Interview with a Hurricane

Randy Hayes, NNH Chair, on mobilizing millions and thinking like a system.

Climate March/Photo by Mika Baumeister


“Hurricane” Hayes, NNH Chair, Dishes No-Nonsense Tips for Changing the World


It’s time to start thinking like a system


Randy “Hurricane” Hayes is Chair of the Nature Needs Half Steering Committee and Founder of Foundation Earth. He is also the co-founder of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) in 1985 and is responsible for mobilizing millions of people, world-wide to help save the rainforests. The Wall Street Journal once described him as “an environmental pit bull.” Not much has changed since then.

Here, we talk with “Hurricane” Hayes about what he learned from the movement to save the rainforests and where conservation must move next to mobilize enough people to help save life on Earth.

Adding to the unprecedented magnitude of the world-wide environmental challenges we face, finding elusive common ground and viable solutions can make a difficult problem seem even more daunting. How is it we overcome these barriers to save the planet?

Consider this: it’s very likely that the key challenge of our time is not any single major issue, be that social justice, climate, democracy, animals, or a number of other concerns that move us. The key challenge of our time is solving for pattern at a planetary-scale and developing systems-thinking. I don’t know how we do that without better and more determined coordination. The problems that we face are systemic problems. What that means is that no one person or organization or government can solve them on their own. Now, in 2019, we finally see the climate change movement gathering wind. We must link our conservation with this movement and collectively work together if we are to reach our potential and achieve success. Integrating our work is essential for solving this problem at-scale.

In the 1980s you helped co-found the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and helped millions of new people to give top-priority to the environment. How was RAN’s strategy unique for its time? Do you feel that it has paved the way for how we’re approaching conservation campaigns today?

At Rainforest Action Network we launched major grassroots campaigns against big targets. And we employed a lot of non-violent civil disobedience as a strategy to advance our victories. Yet we never set out to defeat the enemy. RAN’s co-founder, Mike Roselle, explained to me that Martin Luther King’s use of non-violence and civil disobedience to advance civil rights was tough love, but it was still a tool to eventually get people to walk forward together.

The newly developing Extinction Rebellion movement interestingly has an analogous principle of not blaming and shaming specific leaders in government or industry. Instead, they focus on the actions and societal systems that need to change substantially to halt extinction and climate breakdown. This is the strategy to help bring to bear the all-hands-on-deck approach needed for solutions at-scale.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the Rainforest Action Network, with the help of many allies, took on Burger King (over rainforest beef), Mitsubishi (wood products trade), Home Depot (the largest retailer of wood on planet earth at the time), Conoco Oil Company (extracting from Ecuadorian rainforests), and the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Burger King cancelled their beef contracts with Costa Rica. Mitsubishi switched all of their paper mills to Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified pulp. Home Depot required their suppliers to get FSC certified. Conoco left Ecuador entirely. The World Bank stopped funding giant dams in the Amazon and other rainforests (they have started this destructive funding again).  The World Trade Organization efforts to draw up new trade rules furthering toxic, destructive industrial agriculture were thwarted.

Despite these campaign successes it felt to me like a two-steps-forward-and-three-steps backward situation, not a winning plan. It was noble, heroic, and otherwise meaningful for that time. But we couldn’t fight enough brush fires to truly advance the deeper changes in society. We didn’t get to the scale of the solution that we needed and we certainly didn’t get countries to commit to solving the problem. We should have spent more time focusing on the big picture and how we could get people of all interests invested in the issue.

Nothing occurs in a vacuum, especially things pertinent to the natural world. To have a chance at the 1.5 Degree Celsius climate goal, science tells us we have to protect and rewild not just the tropical rainforests but natural systems globally. This has the additional advantage of helping to conserve species and secure essential ecosystem services. Natural systems generate and filter the air we breathe and the water that we drink. With habitat, the pollinators help us grow our food. As has been said, natural systems are key to human prosperity in this warming world. The connection of climate campaigning and conservation work also advances social justice. From the past work with RAN, we now have a much better understanding that Nature Needs Half is not just for the nature lovers, its mission is relevant and deeply important for every individual no matter where they are from or what their interests may be. Everything relating to our well-being at a foundational level can be linked back to the health of our planet.

So how does your experience with RAN inform your work with Nature Needs Half?

When I founded (with the help from many others) Rainforest Action Network in 1985, master strategist Mike Roselle asked me if I knew the difference between a plan and a strategy. Here is what I learned: a plan might be to attack some problem on the other side of the river. But if you also decide to use the cover of darkness to affect a surprise you now have a device, a strategy, that makes the general plan more likely to be successful. That is the roll of a specific strategy added to a general plan. The Paris Climate Accord seeks to address climate change. By adding the protection and restoration of nature to the mix you will be more likely to be successful. Fail to add this element and you lose a key device – nature-based solutions – for achieving success.

If nature’s needs are to be addressed meaningfully, if the web of life and the planet’s very life-support systems are to be maintained, it behooves us to be strategic in our planning and to solve for pattern. This is without a doubt one of the biggest takeaways from my time with RAN that I feel we can all learn from. And we can’t solve for pattern unless we engage and recruit new partners, new sectors of society, and broaden the base of concern for nature’s needs.

In your opinion, what is a current example of effective action that we can learn from and replicate locally?

A zeitgeist is starting to sweep through England and Europe and could carry across the world. The fight for life’s last breath has finally arrived! We see this with the newly formed Extinction Rebellion movement and their non-violent demonstrations in the UK. They care about both climate and the extinction crisis. We see this zeitgeist with the Danish and other students in Europe boycotting school by the tens of thousands. Their demands for their governments to tell the ecological truth about climate and show some spine are greater than ever before. We can hitch our nature loving wagon to that social movement. We can help them with what they (we) want and elicit their support for nature’s needs.

What would you say to those who believe we are too late to create a positive impact and turn things around for our planet?

The recent U.N. report states that we have about eleven or so years to fight to keep to an average global temperature rise to about 1.5 degree Celsius. It further says a switch to 100% renewable energy alone isn’t enough and that we have to protect and restore natural systems from forests to mangroves to help stabilize stored carbon and to scrub additional carbon from the air. This begs for the uniting of the climate change movement and the conservation movements. People are feeling a new level of urgency and determination for effective action.  This is reason to hope, but only if this sense of urgency is made manifest in action. And action takes many forms. First, we must empower people to act: identify the tools they already possess to change the world and create new ones. Then, we must use those tools, and quickly.

How is Nature Needs Half an integral part of the movement to restoring a healthy Earth?

The Nature Needs Half network and advocates have prepared two specific plans that are key in this restoration of a healthy relationship with nature – one where nature can truly thrive.

The first plan is a mapping of 846 ecozones on terrestrial earth, which becomes a powerful tool for powerful actions at a global-scale. The other is called the Global Deal for Nature, which is designed to be a companion piece to the Paris Climate Accord. The Accord calls for specific greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction commitments from countries. The Accord however lacks specific country commitments on addressing the needs of the ecosystems or natural zones in each country, whereas Nature Needs Half calls for the protection of approximately 50% of Earth’s land and seas (some can get by with 40%, while others, like the rainforest, need 70-80%) within all 846 ecoregions. The mapping of the ecozones and the analysis of the Global Deal for Nature will help with this omission and increase the further likelihood of success.

Despite some problems with the Paris Accord, we finally have a global plan to address an existential problem of climate change. By adding the protection of natural systems to the renewable energy package we now have a strategic shift that better ensures success.