| To anyone who connects the phrase “gloom and doom” with environmental issues, Chip Giller has one thing to say: “Lighten up!” This is definitely a man who doesn’t want to take himself—or potentially grave topics like climate change or politics—too seriously.
Rewind to Giller’s NOLS course, a 1988 Pacific Northwest Backpacking expedition, when he and his fellow students dropped into a river basin and were struggling to take a bearing in the fog.
It’s hard to imagine Giller loosing his way now. In 1999, he chartered the creation of Grist, an award-winning online magazine that publishes environmental news and views from an irreverent perspective. Grist’s credo: “Pull no punches, take no prisoners, and try to have a better sense of humor than a pack of fur protesters.”
But back to NOLS. After an uncomfortable night, Giller’s course finally made it out of the river basin and into the dense Pacific Northwest terrain. “It was like going through a human car wash,” Giller describes. “I never realized how big trees could be. It was so humbling in a positive sense. I realized that so much of this world is bigger than I am. That my existence is utterly unimportant to these surroundings.”
That experience did a lot to mold Giller into the self-effacing guy he is today. It also helped pave his way into the environmental field and eventually to Grist, which has the ultimate aim of motivating readers to take action on behalf of the environment.
Grist offers in-depth reporting, features, opinion pieces, cartoons, daily dispatches from activists, book reviews, consumer news, environmental advice, and more—all tailored to inform, entertain, provoke, and encourage its readers to think creatively about environmental problems and solutions. Grist’s readers, now more than 500,000, have proven to be an active group, speaking up on hundreds of issues.
As for Giller, he’s not afraid to make his voice heard, either. The New York Times, The Washington Post, and USA Today have all written about Giller’s unique take on environmental news. In an op-ed piece published in the Boston Globe, Giller showed off the classic laugh-out-loud voice Grist has become so famous for. “Environmentalism,” he writes, “long a movement accused of Chicken Little scare tactics and doomsday prophesying, recently reached new depths of gloominess when it announced the death of itself.”
But what’s this? Could there be a silver lining in the environmental movement’s cloud? Yes, concludes Giller’s essay, when he calls sustainability “the new bling.” And that’s the gist of Grist: say it like it is but with a spin of optimism. Afterall, the online magazine doesn’t call itself a “beacon in the smog” for nothing.
Aside from addressing the heavy issues, Giller’s career has put him face-to-face with life’s more ordinary challenges, like managing a growing non-profit with a large staff. In his office above Seattle’s Elliot Bay, Grist finds himself in a similar position he faced way back when he was 17 years old on his NOLS course.
As one of the youngest people on his expedition, Giller says it was empowering to be put into the role of “leader of the day.”
“A good deal of my notion of leadership is listening to others around you and not necessarily being a dictator,” says Giller. “Many of my notions of leadership come from my NOLS experience, like trying to create a team experience.”
Giller admits that taking the helm at Grist has been a big responsibility. “People are putting a good deal of trust in me,” he says. “I try to lead by example. There are decisions I need to make as a leader, but I try to do so in a way that develops consensus among staff.”
If Grist’s success is a reflection of Giller’s leadership style, his approach is working.
The online news source was one of five finalists for the Environmental Grantmakers Association’s 2002 “Environmental Messenger of the Year Award.” In 2003, Utne magazine gave Grist its Independent Press Award for Online Political Coverage.
As Giller skillfully steers Grist through cyberspace, his ultimate vision is a big one: to seed the next generation of environmentalists. Ultimately, Giller wants to make it clear that the environment is connected like a giant chain to everything. “We’re trying to broaden the definition of what constitutes an environmental issue,” Giller says. “It’s about connecting the environment to other issues that are part of our national discourse.”
So is the environmental movement graying? Not if Giller can help it. For him, there are ways to bring the environment into discussions that would resonate with a wider body of people.
“There’s an extreme image of what it means to be an environmentalist out there,” he says. “It’s of a self righteous person always scolding people—recycle this, have your worm bin (Giller admits he has a worm bin at home). People feel it’s too daunting to be an environmentalist. So I’m trying to make it clear that it’s about the big decisions, like your home, the car you drive, who you vote for. That’s where you can make a bigger difference.”