Five Innovative Voices in the New Environmental Movement

The environmental movement often looks to historical heroes for inspiration–rightfully so. But today’s political world is a far cry from the one where Muir made his stand. (And imagine Thoreau using Twitter.) 

As the year draws to a close, it’s a good time recognize a new group of green movers and shakers. Forget Al Gore (so 2007); these leaders are on the cutting edge of the environmental movement. Here are a few of them:

Image: Battaglia

Bill McKibben – Founder and Organizer,

While we bloggers peck away at our keyboards, Bill McKibben is making waves in climate politics. Already known as an author, he started in 2008 to promote action on climate change. On October 24, 2009. the organization mobilized rallies in 181 countries for what CNN called “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”

Over the last few months, McKibben has been spearheading Tar Sands Action, an effort to halt Canada’s disastrous tar sands production. You probably heard about the Keystone XL pipeline delay–Tar Sands Action and its thousands of activists claimed a major role in this decision.

Rebecca Tarbotton – Executive Director, Rainforest Action Network

TreeHugger once compared Rainforest Action Network to a pack of jackals: “Its campaigners jump on a target’s back and won’t get off until it submits.” Led by Rebecca Tarbotton, RAN is targeting heavyweight industry players like Bank of America, Chevron, and Cargill. The San Francisco-based nonprofit has a reputation for hardline stances and savvy market activism.

Case in point: Last year, RAN worked with The Yes Men and Amazon Watch to hijack Chevron’s greenwashing “We Agree” campaign, complete with fake press releases and Web sites. The campaign–the fake one, that is–went viral and was picked up by major news outlets. In the end, the incident made Ad Age‘s list of the year’s biggest marketing fiascos, highlighting Chevron’s abysmal social and environmental record along the way.

tim dechristopher trialTim DeChristopher, aka Bidder 70 – Activist, Founder of Peaceful Uprising

Tim DeChristopher’s interference with a federal oil and gas land auction earned him a heroic status in some branches of environmental movement–and a two-year prison sentence. When the government wanted him to quietly disappear, he ramped up his efforts to inspire further direct action against fossil fuel industries. This polarizing strategy probably sealed his fate, but it also drew a lot of attention to his cause.

DeChristopher also seems to understand the power of branding. When curious onlookers tuned into his trial, they might have expected a post-hippie with dreads and hemp sandals. What they saw was a clean-cut gentleman in a fitted suit. In his speech at the sentencing DeChristopher made an eloquent defense of civil disobedience. Channeling Thoreau at times, he made it clear that, no matter how he was punished, his activism would continue.

For more on the Tim DeChristopher trial, check my article “Civil Disobedience on Trial.

Graham Hill – Designer, Entrepreneur, Founder of

These days, green blogs are nothing special. Besides the big names like Inhabitat and Grist, scores of other eco-themed sites have sprouted across the Web. But TreeHugger was a pioneer of sustainability blogging, and it remains one of the most popular.

Graham Hill is the entrepreneur behind TreeHugger. Trained in architecture and industrial design, Hill has started a number of creative ventures, including a line of ceramic Greek cups. After TreeHugger was sold to Discovery for $10 million, he began promoting sustainability through other avenues. His latest project is Life Edited, a contest to find the most innovative design for a 420-square foot NYC apartment. The goal? To show how we can “save money, radically reduce our environmental impact, and have a freer, less complicated life” by owning less stuff and living in smaller spaces.

You can find Graham Hill’s TED presentations here.

You, Concerned Individual

When we read about high-profile figures in any field, we tend to forget the potential of ordinary people–and that many of these “heroes” are ordinary people. One of the Steve Jobs quotes that’s floating around the Web makes this point:

…everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Yes, there’s a difference between building computers and organizing social change. But the point is that we are all qualified to make a difference.

This list is meant to be a starting point, not a conclusion. Please tell us about your twenty-first century environmental heroes in the comments.


Is Global Warming Making Tornadoes Worse?

[RYSE cross-post]

Like most natural disasters, the tragic tornadoes in the Southeast and Midwest have triggered a veritable storm of media attention. One question that has come up repeatedly in both mainstream and environmental outlets is this: Could global warming be making tornadoes stronger and more frequent?

Joe Romm, one of the Web’s most thorough climate bloggers, published a detailed post on the subject. He quoted two scientists “who have done more research and publication on extreme weather and climate change than most,” Kevin Trenberth and Tom Karl. Trenberth is head of the Climate Analysis Section of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Karl is the director of NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center.

Karl explained that, while several studies show that conditions favorable for tornadoes are more common with more greenhouse gases, “the results are not conclusive.” However, “…what we can say with confidence is that heavy and extreme precipitation events often associated with thunderstorms and convection are increasing and have been linked to human induced changes in atmospheric composition.”

Trenberth, meanwhile told the New York Times that “it’s not the right question to ask if this storm or that storm is due to global warming, or is it natural variability. Nowadays, there’s always an element of both.”

April 2011 did set a new monthly record of 875 tornadoes in the U.S., which coincided with record high temperatures throughout the world. We know the climate is changing, so it seems logical that tornadoes, which are part of the climate, should be affected. But overall, it seems that the specific connection between greenhouse gases and tornadoes has not been explored deeply enough to produce a definite answer.

We must not lose sight of the big picture, though. We’re seeing not just tornadoes, but also record droughts and wildfires, unusually heavy rainfalls, historic floods, and deadly heat waves, in the U.S. and throughout the world. In addition, NOAA has reported that our current emissions path could lead to semi-permanent Dust Bowls in the Southwest and other regions. Experts have been warning for years that climate change would make events like these more common, and in this case, the connection with greenhouse gases is well understood.

Whether or not monster tornadoes add to the proof that our climate is disrupted, they show, painfully, how much our civilization relies on a stable environment, and how dramatic changes in weather patterns can cause damage that even the wealthiest nations struggle to shake off.

Bill McKibben showed us the big picture in his piece for the Washington Post:

Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections….It is far better to think of these as isolated, unpredictable, discrete events. It is not advised to try and connect them in your mind with, say, the fires now burning across Texas—fires that have burned more of America by this date than any year in our history. Texas, and adjoining parts of Oklahoma and New Mexico, are drier than they’ve ever been—the drought is worse than the Dust Bowl. But do not wonder if it’s somehow connected….

There have been tornadoes before, and floods—that’s the important thing. Just be careful to make sure you don’t let yourself wonder why all these records are happening at once: why we’ve had unprecedented megafloods from Australia to Pakistan in the last year. Why it’s just now that the Arctic has melted for the first time in thousands of years….

Because if you asked yourself what it meant that the Amazon has just come through its second hundred-year-drought in the last four years, or that the pine forests across the western part of this continent have been obliterated by a beetle in the last decade—well, you might have to ask other questions. Like, should President Obama really just have opened a huge swath of Wyoming to new coal-mining? Should Secretary of State this summer sign a permit allowing a huge new pipeline to carry oil from the tar sands of Alberta? You might have to ask yourself: do we have a bigger problem than four-dollar-a-gallon gasoline?

….Better to join with the US House of Representatives, which earlier this spring voted 240-184 to defeat a resolution saying simply “climate change is occurring, is caused largely by human activities, and poses significant risks for public health and welfare.” Propose your own physics; ignore physics altogether. Just don’t start asking yourself if last year’s failed grain harvest from the Russian heatwave, and Queensland’s failed grain harvest from its record flood, and France and Germany’s current drought-related crop failures, and the death of the winter wheat crop in Texas, and the inability of Midwestern farmers to get corn planted in their sodden fields might somehow be related. Surely the record food prices are just freak outliers, not signs of anything systemic….

If you got upset about any of this, you might forget how important it is not to disrupt the record profits of our fossil fuel companies. If worst ever did come to worst, it’s reassuring to remember what the US Chamber of Commerce told the EPA in a recent filing: there’s no need to worry because “populations can acclimatize to warmer climates via a range of range of behavioral, physiological, and technological adaptations.” I’m pretty sure that’s what they’re telling themselves in Joplin today.

Enough said.

Videos of PowerShift 2011 Keynote Speeches: Bill McKibben, Tim DeChristopher, Van Jones and More

For those of you who didn’t make it to this year’s momentous PowerShift in D.C. (and missed the live streams), here are the videos of several keynote speeches. In no particular order: founder Bill McKibben, oil lease disrupter and PeaceUp organizer Tim DeChristopher, clean energy and civil rights advocate Van Jones, Green for All CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins, and EPA admin Lisa Jackson.

For more videos, you can check Energy Action Coalition’s YouTube page.

350 Earth Aerial Art Show: A Planetary Vision of a Planetary Challenge

Over the past week, thousands of people in thirteen countries staged the world’s first art show visible from space. Coordinated by, the project included aerial installations from Los Angeles to Egypt to Icleland. Like October’s Global Work Party, this event highlighted our species’ vulnerability to climate change–and our ability to find solutions. DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based aerial imaging company, photographed the formations with satellites 400 miles above the equator.

Red Polar Bear by Bjargey Ólafsdóttir, Langjökull Glacier, Iceland

The project ended November 27, just in time for the UN climate conference in Cancun.

Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who organized an art piece in Brighton, England, explained on his site,

The plan is to make images visible from the skies to remind those in Cancun that we’re running out of time. We can’t keep putting this off.

Thom Yorke's image of King Canute in Brighton, UK

While it’s exciting to see a climate-activism event on this scale, it is clear that no amount of artistry can take the place of a comprehensive international effort to reduce carbon emissions. However, widespread change does not often begin at the political apex, and it does not often survive without popular support.

From a HuffPost oped signed by Bill McKibben; hip-hop innovator DJ Spooky; urban artist Jorge Rodriguez-Gerada; and Santa Fe Art Institute director Diane Karp:

You might ask: so what? Don’t we really need new engines and turbines? And the answer is: of course. But we won’t get them, not in numbers sufficient to make a difference, until we’ve really woken up to the danger at hand.

Waking people up is one of the tasks at which artists excel. And in this case, the medium really is the message. By using, for the first time, the whole earth as a canvas, they’ll be reminding all of us the one root truth of the global warming era: we really do live on aplanet.  A planet, just like Mars or Saturn, where the gaseous composition of the atmosphere determines whether life is possible. And just one planet—not the separate nations and classes we think we inhabit, but a round piece of rock with one atmosphere where the carbon we pour skyward mixes invisibly to set the temperature….

We won’t solve this crisis with images. But maybe we can help build the pressure for politicians and businesspeople to act. There’s a movement building the world around, and it can’t appeal to the head alone.

Climate Elephant by Daniel Dancer, New Delhi, India

You can view more photos from the planetary art show on the Facebook and Flickr pages.