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RAN, at 25, Keeps After the Banks

As Rainforest Action Network turns 25, new director Rebecca Tarbotton says they are fighting 'the biggest battle that has ever been fought.'
 
 
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Rainforest Action Network (RAN) has always been a darling of progressives, a group many people respect for all the right reasons. RAN successfully challenges corporate power and remains focused on the grassroots. The organization is global in the most profound sense, tackling devastating deforestation in Indonesia, for example. At the same time, it remains anchored in domestic politics. Currently RAN is running an aggressive campaign against mountaintop removal, an ecologically destructive process used by the fossil fuel industry in its relentless pursuit of dirty coal.

RAN is nimble, youthful, savvy, strategic, and has the privilege of a deeply involved and well-connected board of directors. Over the years, RAN has exercised a creative aggressiveness that larger, more mainstream environmental groups seem to lack. On top of that, RAN likes to have fun. Revel, its annual fundraising event in San Francisco, is legendary for late-night dancing and Grateful Dead themes.

This year is RAN's 25th anniversary. Its Revel event, tonight at City View in San Francisco's Metreon, marks a turning point. The organization has come a long way from the early stages when Randy Hayes, the first director, and his visionary and audacious allies, created a unique, in-your-face operation -- one that made effective use of militant protest and creative PR to put the organization on the map. Now RAN is widely known, well funded and respected, but still mostly true to its roots. Honored at the event tonight will be Amy Goodman, who along with Michael Moore ranks among America's most influential progressives, Robert Kennedy Jr., Teri Blanton from Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, for the struggle against coal and for sustainable energy, and Rivani Nopor and Uki Serara, for being true defenders of the rainforest.

In many ways tonight's spotlight will also be on Rebecca Tarbotton, RAN's new executive director, the first woman, and first Canadian, to take over as leader of the organization. Tarbotton follows in the footsteps of the highly respected New Jersyian Michael Brune, who moved up the environmental food chain by taking over the helm of the Sierra Club.

Tarbotton is taking over at a time of fading hopes and increasing frustration, as climate change has receded from the national agenda. Beyond all reason, the entire Republican Party has adopted the absurd position of climate change deniers. As we head into the midterms, many signs point to an electoral disaster for the Democrats, and the short-lived honeymoon of large Democratic majorities in both houses will quickly fade, as will many of the items on the environment and social change agenda.

Still, despite the expected national policy gridlock, the RAN strategy of holding corporate feet to the fire is paying off. Its campaign highlighting the role of many large banks in coal extraction has yielded some key dividends, particularly the creation of a sector-wide bank policy statement known as the Carbon Principles, which puts limits on the financing of new coal-fired power plants. Tarbotton, who was RAN's global finance campaign director, cut her teeth going head-to-head with some of the banking industry heavies.

Charismatic, articulate and straightforward, and seemingly possessing the infamous RAN chutzpah gene, Rebecca Tarbotton, 37, seems the perfect person to grapple with the conflicting needs and aspirations of environmentalists who may be feeling on the edge of despair. 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.

On the eve of Revel, with considerable buzz in the RAN offices in downtown San Francisco, Tarbotton sat down for an interview with AlterNet.

Don Hazen:So, as you take this new job and you look back on RAN’s 25 years, how does it inspire you? What does it tell you about what you need to do? What do you want to take from the past and where do you want to go in the future?

Rebecca Tarbotton: You are asking me this at the perfect time. We’ve been thinking a lot about our roots, and of course, you know part of the legacy of RAN is a response to the Reagan era of deregulation, rapid economic growth, no attention being paid to any of the consequences to the environment, to the communities. RAN came along with this very unique method of social change, which is about going after corporations and revealing the way that they make their money. And I was thinking about this time around 24 years ago, around 1986, when I was flying in my friend’s father’s four-seater plane.

I was turning 13 and my best friend's father owned a logging contracting company. And as a teenager, I thought I knew everything about forestry in BC and I’d gone hiking a lot. And of course, taking off and looking on the vast tracks of deforestation with these little "beauty strips" of forest along the road so that it looked pretty. I was devastated. To have that exposed to me in such a horrible way … I knew there was logging in BC but I didn’t realize the true impact until I saw it from the air.

When I think about the legacy of RAN, I think of RAN like that plane -- that it’s about exposing the impact of corporate power and of corporate greed.The best legacy of RAN is about confronting that head-on. And we saw 25 years ago with RAN, corporate campaigning…using the power of the marketplace to drive transformative change. That model has really stayed.

Now we know that it’s not just about stopping the trees from being cut down, we also have to stop climate change. We need to move forward and continue to confront deforestation but really train our sight on climate change -- that is the issue that really frames everything right now.

DH: So climate change frames everything, but what is surprising for a lot of people is that there has been seemingly more success pushing the corporations than going against the government to change policy. Why is that?

RT: Corporations ironically are often thinking in a longer time horizon. We are caught in an election cycle that actually constrains politicians a great deal, in terms of what they are able to do for the long-term. And when we are thinking of environmental goals, we are actually thinking in generational terms, not the four-year election cycle. And when we are able to really mobilize a lot of people to tell corporations what they want and what they don’t want, corporations have to listen because they want to sustain their brand value, they want to continue to grow, they want to continue to make money.

DH:So the brand value is where they are really vulnerable?

RT: That’s where they are vulnerable. And with corporations, a lot of what we do is exposing what they really are doing. The corporate PR machine is very, very good at "greenwashing" or spin -- with corporations like BP, with making it look like they really are "beyond petroleum." And what the goal of RAN, and other organizations working on the environment and corporate campaigning, is to expose what is behind that -- what is the real impact of our dependence on coal and the impact of coal? What are things we are not being shown in the ads on TV or on the backs of our cereal boxes? And I think that’s the key – and that’s why I compare it to this plane flying over BC – it is this role of exposing what is really beneath veneer of profits and, often now these days, green PR.

DH: You’re quoted somewhere saying that one of the things you like is 'rattling the cage of corporations.' What does it take to rattle the cage?

RT: It’s interesting how easy it is to rattle the cage of a big corporation. I think what makes RAN really unique is that we don’t just do an all-full-frontal assault. We actually identify, very strategically, the leverage points that we can use to get the biggest effect. We are only 35 people; we are not a big dog. So that’s the  reason we are able to punch above our weight class.

We’re really careful about where we point our spear. For instance, we were working on mountaintop removal, when we first tried to get it on the radar of JP Morgan Chase. They said to me "It is not our job; we are a bank." (Most banks say that about everything, actually.) And we found out their entire employee registry and phone members associated with them. We had our members do an action alert and call through to every single employee, and by the time the day was over I think that every employee had gotten three or four calls at their work desk from RAN activists, saying "we’re really concerned about mountaintop removal."

JP Morgan Chase was furious, and it was because we identified a point; we managed to get inside with a minimum of resources on our part and make a maximum impact. It was inspiring to our members because they got to call people and explain an issue to them that was actually a concern to them and the people were very receptive. They don’t know what JP Morgan Chase is doing on mountaintop removal. So it quickly got up to the top level.

Usually what rattles a cage is when senior management hears about something. And it’s not always what you’d expect. But it can be as simple as showing up at somebody’s door.

DH: Have you always had chutzpah? Have you grown into this notion of putting a stick in the eye of corporations or does it come natural to you?

RT: I grew up with a really strong sense of justice, but I don’t actually know where it came from exactly. I grew up doing things like peace marches, and every time I tell that to people I feel like it sounds like a cliché.. I grew up in Vancouver, BC. It’s a liberal, very progressive city in Canada. I grew up with a very strong sense of social democracy.

But I always grew up with a couple of possibly sounding contradictory feelings that I don’t feel actually are contradictory. I have always felt passionately about speaking truth to power and not being afraid to say what you see is a wrong, and confronting issues head on. But I have always also valued communication. So RAN’s "inside-outside" strategy is something that really appeals to me and feels very personal to me. I very much identify that RAN never goes to bang down a door until we have attempted to sit down at a table politely with a company.

DH: Are you different from CodePink in that way?

RT: CodePink is superb at getting on the radar of their target, superb. I don’t actually know a lot about how they do their negotiation side of things. I think that CodePink is always so great at really drawing attention to an issue, and they have managed to really create a brand that specifically identifies with that, so I have a lot of respect for the way they do that.

We need a million CodePinks. That type of fearlessness is tremendous. I think that RAN is also like that, we just operate differently because we are running longer-term campaigns and have a different kind of infrastructure. We are setting goals three years out and working toward that. Not that CodePink isn’t doing that, I just think there is a distinction there.

DH:So what’s the scenario on climate change? You know obviously we’re heading into an election where what little advantage that Democrats had for two years, which turned out to be not very much, is going to evaporate almost overnight. The Republican party as a whole somehow has become climate change deniers. What’s the future?

RT: I think that we’re in a pretty dismal state in terms of climate in the U.S. right now, to be totally honest. What gives me hope is that, not to sound arrogant, is that we’ve been having a lot of really good success for our campaign.

So where I see a huge amount of opportunity is twofold. One is that there are a lot of people in this country right now who really threw their heart and soul into climate policy at the national level. And now that that has failed, they are standing around saying "give me something to do." Whether it is a push for renewable energy, whether it is fighting a coal plant, whether it is fighting to deconstruct an existing coal plant -- whatever it is, people I think are really hungry to take action and really willing to step it up.

Secondly, I think that we also have a real opportunity around confronting corporate power at the moment because if there is one thing that is true, it is that we know that climate policy failed in Washington because of the influence of big business. The fossil fuel lobby is tremendously powerful and if we don’t get it out of the way, if we don’t really drive a stake through its heart, we are really never going to get progressive climate policy in Washington. So the one most important thing that I can see us doing alongside movement building is really pushing to essentially undermine coal and oil in the United States and push heavily into the future.

DH: What’s the stake you’re going to drive?

RT:I think the first stake – we’re not there yet -- was almost winning on mountaintop removal. You know, we assessed years ago that the weak underbelly of the coal industry was really mountaintop removal because the most egregious, clearly un-American thing that they could possibly be doing is destroying this national monument and this incredible wealth of culture at the heart of Appalachia. And I think that the national attention that has been driven toward mountaintop removal has really exposed the depths to which the coal industry is willing to go to continue our addiction to coal, and the cost that they are willing to accumulate environmentally, in the waters, in the community, health. That’s their vulnerability.

DH: But is that their heart?

RT: No, it is not their heart. But I think what is really important is that for the first time we see on the horizon the end to a particular form of coal mining that is unacceptable. And with that end to coal mining, it actually has created a political space for having a conversation about what kind of coal mining is acceptable, what does it mean to keep coal in the ground. That is a conversation that the U.S. has to have.

And alongside it, we also saw a turnaround in the huge plan to build out coal power plants. The fact that we had 200 planned two years ago, we have 18 planned now.

DH: Is the economy responsible for some of that?

RT: The economy is definitely responsible for some of that. No doubt, investment projects are down. Banks are sitting on trillions of dollars. People are not investing the way they were. But I also think that the fact that every one of those plans has been fought at the current level by major campaigns that we really pushed to drive away the financing for them, really highlight the financial and reputational risks for those coal plants has really helped. And if you add those two things together….

DH:What about the fight over hazardous natural gas drilling? Are you going to get at that as well?

RT: I feel that for RAN, we want to keep our sights on coal right now. The single most important thing we can do for climate in the United States is get off coal. Internationally I think that the single most important thing that we can do is stop deforestation. In terms of where RAN is uniquely suited today, those are our two pillars. And I think that the most important thing between them is human rights, our rights-based approach. Working with communities in both of those cases.

DH: But those two things are not enough for climate change, right? What about food and water? You’ve done a lot of food work in your past, how do you weave that in?

RT: Well, when we are doing the work on deforestation internationally, the two market drivers for deforestation that we’re looking at are industrial agriculture and paper. But we are taking on the food and agriculture sector by looking at their impact on deforestation, the land-use piece of it that is from our perspective the critical contributor to climate change that industrial agriculture has.

DH: So that is how you connect the dots?

RT: The way I connect the dots the most succinctly is that RAN’s a rainforest organization, has been for 25 years, and it is no longer enough to stop the trees from being cut down. We now know that in order to save forests, we need to stop climate change and that in order to stop climate change, we also need to save forests. So we’ve got this circular pie, and RAN is a unique organization that works at the intersection of deforestation, climate change and human rights. And we are one of the few that is actually working at that intersection. I want to hold us at that specialty because I actually think that it’s an incredibly important place to be. And one of the things that makes us uniquely suited to be there is that it is a rapidly changing place and we are nimble, and we have got that ability to move to really respond to opportunities. And I feel like I want to keep building on those two specialties.

DH:Let's shift a bit to the personal – what does it mean to be Canadian in an almost exclusively American organization? Is there anything as a Canadian that you bring to the table that helps?

RT: It gives me a certain amount of diplomatic immunity, I would say. If I don’t know what someone’s talking about, I can always say "I’m Canadian." I don’t feel like I suffer at all being a Canadian in a U.S.-dominated organization, largely because most of the people that I work with have a great respect for Canada.

DH: What important message do you want to get out to readers that I haven’t asked about?

RT: One thing that I don’t often get the chance to say is that I feel that in this moment in the environmental movement, in the climate movement, there is a real need for a type of creative irreverence that draws in a larger community than the normal people that we work with. The humor, the irreverence – and I think this is about drawing younger constituents into the work.

DH: Talk a little about the generational shift, because it seems that the new, youngest generation perhaps isn’t very political.

RT: These younger people liked Obama. I think that these younger people are really goal-oriented, that they really want to see things that work. And I think that what that lesson for me is that the new generation of activists aren’t satisfied with signing a letter and sending it off and not knowing what happened. They want to know within two or three days what that resulted in, or else they are not going to do it again. That is my perception, but I do think they want to make sure that their ideas are heard in this participatory, social media-driven platform approach to change. They want to be a part of the conversation and part of something that is succeeding. They respond really well to strategy, understanding the way things are happening.

DH:So they are more pragmatic and less idealistic?

RT: I think so. I think that the challenge of younger generations is translating their passion and participation online into being on the ground and in the streets, because we can't replace that. We are moving into an era where leadership is being redefined as something that’s not a mysterious force. It is actually a product of really good thinking and lots of people participating in a process to come up with the best ideas. I think that’s exciting. And that we still need to do the hard work of figuring out how to inspire people to get off their butts and participate in social change, whether that means voting or going out and standing outside of a corporation or making a call, or all the many, many things that people can do. We need to broaden our sense of what tactics we use, and we have to get serious about the fact that we are fighting the biggest battle that has ever been fought. 

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.
 
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