Over the years Varda Burstyn’s extensive and award winning body of work tackled hard issues in politics, popular culture, science, technology, health and the environment, in every medium, for popular audiences and in scholarly venues, and in fiction as well. A work biography and a selected list of her work in culture and politics can be found on her home website, vardaburstyn.com. Her work has appeared in Mother Jones and Canadian Forum, on CBC radio’s Ideas, in films produced by the National Film Board of Canada, and her fiction has been translated into French, German and Korean.
Varda has been an active environmentalist since the beginning of the environmental movement in Canada serving as staff, board member or consultant to a number of important organizations – including local, provincial and federal health agencies and non-profits – over the decades. From the mid-nineties to the mid-2000s she served as Vice-Chair of Greenpeace Canada. Today she is a member of the board of the Chemical Sensitivity Foundation.
Left: Cover of The First Green Wave: Pollution Probe and the Origins of Environmental Activism in Ontario (Ryan O’Connor, UBC Press 2014). The photo is of the first year staff and board of Pollution Probe, and Varda is the first person to the left of the tree trunk. Below: a road blockade during the late 1990’s campaign to protect the temperate rainforest in British Columbia, in which Greenpeace played a major role.
A strong, independent voice, her work has often been described as iconoclastic, prescient, “ten years ahead of the curve.” One thing is certain: she always looks beneath the surface of everyday life, behind its official accounts and received wisdom, to reveal the underlying realities.
“I’ve done a lot of writing on popular culture and on government and I expect to do more of that,” Varda says. “But I’ve been an active environmentalist since my teens, and no matter what other work I was pursuing, I have consistently written about environmental and health issues since my twenties. That has given me a long view – about issues of climate change and toxics, the pace of damage, the huge challenges for humanity in becoming a sustainable species – some of which I animated in my 2005 novel Water Inc.”
So why now for the new blog and informational website? “In the last ten years,” says Varda, “my work shifted almost exclusively to consulting on environmental health issues for non-profits and projects funded by the Ontario government. So that meant I rarely had a chance to really write in my own voice about the growing problem of toxics, an issue I was researching and that had me more terrified with each passing day. I’ve always appreciated opportunities to contribute to public policy, but there have been constraints too – especially in criticizing the slowness and even resistance to change. So I’m done with government work for now, and want to take up my role again as an independent writer and as a citizen making my own way through the seemingly overwhelming minefield of environmental issues today. I think I can speak to the concerns of ordinary people, and I can do it in plain English, without jargon, and certainly without what amounts, too often, to dishonest minimization in bureaucratic-speak.” Varda loves this cartoon from New Scientist.
Credit: New Scientist
Is this her reason for creating this informational website and blog? “Yes, it is. Because, at last,” she says, “all the curves I was supposed to have been ahead of have caught up to us. All those destructive trends I wrote about for so many years – as did so many others – they’re all here. Our oceans are dying, our water is disappearing, our children and our wildlife are sick and, of course, our planet is warming so fast that the droughts, floods, wildfires and hurricanes caused by this pose an existential threat to all creatures who depend on its biosphere. I need to be able to able to share what I’ve learned about toxics over these years with others, and to call things as I see them, now.
Is there something special in her approach and point of view? “I think so. By writing about issues through my own lens, I can bring into sharp focus not only the problems we face, but also the solutions that are at hand, but require political will to effect. And I don’t hesitate to address the fact that today, political will itself is the most challenging issue of all. People will find that environment and politics are inextricably intertwined in everything I’ve written about and chronicled, and much of what I’ve assembled for Dispatches from the Chemical Edge. I really hope what I’ve written inspires people, and helps them find a way to take action on these issues that affect them so much. I’ve been part of many big campaigns that were successful, and I want others to know it’s worth fighting for.”
Varda is very grateful to two other people who work on this site:
David S. Fenton, who has the degrees of M.Sc. and M.Ed., and has been an adjunct professor of physical geography, economic geography, and environmental studies. He researches for the website and works with Varda on her other projects.
Jean-Luc Lemery, with David Fenton, created this site and maintains it with imagination, patience and grace. He has a background in environmental/animal biology, social psychology, and neuroscience (B.Sc. Hons).
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