The green movement has too few visionary leaders and too few women leaders and too few leaders under the age of 40. Tragically, this week it lost one leader who stood out in all three categories. On Dec. 26, Rebecca Tarbotton, executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, died while vacationing along the west coast of Mexico, north of Puerto Vallarta. In a freak accident at the beach, she got tossed around in rough surf, took too much water into her lungs, and asphyxiated. She was 39 years old.
Tarbotton had been at the helm of RAN since August 2010, and had worked with the organization for almost six years. Under her leadership, RAN has focused on the intersections between forests, fossil fuels, and climate change, and run aggressive campaigns pushing corporations to change the way they do business. Most recently, Tarbotton helped convince entertainment giant Disney to adopt a major new policy that will eliminate the use of paper connected to the destruction of endangered forests.
“Becky reshaped Rainforest Action Network, and was a force against deforestation and corporate greed,” said Michael Brune, former executive director of RAN and now executive director of the Sierra Club. “She was a rising star. We need more women to be leading environmental organizations, and losing a leader and friend like Becky is especially painful.”
Bill McKibben of 350.org (and a Grist board member) also had the highest praise for Tarbotton: “She was, among other things, one of the most spirited of environmentalists — no long-faced doomsayer, and no too-careful D.C. tactician, but a fighter with a spring in her step and a bit of fire in her eye. A true heir to giants like David Brower.”
Tarbotton teamed up with leaders of other environmental groups to call for direct action and “big, brash, nonviolent climate protests.” In a 2010 opinion piece in Grist, she joined with McKibben and Philip Radford of Greenpeace USA to make this argument: “We’re making progress, but not as fast as the physical situation is deteriorating. Time is not on our side, so we’ve concluded that going forward mass direct action must play a bigger role in this movement, as it eventually did in the suffrage movement, the civil-rights movement, and the fight against corporate globalization.”
She put her money where her mouth is, getting arrested at the big Keystone XL protests in front of the White House last year. She also took part in direct action to fight mountaintop removal, according to Nell Greenberg, RAN’s communications director: “She participated in several protests at Bank of America’s headquarters as well as during their shareholder meeting in 2010. That work led to BofA and several other top banks passing policies to cut funding for companies that practice mountaintop-removal coal mining, a critical first step in curbing the practice and moving banks to direct funding away from coal.”
Tarbotton leaves behind Mateo Williford, her longtime partner and husband of five months, who works at solar company Sungevity.
Public memorial services will be held in San Francisco, Calif., and in Vancouver, B.C.; dates have not yet been announced.
RAN posted this quote from Tarbotton on its Facebook page: “The project of our time is bigger even than climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. What we’re really talking about, if we’re honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet.”
Watch a speech Tarbotton gave in October 2012: