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This Millennial Is Helping a Major City Go Green

At 24, Atlanta’s new sustainability director has already spent a lifetime in the field. He attributes that to cartoons and his famous family.

john seydel atlanta
John Seydel poses with a volunteer at a recent recycling event.
(Atlanta Office of Resilience)
In the season one finale of the early ’90s cartoon series “Captain Planet and the Planeteers,” eco-villain Doctor Blight encases fictional Hope Island in a force field and pumps greenhouse gases into it. Doctor Blight’s plan is to destroy the island and sideline the five Planeteers by creating localized global warming. Ultimately, they’re able to call superhero Captain Planet, who destroys the force field and creates a giant wave that sends Blight tumbling into the ocean.

“I can tell you that from a very young age, I was engaged in environmental issues,” says John R. Seydel III, Atlanta’s new sustainability director. That’s in large part, he says, “because of this TV show.”

From the age of five, Seydel remembers watching the cartoon. By working together to solve different environmental issues, the five Planeteers -- each from a different country -- can summon Captain Planet. “It was a big influence on me,” Seydel says. “It really impacted the way that I think, the way that I act and the way that I work with others. And honestly, I think it’s a pretty cool metaphor for how cities can work together to be able to solve a lot of the problems we’re facing.”

Seydel will celebrate one year on the job this December, and looking back, it’s been a busy one. Soon after arriving, he set up the Atlanta Sustainability Student Council as a way not only to encourage sustainability initiatives on campuses, but also to get fresh ideas and best practices. “Students can share how to grow the movement, how to [implement] initiatives that worked best on their campus, and how to really advance, in partnership with the city, these best practices. [Together they can] open up new doorways and new opportunities to sustainability, leadership and employment in the future,” he says.

No doubt tapping young minds for fresh ideas is a big reason why Mayor Kasim Reed hired Seydel: The 24-year-old graduated from the University of Denver just two years ago. But another reason is Seydel’s lifelong focus on environmental issues. The oldest grandson of media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner, activism is in his blood. Born and raised in Atlanta, Seydel grew up not only under the influence of “Captain Planet” (which Turner created and co-produced) but also a family who have spent their time and money supporting various conservation efforts through the Turner Foundation. Seydel took those experiences with him to the University of Denver, where, while studying political science, he launched a “divest from fossil fuels, and reinvest in climate solutions” campaign on campus. He also worked for Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, both in his office and on the campaign trail, as well as former U.S. Sen. Mark Udall.

After graduation, Seydel started RNN: The Revolution Nation Network. The so-called action media company connects millennials with their congressional representatives in an effort to change the political atmosphere. “The way I look at it,” he told an Atlanta magazine, is that “10 percent of the political process is the vote, and then you have to pay attention to the other 90 percent when legislation is actually being made.”

Now, Seydel gets to make and implement sustainability and resilience initiatives in Atlanta. In addition to creating the Atlanta Sustainability Student Council, Seydel has been partnering with Mario Cambardella, Atlanta’s urban agriculture director, to combat food deserts in the city.

Most important, he’s been tasked with creating -- by January -- a strategy for how the city will meet its 100 percent renewable energy goal, which it passed in April. “One of the best ways to take climate action is to fundamentally change the way we produce energy,” Seydel says. To do that, “we really need to expand and nurture the sustainability and resilience movement. I think that’s a big reason why I’m in this position, to empower people to make our city and communities more sustainable and resilient.”

And as his hero Captain Planet would say, “The power is yours.” 

Elizabeth Daigneau is GOVERNING's managing editor.
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