Greenpeace at war

Once a byword for the power of the people, the definitive pressure group is now just another bloated corporation, argues John Castel. The former 'Rainbow Warrior' captain reveals what went wrong


Today, while Greenpeace is an environmental organisation, it is not an ecological one. While it started out as an expression of people power, it has eschewed internal democracy with fervour. (This is the little seed of decay that has eaten out the heart of the organisation.) As the world's ecological situation gets increasingly desperate and in need of the hope, possibilities and radical suggestions Greenpeace might once have given, the group is now utterly moribund.

Greenpeace was revivified from the UK in 1978 with the purchase of the Rainbow Warrior. A couple of wonderfully productive years saw the organisation expand in northern Europe. I was lucky enough to be there, and it was a fantastic time. One essential fact about Greenpeace then was that it was both idealistic and practical. Idealism was awash in the world at the time, and there is nothing like being at sea to sort out practicality. Ships bind people together, and loyal, tight, competent teamwork immediately set Greenpeace apart as a campaigning group. By chance the people who came together in London in 1977-78 were the rich brew necessary to kick things off in the right direction. It was the kind of successful mix planning never seems to achieve, but chance does.

By 1980 David McTaggart (a generation older than we others and the undisputed leader at that stage) felt strong enough to persuade the Canadian and US Greenpeace end their internecine strife and sign in to Greenpeace International (GPI). The body "owns" the name Greenpeace and holds copyright power over the independent national entities, who in turn fund GPI.

The new organisation rapidly developed into an effective, non-violent global pressure group; defending the natural environment from gross abuse and promoting peace and disarmament. The initial practicality lived on in the technical capability to run ships and campaigns in any ocean, and to operate an Antarctic base camp for three years. Greenpeace pioneered the ability to transmit film via satellite in ever shorter times; it had efficient book-keepers, accountants, communications technologists, photographers, fund-raisers and lawyers all giving solid backup; they had their own small, brilliant and brave scientific research lab, where an analysis could be arranged or a considered opinion had on any topic from over-fishing to nuclear pollution.

But as time has gone by, Greenpeace's wide spectrum of activists (between whom, in a haze of passionate equality, ideas exploded) has paled to monochrome. Technocracy looks after itself; smoothes the edges; creates intricate regulations that exclude the doubters, the dreamers, the free-thinkers, the drinkers, the artists, the anarchists, the angry, the philosophers and the idealists. The democracy of the free group was suppressed. Awkward voices were silenced by all the usual methods. It is irony raised to satire that a group founded on free and open speech and opposition to overbearing authority, diametrically reverses these motives internally.

Technocrats always believe they are working for the best. But the life bureaucratic runs smoothly, deferentially, predictably, with no out-of-control, sweaty activists just off a boat threatening to upend your neat desk unless you re-think a deal that saves Greenpeace expensive litigation in exchange for a promise not to trespass on a certain oil field again. (Greenpeace has, among others, made deals with BP and Exxon to escape financial penalties. In both cases activists directly involved who felt the decisions were counter-productive and perhaps shameful, were not asked their opinion.)

The trouble is that you lose your flexibility, your capacity for off-the-wall ideas, new directions to counter an ever-changing, more repressive world order: the deregulated rich and powerful versus Gaia.

Greenpeace was created as a campaigning group. The campaigners were individuals who knew their subject, cared passionately about it and covered every aspect from research, writing papers, sampling, meeting victims and opponents and attending political and regulatory meetings, to being there on the front line getting beaten, seasick and/or arrested. Oh, and writing their own press releases. Now these have to pass via a PR person who often knows jack-shit about the issue, turning any vestige of personal intensity into newspeak. I think there are currently two old-school international campaigners left. Campaigners led Greenpeace, often from out in the field or on ships. By now they are about sixth in the management hierarchy.

Campaigning intuition, which once set off journeys of imagination like the Antarctic base, the Brent Spar and countless others, now is ground to dust in the over-managed process of writing proposals and having them checked and counter-checked by risk-averse desk-sitters who wouldn't recognise a wild hunch if it slapped them around the ears.

Reality does not reside in the little boxes we call offices, where the insulated recline on their bottoms, twiddling computers. Reality is out there in the world. To be under a chemical outfall, to choke on it, to see the forces of "law and order" rushing to defend the polluter, to have met the victims, the people who live downwind in a council hovel or favela with their pasty-faced children, to see the dead mud at the water's edge where a web of life once existed, is to imbibe a knowledge much deeper than that acquired through simply gathering data intellectually.

The leaders of Greenpeace used to be out there in the non-virtual world, feeling decisions create themselves, as much as in the air-conditioned, distant room "decision making". But then Greenpeace doesn't have leaders any more, just managers, and mediocre ones at that.

Things are at the state where experienced ex-Greenpeace staff are hired back in at short notice, and on temporary contracts, to facilitate difficult campaigns that the incumbents realise they are incapable of. It's expensive and inefficient, as planning has to be done at the last minute; continuity and lessons of previous campaigns are invariably lost. At least one of these scenarios is occuring right now. The morons who have devised this chaos never seem to feel ashamed, continuing to draw their substantial salaries while someone else does their job.

The new GPI headquarters is a soulless block in a particularly boring suburb of Amsterdam. Staff turnover (except for the well-paid upper clique) is stratospheric, with the resultant loss of group memory (perhaps a reason for management's complacency in this area?). Resentment, frustration, despondency, insecurity, distrust and fear walk the corridors. The highest rule is obedience and agreement with the management line. On that basis appointments are made; competence is less essential.

My God! It used to be such fun to visit comrades in all the offices when passing through! Excitement, laughter and purpose between the sister and brotherhood of the green wave. Now the ships' crews are having to unionise to protect themselves from fear of individual coercion.

Where Greenpeace was once open and honest, now the outside image is so hysterically managed that the three-page-long staff contract threatens large internal fines if anyone should dare reveal anything without authorisation. Recently the exchange of opinion and information between Greenpeace staff is being progressively curbed, as access to internal internet message boards is denied, limited and monitored. Greenpeace is now just another corporate body with a throwaway attitude to its staff.

Because GPI now has no ethical centre, no spiritual foundation, its vision has diminished. (I evoked Ghandi not that long ago in conversation with a very senior manager. He nervously giggled and left me open-mouthed by saying that we couldn't aspire to that.) It lacks the moral courage and the thought-through policies to go further than, say, criticising fossil fuel use for climate change - to question the materialistic, consumerist lifestyle that drives energy overuse, the increasingly inequitable world economic tyranny that creates poverty and drives environmental degradation, the bitterness that destroys Peace, the overwhelming human population that catastrophically unbalances every natural ecosystem and the disconnection with Mother Earth that leads to gross spiritual poverty and helplessness.

The ecological outlook is potentially cataclysmic on many levels. Things could go several ways for us, most of which will require hair-rending apologies to our descendants. The best way, whatever that turns out to be, will require solidarity with all our fellows on earth - human, fauna and flora, animate and inanimate. Albert Schweitzer said that: "All life is sacred." Let's go further and realise it's all sacred - down to the curve in this hill, the colour of that rippled sand, the way the sea current sets between those particular rocks, the ones with the green lichen, where the seagulls like to sit and screech at high tide.

In order to touch hearts, to effect real change, any genuine eco-group must reach up to these heights and down to these depths. Once Greenpeace was small (never perfect) but still had a heart big enough to hint at the spiritual connectedness, the harmony and wonder that really is there beneath the tarnish of creeping industrialism and commodification.

Greenpeace existed on the dangerous creative edge where magic may, just maybe, happen. By allowing itself to degenerate into a common or garden corporate machine Greenpeace has traded honour, courage and the creative edge for the temporal safety of conformity in the here and now. In other words, it has bartered its soul.

Is it possible for Greenpeace to inwardly cleanse itself enough to rediscover its soul? The signs are not encouraging, but if only it could, our human world desperately needs a wise and brave alternative voice now.

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