5 Questions for Environmental Activist Deborah Lapidus '05

by Yelena Bidé '15, Storyteller for Good
July 1, 2015

Deborah Lapidus led her first environmental campaign - against deforestation - as a sophomore at Brown and has been “hooked on grassroots organizing ever since.” Here, she speaks about the power of organizing and activism to combat climate change.

Yelena: What keeps your passion for activism and organizing strong?

Deborah: It’s the clear evidence of impact: I’ve seen campaigns literally change the world and that makes all of the hours of work and all of the failures worth it. It is certainly challenging work—and sometimes I wonder what a normal 9-5 would look like— but I’m addicted to the impact.

How did you first get interested in climate change activism?

The summer after my freshman year at Brown, I interned with the Sierra Club’s Global Warming and Energy Team. Their student coalition was running a nationwide campaign to convince universities to stop using Boise Cascade paper, because the company was distributing wood from some of the last remaining old growth forests in the world.

When I returned to Brown, I approached the leaders of the environmental group on campus to convince them to run a campaign against Boise Cascade at Brown. But it turned out that the leaders weren’t planning on heading up the group anymore. And that was, if you will, my call to action. I had this moment of thinking: if I really care about this, I need to step up. So I decided to lead the campaign myself. I put up fliers around campus and to my amazement fifty people came to that first meeting.

In the end we convinced Brown’s purchasing department to tell Boise Cascade that they wouldn’t renew their contract until they stopped distributing paper products from old growth forests. And, that summer, Boise agreed to stop sourcing from old growth forests. I couldn’t believe that our little campaign had such a big impact on a multi-national corporation and on forests around the world. I’ve been hooked on grassroots organizing ever since.

What is the particular power of organizing as a means to fight climate change?

I believe that the only way to address climate change is through collective action. We already have the solutions; what we lack is the political will. Policymakers need to see climate change as a central priority, they need to be pushed into taking action. And the only way to do that is if more and more people become organizers and activists. We already have the people power, we just need to tap into it.

What has been your most memorable campaign?

I’m actually most excited about the campaign that I’m working on now. It’s called Forest Heroes and we’re working to break the link between agricultural development and deforestation starting with palm oil, which is the leading driver of deforestation across South East Asia. Our campaign started with Wilmar International, Asia’s largest agribusiness company. We set out to get Wilmar’s major customers, like Kellogg’s Cereal, to demand that they stop contributing to deforestation.

We sent organizers to the Kellogg’s headquarters in Michigan and they mobilized thousands of people to make phone calls and come to rallies outside the office, wearing T-shirts with the logo: What Would Tony Say? implying that Tony the Tiger represents the 400 remaining Sumatran tigers whose habitat is being destroyed for palm oil.

Our campaign was immensely successful; the Wilmar CEO issued a “Best-in-Class” policy and, because Wilmar was 45% of the global palm oil industry, this had a tremendous impact by putting pressure on other agribusiness companies to do the same.

What advice do you have for students who want to get involved in climate change activism?

Start getting involved now. It’s never too early. And don’t undersell yourself; I never thought I’d be the kind of person who would be an organizer. But, if you do what you are passionate about, then the answers will present themselves along the way.