THE BLOG
02/06/2017 05:18 pm ET Updated Feb 07, 2018

The Writing Life: Remembering Jim MacNeill

In Canada they celebrate the life and the long achievements of Jim MacNeill.

Jim was one of the leading founders of the modern global environmental movement, a man who was as kind and generous as he was a person with foresight and vision about what he liked to call "our common ground."

By "common ground," of course, he meant our fragile planet and its depleting natural resources. Through much of his adult life - he was just short of 88 years years old when he died of pneumonia in Ottawa last March 5 - Jim vigorously railed against the damage inflicted by industrialization.

But serving in the Canadian government, in international bodies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, and as Secretary General of the Brundtland Commission - which established the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, more popularly known as The Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro - Jim also believed that confrontation between activists as The Establishment would not resolve the problems at hand.

"When everybody screams, no one hears a thing," Jim often said to me, paraphrasing a line famously used by the late A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, and my mentor. (Abe, not especially known for his environmentalism - although he was an avid gardener - often used that line with me when I served as his news clerk for four years before being promoted to staff reporter in 1973.)

So Jim pressed for greater dialogue between the two sides, devoutly believing that thoughtful and well planned economic growth, along with judicious measures to protect the global environment, would be beneficial to citizens of the whole besieged planet.

He was not naïve. Jim knew that to get the world's nearly 200 nationalities to agree on a sweeping agenda to change personal lifestyles and thereby protect the global environment was, at best, difficult. His counsel was to take incremental steps - such as The Earth Summit, the Kyoto Summit, and other conferences where agreements could be achieved on small but significant issues. Jim believed that, in time, there would be a grand and enforceable agenda to clean up the planet and protect it from further transgressions.

Such a grand agenda did not happen in his lifetime. He was sometimes criticized for being the ultimate "conference man." Jim rarely responded to verbal assaults. His weapons were a smile, invitations to critics to sit down with him and talk things through - and break bread and sip wine.

What else is there to say about Jim other than he was a truly decent and good man, a man who took fond care of his wife Phyllis, children, and numerous grandchildren. I will miss him, and I will miss not keeping in touch with him more frequently.

The lesson for me? Hold on close to your friends while they are still around; when they are gone, they are gone. Come back, Jim, you're too precious to have left us. You left us all too soon - along with other environmental giants such as Barry Commoner and Maurice Strong. Our planet needs you, now more than ever before.

In Canada on Monday, April 25, they celebrated the life and long achievements of Jim MacNeill.

Jim was one of the leading founders of the modern global environmental movement, a man who was as kind and generous as he was a person with foresight and vision about what he liked to call "our common ground."

By "common ground," of course, he meant our fragile planet and its depleting natural resources. Through much of his adult life - he was just short of 88 years years old when he died of pneumonia in Ottawa last March 5 - Jim vigorously railed against the damage inflicted by industrialization.

His main forums were the Canadian government, international bodies such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, and as Secretary General of the Brundtland Commission - which established the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, more popularly known as The Earth Summit, in Rio de Janeiro. Jim believed that confrontation between activists and The Establishment would not resolve the problems at hand.

"When everybody screams, no one hears a thing," Jim often said to me, paraphrasing a line famously used by the late A. M. Rosenthal, executive editor of the New York Times, and my mentor. (Abe, not especially known for his environmentalism - although he was an avid gardener - often used that line with me when I served as his news clerk for four years before being promoted to staff reporter in 1973.)

So Jim pressed for greater dialogue between the two sides, devoutly believing that thoughtful and well planned economic growth, along with judicious measures to protect the global environment, would be beneficial to citizens of the whole besieged planet. Jim knew that it wasn't the laws and agreements that were approved by the comity of nations that were as important as their enforceability.

He was not naïve. Jim knew that to get the world's nearly 200 nationalities to agree on a sweeping agenda to change personal lifestyles and thereby protect the global environment was, at best, difficult. His counsel was to take incremental steps - such as The Earth Summit, the Kyoto Summit, and other conferences where agreements could be achieved on small but significant issues such as biological and wildlife protect, and wiser harvesting of our seas. Jim believed that, in time, there would be a grand and enforceable agenda to clean up the planet and protect it from further transgressions.

Such a grand agenda did not happen in his lifetime. He was sometimes criticized for being the ultimate "conference man." Jim rarely responded to verbal assaults. His weapons were a smile, invitations to critics to sit down with him and talk things through - and break bread and sip wine.

What else is there to say about Jim other than he was a truly decent and good man, a man who took fond care of his wife Phyllis, children, and numerous grandchildren. I will miss him, and I will miss not keeping in touch with him more frequently.

The lesson for me? Hold on close to your friends while they are still around; when they are gone, they are gone. Come back, Jim, you're too precious to have left us. You left us all too soon - along with other environmental giants such as Barry Commoner and Maurice Strong. Our planet needs you, now more than ever before. The political noise around us doesn't make it easy to include the environment in national dialogues.