, told James Hoggan (a former board member of The Narwhal) in his book I’m Right and You’re an Idiot

“The truth is we all have some degree of uncertainty and we go to this self-righteous place to protect ourselves from that uncertainty.”

Hoggan’s book also features social psychologist Carol Tavris, author of a book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

“The greatest danger we face on the planet is not only from bad people doing corrupt, evil and bad things but also from good people who justify the bad, evil and corrupt things they do in order to preserve their belief that they’re good, kind, ethical people,” Tavris told Hoggan.

“In all social movements, you are not only justifying the beliefs you’ve acquired, but you became part of a group of like-minded people, all echoing the reasons you’re right.”

It’s tough when you learn that someone you saw as being on your “team” may have acted in a way that’s inconsistent with your broader values. Speaking out against someone on your team is even harder. 

As Brene Brown writes in her book Braving the Wilderness: “Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness — an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.” 

Here’s what I know for sure: many, many people braved the wilderness for this investigation to come into being. For The Narwhal’s part, the decision to tell the story of Pacific Wild was not made lightly. What I keep coming back to is this: one of the key purposes of journalism is to shine a light on what powerful people and organizations do in the shadows. While sometimes we may not like what we see, it doesn’t make it any less worth seeing.

We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?
We’ve got big plans for 2024
Seeking out climate solutions, big and small. Investigating the influence of oil and gas lobbyists. Holding leaders accountable for protecting the natural world.

The Narwhal’s reporting team is busy unearthing important environmental stories you won’t read about anywhere else in Canada. And we’ll publish it all without corporate backers, ads or a paywall.

How? Because of the support of a tiny fraction of readers like you who make our independent, investigative journalism free for all to read.

Will you join more than 6,000 members helping us pull off critical reporting this year?

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