The Eco-Innovator!

Chris Benjamin is a Halifax-based author, journalist and columnist. His work has appreared in The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Chronicle Herald, Now Magazine, Arts East and many other publications. His first novel, Drive-by Saviours, was longlisted for both the 2011 ReLit Award and Canada Reads 2011. His latest work, Eco-Innovators; Sustainability in Atlantic Canada, profiles some of the region’s most ground-breaking and forward-thinking leaders in sustainability – people who have made measurable contributions both in their respective fields of interest and in motivating others to make change. With ten chapters on matters like reducing consumption, greening the home, sustainable eating, dressing, transportation, and vacationing, the book is an important look into the lives of Atlantic Canadians committed to creating viable green options in our region. Recently AE spoke with Benjamin about the book., which will be launched tonight at Dalhousie University in Halifax, featuring a roundtable discussion on Creating a Sustainable Future featuring with some of the leading environmental thinkers in Halifax, and with questions from the audience.

AE: How did this project come about?
CB: It actually started when I submitted Drive-by Saviours to Vagrant. It was not regional enough for their mandate but Patrick Murphy, the managing editor, liked my writing and my environmental column with The Coast. He asked if I'd be interested in writing a book on something environmental for them. I pitched them a few ideas; they pitched a few back. We talked about a guidebook for greener living but I didn't want to be that prescriptive and it didn't seem like a book I sink my teeth into, so I said 'how about just stories of people who are doing it - like really extraordinary things, and let them serve as inspiration?' And they liked it.

AE: What were the challenges involved in putting it together?
CB: Writing about people across Atlantic Canada without any kind of budget, and with an earnest desire to minimize my own environmental impact while writing it. It meant I had to find examples I really believed in, vet people and their work, get to know them and visualize what they do, often without the benefit of visiting the sites. Luckily the miracle of online video, emailed photographs and, y'know, the phone, helped a lot. It also meant I had to get pretty personal and prod a lot over the phone without the benefit of sharing a beer together and breaking the ice. It was a difficult thing to do but, luckily, by and large people were anxious and happy to talk about their work and share their worldviews. They were thrilled in some cases that someone was finally asking them things they had thought long and hard about.

AE: How did it feel once you were done?
CB: Am I done yet? Books feel like a never-end process to me. But, now that it's off to the printers I feel proud of it, and privileged that I got to work through the project with Nimbus from conception to product. You don't really do that with a novel, usually, it's much more of an individual effort. With Nimbus there was plenty of negotiation back and forth on things and I think the result is something we can all be proud of.

AE: What did you learn during the process?
CB: One of the themes that kept emerging was the constant juggling act environmentalists (not just activists but entrepreneurs, educators, civil servants, builders, and farmers) are doing with hope and despair. I'd thought I was unusual in that, but most of the people I interviewed were motivated by a combination of fear of humanity's demise and hope for a better future.

AE: What has the feedback been like so far from those that have read it?
CB: It's a very small sample size, but the proofreader who came on with very little knowledge of the book's content said it far exceeded her expectations. She'd been thinking it'd be another environmental book, useful but maybe not for those aware of the issues. She found the storytelling approach inspiring and said it really hits home the point that, while there are no easy solutions, for us to avoid catastrophe we need to work together on it.

AE: How will the book be promoted over the coming months?
CB: We'll launch it in October with a roundtable featuring some of the folks in the book talking about the environmental challenges in the region, and what's being done, what could be done. We're making a youtube video featuring the same people. The Chronicle Herald and Halifax Magazine have already asked for advanced review copies and we hope to get some good regional radio coverage as well. And I'll do my usual social media whoring of it.

AE: Will there be a follow-up?
CB: We'll see how this one goes I guess. I certainly wouldn't be averse to it. And I think that it's a book that could be written about any region or province in Canada, or a national version could be written.

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