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In the first decade of this century many of us learned that the threshold for keeping our planet healthy was 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Advocates like those at 350.org emphasized the need to adopt practices to help the earth stay below that number. Well, unfortunately, we earthlings have blown through that limit and are presently looking at 419 parts per million. But that doesn’t mean the idea of lowering our carbon emissions is moribund. And there are still organizations like 350.org keeping the dream alive. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Namrata Chowdhary, the Head of Public Engagement at 350.org. We learn more about the organization’s roots, examine some of the fights they’ve taken on, and discuss how they’re planning to evolve. We also talk about the corporatization of some larger environmental organizations and dive into the issues surrounding fossil fuel divestiture.
00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:15 Namrata Chowdhary (NC) – Yes, in the Global North we need to acknowledge that there’s a gap in how we people the climate movement, and at the same time, we need to acknowledge that and environmentalism has held different forms in different parts of the world for decades longer.
00:33 Narrator – In the first decade of this century many of us learned that the threshold for keeping our planet healthy was 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide. Advocates like those at 350.org emphasized the need to adopt practices to help the earth stay below that number. Well, unfortunately, we earthlings have blown through that limit and are presently looking at 419 parts per million. But that doesn’t mean the idea of lowering our carbon emissions is moribund. And there are still organizations like 350.org keeping the dream alive. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak to Namrata Chowdhary, the Head of Public Engagement at 350.org. We learn more about the organization’s roots, examine some of the fights they’ve taken on, and discuss how they’re planning to evolve. We also talk about the corporatization of some larger environmental organizations and dive into the issues surrounding fossil fuel divestiture.
01:43 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Namrata Chowdhary. She is the head of public engagement at 350.org. Namrata, welcome to Sea Change Radio.
01:54 Namrata Chowdhary (NC) – Thank you ever so much, it’s a pleasure to be here.
01:56 Alex Wise (AW) – Pleasure to have you. You are coming to us from London, is that correct?
02:00 NC – That is correct. On a grey, cold day one wouldn’t believe it’s spring.
02:06 AW – First, why don’t you give us a bit of a background for our listeners who are not familiar with the mission of your organization and give us a little bit of the history and then we’ll catch up listeners on how the organization has evolved over the years.
02:21 NC – What a beautiful invitation to share about the history of an organization that I’ve long admired before I became part of it. 350.org was founded in 2008 by Bill McKibben, whom you’ve had on your show before, and a group of university friends who were his students at the time, and it’s named after – we are named after – the safe limits of 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. And that’s what we’re hoping to – or determined to, I should say – determined to get the earth back towards. We need to bring ourselves back to 350 parts of one million. The roots of 350 are very firmly in the activist sphere. It started with youth activists and today still we draw our primary strength from the young activists at the front lines, many of whom are at the front lines of the climate crisis and all of whom are committed to doing their part to changing the narrative of fossil fuels as the only way to bring energy to us. And are determined to do what they can to secure a more positive, uplifting, safe future for all. That’s what 350 is today, and I’m so, so proud to be a part of the public engagement team, particularly because it’s through our audiences that we drive the change that we are committed to making.
03:41 AW – One of the real events that put 350.org on the map were the protest to the Keystone XL pipeline, it really kind of set a fire to the movement and really catapulted the organization into the international one that it is today. Why don’t you explain the importance of misbehaving and doing what may not be expected by polite society, but why it’s so important to you and your colleagues?
04:16 NC – Activism is really important in driving change right? And as the saying goes, history is seldom made well. The saying actually says seldom made by well-behaved women. But I think we can extend that almost to anyone, right? Well-behaved people seldom make the kind of change that results in history. And in in a fair history being written, we need to be taking action, taking direct action, as it were. For the principles that we believe in. That said, 350 is core strengths also rests in organizing community right and creating a sense of community linking up with partners and centering the work. The activism that we do rooting that quite deeply in the communities with whom we work, for whom we are championing. Climate justice and with whom we are built. Going to build this future that we all dream of together. So there is a distinct difference in how 350 operates. And you know not. It’s for us. It’s much more than just. It’s also about committing to finding, finding the answers together in the communities that we work with.
05:27 AW – Yes. So after the Keystone XL pipeline got on, a lot of peoples radars, 350 moved on to the divestiture campaign, working to alert. People about some of the institutions that they loved and supported and how they were in bed, essentially with the fossil fuel companies through passive and sometimes active investment. So why don’t you explain how the divestiture campaign has operated up till now and what we can expect from it moving forward, Namrata?
06:01 NC – One of the smartest things that those who were historically affiliated with 350.org, one of the smartest thing that the organization did was to understand that in order to change the dominant narrative about the fossil fuel industry. We had to do two things. One was revoke the social license right and make it make it obvious that so that fossil fuels are causing more harm than they bring good by way of the power that they provide. The second and again this was a very clever, very strategic choice to make was to dismantle the pillars that support the fossil fuel industry, a key one, is finance. If you take away the money, you inevitably bring the industry down in a way that’s much more impactful and much more long lasting than addressing one problem at a time.
06:51 AW – And so now you’re going beyond just alerting people that, let’s say, Stanford or Harvard is investing in fossil fuels, and hopefully those organizations are pulling back those investments. But now, trying to look at solutions, instead of investing in the wrong things, let’s get them investing in the right things. What is that piece of the divestiture puzzle, the Reinvestment Act, if you will, how is that going to play a role in 350.org’s strategy moving?
07:25 NC – Well, like I was saying, Alex, when we think about what keeps industry ticking over money is one of the primary drivers, isn’t it? And so we’ve quite successfully, dare I say, been addressing the big investments that prop up the fossil fuel industry. We’ve had several, several important wins with financial institutions. Beginning to recognize the role that they are complicit in climate change, that they are complicit in the kind of injustices that the fossil fuel industry is wreaking across the world. Now is a chance for us to start to use that same energy and to in fact address the same financial institutions, many of whom have now started to see the role that they play towards climate justice. And it’s our chance to turn that investment, turn, turn all of that financial capital. Towards the urgent pressing need for the entire planet, which is to start funding more renewable energy instead and to start an entire change of how our societies are power. And we’re going to do this not just through the financial institutions, but we’re also going to be doing it by addressing policy change. We’re going to be doing it by organizing in communities and championing renewable energy solutions. We’re also going to be doing this by looking at iconic projects where we might be able to set up community centered renewables. In a way that ignites that movement across different parts of the world. So we are drawing all of our strengths that we have built over the past several years, leveraging our expertise in working with finance, working with the fossil fuel industry in ways that challenge them in ways that get them to recognize the role that they play in climate change, but also in the many injustices that are experienced by the communities where they operate. So it’s about now weaving the new, more hopeful story and about creating a better future for a long time, civil society used to dream of the phrase another world is possible, I’m sure you’ve heard it before. This year, with 350 getting together and starting to recognize that this power now is within our reach, it’s not just within our reach, but it’s within the remits of our responsibility. We’re now saying another world is ours to make. And we’re committed to doing that work as well. We’re committed to doing the work and you know, breaking down the barriers to renewables, energy, we’re committed to driving policy change. We’re committed to championing solutions where we see them. We’re committed to working with communities that will want to set up their own renewable energy. And so it’s, you know, things like this that make us feel very confident that this other world that we have long dreamed of is within our reach and ours to make?
10:22 (music break)
11:44 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Namrata Chowdhury. She is the head of public engagement at 350.org. So Namrata looking at 350.org’s website, I see a lot of campaigns that are focused on fighting coal. It’s one of the original fights that 350’s been engaged in. You’re in England, I’m concerned. And I think many other environmentalists are concerned about the non coal, non traditional fossil fuels that are now being burned in Europe and are seemingly going under the radar. A lot of it’s because of their designation. I’m thinking namely of peat and wood pellets. And burning peat and wood pellets seem to be as dangerous, if not more dangerous than coal, and that they’re almost these Trojan horses. They’ve been designated as biofuels, and they sound all renewable. Wood is, according to some definitions, it is a renewable resource. Trees can regrow. Sure, it might take 100 years for these forests to regrow, but hey, technically renewable. So what is 350.org doing to raise awareness about these Trojan Horse fuels?
13:02 NC – Well, This is why we need to be very particular about what alternatives we are actually embracing. You know, when we think about turning to alternative sources of energy, we need to be very, very clear not to fall into traps like the ones you’re describing. We need to be thinking much more broadly about the impact of whatever fuel we are using. And quite frankly, technology has advanced so much right now that it seems ridiculous that we should be falling back into those traps and still looking to burning wood pellets or peat, or even the other. The other one that surprises me each time I hear it described as part of the greener fuel economy. Is natural gas.
13:45 AW – Yes, a lot of people like to use that as a “bridge fuel,” but thinking about wood pellets, you’re in England where there is a tradition of coal mining, but the coal was being mined because they burned all their forests back in, like the 1700s or so, right?
14:03 NC – Indeed, and how long will we keep, stay sticking on that destructive treadmill where we keep going from one level to the next level of saying, OK, we’ve burnt this one down, where do we turn next and what can we destroy next? And to think of these projects or you know these kinds of industries as renewable or green or is such short-sighted vision? And we’re fooling no one but ourselves. If we start to describe these as solutions to the climate crisis, and we start to think of these as the better alternative, and particularly devilish when you think that the actual alternatives are within reach, you know, the technology for solar, the technology for wind is stronger than it has ever been before – cheaper than it has ever been, more accessible can be set up in microsystems can be community-centered. You know, the benefits are endless. And yet we continue to look at solutions in this way that we’re only going to go one level away from the dirtiest and the most harmful, and then congratulate ourselves. And that’s the kind of thing that we’re looking to change in our campaigning in the next phase of our work. And we’re very clear: centering justice when we think about campaigning for an alternative and that’s really important as well. Because when you think about the climate movement and even when you talk about Keystone, Alex, and you talk about the work that has been achieved in Keystone, it isn’t 350 alone that has done that. It is in partnership with indigenous communities, often led by him. Indigenous communities and we are very humble in the role that we have played in campaigns like Keystone because it’s really about bringing our strengths and our audiences and the activists that are, you know, working alongside us in service of the wider movement. That can only really succeed if it is led by and owned by those that are literally rooted in the communities most impacted by these projects. And so that’s that to me holds the key also to the future when we think about the campaigns that350.org will be leading in the next phase, we will definitely be working with. With the communities in partnership with local groups and looking to find solutions that are truly justice oriented that are not the Band-Aid as it’s called over the harm that fossil fuel industries have wreaked for years on the planet.
16:34 AW – Yes, it definitely requires something other than business as usual, and it seems that 350.org approaches its business in a refreshing new way. Why don’t you highlight some of the ways that 350 is set apart from big conservation and big environmental groups that may have a different way of seeing how they operate?
16:58 NC – So alexijoined350.org in 2021, right and when I joined the organization or even when I was in the recruitment process, one of my questions back to the panel that were interviewing me was “what’s the size of the organization? What’s the size of your staff?” And I was really surprised when they said it’s 150 people because the kind of impact that I had witnessed 350 make from the outside. And so the kind of impact that I had seen 350 make and the kind of visibility it enjoys, I genuinely thought it was a much larger team behind it. And to me, that’s part of the compelling beauty of 350. The fact that it’s a small core team. And it’s so central to how 350 works that its power rests not in that small core team, not just in that small core team of 150 people. But in the concentric circles arranged around that heart of core of core staff. Now that I’m part of the core staff, I recognize and I’m appreciate that beauty even more because I know how much work is put into cultivating those relationships and nurturing them and winner. And close. So just to give you a sense of and to give your listeners a sense of how 350 is powered, I’d like us to imagine a set of concentric circles right at its very heart. Are these 150 to 160 core staff. These are people directly employed by 3:50. The next ring outside of that is the strategic affiliates. So these are groups like 350 Australia or three, 350 Altera that are licensed to use the 350 name, but they’re not staff. And then one ring, one ring further back are our affiliates that are not registered as such but have a looser connection with us, so like 350 Philippines for instance. They don’t receive funding from us, but they participate in many of our campaigns. And then even wider out are the local groups. So this is like the whole network of local groups, which could be formed anything between 5 to 300 people in a particular geography that are participating for a specific reason or a specific event and become part of the 350 family by virtue of joining our campaigns and contributing long term to the change that we’re hoping to make, by cultivating relationships across all four of these circles, and making deep connections. We’re really investing in building a movement in a global movement that’s going to drive this kind of change that we dream and hold dear to ourselves. So much power comes from all. Four of those circles.
19:53 (Music break)
20:45 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to Namrata Chowdhury. She is the head of public engagement at 350.org. So Namrata your pay scale is a little different also than the big conservation organizations. They’re I think your highest paid executive makes under $150,000 a year. Everybody’s getting paid in a similar band which I think is important. Yes, indeed. And it’s it’s so important to 3:50 to be the kind of organization that represents the values that we want to see in the movement, right, that we want to see in the climate justice movement. One fact I’m very proud of is the pay equity across 350. We have a ratio lowest paid to highest paid.
21:32 NC – Of one is to three, so there isn’t a single person on the team that earns less than 1/3 of what the highest paid members of the team make. It’s something we are very proud of diversity as well. I’m part of the change that 350 committed to making when I was recruited and I went through the recruitment process alongside several others. It was very, it was very clear this was part of an intentional change in leadership that 350.org was making – making a choice to invest in more leaders from the Global South with lived and learned experience of campaigning in the Global South on issues that affect community is people of color people that have a much more diverse perspective on climate justice and that that was a again a strategic choice that 350’s governance was making in investing in a truly global organization and building this up into the kind of organization that was capable of leading a global movement participating. In the global climate justice movement and holding its own with power and pride to do the part, that 350, with its tremendous global strength, is able to do.
22:44 AW – Yes, you hear a lot of valid criticism against the environmental movement because of its generally white roots and white faces, and these are the faces of colonialism going back into these areas that have been terrorized by colonialism for centuries.
23:03 NC – And there are two ways of looking at this narrative, Alex. One is indeed, as you’re pointing out, the white roots of the environmental movement. And at the same time, that’s from the perspective of the global N having grown up in India and having participated in several campaigns while I was still a teenager. And those campaigns have been running for, you know, generations before protecting forests. The Chipko movement, which, which is something that I grew up with, is the tree huggers, those are the original tree huggers, that originated in India so many decades ago and so this is the kind of humility, dare I say, with which we need to approach both sides of the narrative. Yes, in the Global North, we need to acknowledge that there’s a gap in in how we people, the climate movement, and at the same time, we need to acknowledge that and one mentalism has held different forms in different parts of the world for decades longer. People have indigenous communities in Brazil, for example, have defended the Amazonia long before white activists. Started to recognize the value of the Amazon and the value of the Amazon. In ecological terms, and so this is the kind of dynamic that’s at play in the global environment movement. When we think about how we reference the need for greater diversity, the need for diverse perspectives. We must acknowledge that those perspectives are rooted in a history that’s as deep, if not longer, and deeper than the more recent environmentalism that that is in popular parlance in the Global North to use the frame you suggested by using the word colonialism. It’s like recognizing that several societies in colonized nations had extremely sound principles of governance before they got taken over by the colonials. And then, after the colonizers left, they had to rebuild their societies around new structures of governance. But to now look at those same countries and think of them as, you know, having fresh democracies and so on, it kind of negates the history that came pre-colonialism. And that’s the kind of dynamic that, I mean we ought to apply even when it comes to protecting land. Looking after the environment or, you know, thinking more broadly about the role of humanity with the we, the planet we live on, and that in many cultures, in many societies has existed long before environmentalism even. Became a thing.
25:49 AW – Yes, I just went to the Goldman Prize award and six recipients who are…one of the common themes is they’re generally don’t have resources, don’t have money, and they don’t have power. They’re going up against these behemoths of industry and coming out on top, and it’s a very inspiring story, but it’s all too rare.
26:12 NC – Indeed, I I think you draw a great parallel between colonizers and the environmental movement in that context, because if we’ve fought oppression of one kind, and we’ve organized and we’ve found strengths to overthrow the shackles of colonialism, as it were. We can draw inspiration and strength from that history, we certainly can, but that’s not to say that those who haven’t experienced that or don’t have that history cannot draw strength from other elements of organizing and community strength in their own geographies as well, right. And for us at 350 it’s the answer lies in community. The strength lies in bringing together people who all share the same commitment the same. Values and finding the strength together to start working towards that future that we want to. World and championing it, challenging. What’s standing in our way, bringing down the barriers, all of those things are dependent on unlocking the agency of the people that we work with. So yes, to your inspiring idea of how societies that have broken through colonial past. And are recreating strength and structure. Definitely we’ve got a lot to learn from those societies. And I think we’ve got a lot to learn from more stable economies as well. We’ve got strengths there. We’ve got privilege that lends itself beautifully to being in service of the global movement and we need both. We need both sides of the story for us to really build this other world that we dream of.
27:52 AW – She’s the head of public engagement at 350.org, Namrata Chowdhary. Namrata, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:00 NC – Thank you ever so much, Alex, it’s been a pleasure.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Wes Montgomery, Etta James and Curtis Mayfield. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.