June, 1996

I can empathize with ragtag environmentalists, having once been one myself. When I was a freshman science student in the mid-1970s, with a group of other students and young adults I helped to form a Greenpeace group in Edmonton. At the time Greenpeace, a new grassroots movement born in Vancouver, was intent on saving baby seals from the clubs of Newfoundland hunters. With careless exuberance I plunged into that campaign, made posters, sold pins, asked strangers for donations, got myself on the TV news for picketing the legislature for some addled reason I no longer recall.

Then my critical faculties kicked in. I realized that from my Western vantage point I knew nothing about the Eastern seal hunt. I began to wonder whether Greenpeacers were doing a disservice to legitimate environmental concerns by focusing on soft-eyed whitecoats that were indeed cute, but also plentiful. I left Greenpeace scant months after joining, a tad wiser and forever skeptical about bandwagons.

Since then, I have watched with admiration – and, more recently, dismay – as Greenpeace has evolved into a global colossus. Admiration because, while raising environmental awareness to unprecedented heights, Greenpeace has retained a certain stubborn integrity by remaining unaffiliated with political or social causes and resisting corporate and government financing. And dismay because it has grown so powerful despite its foundation on wrong-headed priorities and tactics that threaten to erode the credibility of the entire environmental movement.

What Greenpeace has lacked in substance it has made up for in style. Wherever there were villains out to plunder the environment, there were Greenpeace warriors to speed to the rescue. Like caricatures of the Good Guys in Hollywood Westerns, they rode inflatable steeds over the world’s oceans into adventurous confrontation with oil companies, nuclear powers, lumber company ships and seal hunters. The telegenic high jinks spanned nearly a quarter of a century. The media-savvy stunts performed by Greenpeacers did much to raise public awareness of environmental issues in many parts of the world.

The publicity didn’t hurt Greenpeace, either. The organization started as a loose coalition of Quakers, hippies and others from Vancouver’s flower-child era who jointly opposed U.S. nuclear testing off the Alaskan coast, and blossomed into an international organization headquartered in Europe that drew in $130 million (U.S.) in donations in 1994. Over the years, Greenpeace has expanded its interests far beyond nuclear issues, adding to its theatre of protest the issues of seal hunting, commercial whaling, fur trapping, clear-cut logging, pollution from pulp mills and toxic-waste handling, among others. It mounts such slick public relations campaigns that some governments and multinational corporations grovel before it.

Still, as sooner or later happens with all Hollywood thrillers, the Greenpeace stunts have become tiresome, not least because of the organization’s Gunsmoke-meets-Superman world view.

Its buccaneering ways and simplistic outlook are why Greenpeace is so inept at addressing complex modern environmental issues. That’s not news within the scientific and academic circles, where Greenpeace has always lacked respect. But now, given the growing list of its transgressions against plain common sense, its faults are glaring.

My own experience as a journalist for more than a decade in Atlantic Canada, for example, shows why Greenpeace failed to address the decline of the marine ecosystem of the Northwest Atlantic Ocean. The range of proposed causes is awesomely complex, including overfishing, changes in ocean currents, global warming, seal population growth, marine pollution, depletion of the ozone layer. Most ominously, some or all of these issues afflict marine ecosystems around the world. Yet Greenpeace was impotent in the Northwest Atlantic. It wasn’t just that it had long ago blown its credibility over the witless baby-seal issue. It was also that Greenpeace attacked the fishery with the buffoon-like antics that draw attention to black-and-white issues but seem, well, stupid at all other times. A small case in point: a Canadian news conference after a meeting of the 11- country North Atlantic Fisheries Organization that Greenpeace, which until then had been absent in the debate, gate-crashed. The reporters and bureaucrats present yawned through an ill-informed, unfocused rant against overfishing by a boorish Greenpeace campaigner, who preached to the converted but offered no solutions.

In fact, similarly uninformed behaviour is typical of Greenpeace. In Canada, it has alienated thoughtful people with its shrill dismissal and unfounded criticism of federal government scientists researching toxic waste pollution from pulp mills, whom Greenpeace has called liars. It continues to alienate East Coast fishing communities by opposing seal hunting, despite evidence that seals are a relatively strong component of a fragile ecosystem. It has alienated Northern and native communities by bluntly opposing the trapping of animals for the fur trade. It has alienated foresters by its bungling in opposing the controversial logging practices of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. Greenpeace boasted last fall that the end of a newsprint contract between MacBlo and The New York Times was the result of the Times caving in to the environmentalists’ demands that it boycott MacBlo, calling it “the first major development in the rising tide of U.S. public concern over Canada’s forests.” As it happens, the Times dropped MacBlo as a supplier for the simple reason that MacBlo had announced it plans to exit the newsprint business.

Also last year was Greenpeace’s bungled campaign against Royal Dutch/Shell Group’s plan to dispose of the oil rig Brent Spar by dumping it in the Atlantic Ocean, a complex proposal with many pros and cons. The fact that Greenpeace released wrong numbers to back up its knee-jerk opposition-for which Greenpeace uncharacteristically apologized-only showed oil company officials to have perhaps more integrity than their environmental nemesis.

Inevitably, then, Greenpeace appeared as an opportunist last fall when it staged a symbolic one-day boycott of Shell products to protest the execution of nine Nigerian activists, including writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, by the government of Nigeria, which relies on Shell oil production for a large share of its revenues. Cynics may be excused for thinking Greenpeace was merely tweaking the nose of an opponent who bettered it-or perhaps merely finding a way to cash in on the publicity generated by the subject of the moment. While Greenpeace has shown itself capable of achieving some short-term successes, its high-handed ways harm its credibility in the long term.

Despite my criticisms of it, I am saddened by the prospect of a weakened, rather than an improved, Greenpeace. The world needs a cheeky, irreverent and smart environmental organization, unaffiliated with any political or government cause, to contribute to public debate. And at times Greenpeace has shown that it can be such an organization – through its largely commendable, if rather reckless, role in antinuclear campaigns, like the recent one against French testing of nuclear bombs.

It’s disappointing that Greenpeace only addresses the most obvious or sexy environmental issues. And it has not matured enough to realize that human use of the environment is subject to the inexorable cycle of supply and demand that drives all human affairs, and that if environmentalists want to influence that cycle, they have to consider it as a whole, from resource industries to end users. If Greenpeace disagrees with logging practices, it would do well to encourage consumers to be more thoughtful about their use of wood. If Greenpeace is concerned about ocean pollution by the petroleum industry, it could usefully support conservation.

Greenpeace has a video, available at some public libraries, called Greenpeace’s Greatest Hits. I watched it recently with my eight-year-old son, Gavin, who is no slouch at the lessons in elementary biology that are now widely taught in schools. Gavin watched, horrified, as Greenpeace campaigners on the screen released thousands of balloons into the air during one of their public relations stunts. “Mommy, they’re polluting]” he cried. Gavin knows that balloons are one of the worst offenders in the non-biodegradable plastic pollution that clogs the world’s oceans, because endangered sea turtles eat them, then die from strangulation or starvation caused by the plastic inside them. While my generation of baby boomers may have tolerated such antics, I bet Gavin’s better-informed generation will view such stunts the way they’d view a tantrum-prone toddler playing with matches. It’s high time that Greenpeace, which likes to think of itself as the parent of the environmental movement, also matured.

Copyright Deborah Jones 1996

Originally published in The Globe and Mail Report on Business Magazine, June, 1996