After spending more than 30 years engaged in environmental battles, working both inside government as a chief of staff and outside for NGOs, Bob Peart was feeling physically and emotionally beat.
So he took a break – and he might not have returned to the fray if he hadn't been inspired by a book that reminded him of the joy children experience playing outdoors.
Now Mr. Peart, 64, is poised to make a comeback as the new executive director of the Sierra Club of British Columbia, starting Oct. 15.
"I'm pretty excited. I realize it's going to be pretty daunting some days. It's going to be a challenge. But it's a really important time for conservation in B.C. and I want to contribute," he said in an interview. "I've got my positive attitude back again … my energy … and I feel that I can continue to make a difference."
Mr. Peart was drawn into government in the early 1990s when a good friend, John Cashore, was appointed to cabinet by NDP premier Mike Harcourt. Mr. Peart handled environmental and aboriginal files for nearly a decade before leaving government to become B.C. director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in 2000.
He said he always regarded B.C. as "a gift to the world" that had to be protected – and it was painful, year after year, to watch valleys logged, rivers damned and mountains mined.
"Every day is a loss," he said of serving on the environmental front lines in a province where the economy is driven by resource development. "To quote Aldo Leopold, 'If you really know what's going on it's a sad world.' And I really know what's going on."
B.C.'s wilderness was slowly but steadily being degraded, he felt, and grinding away at him constantly was the realization that no matter what scientists said, no matter how much noise environmentalists made, the battle against global warming was being lost.
"The first time I heard about global warming was late '71; I was a student at Guelph and [heard] an extraordinary lecture … about some disturbing patterns beginning to emerge with the climate and weather," he said.
Governments ignored the warnings then. Fast forward 42 years and governments still aren't taking decisive action on the issue, he said.
"If you take it seriously it just tears your soul right out," said Mr. Peart of this lack of action.
And he did take it seriously – perhaps too seriously.
"I went into the sewer to be frank. I don't know whether I'd use the word depressed, but I was in a bad place," he said.
In a blog he wrote last year, here's how he described that bleak period: "I found it increasingly difficult to enjoy the moment of a soaring osprey or roaming grizzly bear, without being concerned about the future and the harm that humans are doing to their habitat. These thoughts brought sadness to my spirit and a sense of remorse so strong that it began to erode the joy and wonder that I had for it all … the 'burden of the world' led to a deterioration of my physical and mental health."
Then Mr. Peart stumbled on a book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv, which stressed the importance of exposing children to the outdoors.
In his darkest hour, Mr. Peart was reminded of his own childhood and the joy he shared with friends in exploring Canada's wild outdoors.
"My journey is now refreshed by the memories of the hours that children spend outside running in the leaves, hunting for squirrels with a BB gun or following animal tracks in the snow," he writes. "The world isn't going to be rescued by government, wishful thinking, blind optimism or some new machine. There is no anonymous 'they' who are going to figure things out. Hope, real hope, comes from doing the things before us and making contributions to society in a spirit of thankfulness and recognition that each little bit helps."
Mr. Peart intends to do his own 'little bit' by holding government to account, but he promises not to become another voice of doom. He's had enough of that.
"I think the conversation needs to be more edgy – but it needs to be done in a positive, hopeful way. I'm tired of the sky is falling stuff," he said.
At last, a positive voice in the wilderness. And one well worth listening to.