What do Mark Ruffalo and Bruce Banner have in common? Yes, they both have the ability to turn into a hulking green rage monster on screen, but the answer we’re really looking for is science, specifically their love of science. And while for Dr. Banner that science involves gamma radiation and super-soldier serums, for Ruffalo, the aim is to usher in a clean energy vision that might just save the world.
The actor and activist has spent the last two decades quietly fighting climate change with his nonprofit The Solutions Project.
You’ve probably seen him on the frontlines of movements like the protest of the North Dakota Pipeline, standing shoulder to shoulder with members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe as they tried to prevent local government from drilling on their land. You may have heard him testify on Capitol Hill against manufacturers like 3M and DuPont, whose cancer-linked chemical substances leached into the water supply of hundreds of military sites and cause military families to get sick. But even if you were aware of Ruffalo’s environmental justice vigilantism, you probably don’t know how it started. Or why.
The answer: fracking.
Hydraulic fracking is a controversial, widely unregulated means of extracting oil and gas. It’s revolutionizing the industry, making it easier for drilling firms to tap hard-to-reach resources for gas and oil, driving down prices at the pump, and creating new jobs in the process. But it’s also negatively affecting our environment in ways Ruffalo first feared when oil companies set their sights on fracking near his home in upstate New York years ago.
Because fracking requires wells to be drilled thousands of feet below the Earth’s surface, it has the potential to significantly damage the geological landscape. In Upstate New York, severe flooding had already ravaged farmlands, and the addition of another environmental disturbance just made things worse.
“That was alarming,” Ruffalo recalled on an episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast. “Not only alarming to me but also alarming to all the farmers who used to make fun of me for talking about climate change and global warming.”
He started the nonprofit Water Defense to take on fracking and other methods of extreme energy extraction – think deep-sea drilling and mountain-top removal mining – but he quickly realized it wasn’t enough to just oppose the harmful act, he needed to give these companies and the people who worked for them an answer to the larger question of, “If not this, then what?”
“What I started to feel was, you can’t credibly say ‘no’ to something unless you can come up with an alternative that is equal to or better than what is being offered,” he explained.
That’s how Ruffalo connected with Mark Jacobson, director of the Atmosphere/Energy Program at Stanford University. Jacobson had been researching ways to move the U.S. to 100% renewable energy within the next few decades. Ruffalo asked him to scale down that plan for his neighborhood in the Catskills, to give him something to go to local leaders and concerned citizens with as a Plan B to this fracking business.
“The next day in my email inbox I had 40 pages of what is now a feasibility study on moving New York state from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2030,” Ruffalo said.
Jacobson’s idea to combine wind power, solar power, and geothermal power to help reduce New York’s carbon footprint while creating jobs and cleaner quality air and water for thousands so impressed Ruffalo that he decided to make it the blueprint of a new nonprofit, The Solutions Project. Together with Jacobson, the actor launched the organization in 2012, hoping to push out their renewable energy model to other states where it could be adapted and implemented.
That’s still the goal, but as climate change has grown into an even more frightening reality, The Solutions Project has expanded its efforts to combat it.
One of the main tenants of the nonprofit is this idea of meeting people where they are and uplifting those already doing the difficult work. The Solutions Project isn’t concerned with being the face of the climate change movement. Instead, the group wants to amplify the voices of marginalized people suffering because of our deteriorating atmosphere who have been fighting this uphill battle long before Ruffalo’s outfit could offer their support.
The organization helps build movements from the ground up, donating everything from practical tools – think video equipment for at-home video production – to coaching in how to wield social media to spread a group’s message to hiring publicists for specialized campaigns and facilitating community events to drum up local interest. They also fork over plenty of green to help propel their green initiatives.
To date, The Solutions Project has distributed more than $5 million in grants to over 100 community projects around the country. Recently they established The Fighter Fund, a term coined by Ruffalo to identify smaller, fast-acting grants of up to $5,000 that the group could give to organizations who needed them quickly. And as 2020 asked us all to reconsider what activism looks like, Ruffalo’s team went the extra mile, attempting to diversify the climate change space in ways we hadn’t seen before.
“I hate to say it, but the environmental movement is mostly white, and the power is mostly with white people in leadership. And we’re seeing a shift in that,” he said. “The more we center on those who’ve been living with this and already developing the solutions, I think the quicker we’ll move along.”
The organization awarded $622,000 in grants to dozens of grassroots organizations led by women and people of color this year. They also made a 100% Commitment to Justice pledge, promising 95% of their resources this year to groups led by people of color, with 80% of those also being led by women.
“It has nothing to do with self-aggrandizement or ego. It’s all about taking care of the community,” Ruffalo said about his nonprofit’s goal of amplifying the voices of women and minorities in the environmental justice space. “When you look at Congress, it’s mostly old white dudes. We need balance. Balance shows us what we normally don’t see.”
Ruffalo has recruited a handful of his famous friends to lend their clout – names like Don Cheadle and Leonardo DiCaprio – and he’s got the backing of billionaires like Jeff Bezos and tech tycoons like Elon Musk to contribute to his renewable energy plan. But the biggest impact he’s making isn’t necessarily the funding or the publicity his star-power brings. Instead, Ruffalo is working to make beating climate change seem tangibly possible, breaking down the big concepts and confusing science so that everyone – whether they’re a politician, a college student, a factory worker, or yes, even an actor, can understand why protecting our planet is so important and how they can join in that fight.