The spirit of environmentalism courses through Michael Sutton’s blood.
His parents authored dozens of books on wildlife and conservation, and he spent his boyhood summers hopscotching the globe, tagging along on their research trips and witnessing humanity’s impact on the planet firsthand.
“It was in my DNA,” said Sutton. “I got to see, upfront, the environmental destruction going on in so many parts of the world – the war on wildlife, if you will. That inspired me to devote my own career to conservation and the environment.”
After a long career working at the National Park Service, the California Fish & Game Commission and at nonprofits like the World Wildlife Fund and the National Audubon Society, Sutton now heads up the Goldman Environmental Prize as its executive director, where he focuses on highlighting people leading grassroots efforts to protect the environment around the world.
The prize – known as the “Green Nobel” – started in the late 1980s when San Francisco billionaires and philanthropists Richard and Rhoda Goldman lamented that there was little recognition for those toiling to preserve the environment and decided to create a high caliber prize for their own .
But in the prize’s three-decade history, Sutton has watched the environmental movement evolve from one focused on conservation to confronting historical inequities that the movement itself played a part in perpetuating. The prize, he said, has changed along with the movement it celebrates.
During Sutton’s tenure, the pandemic also dramatically altered the format of the prize – not only disrupting the in-person award ceremony traditionally held at The City’s War Memorial Opera House, but also the work of the environmental activists it seeks to highlight. This year’s ceremony will be held again virtually May 25 due to concerns about the coronavirus, but Sutton said he hopes they can return to in-person events in years to come.
The Examiner talked to Sutton about the history and future of the prize and what it means to win the “Green Nobel” in 2022. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me about your journey into the world of conservation. Was there a defining moment when you realized you wanted to devote your life to environmental issues?
When I was 12 years old, my dad took me to Colombia for the first time, south of the equator near the southern tip. It was there that I witnessed the wildlife trade for the first time. People would bring animals out of the jungle and sell them to traders. This was before the Endangered Species Act – before anybody cared about the wildlife trade. I saw environmental destruction for myself. That trip made such an impression on me that I came back, I wrote about it, I took a lot of photographs, and I was inspired to do something about the destruction that I saw.
What was the Goldmans’ motivation for creating the award?
There was no Nobel Prize for the environment. The founders looked at disasters like the Exxon Valdez wreck and oil spill in Alaska, and they thought, well, my gosh, there needs to be a global award for environmentalism. And so, they created the Goldman Prize with that in mind. We’ve given the prize to over 200 prize winners in more than 90 countries since 1989. We’re coming soon on the 35th anniversary of the Prize.
The prize is global in its reach but local in its roots. How are you thinking about the prize’s impact locally and on the world stage?
I like to say we’re not just in the prize-giving business; we’re really inspiring business because that’s what we do. We inspire ordinary people.
We have a climate emergency on our hands. And about 80% of Goldman Prize winners work on climate-related projects. That ranges from stopping coal plants, drilling and mining, to promoting renewable energy, stopping deforestation and promoting indigenous management of land all over the world. But it comes right back home to the Bay Area when we’re confronting issues like the existential threat of climate change, with things like sea-level rise and wildfires and crop disasters.
How do you find your winners?
It’s often a challenge to find them because many of them work in obscurity, and they have no previous awards. They’re unknown. They’re living and working in places that are so remote in some cases that they have no internet, they have no cell phones or anything like that. And so we’re fortunate, and we have a cadre of nominators all over the world, dozens of organizations that are nominated for the Goldman Prize.
What qualifications do you look for in candidates?
The two things that all prize winners have to show are a significant recent environmental achievement and the use of grassroots organizing in making that achievement.
What is the most significant benefit of winning the Goldman Environmental Prize?
It enormously raises the gravitas of people who have been previously unknown, doing extraordinary things but never recognized. All of a sudden, we turn them into rock stars. We’ve had one Goldman Prize winner win the Nobel Peace Prize. We have had one elected head of state; the current president of Slovakia is an environmental lawyer who won the Goldman Prize a few years ago. One of our Goldman Prize winners since 2018, Francia Márquez, is a vice-presidential candidate in Colombia, the first Afro-Colombian ever to be on a presidential ticket. Many of our prize winners go on to achieve great things.
By the same token, though, the prize’s exposure can also place a target on the backs of people working in places where the risks of taking a stand to protect the planet can be extremely high. How are you thinking about the safety risks that go hand in hand with the prize’s recognition?
They say that being an environmental activist around the world is second only to journalism as one of the most dangerous professions on the planet. Many of our prizewinners are at great risk because of their work – because of their activism. Many have been thrown in jail. We’ve had three prize winners murdered in the line of duty over the past 30 years.
My objective is to make sure that does not happen again on our watch. So we spend a lot of time working to enhance the safety and security of our prize winners. We want the Goldman Prize to be a shield that they can use against the risks they face every day.
How has the grassroots environmental movement changed since the prize started? Has this changed the mission or focus of the prize?
What the founders saw is how effective grassroots activism can be in fostering change all over the world. But grassroots environmentalism has changed a lot in the past three decades. Thirty years ago, no one was talking about climate change as the biggest threat. The biggest threat in those days was things like pesticides, pollution, untrammeled development, oil spills and things like that.
Grassroots activists now work at every level of society – with corporations, with governments, with the public. But I think Richard Goldman if he were alive today, he would say, of course, the biggest threats to our planet have changed. Don’t question. The fight has changed. The threat has changed. But the Goldman prize winner’s work has changed too.