An Interview with Yale World Fellow, Janet Dalziell

An Interview with Janet Dalziell

Conducted by Mitchell Barrows and Salaar A. Shaikh


Janet Dalziell is a Yale World Fellow and the Director of Global Development for Greenpeace International. During her time at Greenpeace, she has played a key role in its climate change campaign, represented the organization in negotiations with states, and has led three expeditions to Antarctica. She helped to design Greenpeace’s current operating model, focusing on developing human capacity and honing in on environmental issues. Originally born in New Zealand, she is usually based in the Netherlands as a member of Greenpeace’s Senior Management Team.

The Politic: What motivated you to apply to be a Yale World Fellow?

I have been working for Greenpeace for over 20 years and for Greenpeace International for an uninterrupted 15 years, and during that time I’ve continued to have new challenges and very interesting jobs. I’ve been working solidly hard for 15 years, and I realized I was becoming almost institutionalized — too associated with one organization. Because we have a possibility in our contracts to have a sabbatical every seven years, I realized it was time that I took one. I was trying to look for a good thing to do, just to lift my head up and take a look around me. I knew about this because the World Fellows program had approached our executive directors a few times over the years to ask for suggestions, so I had seen it in the past. One of my colleagues, the head of Greenpeace in Brazil, did the program two years ago — Marcelo Furtado — and I saw the effect it had on him. I decided I wanted some of that! So I applied. I applied last year and didn’t get in, so I’m very grateful for the chance this year.

The Politic: It’s just been a few weeks. What has been the most enriching or enlightening part of your Yale experience so far?

Just being able to get out of all aspects of my normal life, both my extremely busy work life and my family obligations. It’s refreshing to be able to have some time to myself! I think that’s very important. It’s similar for most of my classmates as well. Everyone is at a sort of mid-career position, very immersed with what’s going back home and so forth. Professionally though, [it] has to be the experience of being together with a group of people whom I respect very much and can interact with as peers rather than having the more complicated relationships that we have at work. And of course, just having access to some amazing professors who have some great things to think about, as well as students, particularly graduate students — many of whom have working experience themselves and interesting life experiences to share.

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The Politic: What brought you into environmental work, or particularly into Greenpeace?

I’ve been in Greenpeace pretty much since I finished graduate school. I studied zoology initially, and then did my graduate degree in resource management — very similar to environmental science, and cross-disciplinary, too — and so always thought I would become a policy expert and work for the government. I was particularly interested in working in fisheries. While I was in graduate school, though, the issue of Antarctica was huge. The New Zealand government was leading negotiations to agree a treaty [that] would enable mining in Antarctica. The environmental movement was trying to stop it, and my class got involved in the lobbying and protests. At the same time, Greenpeace’s ship came back from Antarctica, something [that] it had done to raise awareness about the issue. One of my classmates was on the ship, and that opened up my eyes to activism, specifically Greenpeace-style activism — and that was me. Soon, the job came up to work with Greenpeace New Zealand. I was working on the Antarctic issue and have gone on to other things since then.

The other thing about Greenpeace was that it was very famous in New Zealand at the time because, only three years earlier, the French had bombed the Rainbow Warrior. So the effect of a small group of people doing some things that were interesting and inspiring was really when I realized that I could do this, and that it would be a way of, on some level, changing the world.

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The Politic: What does your job at Greenpeace involve on a day-to-day basis?

Well, after all that exciting stuff (laughs), my job involves strategic development for the organization globally. We have a federated structure. We have national or regional offices in 27 places, and we cover 40 countries. It is my job to make sure that the offices where we have strategic priorities — Brazil, China, India, Southeast Asia, Russia and the U.S. — are growing very well, and that the others are healthy and running well, that the leadership is doing all right and the finances are in good shape, and so on. So I run a small department keeping an eye on all of these things.

Day-to-day, I organize my team and look into their activities to oversee all the various offices, and I [deal with] field crises. So if we have signs of trouble, I agree with a team member about what approach we will take to bring the crisis to the attention of a certain office and see how they’re taking action. This could involve stepping in and taking action if necessary, or if there is a breakdown in leadership.

The Politic: Is there any major achievement you’re particularly proud of?

For the last few years, we have been doing a major overhaul of how Greenpeace makes decisions and works globally. My part in that has been to build a new strategy on how to deal with people, a new HR strategy. But of course for Greenpeace, an HR strategy goes far beyond just dealing with people we have an employment contract with; there are volunteers and conceptual allies and supporters. I built a new strategy that would look to deal with people as our greatest resource and treat them accordingly. It doesn’t mean paying them a whole lot of money, but managing them better, giving them greater feedback and so on, for using their creativity to get things done.

The Politic: We are curious as to whether pursuing environmentalism is harder in certain parts of the world, particularly the developing world. What is your take on this?

That’s a very good question. Environmentalism — whatever that means — looks different in different parts of the world. In the U.S., it has a long history and conjures up images in people’s minds. In other parts of the world, it looks a lot more like issues of social justice. Of course, much of the environmentalism in the U.S. has been related to toxic pollution and has been linked to the poor and disenfranchised. In the developing world, the connections are far more prominent and obvious to people, which is a strength.

I don’t even want to distinguish it as developed and developing. For instance, Japan is a country where our brand of activism has been particularly hard to translate, and it’s not really a developing country. I’d say the distinction is between countries with some sort of an activist tradition that looks somewhat like ours, versus some others. For example, in Southeast Asia, we found that the activist culture in the Philippines and Indonesia was quite even with our own, whereas in Thailand and Japan it was more difficult. It is probably also easier in India. And this really is the challenge — how far you can go and expand the cooperating culture of your organization to different [geographical] areas. Of course, sometimes this is a bigger stretch than in other places.

The Politic: What do you want to take away from your experience at Yale, and how do you see your career going forward?

That’s a very big question! I just want to get my head above the parapet through this program. The World Fellow program talks about three things: leadership development, academic enrichment and then putting something back into the community through talks or being a resource. All of those three things were things that I was looking for, and so I really liked the match with that. As far as leadership development goes, it’s really just having a new base from which to express myself, and how I interact with the class. It’s working out like I hoped. The second is academic enrichment, and that is also happening. I’ve met with some great people and had some great conversations, which give you new perspectives, thinking about problems in a new way [that] is different from how we’ve approached them in the past. As far as putting something back is concerned, for me it’s just practicing applying leadership again. So yes; that answers your question.

The Politic: What really gets you going or grinds your gears about the environment? What’s the most important issue the environment faces?

Well, you’ve been hearing about it for a while, its in the papers today. It’s climate change. I am frankly terrified for the future of my children and their children, but I also know that now is the time when it is still possible to make an alteration. The IPCC [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] just came out today with a new report that said [climate change] is worse than we thought, but they’re projections, they’re not prophecies. And so while it’s not possible to change it completely, it’s possible still to head off the worst of the apocalypse that one can imagine. So that really grinds my gears, if you put it that way.

What inspires me are things like what Greenpeace has just done in the Arctic, which was trying to actually stop the first ever offshore drilling in ice-covered areas. The activists that have done it are paying a very high price at the moment, so the stakes are very high for them personally, which is why they are very inspiring people.

The other part of what inspires me is the organization that I work for. Greenpeace is able to get in behind and support those people. So we can still do something to look after those people who have made such a strong personal statement themselves. And then I think the other thing important to remember is that it’s not just climate change, it’s the whole system that’s causing the other things going on — the fisheries collapsing and so on — it’s all of those. I don’t really like the label “environmentalism” anymore because it makes it seem like it’s just another issue. Increasingly, we see that, like fisheries for example, that’s not just about the environment and saving fish; it’s about the people on the coast of West Africa who no longer are able to feed their children properly because the EU is sending its huge industrial fishing fleets down to take all of the fish. We were successful in one country, helping them to close their waters to the EU fleets. [There was] instant change for the local people living on the coast, who were suddenly able to catch fish again for their families.

The Politic: [It] must be very gratifying when Greenpeace achieves something so instantaneously noticeable.

Yes, and that’s the thing that keeps me on climate change, because it is possible to change these projections. Climate change is scary because it’s so huge, and so much has to change so fast. But it’s certainly not impossible.

The Politic: Climate change seems to be a perfect storm of an issue that takes advantage of humanity’s weaknesses. Do you think we can change? Or will climate change continue to be a serious issue 30 to 40 years from now and well into the future?

I think it will be an issue for the next 30 to 40 years, but the degree to which it will be issue depends on us now. The second thing is I have no doubt that humans will act at some point. The question is how long it has to go before meaningful action occurs. There’s a book that I have read recently that talks about this exact concept, this looming catastrophe that leads you to despair, but also the knowledge that humans are actually very good at responding to a crisis. The question with this one is just when that crisis that will create action comes. Lots of times in the past — rebuilding Europe after the war or rebuilding the U.S. after the Depression — it’s possible to have grand scale action taken.

Obviously we haven’t solved it yet, and nobody has figured out [its] trigger points. I think it’s likely with climate change there probably won’t be one trigger point where you’ll start to see sizable swing shifts, that each in themselves change trajectories. At some point, renewable technologies will become big enough to have a large lobby of their own that will fight against the fossil fuel lobby. We’ll see some movement emerge that involves different groups of people than the usual suspects, so it reaches new audiences. Suddenly, there will be a shift like farmers in the U.S., who combine to stop the Keystone XL pipeline. That’s great, because that’s a group of people that the liberal environmentalists aren’t normally able to reach, and suddenly they’re involved in something, and maybe that will expand the message out in a completely different way.

The Politic: You brought up the idea of renewable resources being used more and that becoming particularly prominent as the issue of climate change becomes larger. Are there any particular resources that you or Greenpeace advocate more than others?

Not really, because I think there is no point in picking winners. That’s what the market is good at, if you set the conditions right. It’s using the right criteria to pick the winners. At least 15 years ago, we were trying to determine what we thought was the likely best solution so that we could promote it, but I think that’s the wrong argument to be having. The point is that there are lots of solutions, and there are really clever people working on all of them to make them better. At some point, some technologies will fall by the wayside, and some will expand. I think it’s clear that there are some characteristics of technologies that will help, and they’re not really big-scale, like nuclear, because that has a lot of the failings of other big systems. It’s more distributed, decentralized, and more diverse, which has consequences for things like what the grid needs to look like to support diversity. Allowing experimentation and diversity is going to be key. So no, I wouldn’t pick winners.

The Politic: Can you comment on this incident in the Arctic between Greenpeace and the Russians and explain Greenpeace’s method of protest?

About three years ago, we identified the Arctic as having the potential for being a flagship for the climate issue. As we said before, one of the problems of the climate campaign is that it’s so big that it’s very difficult for our methodology, which is to find the right size fight. By right size, I mean it’s winnable and graspable, and if you win the fight, it has effects that can take you somewhere. [With] climate, we’ve been struggling for years to find that.

We think the Arctic can be that right size fight for us, because it’s got lots of elements in it. It’s got tangible effects: human victims, potential for solutions, and images. We’ve been doing a whole lot of things around the Arctic. A few months ago, we had six women climb this new building in London, called the Shard because it’s a shard of ice. It’s the tallest building in London and visible from all of Shell’s buildings in the city. So we climbed the building. What sort of stunt is that? But actually, people picked up on the story on social media. So we’ve been doing all these different things with the Arctic and this protest, this season, was to really challenge the point that was [a] serious threat to the Arctic.

This is the first instance of offshore drilling that’s going to happen inside the area where there’s ice during the winter. If you think about it, if that drill goes ahead and something like the BP disaster happens, there will be oil spewing out of the well for months, under the ice, and it’s just insanity. And then you look at the safety records of these rigs. We’ve got appalling video footage of what goes on inside, and it’s scary. You look at the safety records of the companies, Gazprom and Shell. Both of them don’t have sterling records in terms of being able to look after the environment. This is the place to stop.

So we put our ship up there to do that, to do what we do, which is to take direct action to stop something we see as wrong. In this case, we’ve had a huge over-reaction from the Russian authorities. We’re known for our peaceful protests; it’s one of the things we spend a great amount of time paying attention to. Safety and peacefulness are two things our activists are trained in obsessively. The Russians have stepped in with the Coast Guard. They have seized the ship — even that is illegal because it’s outside their territory — and have accused us of piracy, which is particularly interesting. Although President Putin has said he doesn’t think it’s piracy, the activists are still under investigation, and the possibility of being charged with piracy is still there.

It’s a real crisis for Greenpeace. We’ve now got thirty of our activists locked away in a Russian jail, some of them for two months, not knowing what’s going to happen, and we’ve got to go get them out because that’s not a great outcome for them at all. But the other thing we have to do is honor what they’ve done and make sure that the message that they were trying to get out spreads as widely as possible.

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The Politic: To wrap it up, we’d like to know if have any life or career advice for Yalies looking to pursue activist or environmental work?

In life, I would say three things. Every day, one should learn something, have fun, and do good. That would be my piece of life advice. If you’re going to be an activist, if your ‘doing good’ is going to involve taking that on as a conscious lifestyle, it does all of those three things I mentioned but goes a step further. My advice would be to find whatever it takes to keep you positive, because the worst thing that happens to activists, and it happens to many, is they let the despair of what they allow themselves to see everyday drag them down. That makes a useless activist. You’ve got to find a way of maintaining your optimism against all odds.

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