Veteran activist Karen Mahon embodies the ambidextrous approach her organization takes towards an environmental crisis.
Having been arrested more than 20 times over the course of her career, her work day is equally likely to include an announcement next to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley as a stint in jail for blocking a tar sands pipeline.
ForestEthics, she explained, now rebranded as “Stand,” operates with similar range and passion.
The organization built its reputation protecting forests through “markets campaigns” that leveraged the power held by customers of wood and paper. Since 1999, it has brokered the protection of over 65 million acres of forest around the world, and shifted hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts through a broad range of tactics from blockades to boardrooms.
But as global warming became an ever larger priority, she said, its name — ForestEthics — no longer fit.
Finding a new name for ForestEthics
“The climate crisis has made it clear that there is in fact, no separation between the survival of the human species and the survival of the planet and other species,” Mahon explained. “We wanted a name that brought together the plight of humanity and the plight of the planet.”
After years of brainstorming, the group finally settled on ‘Stand,’ which represents a call for unified action in the pursuit of climate justice and the togetherness of a stand of trees.
“We know exactly what the problem is and exactly what the causes are, and it really is a time to take action,” she said. “So we wanted a name that was evocative, a name that didn’t imply a question of ethics but how we can take action quickly and decisively.”
Stand’s official launch was well-received both in Canada and abroad; environmentalist Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, congratulated the organization for evoking its “core values, deep partnerships and relentless approach to creating solutions that advance human and environmental safety, health and justice.”
Mahon has been with the organization on and off since it was formed to bring a local fight over rainforests in B.C.’s Clayoquot Sound to the global marketplace, and today, is its Canadian director. Her colleagues describe her as a strategic visionary, a happy warrior at public protests and a formidable negotiator when leverage brings opponents to the table.
When asked if environmental activism has taken a toll on her, she said she can’t really imagine doing anything else.
Growth as a green campaigner
“The work gives you energy, because to me, not being involved is kind of corrosive to my soul. So it’s hard and demanding, but it also livens and fuels.”
Mahon first got involved in advocacy as a bright English literature student at the University in Toronto around 1987, when the federal environment minister at the time, Jean Charest, issued a public warning telling parents to keep their children away from the sun.
“It was the beginning of the ozone crisis,” she explained. “I was like, ‘How can the government be telling children not to go outside?’ My gut feeling of discomfort started to take shape, knowing that there really was something wrong there.”
After graduating, Mahon worked as a campaigner for Greenpeace Canada on the West Coast, and eventually became its managing director. By 1993, she was a central player in the legendary campaign to protect Clayoquot Sound, a vulnerable forest ecosystem off the B.C. coast where nearly 1,000 protesters were arrested.
Soon afterwards, she joined forces with other renowned activists, including Jody Holmes, Tzeporah Berman and Merran Smith, as the original architects of the Great Bear Rainforest agreement protecting Canada’s only temperate coastal rainforest.
She has protested nuclear testing in downtown Vancouver with Academy-award winning filmmaker Michael Moore, and rubbed shoulders with world leaders during the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris. She has trained hundreds of citizen activists in the art of peaceful demonstration, directed the Hollyhock Leadership Institute, managed Public Outreach USA, beaten breast cancer, and raised a young environmental activist as a single mother.
It’s been an incredible journey of growth, she said, one that continues even today.
Working in shades of grey
“I think that I no longer believe the world is black and white,” she explained, cradling a cappuccino. “I think everything interesting happens in the grey zone between the black and white, and the more we stay outside it’s easy to point fingers, but actually getting into the issues and tackling them, and trying to bring about real change is an exercise in shades of grey.”
“Shades of grey” is a phrase often trotted out to rationalize the need to abandon decisive or visionary action, but that is very clearly not what Mahon has in mind.
She has no doubt her future will include many more arrests as a “raging granny” and environmentalist, she laughed.
“I’ve been treated very well and very badly by police officers,” Mahon said breezily. “I’ve been strip searched, but I’ve also had police officers call me aside and whisper to me, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’”
The latter occurred before her detention on Burnaby Mountain, B.C. during the 2014 protests against Kinder Morgan’s controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion designed to bring Alberta bitumen to Vancouver harbour. Almost exactly a year later, Mahon was on-stage next to Premier Notley to announce a climate plan supported by the CEO’s of Big Oil and Greenpeace Canada.
It’s the kind of head-spinning tactical breadth that makes Stand so hard to pigeonhole and gives the organization formidable strength.
New campaigns for Stand
Her first campaign under the new organization name is targeting corporate coffee giant Starbucks for giving out more than 4 billion disposable cups each year that can’t be recycled due to their petroleum-based plastic lining.
Starbucks had pledged to solve the problem 100% by 2015, she explained, but the company missed every one of its internal goals and had given up. Stand launched the campaign with its typical flair at ComicCon in Seattle earlier this month, as volunteers distributed comic books with a new mermaid superhero effectively culture jamming the Starbucks icon.
“When one of the wealthiest companies in the world won’t put any effort into decreasing its forests and climate impact, we know they need some serious help focusing their attention on this issue,” said Todd Paglia, Mahon’s U.S. counterpart at Stand. “So that is what we are going to do. The world — especially our forests and climate — desperately need a better cup.”
Today, the “Better Cup” campaign is off and running. Mahon is keeping quiet about the tactics Stand intends to deploy in the near future, but said one should expect the same broad spectrum of protest, advocacy and negotiation, and the kind of creative visual punch the organization has honed over the years.
“The new name won’t change our tactics, it simply represents them better,” she explained.
Ross Hammond, Stand’s campaigns director based in San Francisco, couldn’t agree more.
“ForestEthics served us well for 15 years, and Stand reorients our brand around our core values,” he told National Observer. “We’ve been getting great feedback about the rebrand… but ultimately, what we heard from most of our supporters and partners was, ‘Congratulations, now get back to work protecting our communities and our wild places from irresponsible logging and extreme oil.’”
It’s a mission close to Mahon’s heart and one that she will move forward as long as she is physically able.
“I would gladly sit at home and knit… but I feel I can contribute,” she said. “It’s like you see a kid in the middle of the road and a bus coming to hit them — there’s no calculation, you just simply have to act.”
Besides, she added, her son — now enrolled in environmental studies at Langara College — has seen her get arrested, and happily calls his mother “a badass.” It’s all the motivation Mahon needs.