Mark Ruffalo: Accidental Environmentalist

By Carolyn Belardo

He calls himself an “accidental environmentalist.” But standing in the middle of the swift flowing creek in full-body waterproof gear and sorting through the muck for insects, he looked like a pro.

Actor and water quality advocate Mark Ruffalo came to Philadelphia and the Academy yesterday to engage with citizen scientists and to lend support to the unprecedented work under way as part of the Delaware River Watershed Initiative. The Academy is one of four leading partners in this collaborative of 50 organizations working to protect and restore water quality up and down the river.

The Academy's Kathryn Christopher shows Mark Ruffalo how to use a YSI water quality meter
The Academy’s Kathryn Christopher shows Mark Ruffalo how to use a YSI water quality meter

Under warm, sunny skies and a thick canopy of blooming trees, Ruffalo waded into Tookany Creek in Cheltenham, just outside Philadelphia, and got some lessons in water monitoring from Academy scientists Kathryn Christopher, Stefanie Kroll and Allison Stoklosa. They showed him how they collect insects from the creek with a large net, measure the water’s temperature and chemical properties, and scrape algae off a rock for later testing, though he already knew how to identify the algae.

These activities are examples of the ways Academy scientists measure the health of water bodies to determine the level, if any, of pollution. Ruffalo then peered through a series of microscopes to examine more closely the insects and algae they had collected.

“What people don’t realize about a watershed is that what’s happening here is also happening downstream,” Ruffalo said to a group of reporters who covered the event orchestrated by the William Penn Foundation and the Academy. “It’s all interconnected.”

Ruffalo talks with reporters
Ruffalo talks with reporters.

And that is a major message of the William Penn-funded Delaware River Watershed initiative. What happens upstream in the Delaware—farm fertilizer flowing into the nearest stream when it rains, for instance—affects the water downstream by degrading its quality.

How much pollution there is in a stream or creek is something communities should be told, Ruffalo said. “We need to make water data more available to people,” a theme he echoed throughout the day and in the organization he founded, Water Defense.

At the creek, the Academy Award-winning actor also was joined by four Philadelphia public school students in the Academy’s Women In Natural Sciences program, and streamkeepers from the Tookany/Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, a citizen science water quality monitoring program.

Our Women In Natural Sciences students pose with Ruffalo.

“We are so honored to be in his presence,” said Roland Wall, the Academy’s senior director of environmental initiatives, reading the minds of all present. “Mark is a strong activist on water quality issues, and we’re so thrilled that he took the time and got into the creek with our staff and demonstrated how important this issue is.”

Ruffalo made two other private appearances while he was in Philly. He participated in a group discussion with representatives of the watershed initiative, learning about their localized efforts in protection, advocacy, and restoration of the Delaware.

In the evening, it was time to meet some movers and shakers whose generous support enables many philanthropic endeavors. Drexel University President John Fry opened the program with accolades for the river initiative and pronounced it a model for the nation. The 400 invited guests watched a new video about the initiative called “A Watershed Moment.”

Ruffalo discusses his passion for water quality activist with the William Penn Foundation's Laura Sparks
Ruffalo discusses his passion for water quality with William Penn Foundation Executive Director Laura Sparks.

And then it was time for a spirited Q and A between Ruffalo and William Penn Foundation Executive Director Laura Sparks as the two sat in comfy arm chairs on the stage.

The audience delighted in Ruffalo’s passionate responses and calls for more people to unite and talk about water quality issues because that, he said, will lead to real action.

“Climate change will be the impossible monster that will bring us around to the issue of water quality,” Ruffalo said. “Water will be the defining aspect to climate change.”

A question from the audience asked how organizers could get more Hollywood celebrities involved in water quality efforts, at which point he mentioned “Leonardo.” He must have been referring to Leonardo DiCaprio, another outspoken environmentalist and actor.

Leonardo, if you’re reading this, we have waterproof boots in your size.

Members of our Delaware River Watershed Initiative pose with Ruffalo
Members of our Delaware River Watershed Initiative pose with Ruffalo.

Photos by Mike Servedio



  1. Why critisize aboriginals in BC Canada who are leaders in their communities and you have no real knowledge . Do you support violence?

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