A conversation on Buddhism, corporate power, confrontational tactics, and the future of the world with Rainforest Action Network chairman Jim Gollin
Buddhist practitioner Jim Gollin has chaired the controversial environmental group Rainforest Action Network (RAN) for the last five years. During his tenure, RAN, which is dedicated to protecting old-growth forests and their ecosystems, has reached highly innovative deals with a number of major corporations, including Home Depot, the world’s largest lumber supplier, and Citigroup, the world’s largest financial institution. In both of these cases, RAN used confrontational tactics to open a dialogue that ended with cooperative written agreements: In 1999 Home Depot decided that it will not sell old-growth products, and in 2004 Citigroup agreed that it will not finance the destruction of old growth anywhere in the world. These are groundbreaking achievements, particularly for a small group with an annual budget of just over $2 million.
At forty-six, Gollin has been practicing Buddhism since 1978, focusing on Zen. He was one of the first Westerners to work in a Tokyo securities firm, before setting up his own investment firm in New York. I caught up with Gollin at his home in northern San Diego County. In his hillside office and then over sushi in Rancho Santa Fe, we explored how one of the most prominent green Buddhists in America squares Buddhist practice with environmental activism.
—James Soshin Thornton
How does Buddhism inspire your life and work? It affects everything, but it’s not something I’m generally conscious of. I have to think about it to realize it. My worldview has evolved and changed through my experience with Buddhism; therefore there’s nothing I see that isn’t affected by it, but I don’t have a Buddhist checklist that I go through in the morning.
When did you discover Buddhism? I took a course on Buddhism in my sophomore year at Princeton, and I was very much taken with it. It seemed to me that Buddhism wasn’t a religion as I understood religion. It was one very wise man and other wise people through time describing “what is”—more like physics. The metaphor of Indra’s net—that everything is connected to and reflects everything else—has been particularly effective for me, especially in my environmental activism and human rights work. Such work is essentially confrontational: there’s an us and a them. There is a tendency, especially in our culture, to exterminate the other side. To win we must destroy them, their idea, their ideology, discredit it entirely. Compare this with the Buddhist approach, wherein we are all linked. When one shines, we all shine, and when one is occluded, we’re all occluded. This interconnected type of thinking does not come automatically, certainly not in our culture, so we must continually remind ourselves of it. The Rainforest Action Network is highly confrontational.
How does a Buddhist find himself comfortable using confrontation? There’s a story about a guy with a mule. He couldn’t get the mule to move. His friend says, “You’ve just got to whisper 'Move’ in his ear and he’ll move.” So the first guy whispers into the mule’s ear. Nothing. He says louder, “Move!” Nothing. Eventually the friend says, “Here, I’ll show you.” He takes a two-by-four and whacks the mule on the head. Then he whispers, “Move” into the mule’s ear, and the mule moves. The first guy is shocked by the violence. “What was that about?” “Well,” says the friend, “first you have to get his attention.”
You have to get a corporation’s attention. They’re not interested in talking to a bunch of environmentalists wanting to change things. They’ve got a lot of other things on their minds. Take Citigroup, the world’s largest financial institution: They’ve got a lot of problems going on, from corruption and investigations to trying to make money. Why are they going to talk to us? Why are they going to do anything for us? You have to get their attention. What we do is always nonviolent both to people and to property. So it’s really an aggressive form of speech designed to make them very uncomfortable. It’s a way of getting a conversation started.
Give me an example of a conversation opener. During the Home Depot campaign, we found someone who worked at Home Depot who liked what we were doing, and he leaked the code for the intercom systems. It’s the same code at all three thousand Home Depots. We had volunteers go in, punch in the code, and broadcast over the entire store: “Attention, Home Depot shoppers! There’s a sale on wood in Aisle 13. This wood has been ripped from the heart of the Amazon basin. There may be some blood spilled on the floor, so please be careful. This wood is leading to the dislocation of indigenous communities, soil degradation, and the destruction of Mother Earth.” We did this in 162 stores on the same day. At the Home Depot headquarters in Atlanta the phones were ringing and ringing, and the people who worked there didn’t know what to do. It doesn’t stop anybody from shopping; it’s amusing. And it broke the ice.
Where does RAN fit into the spectrum of environmental activism? There’s a bunch of radical groups that use civil disobedience in direct action. They’re not worried about rattling the teacups. Then there’s a bunch of larger, more staid mainstream groups. RAN is the most radical of the larger groups, or the most mainstream and civilized of the radical groups. I like the particular point where it sits: we can sit down with the head of some of the world’s largest corporations and make real changes, yet at the same time we have street cred.
Most environmental groups try to get the government to enforce changes of behavior on people and corporations. Thirty years ago, that was the cutting edge, but I feel there’s very little cheese down that path now. At RAN, we essentially ignore Washington, ignore politics, ignore regulations and regulatory structures, and focus instead on making deals with corporations.
You’ve been accused of being anti-corporate and anti-capitalist. How do you respond? I am a capitalist myself. I believe that corporations are the most dynamic forces on the planet today, for good or ill. They are the forces for change; they have the power. Our corporate work often has an element of antagonism, but you’d be surprised how quickly you can get past that, even with the world’s largest corporations, because corporations are run by human beings walking the same earth, breathing the same air, with the same concerns as you or me. You have to get to that common place with them. They want to feel good when they go to sleep and when they’re bouncing their grandchildren on their knees. While the political party currently in charge may ignore science, I think the people in business are better tuned to reality—it’s their business to look at the reality, not to live in delusion, and global climate change is a reality.
Your view of corporations seems very nonjudgmental. Buddhism for me is about being open, whether it’s on your cushion or in the world. When I first got involved with RAN, it was in a campaign against Mitsubishi Corporation. Mitsubishi was then the world’s worst logger of tropical forests. RAN asked me to get involved because I speak corporate, I speak Japanese, and I am also an environmentalist. I found people from RAN on one side and people from Mitsubishi on the other trying unsuccessfully to communicate. I came in to try and help bridge the gap, both the Japanese to American and the corporate to the environmentalist.
Once you’ve reached common ground with one company, does that help you in dealing with other companies? Yes. Ideally, the corporation becomes part of our network and we work on the next company together. I’ll give you a specific example of this involving the timber industry. Our goal was to protect old-growth forests. After a long campaign we got Home Depot, the world’s largest retailer of lumber, to stop selling old-growth lumber of any kind. And after Home Depot came the other major lumber retailers such as Lowe’s. Then we started looking at paper products. Kinko’s is a massive user of paper. It’s a real shame to use old growth for making Kinko’s copying paper. But we didn’t really have to campaign against Kinko’s. They’re fairly alert and also very, very conscious of their brand name.
After reaching an agreement with Kinko’s we took on a much harder target: Boise Cascade, a huge paper and forest products company that cut a lot of old growth. But they don’t deal with the public directly. They sell to other corporations, like supplying paper to Kinko’s. And therefore while Kinko’s is very concerned about their image, Boise wasn’t. They called us “green communists” and said they’d never deal with us. They even funded an attack website dedicated to smearing RAN, its staff, and board, and sent threatening letters to our funders. So we went to Kinko’s and said, “Why are you buying Boise’s line of paper?” Kinko’s surprised us. They had already told Boise that as part of their agreement with RAN they were not going to use any paper from old-growth forests, and Boise had agreed to sell them only paper certified not to come from old-growth. But there was still much further to go in reforming Boise’s operation. So we said to Kinko’s, “But Boise is still cutting old growth, just selling it to someone else. You can get paper elsewhere.” Kinko’s agreed.
So Kinko’s and Lowe’s sat down at the negotiating table with RAN and Boise. Kinko’s said, “Unless you stop cutting old growth we won’t buy any of your paper.” Lowe’s said, “Unless you stop cutting old growth, we won’t buy any of your wood.” Because Kinko’s was the largest customer for Boise’s paper and Lowe’s for their lumber, it worked. The branded corporations are relatively easy to get to. We reach the more insensitive corporations by branching out, taking our former adversaries and converting them.
You must encounter your own anger and also anger of other people. How do you work with it to avoid burnout? I’m basically a conflict-averse person. Some people like conflict—they get a charge out of it. I actually seek to end it. That may sound funny, since we go out there protesting. In terms of my own personal anger, what I tend to feel is not so much anger as sadness. We’ll still have an opportunity to deal with the inequality between the rich and the poor in fifty years, whereas when we lose the forests and everything in them, they’re gone. That’s where the sadness comes from. That sadness in some people leads to anger. In some people it leads to resignation. In me it leads to activism. I feel I must do something. I must act. That’s what the principle driving motivation is, you know—trying to avoid the sorrow that I feel in confronting the world.
From a Buddhist perspective, it’s all impermanent—like a cherry blossom. Our planet will eventually be eaten by the sun, and the cherry blossom will eventually wither and fall. But there’s a beautiful sadness involved with the cherry blossom. You don’t want it to fall too early. There’s a sadness in seeing an early frost brown the blossoms before they have a chance to flourish and send off their scent.