Looking Ahead, and Remembering Rebecca Tarbotton

John McArthur remembers his childhood friend, environmental activist Rebecca Tarbotton.
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January 4, 2013

I had an unexpectedly sad shock over the holidays. Visiting my mother’s house near Vancouver, I was taking advantage of the seasonal calm to mull through some of my own priorities in addition to the major global development issues on the horizon in 2013. The latter include things like the prolonged economic strains across the advanced economies, the challenges in global agriculture and nutrition, the imminent broadband connectivity of the entire planet, Africa’s fragile gains in malaria control as the first wave of mass-distributed bed nets come due to be replaced, the seemingly broken intergovernmental negotiations on climate change, the UN High-level Panel’s forthcoming report on what should follow the Millennium Development Goals after 2015, and the September UN summit that might start to establish contours on that topic.

Flipping through the Vancouver Sun with these issues rolling through the back of my mind, my stomach dropped when I saw the photo of a childhood friend, Rebecca Tarbotton, next to a story explaining that she died on Boxing Day in a freak holiday swimming accident while vacationing with her husband and friends in Mexico. Rebecca was listed as the executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, an environmental advocacy non-profit based out of San Francisco. While she died at the far too young age of 39, she had already garnered significant acclaim for her achievements in helping major banks and other companies lessen their impacts on the environment.

Rebecca was one of my most memorable and inspiring childhood classmates growing up in Vancouver. We attended the same elementary school French immersion program, starting in Grade 6, where she stood out in many respects. She was tall, kind, and incredibly bright. As a mutual friend from those days said this week, “I remember her being very together and grown up for her age and also very kind and outgoing.” I think it was on our first day of school together that we discovered we lived on opposite sides of the same block, and hence shared the same bus ride on many occasions. We were good, if not close, friends, and I always respected her tremendously, as did everyone else. She had the rare trait among elementary-school students of being gracious to everyone.

I don’t remember the last time I saw Rebecca. It was probably two decades ago. I don’t know how much I would have agreed with her on every issue of politics or sustainable development. But I have thought of her countless times over the years, especially for something she once taught me.

We were in Grade 7, and there was a citywide French language public speaking contest that everyone had to participate in. We all had to prepare and present speeches on any topic of our choice. I distinctly remember how intimidating it all felt, even though most of us would never have to worry about doing more than presenting in our own school, since only the internal winners would go on to the bigger competition. The big day of first-round presentations arrived, and one classmate after another got up to press through delivering their remarks. They were all fine, some inevitably better than others, but nothing really stood out. Until Rebecca got up. Hers was simply on another plane. I can’t remember her exact topic, but I think it was a story she made up about an invisible friend. She was poised, told a great tale, and cracked a few jokes in the middle. She hadn’t written a speech. She had crafted a narrative. It was a performance.

I was stunned in two ways. First, to know that it was possible to make such a fabulous presentation that everyone loved. Second, to know that “one of us” could be the one to do that. Even as a young girl, Rebecca had an incredible blend of courage, intellect, and grace, which left me in awe.

Decades later, I still can’t claim to have matched Rebecca’s aptitudes, but I often think of her lesson. She inspired me to consider how much better things could be done. More importantly, she helped me understand that, so often, people we think we know actually have a far greater ability to inspire us then we might presume.

Fast-forward to last weekend, when the news of Rebecca’s death prompted me to look up more of her professional activities online. I quickly found a thoughtful reflection on her life’s work at Forbes.com. It was only with half surprise that I saw the story include a link to a video of one of her recent speeches, which I encourage everyone interested in social change to watch. In it, she weaves a chance airplane conversation with David Suzuki into a broader story of how a handful of her colleagues worked with Disney to adopt a new corporate paper policy with surprisingly large consequences for deforestation in Indonesia and elsewhere. I would have found the speech inspirational simply as an international policy professional. As someone who remembers Rebecca’s inspiration from elementary school, it moved me much more than that.

Perhaps most poignantly, 26 years after I last heard her give a speech, Rebecca tugged at my mind and heart once again through a passage that spoke to ideals, with an eloquence in delivery to which I could only aspire. In reflecting on how to tackle the world’s foremost challenges of what one might call planetary boundaries and sustainable development, she said,

We don’t always know exactly what it is that creates change. We don’t know exactly what it is. It takes everything from science, all the way to faith. And it’s the fertile place right in the middle – that spot where those things come together – that’s where really exceptional campaigning happens. That’s where [our organization] strives to be. All the time.

I can only take issue with one element of Rebecca’s remarks. We do know one thing that creates change: It’s people like her. It’s people with the courage to stand up for what they believe in, and the grace and humility to help other people believe that things can be better too.

As we look out at all the world’s challenges in 2013, we need the courage to keep cultivating Rebecca’s belief that positive change still happens, when anchored in evidence and drawing from conviction. Her bio on Twitter (@beckytarbotton) still reads, “Executive Director of Rainforest Action Network- working to protect forests, communities and climate. Love kayaking + good whiskey...And I'm Canadian.” The world just lost a great Canadian. But that Canadian brought the world many great gifts. We are all better thanks to people like her.