His efforts have ranged from aggressive hands-on activism at Greenpeace to progressive philanthropic giving at the Turner Foundation. Also an accomplished author, Bahouth's heartfelt concern for nature has touched and even inspired many. As he approaches his 25th anniversary since graduating from New England School of Law in 1978, we approached Bahouth and asked him if he would reflect on his career to date. We were surprised and delighted to find that such a seasoned activist whose services are heavily in demand would so readily make time for us, and we were further delighted to find him a refreshingly open conversationalist, at once youthful and intellectual, and equally thoughtful about global warming and treehouses.
Through the course of our conversation we came to realize that Peter's career path (we use the term loosely, aware that Peter himself might shun the idea of his life as a 'career' that has followed a 'path') has been one of constant discovery - about grassroots activism, and the politics of philanthropy, and new perspectives on earth stewardship, and green development, and urban planning, and so much more. At the end of our long, frank talk with Peter, we were both struck most powerfully by the fact that his life has been and remains a true adventure in environmental activism.
Peter Bahouth enrolled in New England School of Law after obtaining a degree in history from the University of Rochester in 1975. Upon graduating law school in 1978, Bahouth remained in Boston to practice as a trial attorney. It was during this period that he began volunteering his legal services to Greenpeace, a non-violent environmental advocacy organization. Bahouth was soon elected to the Boston Greenpeace board of directors. He was the only attorney in the organization at that time.
In 1984, the 31 year old Bahouth was elected to serve as Greenpeace's national Chairman of the Board. A year later, Greenpeace International's flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, was destroyed by two French secret service bombs off the coast of New Zealand. Bahouth's legal training served him well as he developed the settlement agreement under which the French government would pay $8 million in damages to Greenpeace for the destruction of the Rainbow Warrior.
Bahouth's commitment to Greenpeace was not limited to providing legal services. In 1987 he coordinated the collaborative effort of major performing artists, including U2, R.E.M. and the Grateful Dead, to produce an album commemorating the Rainbow Warrior. Bahouth also played a pivotal role in the consolidation of the seven chapters of Greenpeace, officially creating Greenpeace USA on January 1, 1987.
In the wake of his service as Greenpeace chairman, Bahouth was hired as executive director of Greenpeace USA, and served the organization in that capacity until 1993. Describing it as "a creative and activist organization," Bahouth recognized that Greenpeace's growth during the early 1990s resulted from "people [being] attracted to the action." (USA Today, 4/20/1990). During his years of leadership, Bahouth personally participated in Greenpeace activism. On one occasion, he chained himself to railroad tracks in an effort to prevent a company's shipment of ozone depleting chemicals. While such grassroots activism may be out of character for most lawyers, Bahouth has also been arrested on at least one occasion following a reportedly peaceful protest against mercury shipments by American Cyanamid Company to South Africa. The protest was merely "a lot of people chanting," according to Bahouth, noting that "it is important that people know that [Greenpeace is] willing to take risks." (Maclean's, 12/16/1991)
Even as he remained a front-line activist, Bahouth helped shape the mission of Greenpeace by serving as the voice of the organization. He appeared on CNBC's McLaughlin Report to rebut distorted interpretations of the organization's survey about worst-case runaway global warming, and has been quoted in countless newspaper and magazine articles, part of his effort to educate readers about environmental issues. Under Bahouth's direction, Greenpeace was a pioneer in developing technical criteria for informed decision-making during the early stages of the environmental justice movement. Abroad, Bahouth helped launch the Soviet Union's first Greenpeace office, asserting that the organization would attempt to effectively advocate as rigorously as possible despite the country's strict laws against environmental protest.
In what could easily be perceived as a radical career move, in 1993 Bahouth left Greenpeace to work for the Turner Foundation, first as a program director and then eventually as executive director. A private family foundation founded by multibillionaire Ted Turner, the Turner Foundation is one of the largest environmental grantmakers in the United States committed to funding grassroots environmental protection efforts, including those aimed at population control, air quality, water ecosystems and other natural habitats, and energy and transportation issues. Within five years of Bahouth's appointment as executive director, the Foundation was granting upwards of $25 million annually towards environmental causes-an extraordinary amount for a single grant making body.
During his tenure at the Turner Foundation, Bahouth often spoke boldly about the status of environmental protection in the United States. He once warned that "the fate of our air, water, and land is being decided by state regulators, county courts and local planning boards to a greater extent than ever before. This devolution could result in 'stealth' reduction of environmental safeguards, as most states continue to cut staff and programs and pass laws that favor polluters."
Although Bahouth resigned as executive director of the Turner Foundation in December, 2000, he continued to provide environmental consultant services to the Foundation. Bahouth went on to work for a major private developer by providing assistance for the environmental planning for DestiNY USA, slated to be one of the largest mall-resorts in the United States and, more significantly, one of the largest green development projects to date.
Bahouth's activism has also taken written form. His notable essay, "The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes," appeared in the Summer, 1994 Earth Island Journal, and has been reprinted a number of times since. In this short piece, Bahouth provided a tongue-in-cheek account of the underlying societal and environmental costs of tomato farming, making the point that "having your own garden and growing your own tomatoes can be a very subversive and radical act." (Earth Island Journal, Summer 1994) Additionally, Bahouth encouraged consumers to use fewer wood products when he co-authored Cut Waste, Not Trees: How to Use Less Wood, Cut Pollution & Create Jobs. Bahouth's call to action promoted the use of tree-free products such as hemp—a passion also shared by his friend, actor Woody Harrelson.
Unsurprisingly, Bahouth's passion for the environment carries over into his personal life. Not wanting to "lose any more trees" to development in his neighborhood, Bahouth purchased and transformed the wooded area next to his home into a wonderland of elaborate tree houses and connecting suspended bridges. (Atlanta Journal & Constitution, 12/5/2001). With windows, screen doors, a bed and even a chair donated by friend Jane Fonda, Bahouth's tree houses (named Mind, Body and Spirit) are constructed so as not to damage the trees suspending them. True to his generous nature, Bahouth has even allowed others use his tree houses as a venue for various fundraisers, including one event showcasing the Indigo Girls.
KP: What prompted you to attend the New England School of Law?
PB: I left college feeling that I wasn't quite prepared for what do to next. I figured that law school would expose me to a lot of things and give me a deeper background for my future work, whatever it might be. I think I'm pretty normal in the sense that I never really think that I can plan exactly what I want to do.
KP: Did you have a lot of friends at the time who were going to law school?
PB: A couple, yes. I grew up at a time where there was a lot of talk about how you were supposed to go out in the world and "do some good." Law school seemed like a step toward achieving that.
KP: Any particularly remarkable experiences while you were at New England?
PB: I remember my first law school class. The professor made it very clear that no matter what was going on with me or what my personality was, I was going to change through the law school experience and that the change probably wasn't going to be for the better. I was a little surprised and shocked by that. I took it as a direct challenge.
KP: Did you take an environmental law class while you were at New England?
PB: It didn't exist in the seventies. I am not even sure the word "environmental" was used much, although this was after the first rumblings of what is sometimes called "the movement." It was still pretty early, though Nixon had signed some legislation including the Endangered Species Act but I don't think people had much experience of dealing with environmental law.
KP: Being as you later became such a well known environmental advocate, did you feel that something was missing for you, personally, in the seventies, or had you not had your environmental calling yet?
PB: I think it struck me later, as I was exposed to this issue, that there was something very important going on. I came at environmentalism as a lawyer, rather than the reverse.
KP: After graduating, what was it like to have your own practice in Boston?
PB: It was frightening, to be frank, but also pretty interesting. My first case out of law school was a bank robbery appeal in the Federal Court of Appeals in Boston. That's pretty scary stuff for a kid that probably looked like he was sixteen. Pretty scary for my client, too, I would imagine. But I worked hard. I learned, at that point, that fear can be a tremendous motivator, and I was very nervous about doing a good job, so I worked very hard. I did what I could not to embarrass myself or my client, and also to represent my client well. It was a terrific experience in the sense that I grew up fast. I wasn't intimidated by much after some of what I went through in my solo years.
KP: How long did you practice solo?
PB: About eight years.
KP: How did you come to take on environmental cases?
PB: Some happened to walk in. I was probably the least expensive lawyer you could find in Boston. I lived in Jamaica Plain with roommates. I think it was easier then to get by and pay your student loans so I felt less economic pressure than today's graduate. Someone at Greenpeace once found, in their archives, an agreement between me and one of their organizations to be the lawyer on retainer for $200 a year. I am sure that $200 was a huge amount to me, back then. But I was learning a lot, and so was able to kind of let things happen for a bit, and didn't have to drive myself toward any particular goal, financial or otherwise. As a result, I took on a lot of different types of cases. One case that came in the door was a small community group from Cape Cod that had gotten together to fight an expansion of electric utility lines through the Cape. The issue that they were worried about, primarily, was the use of pesticides. It was interesting, and my first real glimpse at how advocacy works, not only from the perspective of the law, but from the community perspective.
KP: Was that the case that focused you on environmental advocacy?
PB: I wouldn't say that. I think, in fact, that the Cape case may have been my first and last experience with the environment that actually involved a legal cause of action. After that, I became much more policy-oriented and interested in different forms of approach to and strategies to solve problems.
KP: Were you mentored by anyone in particular?
PB: I got mentored by a lot of people in my life. I am still being mentored. Later in my life, one of my most important mentors has been Ralph Nader. I think people like Ted Turner and Jane Fonda have also been excellent mentors. But there have also been many people out there without the widespread name recognition from whom I've learned everything. To do any of this, a person really needs to be mentored; you need to watch people do it. There is really no place to go to get trained. I wish there were. I think some places are starting to train people in strategy and making goals attainable, and I am really interested in that.
KP: I agree. Especially when you are starting out in the real world, nothing is more important or influential over your development than good mentoring. It's very positive to hear that mentoring continues throughout a career.
PB: That said, of course, another thing that's important is to dive in from time to time and get some on the job training. It's scary, but I don't think there's any way around that. Every effective person has to have some practical experience. Students do moot court, but there is nothing like having done something out in the real world to learn how to feel comfortable with it.
KP: Speaking of moot court, in what way did law school help you (or hinder you) in terms of your effectiveness as an environmental activist? Do you think that your schooling played a part in your success at all?
PB: Absolutely. It would not have happened without my law degree on a number of different levels. First, and most simply, I would not have been in the position I was in to meet and say that I would get involved with Greenpeace. Second, I think that law school teaches a certain way of thinking that at the very least gets a person past the confusion and intimidation that many non-lawyers have about trying to deal with how law works. Third, I ended up having to take on a lot of management jobs, particularly as executive director of both Greenpeace and the Turner Foundation. I think that my legal training was a good background for that. The fact is, I probably wasn't even aware of the extent to which I was comfortable with things I had to do on a business level. Leases, contracts, negotiations -these were just that much more familiar to me because I'd faced them in law school. The competence that my legal training lent to me was actually a surprise for people I dealt with when I was with Greenpeace. People tended to underestimate Greenpeace in a lot of ways. We actually took care of business pretty well, but I think people tended to underestimate whether we would really have our act together to, say, negotiate a contract.
KP: I've read about how you got involved with Greenpeace, but maybe you could add a little color to how you first got involved.
PB: My law office was in a very cool old building right on the corner of Park and Beacon Streets. Me and a buddy of mine opened a practice with about $100.00. We paid about $100 in rent. I am sure it is not like that any more. Then we just went at it. At the time, all the Greenpeace offices were independent from each other. I'd seen them on TV, and couldn't say that they had a typical approach to what they were doing, from a lawyer's perspective, but I found it interesting and appealing. I met the Greenpeace people from the Boston office in passing, probably waiting in line for a sandwich. Fate intervened, luckily, and I volunteered my legal services to the group.
I think that it's important, when getting involved, to go through that volunteer stage. If you've got the luxury of being able to spend some of your own time on a cause, it is important to do so. Back in the late seventies this was especially important because there were so few people trained with expertise that what was needed was for brave souls to throw themselves into a cause. So I did that, and said to the Boston Greenpeace folks that if they ever had any legal problems that I would love to help them.
The first thing they brought me was the fact that they were suing themselves. You know, I had these dreams of marching under the banner and doing something great and saving something, and figured it would all be wonderful, but there I was faced with this case where folks within Greenpeace were suing each other. Looking back at that case, now, it was really interesting, because it forced them to rethink their structure. Sometimes a lawsuit helps people to do that.
So, after that, I did a lot of varied legal work for Greenpeace. If they held a protest and were brought to jail, I would represent them. If a town said they couldn't go door to door, I would take on the town. It was interesting because I began to learn about what a nonprofit was. These weren't door-to-door salespeople - they were people trying to communicate on important issues. For me, also, it was a nice intro into learning about ordinances and how the law tended to deal with activist groups. I also began to learn how the law would deal with someone who was purposely breaking the law. I learned how nonprofits ran, how they were structured, why people are in these organizations, and what the pay scale is.
In essence, I learned that Greenpeace was this group that was willing to put itself out there in a fairly confrontational and aggressive way that was being run on a shoestring. One Saturday morning they called me and said, "Congratulations! You have been elected to our board." I wasn't running, actually, but they had put me on the board anyway. I was the first person elected who wasn't a staff person. So I said, "OK," and started learning about how boards work. I did that by sitting and listened for a good long period of time, taking everything in and thinking about it. I guess my legal training helped me there because I really began to think about both the structure of the board and about how it strategized.
KP: Given your legal training, though, didn't you ever have a yen to work for an organization like Environmental Defense Fund or Earthjustice, where you would actually be litigating on behalf of the environment?
PB: Truthfully? I didn't know that they existed! Actually, they probably didn't exist, insofar as bringing many legal actions, at the particular moment I was getting heavily involved in Greenpeace. But even if they did, at Greenpeace I thought I had an opportunity to play a broader role. Frankly, even as I relied on my legal training, I began to see the limitations of the law. I never thought, "Hey, I can take my legal training and approach this issue through the law." I should also point out that I never felt that going to court was a very satisfactory way to effect social change.
Personally, I was far more inspired by Greenpeace's ability to take a position on a piece of public policy and advocate hard for our viewpoint without claiming that we were going to solve every associated issue. Often, groups feel that if they take a position on something they also have to solve all the related questions and come out with some polished plan on how you do it, which means that many times advocates start behaving like junior government officials. That is not always an activist organization's job. The organization's job is to ensure that the decision-makers make good decisions based on information that includes their own, and that decision-makers include the activist perspective in their decision-making.
KP: Would you say that the litigating environmental groups serve some purpose?
PB: Absolutely! And they do an amazing job. Much later in life, I learned more about the utility and value of differing approaches, but at the time I was becoming immersed in Greenpeace, litigation just didn't appeal to me. It never occurred to me that litigating would be the creative way to get involved. In fact, I had some question as to whether there was room at all to be creative. It certainly turned out that way.
KP: Did you have any particular goals when you accepted a position on the board at Greenpeace?
PB: I consciously refrained from having specific goals. I think it's important to be careful about the agenda you bring to a place, because personal goals can be problematic. In addition, in an organization like Greenpeace where everybody is questioning authority, it might be best not to really strive for any particular position or other goals that represent personal power. Back then, people were suspicious of ambition. We weren't supposed to be at Greenpeace for personal gain. In fact, you went into some of the activities accepting the idea that you might suffer great personal loss. In keeping with this, at the time I felt that I was a very fortunate person in that I was involved and also was getting an education that could have not been replicated. I was learning about a world that I had never been taught about, that I'd been unaware of until then, and that was fascinating to me.
KP: What would you say were the one or two most important lessons you learned at Greenpeace that helped you as you went forward in your career?
PB: I learned what a campaign was. I learned what it meant to take an issue and research it, understand it, develop a policy and a stance, develop your strategy, figure out effective ways to communicate, your delivery system, and then deliver policy change while also being opportunistic. I learned what it meant to administer these organizations and what the management and structural issues were. I got, after awhile, that Greenpeace was an organization that had the freedom to take a different kind of approach to change, and to utilize the media. At that particular time, all of that was pretty creative. The Greenpeace advocacy struck a nerve with people. People knew that there were some negative things going on that impacted the earth, but they didn't know what to do. Greenpeace caught the public's attention by being very visible, by bring those issues into the public consciousness through images. For young people in particular, the overt activism of the organization was very appealing.
KP: I, myself, remember footage of Greenpeace from the 80's and it seemed very glamorous, that kind of activism being covered on television.
PB: And, you know, it wasn't just a show. I and the others at Greenpeace believed very strongly that there was something wrong with the treatment of the earth, and that it was an act of responsibility to do something about it. But even as we developed in our realization about how we could have an impact on environmental issues that we cared about, we also needed to figure out how we were going to operate as an organization, what our processes and policies were. There was a split in the organization. For example, say you suddenly came upon the opportunity to destroy an instrument of environmental destruction: what do you do? Can you destroy public property?is that what we should do? We had to figure all that out. This is how the mission and the value system of the organization developed, and I was there to see it happen. It was very exciting to be a part of that.
KP: So what ultimately led to your leaving Greenpeace? Did you reached a certain level of personal satisfaction with your work and need to move on?
PB: I often tell people that I leave jobs the same way I come into them: fired with enthusiasm. I could also point out that managing a group like Greenpeace is in some ways an oxymoron: you take a young group of people and give them a budget and access to unlimited communications, and train them to question authority, and then you try to 'manage' them! But seriously, I've learned that being the executive director of a large organization is nearly impossible to do for a very long period of time. What happens is that, as a person who needs to provide leadership and guidance for the organization, it is as important to say 'no' to things -- including ideas that some folks are pretty fired up about -- as it is to say 'yes.' You have to juggle some pretty varied skills at an activist organizer; you have to be a good administrator, but you also have to be a good campaigner and strategist.
A lot of time, if you're looking for it, you can sense organizations swinging back and forth between those goals -- administrating well and campaigning well -- because it is hard for a single person to effectively embrace those two goals at once. So, you focus on being a great manager and the organization runs well, but the members start worrying that, "we are just not really doing much right now as activists - all we are is well managed." Then you give vent to your creative side, and run into trouble because you're not keeping an eye on the fundraising. It is very difficult to have a handle on all those goals at once. So, essentially, I juggled personalities for a good long time, then decided that I'd run my course.
KP: When you were ready to leave Greenpeace, was the Turner Foundation the automatic next step for you or did you explore other options?
PB: Well, let me step back and answer that this way. In the public interest world, people tend to pigeonhole you as either a good manager or a good campaigner. I liked campaigning and so was automatically pigeonholed as less interested in managing, although I'm not sure that's true. I did want to start a campaign at Greenpeace. Rather than being just "the boss" or the person the proposals went to, I wanted to be the person who was also out doing the groundwork, and so I took a year, while still involved in the structural management of Greenpeace International, to campaign. It seemed right to me. I started a forest campaign.
The focus was more than six million acres of public land in Montana and it was basically a big old public fight over it, and I dove in. There was a traditional way of looking at forest protection in the country which was called a "wilderness bill." Wilderness bills were a little more complicated than I thought they'd be when I went to figure out what one is. A wilderness bill takes public land that has been mapped and decides all sorts of issues that amount to a land use policy: how much grazing will be there? How much logging? How much development? How much protection? And so there was this process that happened in Washington, D.C. for dividing the land among the various interests. Montana was one of the few states that hadn't gone through that process yet. There was a small but strong local group in Montana called the "Alliance for the World Rockies," and they were dealing well with the public opinion and communication parts of their campaign as well as dealing with the local congress people. They wanted us to cope with the national effort, develop a strategy for that.
When I got involved, we were a little knot of people, and we basically challenged the way wilderness bills are considered. This pitted us against some other environmental groups. Most of the big national environmental groups really didn't care what we had to say about it because they were used to being the one who went up to the congressmen. They'd gotten good at it. It's true that they saved a lot of land, but the prevailing attitude really was, "let's see what we can save today and live to save more another day." You often get that when you deal with legislators. The Montana group that I was working with said that compromise was not acceptable, so we decided to help them hold off the guys who wanted to exploit the forest. We did it through appeals; we used the law. The Montana group was small and no one expected them to know what they were doing, but they were all over the issues and they were well in touch with their frustration that no one would take a different approach to wilderness planning. They didn't think that those logs should be cut at all; their view was that this was public land and so why should companies get access to the trees, and, on top of that, why was the federal budget actually subsidizing this? So they took it on and, together, we eventually did the job and got Montana out of the "wilderness bill" rut. That was a terrific experience for me. It got pretty public, too.
It was around that time that Ralph Nader called me and told me that the Turner family was looking for someone to run a new foundation that was going to support environmental issues and causes. Foundations are a unique kind of animal and tend to support causes that are not entrepreneurial. I found out that there were very few people in foundations on the professional staff level that had actually ever run an organization, so it was an interesting world to enter. There's been a massive growth of small, local organizations focused on issues like toxins, water and forests. These groups were popping up because people felt that they weren't being serviced that well by the national environmental organizations, which didn't have too great a feel for local environmental problems. Partly because of my forest campaign work, Ralph [Nader] thought I would be good at identifying the strength of local organizations and supporting them, and there were not too many foundations at the time that were looking to grant aid on that grassroots level. After I applied, I had two interviews with Ted Turner and Jane Fonda. It was interesting, in part because these were people I didn't know personally, but of course we all know a lot about their public lives, and here they sat, grilling me. It's a bit of an out-of-body experience, as you can imagine. Anyway, I told them that my experience was practical, and that I not only knew how to run a group, but I knew what groups do, out in the field. And they hired me.
KP: I know that foundations can be perceived as sleepy, risk-averse, or inclined to support 'the usual fund applicants.' As a hands-on activist, weren't you worried about finding career satisfaction when you signed on to run the Turner Foundation?
PB: No. I know what you mean, but I didn't go in with expectations. I consciously stuck to the frame of mind that I had no idea what this was going to be all about.
KP: You're a risk taker.
PB: Well, it comes at a cost, but I guess I am. I thought the whole thing sounded like a fascinating opportunity, and I tend to take the opportunity to do something important at face value. To me, what Ted [Turner] and Jane [Fonda] had represented to me was that the Turner Foundation could help support the connecting tissue