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Greenpeace USA aims to be a 'credible threat'

Monday, February 17, 2003

By Don Hopey, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In John Passacantando's world, environmentalism comes with a loud heartbeat.

The executive director of Greenpeace USA, in Pittsburgh earlier this month to lecture at Chatham College, is passionate about his 32-year-old organization, which made its name getting between whales and whaling ships.

"There are many organizations out there that value credibility, but I want Greenpeace first and foremost to be a credible threat," Passacantando said, his lanky frame perched on the edge of a chair in a Shadyside restaurant. "Of course we have to be credible and use good science, but if we can be a credible threat then we can do better things.

"To paraphrase Thoreau, I regret only our good behavior."

The modern environmental movement, he argued, has become institutionalized and has lost some of its vigor.

"The movement itself isn't lost. It's embedded in our culture now, but that makes it easy to let aspects of it wither," he said. "Students have an understanding of environmental issues and science -- they have big heads for the ideas, but there is atrophy in their hearts."

Rachel Carson, the Chatham grad whose book "Silent Spring" spawned the environmental movement 40 years ago, was famous for taking scientific research and distilling it into "lay language." But Passacantando said her biggest accomplishment as a writer was maintaining a sense of wonder.

"A lot of environmentalists today haven't spent any time in the woods," he said. "And if they don't love being on the rivers or in the forests, they might become lax in their defense."

Lax is not a word that remotely describes the wavy-haired, 41-year-old Passacantando, a former economist and investment analyst, who has positioned Greenpeace USA to continue its provocative, audacious, confrontational but nonviolent role as chief jester and all-too-serious conscience of the environmental movement.

Since Passacantando took over as Greenpeace executive director 2 1/2 years ago, its activists have installed mock oil rigs in the Capitol reflecting pool in Washington, D.C., to protest big oil's influence on the nation's energy debate. They have delivered an ice sculpture depicting a melting nuclear reactor to a Washington conference of nuclear power industry officials, and occupied British military vehicles as part of an ongoing campaign against war with Iraq.

Last month, Passacantando and residents of Bhopal, India, site of the 1984 industrial explosion and gas leak that killed 8,000 people and injured 500,000, dumped seven barrels of contaminated soil from Bhopal at the Amsterdam headquarters of Dow Chemical in an effort to get the company to clean up the site.

Dow bought Union Carbide, which left India after the accident, leaving behind contaminated soil and water that has caused continued death -- the toll is now up to 20,000 -- illness and birth defects.

Passacantando, one of 15 activists arrested at the Dow protest, calls it "mobilizing shame."

"Greenpeace is a global organization and we can put pressure on corporations around the world," he said. "They have to operate within a social contract. If citizens don't like what the corporations are doing and say they won't buy their stuff, Wall Street and the bankers take notice."

His penchant for direct actions was under wraps for most of the last decade. In the early 1990s, he served as executive director of the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, helping focus its grant-making programs on grassroots democracy, campaign finance reform and environmental issues.

In 1993 he co-founded Ozone Action, an organization that was originally aimed at strengthening the international effort to halt depletion of the ozone layer and later changed its focus to stop global warming.

At Greenpeace, he's mounted campaigns against genetically engineered food, persistent organic pollutants and plans to cut rainforests in Africa, South America and Canada.

Last month, Greenpeace blocked ExxonMobil tankers from docking in Australia and mounted a world-wide boycott of the oil company because it continues to produce, ship and sell shale oil, one of the dirtiest fossil fuels.

Greenpeace also helps local environmental efforts when invited and is considering involvement in campaigns to block new oil and gas well drilling in the Allegheny National Forest in northwestern Pennsylvania, and against PPG chemical operations in Louisiana.

This spring, he said, Greenpeace will campaign to stop timbering in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska.

"It's the last temperate rainforest and several big chunks are on the chopping block," Passacantando said. "We'll use planes, ships, scuba divers, whatever we can to put a blockade around it to prevent the cutting.

"We will have our commandos out. Such actions are important as a tactic and to inspire our peers an re-inspire ourselves."

Don Hopey can be reached at dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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