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.