Environment America Blog

We can’t keep running away from the environmental problems we face

By Johanna Neumann
Senior Director, Campaign for 100% Renewable Energy

In January of this year, after working nearly 20 years with Environment America and our related organizations, I started a new role as our Senior Director for Campaigns for 100% Renewable Energy. In this capacity, I direct a team of talented advocates and organizers that work with our state offices and allies across the country to move America and the world toward a future powered entirely by clean renewable energy.

Working in this field is deeply personal for me because my own life was shaped by energy-related events. Let me explain:

I was born in Germany and lived there until I was seven, happily wearing dirndls, eating buttered pretzels, and skiing in winter.

The author getting skiing lessons from her mom on the neighborhood skiing hill in Bavaria; Photo Credit: Johanna Neumann

When I was in first grade, that all changed. A nuclear reactor melted down 800 miles upwind from the town where my family lived. You probably know the name of that reactor: Chernobyl. 

Chernobyl's radioactive fallout hit our hometown hard – public health officials warned us not to eat the vegetables growing in our backyard. I remember sitting with my grandmother, throwing out all the strawberry jam she had put away. And even today, 33 years later, one out of every three wild boars that roam the forests near my hometown in Bavaria is unfit for human consumption because of the high levels of radiation in their bodies.

Perhaps justifiably, my mom was concerned about raising kids in that environment. So she decided to leave and find a place that would offer a safe environment for us. We ended up buying land in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where I spent my youth swimming in our pond, caring for countless animals (including my pet possum), and playing in the woods with my brother. We would scramble up rhododendron thickets, seeing how far we could climb without touching the ground.

The author as a teenager introducing the camera to her pet opossum, Poz; Photo Credit: Johanna Neumann

Our land in the Blue Ridge was gorgeous, but it also was not immune to environmental problems. I remember weeping alongside my brother, feeling helpless as we listened to the chainsaw scream and the trees crash down on the property adjacent to ours as it was clear-cut. I did school science projects on the deteriorating ozone layer. Like many kids concerned about waste in our environment, I spearheaded our household’s recycling efforts. 

At some point in my early adulthood, it became clear to me that we couldn’t run away from the environmental problems we face indefinitely. My mother fled Chernobyl in search of safety. But I didn't want to do that. We don’t have a Planet B. I decided that rather than run away, I wanted to face environmental problems head on and solve them.

So, for the past 19 years, I’ve worked to develop the skills and experience to protect our planet and the people that live on it. Through my work with Environment America and our broader network of organizations, I’ve helped stop the construction of new nuclear reactors, I’ve passed some of the strongest energy efficiency laws in the country and I’ve led campaigns to protect public health by banning smoking in restaurants and bars

I've also raised millions of dollars over the years to make it possible for my colleagues to run winning campaigns too numerous to count. I'm so proud of all we've done, and I’m aware that the challenges we still face are bigger than ever.

Johanna and Deval Patrick after he announced the goal of getting 1600 MW from the sun. Massachusetts hit that goal years early; Photo Credit: Johanna Neumann

I feel incredibly honored and humbled to be at the helm of a team working to crack one of our most persistent, complex and fundamental environmental challenges: how society produces and consumes energy. 

Our vision is to move our energy system to rely entirely on energy sources that are truly clean and renewable, namely the sun and the wind. When we do, we’ll have cleaner air to breathe, safer water to drink, better protected natural landscapes and a safer and more stable climate for my two sons and their generation to grow up in. 

I am so grateful to all the members and supporters who share this vision for 100 percent renewable energy and who have entrusted us with the responsibility to lead these campaigns. Thank you, and I’m ready to get to work.