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Goldman Prize Executive Director Michael Sutton on Why We Should Support Grassroots Voices

January 3, 2023

Happy New Year!

A new year brings fresh inspiration, motivation, and possibilities. It also provides an opportunity for reflection—on the previous year, its highs and lows, and what lessons it conveys to us for the future.

This past year, I had the opportunity to immerse myself in nature on several occasions. Memorably, my son and I visited Cuba for the first time to SCUBA dive on the pristine, healthy coral reefs at Gardens of the Queen National Park. There, I was moved by nature’s grandeur and, most importantly, its incredible resilience. When we leave nature alone or provide the lightest of touches, the coral reefs, seas, and the wildlife they support can regenerate and thrive.

We see the regenerative power of nature across the work of the Goldman Environmental Prize winners, like how Azzam Alwash is helping restore Iraq’s historic marshes. “Let the water flow, and the marshes will grow,” Azzam shared. “Let the marshes grow, and the birds will return.” Leave nature alone, and it will thrive.

However, for the natural world to regenerate, we must give it a fighting chance. We’re at a global tipping point, and there’s no room for delay. Sobering statistics—the burgeoning trade in wildlife, degraded water quality, rampant deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon, and year-round wildfires—should be enough to move our internal needles and encourage us to demand immediate action from our political and corporate leaders.  

To achieve global goals, it’s critical that we build a tidal wave of a consensus for nature. This starts with experiencing, appreciating, and knowing nature. And this occurs at the grassroots, in every community, in every neighborhood. While decisions by governments and corporations matter, we find that change often begins with ordinary people, who in turn encourage their leaders to act.

We must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to build and maintain connections to nature—and to live in healthy natural environments. We must support the many people around the world who are leading their communities to protect the planet in the face of widespread greed and apathy. We must bolster Indigenous communities advocating for protection of their traditional, biodiverse territories from illegal mining, logging, and drilling. And we must encourage environmental justice advocates seeking to live and work in environments free of pollutants and degradation.

When people and communities are engaged, we can create action. We saw this effect firsthand during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when human activity briefly paused, skies cleared, wildlife returned, and pollution took a momentary dip. Nature took a breath, and she began to regenerate.

This year, we are excited to announce the 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize winners on Monday, April 24, with live ceremonies in San Francisco and Washington, DC. We’ll celebrate a new cohort of global environmental stewards, sharing the inspirational stories of grassroots heroes who are stepping up and building a consensus for nature.

As conservation icon and UN messenger of peace Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, shared during the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize ceremony, “Each day we make an impact on the world, and each day, we get to choose which kind of impact we make.” This year, by actively supporting grassroots environmental leaders, I choose to make space for nature.

I hope you’ll join me.

In solidarity,

Michael Sutton

Michael Sutton

About the author

Michael Sutton

Executive Director

Mike is a respected environmental conservation leader with extensive experience managing nonprofit organizations, influencing public policy, advocating for natural resources, and guiding successful philanthropic efforts. His distinguished career has ranged from work with the National Park Service to senior conservation roles at the World Wildlife Fund, the David & Lucile Packard Foundation, the California Fish & Game Commission, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and National Audubon Society. Mike received his BS in Wildlife Biology at Utah State University; did graduate studies in Marine Biology at the University of Sydney, Australia; and, received a law degree with honors from George Washington University’s National Law Center. He joined the Prize in 2018.

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