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20th January 2020 7 min read

Interview: Jorgo Riss, Greenpeace

Categories — Interviews

Greenpeace is one of the most influential environmental organisations in the world. Currently owning offices in 39 countries, it runs a giant oceanic fleet and uses a myriad of technology solutions to optimise and promote its activities.

The organisation has been campaigning and advocating on behalf of the environment ever since 1971 and its dedication toward preventing further decline is stronger than ever. Greenpeace teams and volunteers come from many areas of expertise and every walk of life. Together they are committed to better our collective future and protect the blue Planet. 

This time I sought inspiration and learning from the words of Jorgo Riss, a political scientist, journalist, and director of Greenpeace. He generously shared his time with me to discuss the beauty of Earth, the impact of our individual and collective actions when consuming its resources and his hopes for the future.

What is the reach of your organisation?

We have a presence all over the world. We’re present wherever is necessary, from the Arctic to the Arctic, from South America to Far East Asia and anything in between.

What us your primary role in the organisation?

I’m in charge of defining and overseeing the development of campaign strategies that lead to real change in industry production and consumption, trade and environmental activity at European level.

Is your organisation government-funded?

We are the only global environmental organisation that does not rely on industry or government funding. We rely on over 3 million individuals who support us. Being in contact with our donors regularly is an important part of the work of Greenpeace. 

In order to create a real impact, do you harness any type of technology to help you? 

Internally, we use technology to coordinate our decision-making and ensure cooperation across different countries and different continents. Externally, we use technology to gather data and communicate with the public. 

Assessing the state of the global environment is one of our primordial tasks. Our action is informed by where environmental destruction is taking place. Based on that, we decide on the solutions we can promote and the best channels to promote them. 

Using technology is such a normal part of our daily workflow. We use it to analyze satellite pictures tracking deforestation in the Amazon, Africa or in the boreal forests of the northern hemisphere. We also use it to scan scientific literature primarily through our research laboratories in the U.K. and research by other scientists based all around the globe. It is an extremely important task as it enables us to draw information on problems as well as solutions. 

Are you running any exciting projects at the moment, that are enhanced by technology?

The projects that excite me are the ones where I see millions of people mobilised for emergency action on climate or hundreds of thousands of practitioners defending bees from harmful pesticides. Technology comes into the picture because it carries information and allows people to access it quickly, share it and collaboratively explore solutions. Sometimes people are inspired to act by a video that goes viral, by a profound study or even by a piece of legislation that we have successfully pushed through here in the European Union.

What kind of changes in the industry have you observed in the last few years? Do you see more organisations and businesses taking action and creating environmental solutions? 

As the ecological crisis worsens, awareness is rising and the sense of urgency is growing. There is now more attention being given to the very dangerous consequences of climate change, than 10 or 20 years ago. Politicians that I deal with here in Brussels and at European level, lobbyists of the industry, managers, and directors of certain companies, now understand that any type of economic activity must have the environmental conditions factored in, for it to be sustainable in the long term. 

Awareness is growing more broadly among the general population as media focus and coverage increases. Unfortunately, there are very real financial interests involved that benefit tremendously from the status quo. Some individuals and companies make their money with the current business model which is unsustainable. The current business model, by and large, is over-consuming natural resources, creating too much waste and too much pollution. It’s more than the planet can cope with and more than humanity can cope with. Fighting their agendas is inevitable to politics and if we’re looking at the size of the challenge and the urgency, then these companies remain a major problem. 

What is the most effective action that we as small agencies could take in order to help bring change?

That question speaks to me. I would say three things. 

  1. Firstly, to communicate the awe and wonder of the natural world is absolutely essential. People act when they share a sense of beauty and respect for life. Share your experiences through documentaries, beautiful photographs of being in nature. Discuss the difference between breathing air in a polluted city and breathing clean air. Anybody who has the means to share their experience of the world with others is contributing to a very fundamental sense that there is something so precious and so essential about our planet, that we as humans need to take care of it. 
  2. Secondly, don’t be part of the problem. Don’t sell your brain and your creativity to those who are simply greenwashing dirty, polluting, destructive activities. There are many intelligent and creative people who work for the wrong interests and who are just small wheels in a huge machine. Getting out of this destructive system and allying with those who are bringing forward the solutions is crucial. Anybody who has that opportunity to do so should be encouraged to take it. 
  3. And thirdly, we all need to expose what’s going wrong. You and I are in a good position to do so. We are financially independent of any specific interests so we can expose damaging environmental activity and also work towards and campaign for the solutions to tackle such activities. And that’s where communication with the community comes into play again. What are the solutions? Who’s doing what? People get inspired when they see other individuals, collectives, cooperatives working for change and sharing their progress. We have the legal and political framework that can facilitate change, that can make the status quo, that can entrench current issues further or that can start to shift towards transition. So if you have the opportunity to become politically active and expose double-talk, do it. 

Are there any campaigns where you collaborated with a technological partner that proved to be very successful and had a major impact?

We did a campaign between a couple of European countries related to air quality. Individuals, families, schools participated in this crowd-sourced experiment of monitoring air quality using technology that we distributed. This campaign contributed hugely to raising awareness about the source and state of ambient air, particularly around schools. Findings on how school children play and learn in environments that are polluted by air connected to a campaign against oil to reduce car use. 

Another campaign that I loved was centred around meat consumption in France. Most school kids get lunch in school, but that differs from one European country to another. In France, the system is such that most kids eat at school. In the majority of their schools, no vegetarian option was available. As a result, kids were being made meat-eaters right from the start and they had no choice to opt-out, even if they wanted to. There was no data available to inform us of such conditions. The government essentially does not keep records of how many schools and how much meat they serve throughout the year. So we crowdsourced the data by inviting school kids and their parents to report what’s on their school’s menu. From thousands of individual contributions, a picture started to emerge which very clearly showed the overconsumption of meat in the French public school system. This successfully led to legislative initiatives to introduce vegetarian options for schools. This again was a part of a much broader campaign to raise awareness around the industrial production of meat, mass factory farms and their impact on the environment, specifically on climate change.

What is the best learning you have ever gotten during your time with Greenpeace? 

What I’ve seen in many campaigns is that we are in it for the long haul. You need to have stamina. And at the same time, it’s important to have small successes along the way. 

If we look at what we’ve done against pesticides, such as Glyphosate, for example. It is the world’s number one herbicide, which has huge environmental and health impacts. We were a part of a European citizens initiative, collecting over one million signatures quickly to ban this herbicide in the European Union. We had a number of national governments and many organisations in civil society lining up behind it and Monsanto on the other side defending this. A huge battle. Glyphosate is not yet banned in the EU, but the public awareness of this problem has drastically increased. It’s now almost a household name. This work has led to a number of investigations by journalists into how Monsanto had been lying about the health studies. Just a couple of weeks ago, the Austrian parliament decided to ban it nationally. 

So you set yourself a high target to have a toxic-free environment. You don’t achieve it straight away, but as you move through your objectives, you get a lot of support. And bit by bit, it snowballs.

You must have a lot of international support for what you are trying to achieve?

In Greenpeace, we’ve often managed to make an issue big. There are so many others who’ve worked before us, together with us and who will work after us to continue on. The environmental movement is so much bigger than any single environmental organisation. We’re all allies in this work. We’re not competitors.

We are working for the same goal and each organisation and each person contributes their particular strength. That’s why we got to a global climate movement.

That’s why I think the days of these pesticides are numbered. This is why nuclear energy and many other things are on the way out. Greenpeace made a big campaign and it inspired others at certain points. Others initiated campaigns that inspired Greenpeace. We took it to the next level and somebody else will take it one level further. 

Are you hopeful about the future? Are you optimistic?

Yes and no. If I look at the raw data in terms of environmental destruction and ecosystem breakdown, then I am extremely pessimistic. If I look at the millions of people who are mobilised, who are active, who are protesting, who are creating new types of zero waste food cooperatives, who are decreasing their meat consumption, who are working to fight the powers that sustain the current destructive systems then I’m optimistic. The glass is, simultaneously, half empty and half full.

Join the green movement: https://www.greenpeace.org/international/act/

Learn more about Greenpeace activities: https://www.greenpeace.org/international/explore/

Follow Greenpeace on Twitter: @Greenpeace

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