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Stunned Community Mourns Loss of Renowned Environmental Leader Rebecca Tarbotton of Rainforest Action Network

The death of RAN's executive director at 39 has devastated friends, family and colleagues.
 
 
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Rainforest Action Network released news today of the unexpected death of executive director Rebecca Tarbotton, one of the country’s most renowned environmental leaders and the first woman executive director in the organization’s 25-year history. A statement from RAN described Tarbotton, 39, as a “self-proclaimed ‘pragmatic idealist,’” and said she “was admired by environmentalists and climate change activists for her visionary work protecting forests, pushing the nation to transition to a clean energy economy and defending human rights.”

Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune said, “Becky reshaped Rainforest Action Network, and was a force against deforestation and corporate greed. She was a rising star. We need more women to be leading environmental organizations, and losing a leader and friend like Becky is especially painful."

Just after being her selection as RAN's executive director, AlterNet's Don Hazen interviewed her in 2010. He described Tarbotton as, “Charismatic, articulate and straightforward, and seemingly possessing the infamous RAN chutzpah gene.” She “seems the perfect person to grapple with the conflicting needs and aspirations of environmentalists who may be feeling on the edge of despair,” Hazen wrote. “She has the intellectual chops to take on major policymakers and corporate leaders, while she is hip and crunchy enough to be a role model for the idealistic young RAN campaigners.” (Read the whole interviewhere.)

While RAN was already a successful organization, Tarbotton helped lead it to even greater heights in the last few years. "Becky was a leader's leader. She could walk into the White House and cause a corporate titan to reevaluate his perspective, and then moments later sit down with leaders from other movements and convince them to follow her lead,” said Ben Jealous, executive director of the NAACP and a close friend. “If we had more heroes like her, America and the world would be a much better place."

“Our hearts are broken. We lost a powerful, transformative leader this week. The Rainforest Action Network was her home, but the world was her stage, and her future was so incredibly bright. We can do nothing more right now than love her, her family, her husband, and her friends and colleagues. We know how much she meant to so many,” said Andre Carothers, chair of the board of directors at Rainforest Action Network.

A statement released by RAN said:

Becky Tarbotton died on Wednesday on a beach in Mexico north of Puerto Vallarta while vacationing with her husband and friends. The coroner ruled cause of death as asphyxiation from water she breathed in while swimming. She was thirty-nine years old.

Ms. Tarbotton was born in Vancouver, BC on July, 30, 1973. Her commitment to the environment dates back to her youth. Just after college she interned with the David Suzuki Foundation, working on the first letter from Nobel Laureates warning of the dangers of inaction on global warming.

Ms. Tarbotton is survived by her husband, Mateo Williford; her brothers Jesse and Cameron Tarbotton, and her mother, Mary Tarbotton, of Vancouver, BC.

Ms. Tarbotton’s ashes will be scattered off of Hornby Island in British Columbia where her family owns a cabin and where she spent much time with family and friends. Public memorial services will be held in San Francisco, CA and in Vancouver. Dates are still to be determined.

“Becky was an emerging star who was galvanizing an ever-growing movement of people demanding environment and social change. She believed that to protect forests and our communities we must protect our climate, and to protect our climate we must protect the forests,” said Nell Greenberg, spokesperson for Rainforest Action Network. “RAN is heartbroken by our loss of Becky, but we are committed to continuing the course that she set for us. Focusing on our core purpose of protecting forests, moving the country off of fossil fuels and defending human rights through effective, innovative and hard-hitting environmental corporate campaigns.” 

Tarbotton‘s work has inspired countless others to take action. Her own words, given during a keynote this fall, sum up her work and the beliefs that guided it:

We need to remember that the work of our time is bigger than climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. What we're really talking about, if we're honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet…We don't always know exactly what it is that creates social change. It takes everything from science all the way to faith, and it's that fertile place right in the middle where really exceptional campaigning happens--and that is where I strive to be.

Below is a video of Tarbotton speaking last month at REVEL 2012. 

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan or visit her website, taralohan.com.

 
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