Grist’s founder rides to new heights

Chip Giller is helping to shape a “green” conversation with Grist.  - <a href="">Brian Smale Photo</a>
Chip Giller is helping to shape a “green” conversation with Grist.
— image credit: Brian Smale Photo

When Chip Giller’s friends heard he would spend the $100,000 award he just received to start a college fund for his kids, support his online environmental publication and weatherize his 1911 farmhouse, one of them joked an intervention was needed.

OK, he acknowledged, maybe he and his wife Jenny Sorensen would use some of the proceeds for a family vacation.

But his instinct — to devote all of the funds toward matters of import — speaks volumes about the way Giller, a 38-year-old Islander, lives his life. And that’s one of the reasons, no doubt, that Giller was one of 10 Americans to win the annual Heinz Award, $100,000 prizes that this year were handed out to people for their environmental achievements.

Giller is the founder of Grist, a cheeky, wise-cracking and much-heralded online publication devoted to covering environmental issues — a sort of Jon Stewart-meets-the-greenies take on things. Launched a decade ago, the nonprofit pub — which calls itself a “beacon in the smog” — now reaches an estimated 800,000 readers with its irreverent look at all things environmental.

And just how irreverent is it? Consider how Grist covered the announcement that Giller had won the coveted Heinz Award: Staff created a one-minute video that begins with patriotic music and a serious voice-over talking about Giller’s accomplishments in environmental journalism.

“True to his nature, he’s accepting the award with modesty and grace,” the voice-over says, just as the music changes and an image of a yacht appears — with Giller center stage, sporting a captain’s hat and chomping a large cigar, a bevy of partiers behind him.

“I’d like to thank the little people for making this possible,” he says, his voice a kind of stoner’s drawl. “The Earth, the polar bears, the dolphins, the whales, the loggers. Take care of your Mother Earth.”

Grist, however, is also quite serious. This week’s posts include articles about the lack of progress on a global climate pact, a look at the “scourge of coal” and World Wildlife Fund’s discovery of several new animal species, all of which are on the verge of extinction: “Now you see them, soon you won’t,” the headline says.

The Seattle-based publication has become a must-read in the online world — especially among a younger audience with an interest in the environment. It has also garnered considerable influence: During the last presidential election, Grist sponsored a forum on climate change among several of the candidates in Los Angeles and held exclusive interviews with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.

The Web site has also done groundbreaking journalism, connecting dots that the big dailies often miss. In 2006, for instance, it ran a seven-week series on poverty and the environment, what it called “the intersection of economic and ecological survival.”

“For some people, it has become as essential as a morning newspaper ... because it always has a couple of articles the New York Times doesn’t,” said Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, which partnered with Giller to launch the site.

The Web site, he added, provides a forum for what he described as a genuine debate. “It’s a pleasure to read — the informed discourse I wish we got out of the political debate.”

As Grist’s satirical take on his award suggested, Giller, a Brown graduate with a gentle demeanor and a slightly disheveled look, really is modest, and during a recent interview, he deflected the attention the award has brought him.

“I’ve found the whole experience to be surprising and humbling,” he said. “It kind of makes me want to up the ante to try to actually make some change in the world.”

But at the same time, he’s also clearly proud of what the Web site — which started out with a staff of two and now boasts 26 — has accomplished and acknowledged that Grist is helping to “frame and set the green agenda.”

He said he sees a profound shift in the national discussion over environmental issues, a shift that has taken place because of several watershed events over the past few years — from the release of “An Inconvenient Truth” to the devastation caused by Katrina.

“Ambitiously, we’d like to be the media organization that’s documenting this,” he said.

“We try to bring some levity to these issues while not underselling how significant the issues are, to penetrate some of the jadedness,” he added. “We’ve had some success in reaching people in their 20s and 30s.”

Unlike the major dailies and long before Twitter and even Facebook, Grist figured out the meaning of “social networking,” engaging audiences in everything from creating a new term for an anti-environmentalist (“pollutocrat”) to a contest for the site’s official haiku:

“A frog in water

Doesn’t feel it boil in time.

Dude, we are that frog.”

When he travels, Giller will often host “meet-ups,” sending out e-mails announcing that he or other staffers will be available at a local bar or community hang-out. Hundreds, Giller said, will turn out, sometimes on very short notice.

“People are eager to have the conversation,” he said.

Giller sat in the living room of the small but gracious farmhouse he shares with Sorensen and their two children, 3-year-old Ellis and 7-month-old Sebastian. They purchased the house, perched above Portage, in 2005 from artists Hartmut and Ilse Reimnitz, and the home, under their ownership, seems to radiate artfulness. Original paintings, some done by Sorensen’s mother, adorn the walls. An afternoon sun streamed through leaded-glass windows.

But it’s also clearly the home of two working parents with young children. A changing table sits in the corner of the living room, and Sorensen, a senior program officer in global health at the Gates Foundation, came in at one point to change Sebastian, Ellis at her heels.

Asked how she feels about the award, she looked up from her baby son and smiled: “From the moment I met Chip, he’s just been such a principled person, … and he never gives himself credit,” she said. “This is so amazing, because he’s being recognized for all his hard work.”

The couple, Seattle residents before they moved to Vashon, discovered the Island after Sorensen took some time off from her job at the Gates Foundation to volunteer at Hogsback Farm, owned by Amy and Joseph Bogaard. She regularly biked to the Dilworth farm and, in the process, fell in love with the Island.

Despite remarkably full

schedules, Giller and Sorensen have begun to involve themselves in Vashon life. Giller is on the board of the Vashon-Maury Island Land Trust. The couple bought a u-pick share at Shoulder-to-Shoulder Farm, where Ellis, Giller said, delights in gathering beans and tomatoes.

The Island has given him something he needs, and when he comes home after several days away, he said, smiling self-deprecatingly, he feels a bit like Odysseus returning to Penelope.

“I find Vashon to be a place that grounds me,” he said. “It allows us to slow down and breathe.”

In a couple of days, though, he was about to leave again — this time to be on a panel about reducing consumption in San Francisco, a Grist board meeting in Boston and a “friend-raiser” in New York City with journalist Bill Moyers. A few days later, he was to head to Silicon Valley for another friend-raiser, this one hosted by renowned food journalist Michael Pollan.

He offered up a sardonic smile, noting the irony of jetting to California to discuss consumption reduction. He also owned up to the fact that he was exhausted.

Even so, Giller appeared calm and focused, heralding the staff and supporters who sustain this award-winning effort and speaking eloquently about what he hopes Grist will help to accomplish.

“I could envision a world,” he said, “where ‘green’ becomes second nature.”

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