Greenpeace USA’s New Leader Has Waste-Deep Background

Leonard: Taking reins at Greenpeace USA.Leonard: Taking reins at Greenpeace USA.
National Journal
Christopher Snow Hopkins
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Christopher Snow Hopkins
May 6, 2014, 8 a.m.

For many Green­peace re­cruits, it is a rite of pas­sage to be ar­res­ted while pick­et­ing a ma­jor car­bon pol­luter or an ex­port­er of haz­ard­ous waste. An­nie Le­onard, who is the new ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of Green­peace USA, proved her mettle in the late 1980s by oc­cupy­ing the of­fices of a U.S.-based com­pany that was ship­ping mer­cury-laced garbage to black town­ships in apartheid-era South Africa.

“Back then, there was a rush of total schmucks who were tak­ing all kinds of waste, from mu­ni­cip­al garbage to tox­ic ma­ter­i­als, and put­ting it on ships and dump­ing it in Third World coun­tries,” she said. “At first, we asked them po­litely to stop. When they ig­nored us, we oc­cu­pied their of­fices.”

As head of Green­peace USA, Le­onard takes over an or­gan­iz­a­tion more en­gaged with its con­ser­va­tion­ist brethren than it was 20 years ago. “Dur­ing my first stint with Green­peace, groups were much more siloed and in­wardly fo­cused,” she said. “There wasn’t a lot of cross-group col­lab­or­a­tion. That has totally changed. Green­peace really views it­self as one or­gan­iz­a­tion among many.”

Le­onard, who has also worked for the Glob­al Anti-In­cin­er­at­or Al­li­ance, Health Care Without Harm, and Es­sen­tial In­form­a­tion, will be based in Green­peace’s San Fran­cisco of­fice. She re­places Phil Rad­ford, who led Green­peace USA from its Wash­ing­ton of­fice for five years, in Au­gust.

The 49-year-old Le­onard is the cre­at­or and nar­rat­or of the 2007 Web video The Story of Stuff, which has been viewed more than 30 mil­lion times and is now a staple of school and faith cur­ricula. She also turned it in­to a book that made The New York Times best-seller list in 2010.

The 21-minute an­im­ated film is a mani­festo of sorts, ex­pos­ing the un­seen con­sequences of the ma­ter­i­als eco­nomy and en­join­ing view­ers to cur­tail their habits as con­sumers. Ad­ap­ted from an hour-long lec­ture, The Story of Stuff is breezy in tone des­pite its ser­i­ous sub­ject mat­ter. It in­stantly went vir­al: By the end of its first day on­line, it had re­ceived more than 50,000 hits.

“Is there a way to talk about all these com­plex, of­ten-de­press­ing is­sues in a way that is not all about guilt and fear but is ac­cess­ible and in­vit­ing and en­cour­ages more people to join the con­ver­sa­tion?” Le­onard asked. “A lot of en­vir­on­ment­al­ists tend to be whiny and wonky, and then we don’t un­der­stand why people don’t want to hang out with us. I wanted to fig­ure out how to talk about this in a way that was ac­cess­ible and in­vit­ing.”

Le­onard was raised in Seattle — which she de­scribes as a “Green­peace kind of town” — and at­ten­ded Barn­ard Col­lege in New York City, where she was aghast at en­coun­ter­ing shoulder-high piles of garbage along the curb.

“As a col­lege stu­dent from eco-green, squeaky-clean Seattle, I was mes­mer­ized by this waste. I star­ted open­ing bags of garbage to see what was in it, and I saw that it was al­most all pa­per. And that’s where I star­ted put­ting the pieces to­geth­er. I had done a lot of hik­ing as a kid and seen the clear-cuts up close. My be­loved North­w­est forests were be­ing cut down and turned in­to old pizza boxes and of­fice pa­per on the street.”¦ But where did they go after that?”

To an­swer this ques­tion, she vis­ited a nearby dump. “I will nev­er for­get that life-al­ter­ing mo­ment,” she said. “As far as I could see in every single dir­ec­tion was waste: shoes, fur­niture, clothes, books, and food. I was ab­so­lutely stunned by the scale and also how secret it was. How could I have got­ten all the way to my sopho­more year without know­ing that our eco­nomy was built on this fun­da­ment­ally un­sus­tain­able mod­el? Right then and there, I said I’m go­ing to fig­ure this out, and I’m go­ing to stop it.”

Le­onard joined Green­peace In­ter­na­tion­al in 1988 and now re­turns to the U.S. branch with a new mis­sion.

“While the en­vir­on­ment­al chal­lenges be­fore us are daunt­ing, I have nev­er felt more op­tim­ist­ic about the col­lect­ive ef­fort to cre­ate a more sus­tain­able world,” she said. “There is a new en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment in this coun­try that is grow­ing stronger and more di­verse every day, and I am honored to re­turn to Green­peace to help that move­ment grow even stronger.”

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