Hunger striker and environmental activist Brent Eichler wants more young folks to learn how to disobey
When reached by the Straight on the 24th day of his hunger strike, Vancouver environmental activist Brent Eichler is in a mood to talk about how heat domes have been destroying wildlife in Africa, Australia, and here in B.C.
“I have an affinity for the Buddhist tradition and, you know, valuing all sentient beings,” Eichler said on April 18. “To me, we’re all connected and so I feel very terribly about the loss of biodiversity and life on this planet. It really disturbs me.”
Eichler, 57, is one of two Save Old Growth activists who are on hunger strikes until B.C.’s minister responsible for forests, Katrine Conroy, hosts a public meeting on preservation of ancient forests. The other hunger striker, 69-year-old Howard Breen, lives in Nanaimo.
“I’m doing surprisingly better than I thought I would be,” Eichler said in advance of Earth Day on April 22. “The first part was really hard, but I find it’s not very difficult at all now.”
He’s surviving mainly on clear liquids, water, and lemon juice. And his vital signs are being monitored by two physicians, Dr. Tim Takaro and Dr. Linda Thyer.
“Of course, you need to keep your salt up,” Eichler said. “And I’m taking lots of vitamins.”
His passion for peaceful civil disobedience was ignited around the age of 13 when he read an essay on the subject by 19th-century writer Henry David Thoreau. Save Old Growth has embraced peaceful civil disobedience to protect ancient forests that serve as carbon sinks and preserve biodiversity.
The group is also inspired by the suffragette movement, the Indian independence movement, and the U.S. civil-rights Freedom Riders.
“I really believe that the young people today need to learn how to disobey,” Eichler said. “It’s obvious to me we’re never going to get anywhere as far as solving these existential crises without people taking action and doing civil disobedience.”
He offered great praise, however, for the young activists with Save Old Growth who have willingly faced arrest by blocking traffic to draw attention to government policies.
Eichler recently sat outside the Croatian Cultural Centre in protest as the NDP was holding a fundraising dinner inside.
"The people that support the party came and talked to me and were very empathetic and all that," he recalled.
He believes that people who were party officials were the ones who were most critical, suggesting that First Nations people, rather than a white guy in Vancouver, should be determining the fate of old-growth forests.
Eichler characterized this as "collaboration by coercion".
"The people who have had everything stolen from them—and often don't even have clean drinking water—are given this decision to make with no resources to help them make the right decision," he said.
At the same time, Eichler does not personalize his issues with the government.
"I try not to think about the personalities of leaders," he said. "I just think that, you know, the machine starts to do things independent of whoever happens to be in power."
He also doesn't think that established environmental organizations are achieving results as long as they refuse to engage in peaceful civil disobedience. Eichler pointed out that a former Greeenpeace official, Steven Guilbeault, is the environment minister in a federal cabinet that recently approved a "huge offshore extreme oil project".
Eichler noted that he’s single and he feels privileged enough to take this stand.
“I have a lot of sleepless nights thinking about the future—not my own, because I’m old,” he emphasized.
Meanwhile, the NDP minister, Conroy, continues refusing to grant a public meeting to talk about forest policies.
“That won’t stop me from acting,” Eichler insisted. “I made a vow to myself at one time that I would act independent of the results of those actions. I would like to meet with the minister, but even if the minister doesn’t meet with us or try to meet any of our demands, I still think it’s worth doing.”
That prompts the Straight to ask what people closest to him think of his decision to refuse to eat food until Save Old Growth's demands are met.
“My mom is worried,” Eichler acknowledged. “She’s in assisted living in Langley. And my sister is worried also.”