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Outgoing Greenpeace Executive Director Reflects on Lessons Learned

Exit Interview: Phil Radford

Last month Phil Radford announced that, after five years on the job, he was stepping down as executive director of Greenpeace USA. Before serving as ED, Radford was Greenpeace’s organizing director, during which time he more than doubled the group’s membership. photo of a man looking forwardIn the 10 years since he joined the Greenpeace staff, the landscape of social change activism in general, and environmental campaigning in particular, has changed dramatically. Just think: 10 years ago there was no Facebook, no Twitter. No one outside the oil and gas industry had heard of fracking and few people had seen Al Gore’s climate change power point.

I recently spoke to Radford about what lessons he learned while on the job. Our conversation mostly focused on the art of social change and the craft of environmental activism. Radford told me: “A really good conflict forces people to take a side. … That’s the root of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience.”

Jason Mark: In your five years heading Greenpeace USA, what was the toughest part of the job?

Phil Radford: That’s a good question. Um …  the toughest part of the job … Man, that’s a good question. I think that one of the scariest moments on the job was on my first day, when the major economies were all meeting at the Major Economy Forum [on Climate and Energy] at the State Department to discuss what, if anything, they would do on technology transfer to address climate change. And I got over my fear of heights, or tried to, and with a small team we scaled a crane across the street and hung a banner with a huge picture of Earth saying, “Too Big to Fail.” And so the first day was terrifying, because I’m terrified of heights, but I thought, “I just have to do this.”

And then two weeks later, the draft climate bill, the Waxman-Markey bill, came out, and we had 26 staff working across the country to push Congress members to basically endorse really good principles for what a bill should look like, based on science, based on really promoting clean energy. Then we saw the draft, and the draft had left in the energy status quo. It had “clean coal” in it, ultimately it would have oil drilling in it, and it reduced [carbon] pollution controls to a laughable amount in the near future, and maybe would get somewhere by 2050. And I’d say that was the second scariest or most challenging moment – was deciding right when we saw the draft, before it even really went to committee and went to Congress, that we should just withdraw our support for it and completely shift our priorities

Those are really anecdotes of shows the tension which any political campaigner – whether you’re a front line activist or an executive directors – faces, which is the tension between courage and compromise. When do you make the call to draw the bright line in the sand?

Yeah, that’s what I think Greenpeace is all about – contagious acts of courage.

Obviously Greenpeace has made its name in direct action. I’m wondering: is there something beyond the banner hang? What’s the digital version of the banner hang?

It’s probably Wikileaks. I think there’s no shortage of important tactics – you have to use tactics within a strategy. So with Greenpeace, it’s almost like you’re looking at an iceberg, where you see some of the iceberg above the water, but there’s much more below. So an example: You might have seen when we went to New York, and we had a huge set of projectors, and we projected on an Apple Store and turned it green. And it was us saying: “We want Apple to be green.” And that might be all you saw in the press. But there was a lot that happened much before that. Research on all the toxins in Apple’s electronics. Negotiations with several companies, including approaching Apple, to have a principled dialogue about how over time, or fairly quickly but in a good timeline, they could get all the toxics out of their electronics. The company saying, “No, we won’t change.” And then ultimately us needing to, after years of research and a period of negotiation, reach out to the company again. The campaigns where campuses start to cancel their contracts with Apple, where people are protesting at their headquarters and ultimately were turning their stores green saying, “We wish Apple was green, and we love our Macs, but we wish they were green.” And then Apple saying, “OK, we’ll get rid of the waste from inside our electronics.” And, similarly, we did something with them to get them to commit to a hundred percent clean energy for all of their server farms.

That raises a question about the high tech economy, and new ways of communication. When we last spoke, I think it was in 2010, we discussed how environmental campaigners might need to use a different language for a new generation. Today’s cultural language is a lot more snark-filled and ironic than it would have been in the first days of the Rainbow Warrior. I’m wondering if you could talk about some things you think Greenpeace has done well in terms of communicating in a different fashion to younger constituencies.

One example was Asia Pulp and Paper. That one company and another one called APRIL were responsible for about 80 percent of the deforestation in Indonesia from the pulp and paper sector. We asked the Indonesian government if they’d pass a law to stop deforestation. They said No. We asked Asia Pulp and Paper if they would stop destroying the rainforest and shift to bamboo or [log] in a sustainable way. And they said No. So then we spent about a year just doing genetic testing on paper products in the US and throughout Europe to find out which packaging, which paper, came from those important rainforests. And we found that Mattel was using endangered forest in their packaging for Barbies. So we asked Mattel to change. They wouldn’t sit down with us, they wouldn’t negotiate. So we ended up hanging a banner off of Mattel’s building with a stern Ken saying, “Barbie you’re dumped. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.”

Then you guys had that video that went along with it.

Yeah, a great video. We created a Ken Twitter account, like a fake Ken Twitter account that started tweeting things out that people were re-tweeting, and they thought it was a real Ken account. A whole series of things in social media. It was snarky, it was fun, it was funny. And the next thing you know, we’re at the negotiating table with the executives of Mattel, and the CEO passes along a message and says, “Please next time come in through the door, not through the roof”

Since you started at Greenpeace 10 years ago, we’ve entered a new era I guess you could call DIY activism where, because of tools like Change.org, people can sort of be their own campaign organization. I’m wondering what the implications are for a large organization like Greenpeace that is built on a different model, with paid campaigners that are going out and organizing the public. Has this DIY activism changed how you guys think about strategy and social change?

It has some. The power of Greenpeace is that when we work together globally in 42 countries, we can really move an issue on a global scale very quickly. So there’s the model of how do you design a really beautiful strategic campaign with your staff and volunteers, and how do you drive it around the world to make a huge impact? You’ll see that in the sheer number of companies we’ve moved over the last five years —more than a hundred companies, whether it’s Gap or Mattel, Hasbro, Lego, whether it’s Asia Pulp and Paper, or the Duke Energy. So there is a really important place for globally coordinated, sophisticated, staff-driven campaigns, working with volunteers.

At the same time, there is a completely different model, which you’re alluding to, which is the Change.org model or the MoveOn sign-on model. Instead of having staff, you need to figure out what’s the smartest idea that will resonate with people. You give people a platform, and you watch the data and where things start to really take off. You support people in their campaigns. And instead of trying to figure out how they perfectly fit, what we’ve just decided to do is to just do both separately.

What’s an example?

We have a web platform called Greenwire where different community members are coming together to run local campaigns. Some of our biggest successes have been overseas, actually. In Holland we were able to pass a ban on certain toxins and pesticides. In India people have been winning campaigns, and in the US a lot of people have been running local campaigns on plastic bags and recycling – a whole set of things that we’re working to support.

During your tenure as head of Greenpeace USA the big political movements, at least here in the US, have been the Tea Party movement on the right and Occupy on the left. I’m wondering what you though of those experiences – or I guess you could say experiments – in political action and if there were any lessons for environmental campaigners.

I think Occupy showed what we’ve always known, which is that a really good conflict forces people to take a side. A well-timed conflict. That’s the root of direct action and nonviolent civil disobedience: a peaceful conflict that forces people to take a side and tells a bigger story about what’s happening in society. And I think Occupy did that brilliantly and really was the foundation for the dialogue we’re having now about the dying US middle class, and what we do about that. Occupy showed that movements are leader-full, not leader-less. There were so many amazing leaders there in [Zuccotti] park. It showed that when you pick a good fight and then people fan the flames and people pile on to support it, you can make something really big.

Keystone XL being a good example of that for environmental campaigners.

Yeah, Keystone was a great example. It was where environmentalists finally took off the gloves and didn’t care that President Obama was a Democrat and said, “If he’s the best chance we have for something, it’s our job to make him do the best.” It takes great movements to make great presidents.

Do you think there’s any way to break the fever of the climate science denialists and the politicians who are opposed to any action on climate change, even acknowledging that it’s a problem?

I think so.

What is that?

I think the Republican leadership knows that their days of denying climate change are limited, because young voters, regardless of party or race or class, care about the environment and care about climate change. There are some staunch holdouts, and they’ve done a good job of gerrymandering themselves into very safe districts, but those districts are not safe from the trends of the next generation. And so the Republicans right now are locked into their current older base, that they’ve locked themselves into House district by House district through gerrymandering. But once those change, and as the upcoming electorate continues to take over, there’s only so long they can hold out. They’ll just be increasingly marginalized from people that would otherwise support them, but have the environment and climate as an issue that they really care about.

Essentially you’re hoping that demographics will force the issue?

I’m not hoping – they know it. Republican leadership knows that demographics will force the issue sooner rather than later, and it will happen pretty quickly once they can’t stay gerrymandered into districts they’re in now. From a social movement perspective, back to your other question about the Tea Party, I think the one big gap – there are two gaps in the environmental community – and one is a “Green Tea Party” that will challenge Democrats in primary races who are not good on climate or other environmental issues. And the other is the same on the Republican side, primary-ing Republicans who are on the wrong side on the environment. Once a couple of people start losing because of the environment, it’ll start to shake things up.

Not including climate change, since that’s obviously a huge one, what do you think are some other big environmental issues that are going to, as you put it, force people to take sides?

Fracking is significant, water scarcity is hitting everybody, and food. Food, water, and people destroying your water and your land and causing earthquakes.

And, Phil, what’s next for you, do you have a plan for your next move?

Not sure yet. My theory on how we’ll address climate change is that we will get there when clean energy is cheap enough everywhere in the US so there’s very little cost for doing the right thing, and the political cost is higher for being on the wrong side. And so I’ll be continuing the work to make the cost of clean energy cheap, and the political cost of being in opposition to real solutions in clean energy higher.

Jason Mark, Editor, Earth Island JournalJason Mark photo
Jason Mark is a writer-farmer with a deep background in environmental politics. In addition to his work in the Earth Island Journal, his writings have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, The Nation, The Progressive, Utne Reader, Orion, Gastronomica, Grist.org, Alternet.org, E magazine, and Yes!  He is a co-author of Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots and also co-author with Kevin Danaher of Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power.
He is writing a book about wildness in the twenty-first century, to be published next year by Island Press.

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