Richard Brooks, Greenpeace campaigner, answers questions
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am a forest campaigner with Greenpeace Canada.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Greenpeace campaigns in 35 different countries using lobbying, science, public education, markets mobilization, and peaceful protest to bring about increased environmental protection of the earth’s ecosystems.
If I could snap my fingers and create the perfect world, it would look like this: Ancient forests would be protected; water would be clean, plentiful, and used wisely; energy would be “green”; there would be far less concrete; streets would be for bikes and people, not cars; there would be peace in the world; oppression would end; and all people and animals would be treated fairly and equitably. Call me an idealist.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis? What are you working on at the moment?
I am generally working on many, many different things in any given day. Lately, most of my time has been spent raising public awareness about Kimberly-Clark, who is wiping away ancient forests to create disposable paper products like Kleenex brand toilet paper and facial tissue. Some hours are spent negotiating with corporations, others spent informing and motivating activists, developing online and printed materials, or talking to journalists. Some whole days are spent in the forest collecting evidence of forest destruction; other days are spent meeting with concerned citizens and activist groups.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
When I was very young, my family had a big old willow tree in the center of our backyard. It was a beautiful tree and one of the few willows in the neighborhood. I used to play with the tree’s long leaves — they were great Star Wars light sabers. Unfortunately, because of its size and age, the tree was beginning to split down the middle, and my parents called the tree-cutters to come by and cut the tree down. When they showed up, I placed my small 9-year-old body in front of that old tree, told them that I wasn’t moving, and cried until my parents sent the tree-cutters away. My environmental activism had begun. Several years later I made my first donation to Greenpeace with my allowance money and followed that up many years later with a master’s degree in forestry. So for me it’s been a long but pretty straight road.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Montreal and moved to Toronto where I did graduate work at the University of Toronto. I recently made a long-desired relocation to Vancouver.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
A few years ago, I was compiling evidence on logging roads being built in protected areas and parks in a place called Temagami in northern Ontario, Canada. In the late ’80s and mid-’90s, Temagami was host to road blockades by native Canadians and environmentalists who were working to stop the logging of the last stands of ancient red and white pines. I spent several days trudging up and down trails and logging roads, really getting to know this very quiet and inspiring place. As I was leaving the area, I had three wildlife experiences. I came across a brown bear and her cubs, a lone grey wolf, and a golden eagle, a species at risk. It was terrible for me to realize that this forest, and many others just like it, could be logged out in a matter of days. I felt very powerless.
What’s been the best?
Receiving a crayoned letter from a 5-year-old in Toronto who wrote that she wanted to grow up to save ancient forests. It filled me with hope.
What environmental offense has infuriated you the most?
I get really annoyed when a corporation or government spends massive amounts of money pretending it is environmental when it isn’t. “Greenwashing” is one of the more dishonest things that a corporation can do. Sadly, cases of greenwashing abound, as with Kimberly-Clark. Consumers are being duped and need to be very careful about taking corporate or government environmental statements at face value.
Who is your environmental hero?
The average person, who I meet every day, who says “enough is enough, I won’t stand by any longer. I want to do something to make a positive difference. What can I do?”
Heroes realize that something is wrong and that they can make a difference, and then they take action. There are many, many heroes out there, but we need more.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
Corporations and governments that are unwilling to examine and take seriously the environment and how they can modify their business practices to lessen their impact. Also, I really dislike people who say things like, “I don’t care” or “not my issue.” Apathy is really frustrating.
For the pragmatic environmentalist, what should be the focus — political action designed to change policy, or individual action designed to change lifestyle?
I think that lifestyle changes (leading to societal change) should be the main focus of the time-limited environmentalist. Unfortunately, in this day and age, progressive legislation can too easily be overturned. These “backward steps” happen because we as a society are not yet at a place where we care enough about the environment, human and animal rights, the social safety net, etc. If we are able to build up a strong and caring foundational culture that respects the planet and those that inhabit it, then it is easier for legislation to follow and stay in place. Unfortunately, our “leaders” in federal, provincial, and state governments are not doing much leading these days when it comes to these issues. What seems to be driving forward the environmental agenda today is personal lifestyle changes and positive consumer pressure on industries.
What’s your environmental vice?
Hmmm, don’t we all have many?
Because of work, organizing activists, giving talks, and meeting with companies and allies, I end up flying too much. I try to group meetings together, but even then I end up being in a plane a dozen times a year. I also have a particular weakness for overpackaged and overprocessed soy raspberry yogurt.
What are you reading these days?
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright. Wright examines the runaway growth of humans and the pressure we put on the planet as a result. By examining what happened to past civilizations that degraded their environment and resources and, as a result, collapsed, he calls on our current society to make some drastic changes before it is too late.
What’s your favorite meal?
Today it would be vegan ravioli with marinara sauce and crusty garlic bread.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I ride a bike, eat organic and fair-trade food, use a hankie, eat a vegan diet, and spend as much time as possible outside of the city in a forest. I used to have long dreadlocks before I “cleaned up” so I’d be accepted in corporate boardrooms. I’m overworked.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
It’s a tie: The redwood forests of Northern California and pristine beaches along the Pacific Ocean.
Shifting some of the top companies in the world to adopt ethical business practices. This is occurring mostly through polite negotiations and sometimes through public campaigning. As a movement, we’ve been able to show companies that being green — really green — has its economic benefits.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
As a movement we are way too white. Though I think we have made some improvements in the last decade, we still have a long way to go before we are a truly diverse and inclusive movement. Also, as a movement, we need to do a better job at reaching out to people of all classes, ethnicities, genders, sexualities, abilities, languages, etc. We need to build stronger alliances with the communities that are often suffering the most from environmental degradation.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
I would make a law that each and every person on the planet must experience firsthand the impacts of their daily consumer choices. We rarely (or sometimes never) see landfills, clearcuts, toxic waste dumps, greenhouse gases, polluted waters, the true impact of factory farming, etc. Right now, we are very disconnected from the end result of our consumption as well as the natural world we live in and depend upon.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
When I was 18 it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers; now it changes often — currently it’s the Pixies, since I recently caught them in concert in Toronto.
What’s your favorite movie?
My favorite movie is an Australian flick from the early ’80s about a very small group of people who survive a nuclear experiment that wipes out all life on the planet.
What are you happy about right now?
I am happy that I get about a dozen emails or calls a day from activists and concerned people across North America who want to do something to become active in the environmental movement. I think it is very inspiring to know that people are willing to spend hours doing research, writing letters, convincing their local grocery store to stock forest-friendly paper products, or inspiring their friends to take action for the planet.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
My job would be a whole lot easier if every reader examined the products they consume — from the food they eat to the clothes and electronics they buy to the toilet paper and facial tissue they use and honestly ask themselves if these goods are truly the most environmental they can find. If they aren’t, I’d hope they would look for environmentally friendly alternatives.