David's great victory over Goliath

Greenpeace's victory over Shell marks its finest hour. But Nicholas Schoon predicts that this will prove to be only the beginning
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The Independent Online
In the past few weeks, out in the North Sea, across the petrol station forecourts of western Europe, Greenpeace has shown that globalisation can be a two-way street.

The environmental group has picked a fight with the world's largest, most international oil company - and won. It had won even before last night's decision by Shell to abandon the dumping of the Brent Spar on the Atlantic seabed.

The company's name had been blackened around the world by great swathes of negative airtime and column inches.

Petrol sales worth many millions of guilders, deutschmarks and other European denominations have been lost due to customer boycotts, some of them organised by official bodies such as city councils.

But Greenpeace's real victory, from the organisation's own point of view, has been to put the issue of oil installation decommissioning on the map. More than a dozen other companies operating in the North Sea are now beginning a hurried, alarmed re-assessment of their plans for getting rid of redundant offshore structures over the next couple of decades.

On the face of it, it seemed a massively uneven contest. The Royal Dutch Shell group had global sales of pounds 84.3bn last year. It employs 106,000 people in more than 100 countries.

Greenpeace had a global income of $131m last year, some 0.001 per cent of Shell's. It employs about 1,000 people, and has offices in 30 countries.

Shell is one of a handful of truly global brands; from South America to the Far East, the yellow scallop on a red background is as familiar as Coca-Cola and McDonald's. The group has more wealth and influence than dozens of governments. For the left and the greens, the likes of Shell epitomise the unaccountable, unfathomable power of global capital.

Yet, ironically, Greenpeace won the battle of Brent Spar because it was operating on a truly international basis - far more so than the oil company was.

The Shell plan to sea dump the Brent Spar came from a subsidiary of a subsidiary - Shell Expro, the North Sea arm of Shell UK. Legally, it needed to persuade only the British government that sea dumping was the best all-round disposal option. It took Aberdeen-based Shell Expro some three years of quiet planning and negotiation, then in February this year government approval came through.

One UK-based Greenpeace campaigner, Paul Horsman, cottoned on to this last year and began stoking up his organisation's interest. But it was not until April this year that the organisation decided to mount a spectacular campaign of resistance. It took just three weeks to prepare for the opening salvo, the occupation of the Brent Spar.

Chiefly involved were Greenpeace's German office, its UK one and the Greenpeace International headquarters in Amsterdam. Shell Expro was caught by surprise because the raiding party sailed in a chartered cargo vessel from Germany.

From the start, Greenpeace was absolutely clear that this would be a European-wide campaign. The timing was such that the occupation would hit the headlines in the run-up to an important ministerial conference about the North Sea environment, held in Denmark earlier this month.

The organisation put its greatest lobbying effort into countries which it knew would be sympathetic to the cause - those that had made the greatest public commitments to reducing North Sea pollution and which had been critical of Britain's record in the past.

And that worked too. Greenpeace can take much of the credit for the very public condemnations of Britain, the authoriser of the dumping, made by Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands and the European Commission during the course of the conference.

Thus the Brent Spar stayed in the news, even after Shell succeeded in evicting the occupiers. Then it began to teach the oil multinational a lesson in flexibility. Recognising that it was on to a winner, in terms of media coverage and public perception, it put more resources into the campaign.

Another ship was chartered to shadow the redundant oil storage buoy on its final journey to the dump site in the north-east Atlantic. Helicopters were hired to put activists back on the Brent Spar, even while it was under tow.

Shell, meanwhile, until last night was a picture of inflexibility - as was the British government. While they were both losing the public relations battle their common line was that sea dumping was the best option, and a perfectly legal one. The proper procedures had been followed. Both Government and company were complying with international law.

Greenpeace has been thinking globally since its origins more than 20 years ago, and that underpins its many campaigning successes. Just like Shell, it is an internationally recognised brand. The individual country organisations dotted around the world are separate legal entities, but their most important shared feature is their right - granted by head office - to use the Greenpeace name.

The organisation's flexibility, its aptitude for planning spectacular operations quickly and secretly, is another great asset. It possesses this attribute because it is not a mass membership organisation, either at the international or the national level. Greenpeace employees are not encumbered by the panoply of delegate conferences, voting and elections.

It reckons to have 411,000 supporters in Britain and 3.1 million worldwide. These are people who have sent in money and a name and address within the past 18 months. It canvasses their views, sometimes worries about what they want, but the main guiding force is the wishes and ideas of its management and salaried employees.

One senior officer in Greenpeace UK said: ``Look at Friends of the Earth, which is more democratic and accountable to its membership than we are. It's all a bit painful, a bit like the Labour Party. We're much more informal.

``We have a great deal of discussion among the staff when we're planning an action, but once it's underway we're highly disciplined. We have someone in charge and everyone does what he or she says.''

In Britain, Greenpeace is trying to involve its unsalaried supporters more. It can call on several hundred volunteer activists to invade the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant, as happened earlier this year, or to picket Shell petrol stations.

There is a network of local groups whose members collect money door-to- door and in shopping centres, or lobby MPs and companies. There is an annual seminar for these local groups, but nothing so binding as the passing of motions on policy.

But just as important as acting globally and flexibly is Greenpeace's ability to pick the right issues - issues that seize the media and the public's imagination, issues where Greenpeace and its supporters seem to be plain right, and those it is contesting can be made to look plain wrong.

Much of its most successful work is based on emotional and symbolic concepts. Greenpeace may be the world's wealthiest and most famous environmental organisation (it has reserves of $72m), but it appears as a David facing up to Goliaths.

It is the little guy defending nature against the greed and thoughtlessness of corporations and governments, because nature is pure and beautiful but cannot stand up for itself. The successful Eighties campaigns against whaling and mining in the Antarctic are classic examples.

The determination to see things only in black and white terms infuriates and frustrates governments, companies and many a commentator - and not a few environmentalists. Greenpeace avoids the complexity and compromises of detailed policy formation, it steers well clear of any overall political vision. And so far, it has worked just brilliantly.

Greenpeace International is just about to announce a new executive director, Thilo Bode. He is an ex-banker and the head of its German organisation, and one reason why he got the post was because he persuaded the international board that Greenpeace had to establish itself in the world's most populous country, China. Watch out multinationals, you have not seen anything yet.