How to watch the world falling apart

Greenpeace is using the latest communications technology to bring its direct-action campaigns to your computer screen
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The Independent Online

Environmental activists have long had a reputation for wearing unconventional clothes. But things are about to get weirder. Forget misshapen woollen jumpers and even all-white jumpsuits with gas masks. Greenpeace is planning to unveil the cyber-green.

Environmental activists have long had a reputation for wearing unconventional clothes. But things are about to get weirder. Forget misshapen woollen jumpers and even all-white jumpsuits with gas masks. Greenpeace is planning to unveil the cyber-green.

The campaign group has quietly been experimenting with a suit made of flexible solar panels which, it hopes, will enable its direct action teams to beam live pictures, via satellite, from the heart of a protest, whether at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria or ballistic missile testing sites in the Nevada desert.

The solar panels power a portable satellite transmitter, carried in a backpack, which broadcasts images and sound captured by a tiny "lipstick" camera fitted to a helmet or other headgear. This equipment makes remoteness and distance irrelevant. It puts video cameras deep in the wildernerness.

"The portability is what really changes things now," said Brian Fitzgerald, who is the information technology and new media director for Greenpeace International. "It's getting to remote areas like the middle of the ocean or into the Amazon when we want to get footage of illegal logging going on."

The first trials of the "solar warrior" suit used microwaves to transmit an analog signal from the camera. The microwave transmitter was dropped because of obvious safety fears. But, said Fitzgerald, the search is on for safer, suitable technologies. Eventually, Greenpeace hopes to broadcast this material via its website or offer it to mainstream news media. It could be compelling footage.

"When we are around illegal loggers, being able to have a camera with you in that remote location is significantly safer than being in there on your own with a press reporter, who can't get a story out for 24 hours," he said. "It also increases our ability to get people into extremely difficult situations. When the whole world is watching, it is safer."

This technique, still in its infancy, is perhaps the most curious example of the digital and information technologies now being developed by groups such as Greenpeace and the World Wide Fund for Nature. Next-generation mobile telephones, miniaturisation of digital broadcast equipment, the plummeting costs of satellite time, broadband telecommunications and convergence of digital television with the internet are opening up new territories. As campaigners become ever more sophisticated, these developments will begin to provoke debates about whether there should be limits to political direct action, the influence of single interest groups in the digital age and the wider use of digital media.

Two recent Greenpeace actions have seen digital technologies being tested. The organisation, an at times a single-mindedly professional outfit with a centralised, in-house media unit, has long pioneered information technologies such as satellite links.

But modern satellite equipment allowed it to get beyond Inmarsat phones on board its small fleet of protest ships during its campaign against the US National Missile Defence programme, dubbed "Son of Star Wars". Last month, it used an M4 portable satellite transmitter with a handheld dish, hooked up to a laptop computer, to send still pictures of a protest inside Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the site of a Minuteman II missile launch.

Meanwhile, in Copenhagen, government ministers and civil servants attending the Ospar conference on marine pollution in the Atlantic were greeted with live footage of liquid radioactive waste being discharged into the English Channel from the French nuclear reprocessing plant at Cap De La Hague.

Greenpeace divers had planted a webcam at the mouth of the discharge pipe. "It helped us bring people to witness the scene of an environmental crime," said Fitzgerald. "These messages were getting to them just as they were walking into the conference rooms."

At present, Greenpeace is hampered by the technology's limitations. The M4 satellite up-links, which each cost about $15,000, work at ISDN speed. The "lipstick" cameras, however, work very slowly at 9.6kbps. They can reach 64kbps and, in theory, as high as 128kbps, but these have a slow refresh rate, with an irritatingly jerky quality. "It's more like a slide show than a video link," Fitzgerald said.

Satellite equipment is, however, becoming cheaper, lighter and more sophisticated, and transmission costs, currently standing at $7 a minute, are dropping steadily. The organisation is also using them for more prosaic tasks, such as linking geo-stationary satellites with handheld GSM units to help map the boundaries of tribal lands owned by indigenous peoples in the Amazon, with the Brazilian government's co-operation.

Within a few years, live satellite feeds will be routine. As, predicts Fitzgerald, will be next-generation mobile phones. Linked up to laptops and digital cameras, these mobile phones could prove to be powerful tools, he believes.

"If we can empower a cyber-activists' network to be out there with their own cameras - Greenpeace supporters going out broadcasting live from the scene of an oil spill - there's a tremendous possibility for networking this capability," he said. "The possibility for whistle-blowers inside companies to document illegal practices is tremendous."

The World Wide Fund for Nature recently provided another example of this trend when it received approval from 10 Downing Street to launch the first UK-wide petition via the internet last month. The subject of the petition was uncontroversial, supporting WWF's campaign to protect the ocean from over-fishing - an issue the Government supports. And Tony Blair, despite his own well-publicised computer illiteracy, is keen to project Britain as a world leader on digital technologies, so internet petitions fit his agenda.

But this development, while still experimental, establishes a significant precedent. It offers campaigners and charities a potentially far more efficient way of gathering names than the traditional method of open air tables on street corners or via doorstep cold-calling. Web-based petitions also allows them to offer signatories immediate links to online background files or other sites.

Eventually, Downing Street may have to accept "e-petitions" from more hostile sources attacking government policy, and generated far more quickly than present paper-based petitions. "I believe this could be used to help bridge the growing democratic deficit in this country," said Stuart White of WWF UK. "Environmentalism is as much about the need for people to feel rooted in the democratic process."

So far, the take-up has been modest with only 2,580 signatures by late last week, as it was with Britain's first e-petition, launched last November by WWF Scotland in conjunction with the Scottish Parliament, as part of its campaign for marine national parks north of the border.

At Greenpeace, there are other, more futuristic plans which intrude into the fictional territory sketched out by writers such as William Gibson or Neil Stephenson. According to Fitzgerald, Greenpeace supporters and ordinary members of the public could soon e-mail personalised "avatars", digitally generated models of themselves, to protest outside a "virtual" White House or bombard the US President's own website with protests, perhaps via their WAP mobiles.

The concept of an "e-protest" was deployed against Coca-Cola last month over its decision to use global warming HFC refrigeration gases at next month's Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia, contravening the Games' environmentally friendly code. Coke-Cola executives in Atlanta were then inundated with protest e-mails, forcing them to remove the offending equipment.

Future plans rest partly on the development of interactive digital television, and its convergence with the internet. The proliferation of specialist digital channels offered by convergence, using internet-style multimedia presentation complete with hyperlinks, is also being closely studied.

Justine Earthrowl, web producer at Greenpeace UK's London headquarters, believes digital technology offers the organisation the chance to circumvent mainstream broadcaster by "narrowcasting" to a wider audience via its own dedicated digital channel.

This presents interesting questions for news media such as ITN and the BBC over Greenpeace's controversial habit of refusing outside camera crews access to the actions and insisting broadcasters use its in-house footage, or charging the media full cost fees to travel on its ships to cover demonstrations, effectively underwriting Greenpeace's costs. The broadcasters believe both policies undermine its impartiality. For Greenpeace, convergence allows it to side-step that problem.

"The whole concept of convergence, where more and more media is being integrated into one platform, we could, for example, be in a position to bid to become the environmental channel, a green channel," she said. "Suddenly we will have hundreds more channels opening up and all the content on our website will become the basis for our programme."

Greenpeace TV subscribers could eventually watch that channel broadcast live footage from that camera-equipped "solar warrior" confronting loggers deep in the Amazon, while sending their avatar to the Brazilian president to protest, and signing another internet petition to Number 10.