Richard Brooks.

With what environmental organization are you affiliated?

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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?

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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.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?

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.

Babbling Brooks

Richard Brooks, Greenpeace Canada.

Are there alternatives to Kleenex that a corporation could switch to in volume?    — Auden Schendler, Aspen, Colo.

There are many alternatives to Kleenex and other tissue products that come from ancient forests, including products by Cascades, Wood Wyant, and Marcal. These products are available across the U.S. and Canada (and many other countries as well), and are made by both large and small companies. They are also available in large volumes.

Greenpeace Canada and the Natural Resources Defense Council have lists of forest-friendly tissue products available to consumers. If you or someone you know would like specific information about products for the commercial sector and large-scale operations, please directly. I can work with you to help your institution or corporation become “ancient-forest friendly.”

How do you create jobs for people who rely on logging or the Kimberly-Clark factories to provide for their families?    — Jared Webb, Rocky Mount, Va.

Jobs are obviously a huge issue. While I don’t have all the answers, I do know that sustainable forest practices mean that there will be more jobs available for a longer time. Careful and sustainable logging requires more workers and safer working conditions. Also, plants that process recycled pulp require just as many workers as those that process virgin tree pulp, thus having no negative impact on workers.

When asked about what the environmental movement is doing particularly well, you replied, “Shifting some of the top companies in the world to adopt ethical business practices.” I am curious to know which top companies have made this shift and what they are doing.    — Ann Dorfman, Concord, Mass.

Many corporations have taken steps in the right direction by making environmental commitments to buy sustainably harvested wood and increase the use of recycled paper. Companies who have progressive procurement policies include Random House Canada, Raincoast Books, Home Depot, Office Depot, B&Q, Lowe’s, and Cascades, to name a few. These companies believe that it makes both economic and environmental sense to reduce their impact on the planet.

Do you have any tips for discerning greenwashed and true environmentally friendly products? Who can we trust? — Name not provided

Be wary of claims put forward by those who have a financial stake in the product. Be responsible and investigate the products that you use on a daily basis. Gather your research from various sources including environmental, social-justice, and consumer advocacy organizations.

I have a PETA consumer’s shopping guide for animal-friendly products, but I’ve not seen one for environmentally friendly products. How can I know who to buy from (or not)?    — Marsha Baron, Coram, N.Y.

Yes, it does get complicated when you add more than one issue to a decision-making process! There are choices that allow you to be a cruelty-free and ancient-forest friendly consumer though. Use consumer shopping guides (like Greenpeace’s Guide to Ancient Forest Friendly Tissue Products) to help make informed choices.

Is there a Consumer Reports that deals with the quality of recycled products? Does paper made from paper automatically mean it is “rougher”?    — Mary Kay Hennessey, Fayetteville, N.C.

As far as I know, there has not been a study conducted on the quality of various recycled tissue products. And just because a product is recycled doesn’t mean it is rough. Different brands use different technologies, resulting in softer or rougher products.

How do you and other activists view the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and International Organization for Standardization (ISO 14001) certification of forests by timber companies?    — Andrew Brengle, Boston, Mass.

Both the CSA and ISO 14001 certification schemes are systems designed by industry for industry. They are quite weak and do not protect forests, nor the wildlife that inhabit them. In fact, large-scale clear-cutting, logging in endangered species’ habitat, and the continued use of pesticides are allowed under CSA, Sustainable Forestry Initiative, and ISO 14001 systems. The Forest Stewardship Council eco-certification is the only certification system currently supported by most environmental groups like Greenpeace. More information about the differences in these systems is available in the On the Ground report [PDF].

I am about to replace some doors on my home. Is there a non-wood product I could use?    — Barbara Roth, Las Vegas, Nev.

I am not sure about options for doors specifically, but for general home renovations, try to find reclaimed wood products or Forest Stewardship Council eco-certified wood.

How can I convince my workplace to start recycling paper?    — Bonnie Crichton, Edinburgh, Scotland, U.K.

First of all, I would recommend gathering what knowledge you can about the availability and cost of recycling services for businesses in your city. Then I suggest you speak with other employees in your workplace and seek out some “allies” who can form an environmental committee. Next, speak to your boss and ask her/him if s/he would be willing to start an office waste recycling program to be initially coordinated through this committee.

By gathering the information and showing that you are willing to spearhead and start up the program, at least initially, it will make it very easy for your employer to agree to a recycling program. But don’t forget that using recycled paper products is just as important as recycling!

I live in South Carolina where clear-cutting, pollution of the Savannah River, and destruction of wetlands are common occurrences. What can be done to stop this insanity?    — Sally Christy, Hilton Head Island, S.C.

Have you thought of finding other concerned citizens and starting a citizens’ group?

Do you think the world is (getting) ready to understand and accept that vegan/vegetarianism could be a major solution to a lot of environmental and social problems? Would Greenpeace be ready to take this stance?    — Tino Don Porto Carero, New York, N.Y.

In North America, the sale of vegetarian products has skyrocketed in the last decade, which I think is a good and hopeful sign. I hope that more and more people are making the link between the environment and the food that they eat. I also hope that environmental organizations like Greenpeace soon begin to look more closely at this issue and champion proper food choices as a way to help the environment.

Do you feel like Vancouver, Canada, is as environmentally friendly and livable as everyone says it is?    — Name not provided

No, surprisingly I haven’t found it to be. It does have great access to outdoor activities, more bike paths, and cleaner air than my previous home of Toronto, but many other cities in North America seem to be far more environmentally friendly (and certainly there are many that are much worse!). For example, Toronto has recycling bins on every street, recently instituted a curbside food-waste collection program for composting from area homes and businesses, and is working to ban the use of pesticides in both parks and homeowners’ lawns and gardens. Vancouver has a lot further to go before it can be called a “green” city.