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Annie Leonard to Take the Helm at Greenpeace USA

Story of Stuff founder demonstrates a “fierce love” for people and the planet

Annie Leonard – the creative force behind The Story of Stuff video series and currently Earth Island Journal’s “Material World” columnist – has been chosen as the new executive director of Greenpeace-USA, the organization is announcing today.

The pairing seems a perfect match. Leonard, 49, has a unique talent for translating complex policy issues into plain language that connects with a large audience. Her series of online videos – including The Story of Bottled Water, The Story of Electronics, even a Story of Citizens United – have been viewed more than 40 million times. With its history of iconic, in-your-face protests, Greenpeace has distinguished itself as an organization with a special knack for grabbing the public’s attention. Together, Greenpeace’s bold tactics and Leonard’s instinct for storytelling promise to be a potent combination.

Annie Leonardphoto by Patrick Giblin, on Flickr

“I am so psyched,” Leonard told me on Monday afternoon during a brief phone conversation. “Greenpeace is a special organization. Greenpeace has the permission and the mandate to be bolder. If somebody wants to have a cautious group, there are plenty of groups out there to fund or to join. Greenpeace has always been about, and will continue to be about, courage. I want to hark back to the best of Greenpeace’s past and to be stronger for the future.”

In making its decision, the Greenpeace board was especially attracted to Leonard’s fierce spirit. “Annie rose to the top for a lot of reasons,” Betsy Taylor, a board member of the Greenpeace Action Fund who participated on the search committee, told me. “She brings tremendous vision, and a systems-thinking about the economy and the culture and politics. She is weaving together many critical strands that will help us move forward.”

Leonard and Greenpeace already know each other well. In the 1988, after attending graduate school, Leonard joined the organization as an investigator on its toxics campaign. As Leonard told me when I profiled her for The Progressive magazine, she spend much of the next ten years tracking the international shipment of waste and trying to organize local communities in poorer nations to halt the importation of the industrial world’s cast-offs. The work was exciting, but also risky. After exposing a well-connected Indian businessman’s involvement with the improper disposal of hazardous wastes, she received threats, and Greenpeace had to hire a bodyguard for her.

The muckraking and organizing paid off. Leonard, Greenpeace, and a global network of allies helped to draft the Basel Convention, an international agreement to reduce the transfer of hazardous waste from rich countries to poorer one.

In the mid-nineties, Leonard left Greenpeace to co-found GAIA–the Global Anti-Incinerator Alliance. It was about that time that Leonard started to deliver a lecture about the chain of production and disposal. The speech was popular, but the presentation had one major weakness: It was all facts, and very little emotion. Eventually, she teamed up with Free Range Graphics – an animation firm that had scored a major hit with its anti-industrial agriculture cartoon, The Meatrix – to make the talk into a movie. When it was completed, the Free Range producers suggested to Leonard that she might want to consider forming some type of organization to channel viewers’ energy into political action. Leonard was baffled by the suggestion. “I was like, ‘What do you mean? It’s just a twenty-minute cartoon.’ ”

But the producers were on to something. The video quickly racked up millions of views, and Leonard had to form an organization – The Story of Stuff Project – to keep the momentum going.

With popularity, however, comes controversy. The Competitive Enterprise Institute developed a detailed critique of the film. At least one school district, in Missoula, Montana, voted to prohibit the film from being shown in its classes. When he still had his prime time slot on Fox, Glenn Beck dedicated a portion of two episodes to bashing Leonard. CNN host Lou Dobbs joined Beck in denouncing the video.

Leonard wore the criticism like a badge of honor. And when she caught some flack from friends in the environmental movement for releasing an educational video critical of pollution trading – The Story of Cap and Trade, which went live on the eve of the Copenhagen climate summit – she showed no signs of backing down. “I understand that in politics you have to make compromises, but at some point you compromise so much that your solution isn’t a solution anymore,” she told me at the time.

Clearly such boldness recommended her highly to the Greenpeace hiring team. “I find in Annie a fierce love, and I think that Greenpeace above all others should be about fierce love,” Taylor told me. “Because it’s a moment for ferocity, but also for profound love. And Annie really encapsulates that.”

The move will be a big one for Leonard. She will go from managing a staff of 8 to overseeing an organization with some 250 employees. But – with her teenage daughter still in high school – she plans to stay in the San Francisco Bay Area.

In our conversation yesterday, Leonard told me that she’s excited for the opportunity to lead an organization with an uncompromising spirit. “I once read a quote from Nehru, and he said that the path of caution is the greatest risk of all. And that is so true. Too many of us in the environmental movement have gotten used to asking for what is possible rather than what is needed. We confuse political reality and physical reality. In this corporate money-marinated Congress, we have to bust out of our political self-limitations. We have to stand up stronger, be bolder.”

All I can say is: Godspeed.

Jason MarkJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is the Editor in Chief of SIERRA, the national magazine of the Sierra Club, and the author of Satellites in the High Country: Searching for the Wild in the Age of Man. From 2007 to 2015 he was the Editor of Earth Island Journal.

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