THE LATEST FILM by Swiss-Canadian director Léa Pool argues that breast cancer is not just a disease but also a massive and extremely lucrative new industry. Drawing on interviews with social critics (including the brilliant Barbara Ehrenreich), survivors, doctors and funders, Pink Ribbons Inc. finds searing answers about how much is actually achieved when large companies – among them Estée Lauder and Kentucky Fried Chicken – join the attempt to vanquish this tragic health issue.
But while the film accurately critiques the philanthropy sector’s corporate ties, nothing in its dissection of our nefarious economic system is especially newsworthy. It’s no surprise that cosmetics manufacturers see women’s cancer as a fabulous opportunity to sell makeup, or that in their focus on medical breakthroughs they ignore the illness’ occupational and environmental causes. Few will be shocked to learn that some of the companies raising money for cures also have carcinogens in their products.
Pink Ribbons’ commentary on capitalism is not nearly as illuminating as its presentation (perhaps unintended) of how to build a successful, enduring social movement. The environmental sector – and I speak as someone who works in it, daily – has much to learn here about harnessing public concern.
In 2011, the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation’s Run for the Cure took place in 59 communities and raised more than $30 million! When did a Canadian environmental event last get a comparable turnout?
While there are some exceptions – the Occupy movement and the Foodstock fundraiser against Ontario’s mega-quarry come to mind – ecological activism doesn’t attract anything close to the broad constituency that breast cancer activities do. Planetary degradation harms everyone, yet when Canada pulled out of Kyoto only a few dozen of us appeared at the environment minister’s constituency office to protest.
The breast cancer movement succeeds because it makes its issue visceral. Those cure-runners are in it for someone they love – a deceased family member, an ill friend, themselves. While the environmental movement deals in abstractions – “Last year 300 Ontarians died from coal smoke” – the cancer movement is concrete – “I’m running for my Mom.”
Breast cancer activists understand our need for community. Not the disembodied Facebook variety, but the real thing, in person. It’s not accidental that many of the cancer runners participate as members of a team. Cancer fundraisers know they have to address our existential needs, among them a hunger for connectedness. They know their events aren’t just about cancer – they’re about belonging, about making us feel at home in the world.
In one of its final powerful images, Pink Ribbons Inc. shows a massive post-run rally. Thousands of runners are clutching and holding up each other’s hands. The organizers understand that we participate in such movements because we love the companionship of the people who share our cause.
Environmentalists focus too much on issues. We need to offer our members – and prospective members – opportunities for friendship. Climate change, nuclear accidents and species extinction are frightening. Who can address them alone?
For the most part, our events lack fun and celebration. We just don’t think in these terms. My organization recently helped to win a major ban on lawn pesticides. After the victory, a number of people said to me, “What will you do next?” I replied, “The first thing we’re going to do is celebrate.” And they inevitably responded, “Yeah, yeah, but what will you do after that?” As if recognition of accomplishment, on those infrequent occasions when it occurs, was trivial.
Breast cancer events, by contrast, feel festive – filled with music, dance, costume, food. The atmosphere is one of enjoyment. In Pink Ribbons Inc., we see tired participants preparing to camp at the end of a long day’s walk. At one point the camera pans to show a woman lying down, receiving a massage. It’s a small gesture, but telling. When has the environmental movement offered its supporters anything so pleasurable?
Gideon Forman is executive director of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment. cape.ca
Rent or download Pink Ribbons Inc. from nfb.ca.
To support Environmental Defence’s effort to give Canada’s beauty industry a makeover via their “Just Beautiful” campaign, go to environmentaldefence.ca.
Gideon Forman makes a good point. How do we make environmental issues hit home and build that sense of community and celebration? Step up to the challenge and share your ideas and success stories in a comment below. Your ideas may be published in an upcoming issue of Alternatives!