Goldman Prize Executive Director Michael Sutton on Why Grassroots Environmentalists Give Him Hope for Our Planet

January 5, 2022

When I reflect on our work at the Goldman Environmental Prize, I occasionally catch myself wondering: Is our collective progress too incremental? What impact can a grandmother in Louisiana, a lawyer in Liberia, or a student in Malawi have on our global climate or the protection of natural resources? Is it enough?

It usually doesn’t take me long to answer with a resounding YES. If people from all walks of life like our Prize winners can do such extraordinary things to protect the planet, then any one of us is capable. The role models mentioned above remind us to move beyond apathy or complacency—and to act. If each one of us can move mountains, then there is indeed hope. And, with hope and inspiration, we can tackle any issue—even one as daunting as climate change.

Goldman Prize winners have shown us time and time again that singular victories can snowball into an overwhelming positive force, capable of shifting political narratives and transcending geographic and cultural differences. What’s more, the 206 Prize winners recognized to date represent only a fraction of the rising tide of people around the world—organizers, educators, artists, and scientists—who are demanding change not only with their voices, but also with their wallets, ballots, and changing patterns of consumption.

As digital technology and social media platforms empower a new generation of activists, grassroots advocacy has become a global force to be reckoned with. The climate marches held around the world during COP26 offered a snapshot of the coordination and momentum behind today’s environmental movement—a movement powered by the grassroots.

We are living in a defining decade for climate action—or climate inaction. To ensure that it is the former, we must create space for an inclusive and dynamic grassroots movement, featuring diverse voices and environmental justice for all. We also understand now that traditional stewardship of nature is one of the keys to a sustainable future; there is much to learn about balance and interconnectivity from Indigenous cultures around the world. While these conversations challenge the status quo, uncomfortable conversations are far better than the alternative: the discomfort of living in a world with unpotable water, extinct tigers, or temperatures 2°C warmer.

I’m confident in our ability to right our ship, but it is imperative that we dig in. We must combat hopelessness and apathy, we must hold our leaders accountable for action, and we must get involved. As Kimiko Hirata (Japan, 2021) said, “To save our climate, we need systemic change. And we need people to take part in it.”


About the author:

Picture of Mike SuttonMichael Sutton is Executive Director of the Goldman Environmental Foundation, which awards the Goldman Prize each year to grassroots environmental leaders on six continents. 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.