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.”