As global temperatures rise and record-breaking natural disasters become the new normal, individuals have naturally begun to feel powerless to the present realities of climate change. Though individual actions to reduce one’s carbon footprint are commendable, unavoidable statistics, like the fact that some 25 corporations are responsible for over half of the world’s emissions, prove the need for larger-scale, policy-level changes with the same if not more urgency. Through confronting these corporations head-on, advocacy organizations like Mighty Earth hope to hold the key players, not just consumers, accountable for the devastation their industry practices have caused and continue to cause on the environment. And many of the ground leaders for these campaigns are young people, impassioned for the cause but scared for the future of a damaged world.
It was through Mighty Earth that then 22-year-old Michael Greenberg, Southeast Regional Organizer for the organization, found himself in Omaha in 2017, spearheading a campaign against Tyson Foods. The campaign was Greenberg’s first for Mighty Earth, but it was not his first effort in organizing for the environment. While in high school, he started an environmental group composed of students throughout Virginia and Maryland, and coordinated a meeting with the Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and Environment to lobby her against the Keystone pipeline. Then, as a college student at Columbia University in 2014, he started a group called the XL Dissent Initiative which organized 400 young people from about 100 different colleges around the country to perform civil disobedience at the White House. The protest ended in one of the biggest arrests to take place at the White House. “I wanted to show the administration that young people cared about this issue and were really fired up about it.”
As his involvement grew, one of Greenberg’s main “heroes” he looked towards in environmental activism was LA Congressman Henry Waxman, known for his instrumental part in the passage of the 1990 Clean Air Act, as well as the 2009 American Clean Energy and Security Act, or the Waxman-Markey Bill. Waxman was also heavily involved in Israel politics, as founder of the Congressional Democratic Israel Working Group and the Congressional Task Force Against Anti-Semitism, and was the longest-serving Jewish House member when he retired after 2014. He now chairs Mighty Earth (a global nonprofit that targets corporations on issues like oceans, forests, biodiversity, and climate) and Waxman Strategies (the political lobbyist group).
Greenberg said the Jewish connection, though not his main motivator, was a pro when he decided to join the organization after graduating from Columbia. “I think it does inform my work,” he said. “The Torah definitely teaches a lot about treating laborers in a fair way and protecting the environment for future generations, and I think that background definitely provides inspiration to draw on for doing this work.” While in Omaha, Greenberg attended services at Beth Israel, and said he felt immediately welcomed into the community. He befriended congregant Bruce Goldberg, who invited Michael to his family Shabbat dinners and went to support him at his standup shows at Backline Comedy Club. It was also through Jewish connections that Greenberg met Omaha-native and Temple Israel-member Joe Hack, another recent college graduate, who soon began volunteering for the Tyson campaign.
Speaking of the influence his Jewish upbringing in Omaha had on his own environmental advocacy, Hack said, “The emphasis Temple Israel under Rabbi Azriel placed on public service, while not always directed towards the environment, still instilled in me the sense that it was expected that you care and act.” Hack said his first act of environmental activism was his Bar Mitzvah project, for which he collected donations from the Temple Israel community to organize a garage sale and direct the profits to an eco-kibbutz organization that does conservation and environmental education in South America. The son of Mace Hack, who has held the role of State Director of the Nature Conservancy in Nebraska for 13 years, Joe said a career in caring for the environment seemed a natural path for him. He majored in Environmental Science at Stanford University, and was eager to help Greenberg canvas, make calls, and organize protests for the 2017 campaign when he returned to Omaha.
Mighty Earth’s “Clean it Up, Tyson” campaign lasted four months, and focused on Tyson’s responsibility for water pollution from manure and fertilizer in rivers throughout the US and the Gulf of Mexico. “We overlayed where water was the dirtiest and where the farms sourcing to Tyson were located and found a strong correlation,” said Greenberg. Tyson is the largest meat company in the United States, and its plants’ contribution to nitrate contamination not only makes drinking water unsafe for human consumption, but also kills off fish, greatly reducing marine biodiversity.
After delivering hundreds of petitions to the Nebraska Tyson headquarters and rallying public opinion for a year on the ground, both Greenberg and Hack were happy when the company agreed to negotiate. Tyson ultimately committed to a pledge to adopt sustainability practices on two million acres.
Though he still keeps in touch with some Jewish Omahans, Greenberg is now keeping busy with a campaign targeting the Cargill corporation at its headquarters in Minnesota. Cargill is the largest privately held company in the US, North America’s second-largest beef processor, and the world’s leading ground beef supplier. According to Mighty Earth’s report, Cargill has many dirty practices including exploiting human labor and environments, infringing on indigenous people’s land, clearing forests for soy and palm oil production, and polluting public waterways through runoff. The campaign which Greenberg is spearheading seeks for the company to provide transparency and make changes in regards to its unsustainable farming practices and high carbon emissions, and for Cargill to commit to protect the Brazil’s Cerrado region (the world’s most biodiverse savannah) from exploitative and damaging measures regarding soy and meat that they take from there. Greenberg said that five years ago the company pledged to go deforestation-free by 2020, but now that 2020 is coming up, they have admitted that they will not be meeting that goal. To target the company, Greenberg has led efforts in Minnesota, delivering 1500 petitions. With no response to their attempts at “good-faith negotiations,” though, Mighty Earth has recently begun active protest against Cargill, including investment pressure, demonstrations, and social media campaigns.
“By holding companies accountable in a public way,” said Greenberg, “either they are going to make the changes that we want, or consumers are going to catch on. And I think that’s what helped us win over Tyson; when they saw that people were protesting and posting on social media, they realized that it just wasn’t sustainable for their business to continue polluting.” He encourages Jews and ordinary people to get involved in Mighty Earth’s campaigns, by boycotting or writing letters to grocery stores that supply Cargill products, or simply spreading the word. “Ultimately the scale of the environmental crisis is so vast that we need change at all levels, from governments and the largest companies like Cargill and Tyson, as well as the personal steps, which are good, too, but not sufficient on their own.”
Meanwhile, Hack is also keeping up his efforts at environmental reform. He now works for a solar energy company, Cypress Creek Renewables, in San Francisco, California. With a group of friends from Stanford, he has been working in his spare time to write free memos on climate issues and energy policy for the campaigns of the 2020 Presidential candidates, and other rising politicians. “We figured, we live in the Bay (San Francisco Bay Area) and we know more about the policy than these staffers who have other responsibilities, so why don’t we write memos for them and then distribute them to the campaigns?” Hack explained. He and his friends have delivered memos to Beto O’Rourke, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and a number of Democratic candidates for Texas senate seats. “The staffers love it because they don’t have to do the research themselves. And the candidates are appreciative because they get all of this nice, specific local knowledge.”
Hack agrees that the potential to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the environmental crisis can be paralyzing. “There’s so many factors that are out of your control, and it’s hard to feel in real time that your work’s paying off,” he said. But, like Greenberg, Hack agrees that exercising civic responsibilities towards the environment is as much about the political as it is personal. “Decisions you make, like how often you go on an airplane and about your diet, are related to your carbon imprint, and in terms of feeling like you’re making decisions based on your ethics and living by principles, that sort of thing is important. But it’s actually easier to get in touch with your elected officials than people think,” he said.
“I think it’s important in your personal capacity as a citizen to lobby your elected officials and follow politics and to try to get the people you want to be elected elected,” he said. “I don’t think you can underestimate the power you have individually to influence others.”