In a perfect world, prizes wouldn’t be given for environmental activism. So says the President of the Goldman Environmental Prize himself, John Goldman. And he seems nonplussed by the prospect of being put out of a job. “Ideally, it would be great if it didn’t exist,” he says, “Because then our world community, our leaders and all of the people that inhabit this globe realize that stewardship of this planet is of utmost importance, and that we all take responsibility for insuring that such issues that …others have fought for don’t need to be fought for any longer.”
But in the absence of that ideal, The Goldman Environmental Prize has shone a light on more than 150 grassroots heroes who have fought on the front lines to deliver clean water, clean air and preserve the world’s ecosystems. Brothers John and Douglas Goldman are carrying on the work of their parents, environmental activists Richard and Rhoda Goldman, who founded the prize in 1989. “My mom was a recycler before the term was ever coined,” remembers John. “She was far ahead of her time.”
The most important impact of the award, says Douglas, is its role in spotlighting the often unrewarding work of environmental activism. “We have been able to find people often not even known in their own countries for the work that they're doing,” says Douglas. “We find some outstanding individuals who’ve done incredible work, courageous work where they live that's making a difference.”
John adds that there’s a common thread among the past winners: “[These are] individuals whose force of nature really made a difference, their impact was significant, and they may have had significant personal risk.”
One of those people is Maria Gunnoe, who received the prize in 2009. Beginning with a successful effort to stop the coal industry from devastating the hollows of her native Appalachia, she has become a leading voice in the push to expose the environmental hazards of coal production.
When mountaintop removal began in the 1970’s, Maria was a little girl, growing up on land purchased by her grandfather. “I've watched as they polluted our water, our surface water, our underground water and, most recently, our municipal water,” she recounts. But she didn’t start out to become an activist. “I didn't really get into fighting the industry; the industry took me on,” she laughs. “They challenged me and my love for my property.”
Gunnoe learned firsthand the risks of standing up to powerful coal interests; she and her family received numerous threats to their property. Today, she lives behind chain-link fence, armed with security cameras and guard dogs.
“Did you ever think of giving up, moving?” host Greg Dalton asked.
“No,” Gunnoe replied.
“Did they know who were they were messing with?”
Gunnoe responded with an emphatic “No!”
On the other end of the coal conveyer belt, Kimberly Wasserman’s battle was equally personal. Her southwest Chicago neighborhood was feeling the effects of toxin-spewing coal-fired power plants. Wasserman’s parents were activists, but like Gunnoe, she didn’t see herself going that route. “We were raised going to marches and rallies and protests, and at a very young age, I decided that that was not going to be for me. I did not want to do that anymore.”
But she found herself unable to stand by. “Feeling the impacts that countless parents in our community feel, of having children with asthma, just triggered that voice in me to…want to do something about it,” says Wasserman. “There is no greater threat than a mom who's mad!”
Wasserman rallied the parents in her community and was successful in getting the power plants shut down. She was awarded the Goldman Prize in 2013. Since then, Gunnoe and Wasserman have continued to fight for clean air and water, joining forces to stress that, no matter what environmental issues your community faces, we’re all in this together.
“In our areas, you have mountaintop removal that is blowing up the mountains, polluting our air, destroying our water,” says Gunnoe. “And then, lo and behold, they're carrying this coal to Kim's community and polluting her air and her water, and ruining the quality of life for people there.”
“Environmental impact doesn't just happen to any singular community,” Wasserman agrees. “It's happening across the board to low-income people, and we need to be united and be coming together to fight this.”
Putting the issue in perspective, Gunnoe adds, “We have to have water. We have to have air. If we don't have that, we die. Without electricity, we're not comfortable. Which is more important?”
– Anny Celsi
March 6, 2014
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California