From the Story of Stuff to heading Greenpeace USA, Annie Leonard, talks about the challenges of building the environment movement in America

veteran environmental campaigner Annie Leonard has been named as the new Executive Director of Greenpeace USA on May 6, 2014 in San Francisco, California.
Annie Leonard, a veteran environmental campaigner, is taking over as the new head of Greenpeace USA. Photograph: Erin Lubin/Greenpeace

Suzanne Goldenberg

One of the first things Annie Leonard was asked on being named the new leader of Greenpeace USA this month was: are you willing to get arrested?

“I said: ‘Absolutely! I just need to figure out who is going to drive the car pool’,” Leonard told The Guardian. “It’s going to be interesting being a single mum doing this,” she said.

The last time Leonard worked for Greenpeace, over 20 years ago, the campaign group was known – only half-jokingly – as “boys and their boats”, because of its reputation for dangerous, high-visibility actions.

She returns to lead the group after having made a name for herself by producing a series of web videos – Story of Stuff – that reached beyond the usual white, male and privileged supporters of environmental causes.

The first of her videos on throwaway culture went viral, making her one of the country’s most effective messengers on climate change.

While US President Barack Obama receives the Nobel Peace Prize, activists demonstrate on the streets of Oslo.  Activists hold signs that read
 Greenpeace activists on the streets of Oslo urges US president Barack Obama to show strong leadership in Copenhagen climate talks. Photograph: Christian Slund/Greenpeace

Now, 40 million views later, her biggest job will be to transfer that broad outreach to Greenpeace, and turn climate change into a pressing, mainstream concern.

Environmental groups in America are still undergoing a painful post-mortem of their failure to pass climate change legislation during the early years of Obama presidency – when Democrats controlled the White House and both houses of Congress.

That crushing defeat has since seen the birth of new activist groups such as and Bold Nebraska which are trying to block the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline project, and of movements to ban fracking in towns from Texas to Pennsylvania.

But in Washington environmental groups continue to soul-search about how toreach out to a broader audience – and how to overcome the well-funded climate misinformation campaign.

Leonard said her work would focus on climate change and exposing the influence of money in politics – furthering Greenpeace investigations into the Koch oil billionaires and other funders of the climate denial effort.

She will also work to activate the organisation’s base, including members who’ve left.

“That is the only way to mainstream these issues, if we had all the Greenpeace members around the country talking about these issues,” she said.

Greenpeace Climate and Policy Analyst Kyle Ash holds a photo album at the State Department in Washington with activists dressed as cheerleaders as they call on Secretary of State John Kerry to step up and protect the Arctic from oil drilling and the effects of climate change. Kerry will represent the United States at the Arctic Council meeting in May. The photo album is a collection of images from April 20 I Heart Arctic events across the United States on a global day of action.
 Greenpeace climate and policy analyst Kyle Ash, centre, and activists dressed as cheerleaders at the state department in Washington call onsecretary of state John Kerry to protect the Arctic from oil drilling. Photograph: Tim Aubry/Greenpeace

Getting arrested is not a prerequisite for engagement. “It’s like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord,” she said. “You don’t have to sleep in the park. You don’t have to chain yourself to something.”

The organisation had to be receptive to all forms of activism, she said.

“There has been a bit of a hierarchy of the people who chain themselves to the fence or go on the big TV talk shows are somehow of higher stature and are more important than the people who make sandwiches. But making sandwiches for the protesters is really important too. We have to figure out a way for them to plug in too.”

Making that shift would help transform a movement where the biggest and best-funded establishment groups are still predominantly led by white males from privileged backgrounds.

Community-based and environmental justice groups are more representative of the US population. Once Leonard formally takes up her job, in August, all three Greenpeace organisations in North America will be led by women.

A police officer questions a Greenpeace activist dressed as
 A police officer questions a Greenpeace activist dressed as ‘Barbie’ outside Mattel headquarters where other activists dressed as ‘Ken’ dolls posted a giant banner with the message: ‘Barbie, it’s over. I don’t date girls that are into deforestation.’ Photograph: David McNew/Greenpeace

Leonard arrives at her position via her Story of Stuff videos. The videos, which debuted in late 2007, were deceptively simple: just Leonard, looking like and sounding like a perky suburbanite with her brown pony tale and button down shirt, and animated stick figures against a white backdrop.

She spoke at high speed and in plain English about how production, distribution and the inevitable waste involved in a consumer-driven economy was harming the planet – and made a connection to Americans who were ordinarily unmoved by conventional environmental campaigners.

At the time, the messaging was a shift for the fact-based, jargon-laced arguments environmental groups had been making on climate change. Leonard said she realised during making the videos and during the constant touring since that it was less important to dispense data about the problem of consumerism gone wild than to give people the sense they could do something to change it.

 The Story of Stuff, a ’20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns’

That realisation was 20 years in the making. The videos were a culmination of the work Leonard began at Greenpeace International in the late 1980s, travelling to Bangladesh and India to track the export of hazardous waste from rich consumer countries to the developing world.

Investigations by Leonard and others were instrumental in the passage of an international treaty, the Basel Convention, which cracked down on the trade.

Her memories of Greenpeace from that time was of an organisation that celebrated macho adventure.

“When I worked at Greenpeace in the late 1980s hardly any people had kids and the few people who had kids left at five and we thought they were total losers. We scorned them,” she said. “Not only did they leave at 5 they didn’t sit around and chat at the coffee machine. They worked and we thought: “ God, they were so uptight’.”

But times – and Leonard’s own circumstances – have changed.

Annie Leonard began her career at Greenpeace International in 1988 and is returning now to help the organization inspire and mobilize millions of people to take action to create a more sustainable future together.
 Annie Leonard began her career at Greenpeace International in 1988 and is returning now as its head in the US. Photograph: Erin Lubin/Greenpeace

Leonard said she could not have taken the job if Greenpeace had not agreed to let her work from her home on the West Coast.

She lives in Berkeley, with her 14-year-old daughter, in what sounds like a modern-day, middle-class version of a commune. Over the years, a group of long-term friends have bought up six neighbouring houses, knocking down fences to make one big backyard, sharing power tools and a pick-up truck and – when there is a crisis – child care.

She said the environmental movement had grown more welcoming to parents like herself over the years – but there was still some distance to go.

“No more eco-martyrs thinking that the earth can’t sustain us taking a vacation or leaving the office at six to have dinner with the kids!” she wrote in a follow-up email. “We still have distance to go in making the work accessible to working parents and single parents. I’d like to see child care more routinely provided at meetings, stipends for single parents who have to travel and other structural changes that remove barriers to full participation even for those carrying a heavy load at home,” she went on.

“Building a movement really does require all kinds of people, so it is our job to make this work accessible and relevant to all kinds of people.”


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