John Passacantando to step down as executive director of Greenpeace USA

Feature story - October 30, 2008
Greenpeace USA’s executive director, John Passacantando, has announced that he will step down at the end of 2008, capping an eight-year tenure that saw the organization weather some of its most difficult trials and achieve some of its greatest victories. While he will be sorely missed, Passacantando leaves behind a legacy that will serve Greenpeace USA well as we continue to tackle the most pressing environmental issues facing the planet today.

"An executive director has many jobs but only one responsibility: leave the organization better off than he or she found it," said Donald K. Ross, Chairman of the Greenpeace, Inc. board of directors. "In his eight years here, John has not only fulfilled his responsibility but exceeded all expectations. His stewardship and vision will be missed."

View a timeline of accomplishments during John Passacantando's time as Greenpeace USA's executive director.

Passacantando's legacy

Under Passacantando's leadership, Greenpeace USA has grown from 60 to more than 500 staff and has seen its annual budget rise to $32 million. He oversaw the organization's efforts on a number of fronts: attempts to stop illegal logging in the Amazon; convincing dozens of U.S. Representatives to support the most ecologically sound climate protection legislation; training thousands of students and others in the art of environmental activism; and confronting political leaders of both parties when they proposed measures that would not have effectively dealt with pressing issues like climate change.

Known as an inspirational leader who is not afraid to hit the streets and be arrested at a peaceful protest with the activists who work under him, Passacantando has strengthened Greenpeace USA in many ways. It was under his watch, for instance, that Greenpeace USA exposed ExxonMobil, a corporate behemoth that makes billions in oil profits every year, for funding a series of front groups that misinformed the public on global warming. He also led the organization during its successful suit against the Bush Administration to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act as a result of climate change.

Passacantando also expanded the organization's strategies to include field organizing, the latest in online activism, and a global warming Solutions program that works behind the scenes with corporations to implement environmentally friendly technologies on a large scale. The Greenpeace Solutions campaign recently scored a major victory when Ben & Jerry's announced it was bringing climate friendly coolers to the U.S. under a market test provision from the EPA. The coolers are based on technology that was developed and prototyped by Greenpeace in the 1990s. It has already become widespread throughout Europe and Asia but has been blocked from the U.S. because of outdated regulatory hurdles.

Background and arrival at Greenpeace

Passacantando, 47, was once a political conservative and supply-side economics disciple. He became interested in the environmental cause in 1987 after witnessing the destruction of his beloved woods and fishing holes in his native New Jersey and the creative tactics that Greenpeace used to influence the national environmental debate - from the travels of its flagship Rainbow Warrior to the giant gas mask the organization attempted to hang on George Washington's image at Mount Rushmore to dramatize acid rain. He decided that the environment was his generation's great fight and that he wanted to be a part of it.

After several years making environmental grants at the Florence and John Schumann Foundation, Passacantando co-founded Ozone Action in 1992 to help coordinate the efforts of some of the first scientists, mayors, coastal residents, students, business leaders, and presidential candidates to speak out against climate change. He initiated a major research project that tracked corporate money given to front groups whose goal was to confuse the public about climate change, work that continues today at Greenpeace's ExxonSecrets.org. When Passacantando assumed the helm of Greenpeace in 2000, he merged Ozone Action with Greenpeace USA, one of the largest offices of a global environmental organization active in more than 40 countries.

Confrontations with the Feds

Passacantando guided Greenpeace through two well-publicized confrontations with the federal government. Former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft's Justice Department prosecuted Greenpeace USA in 2002 in the aftermath of the group's peaceful effort to hang a banner on a ship carrying illegal mahogany logs from the Amazon - the first direct action carried out by Greenpeace after Sept. 11, 2001. Federal prosecutors used an obscure 1872 "sailor mongering" law to go after Greenpeace, but the organization won in a dramatic trial, successfully protecting the concept of civil disobedience as a fundamental right of all Americans.

In 2005, Greenpeace was the target of a politically motivated audit by the IRS that threatened its tax-exempt status after a group called Public Interest Watch, a self-proclaimed "watchdog of non-profit groups," alleged financial abuse. After a three-month investigation, Greenpeace passed the audit with flying colors. The Wall Street Journal and Business Week later reported that Public Interest Watch was entirely funded by ExxonMobil, a long-time target of Greenpeace.

The decision to leave Greenpeace

"I came to Greenpeace at roughly the same time that George Bush assumed the presidency," Passacantando said. "It was a dark time in which one of the worst politicians our country has ever seen set out to decimate environmental protections on behalf of the worst polluters. While Greenpeace was working to block the assaults on the environment, we also emphasized training and building the organization for the time, like now, when we would be able to finally tackle global warming and the destruction of our oceans and ancient forests."

Passacantando said that he decided to leave now because "leaders have to know in their hearts when their time is over. They should leave at the top of their game and leave behind an organization where the next leader can flourish." He has no firm plans but expects "to be a part of building the green energy economy that will rise out of the ashes of this carbon-based one."