Issue 191 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
The Greenpeace environmental group has had its most successful year ever. It has won massive publicity and real success with its two main campaigns--against Shell's plans to dump its redundant Brent Spar oil rig in the Atlantic and against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.
Shell was forced into a U-turn, announcing its climbdown at the very moment a Tory minister was defending its plans to the House of Commons. The Greenpeace campaign around the French test site at Mururoa brought about a profound change in public perception and attitudes. The French nuclear tests gave the lie to the idea that the world was a safer place after the collapse of the former Russian empire and the end of the Cold War. The Greenpeace campaign exposed this lie to hundreds of millions around the world.
The result was a profound change in public opinion. In France 66 percent support for nuclear testing was transformed into 66 percent opposition, while a European wide opinion poll carried out for The Observer newspaper in September found just 8 percent support for nuclear testing.
Yet at the height of its success Greenpeace is gripped by crisis. The organisation finds itself paralysed and racked by internal conflict. It is facing huge financial problems.
For most people the first sign of trouble came in September when Greenpeace executive director Lord Melchett publicly apologised to Shell UK for wrongly claiming that the Brent Spar contained 5,500 tonnes of oil and that the company had made 'a gross underestimation' of the amount of pollutants aboard the rig. Melchett said the Greenpeace activists who boarded the rig made a mistake in taking samples.
Although these samples played only a tiny part in the Greenpeace campaign, the apology allowed the Tories and the media--from the Daily Express to the Independent--to rip into the organisation, accusing it of exaggeration and being cavalier with the truth.
The apology also strengthened the hand of the 'modernisers' within Greenpeace who want to tone down its 'Environmentalist SAS' image and instead emphasise lobbying companies and governments.
Responding to criticism, Richard Titchen, a director of Greenpeace International, claimed, 'From time to time people exaggerate because they feel so passionately about what they are doing. But that is just not on. Over-exaggeration or making a false claim is a sackable offence.'
While accurate scientific information is important, Titchen would have been better reminding the world that it is much more likely to be governments, oil companies and the nuclear industry, not environmentalists, who systematically lie and withhold facts.
Even more shocking has been the fallout within Greenpeace over the nuclear tests campaign. The Greenpeace leaders were happy enough with the crew of Rainbow Warrior II when at the end of June they tried to get into Mururoa Atoll and were stormed by French commandos. Some were very unhappy, however, when after its release, the Warrior returned to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti, so that its passenger, Oscar Temaru, leader of the campaign for independence from France, could address a massive Bastille Day protest.
This row was hushed up but problems exploded again in September when the French military again seized the Rainbow Warrior II--as it broke the 12 mile exclusion zone around Mururoa--and the MV Greenpeace in international waters. The organisation's hierarchy wanted to keep the MV Greenpeace out of French hands so it could 'coordinate' the campaign off Mururoa. So, instead of launching a worldwide denunciation of French piracy and its destruction of £10 million worth of Greenpeace equipment, head office instead attacked its own campaigners.
The group's South Pacific Coordinator, Stephanie Mills, was blamed for the seizure of the MV Greenpeace and sacked for 'effectively provoking' the French action. In reality her 'mistake' was to try and provide the sort of images Greenpeace believes are necessary to sustain a campaign and which the journalists and camera crews stuffed aboard the Greenpeace flotilla were demanding.
Ulrich Jurgens, director of the campaign against French tests, who was very effective in blaming the French government, not the Tahitians, for the rioting in Papeete that followed the first test, has resigned. Veteran Greenpeace campaigner and Rainbow Warrior skipper Jon Castle faces an internal inquiry after criticising the 'suits' in London. Meanwhile Greenpeace is to sack a quarter of its staff by the end of the year after making 100 redundancies in 1993. Instead of sending its South Pacific campaigners and other staff on a massive speaking tour to capitalise on the publicity around the French tests, the organisation seems intent on ripping itself apart.
The roots of this mess lie in the politics and structure of Greenpeace, which claims it is apolitical. In fact its politics fit neatly into the establishment mould. It uses publicity to persuade, cajole or embarrass governments and big business to change their ways. This means Greenpeace balances headline grabbing stunts with sweet talking those in power, yet the organisation knows better than most that the environmental crisis is so acute the piecemeal reforms governments and big business offer are no solution.
From its inception in the 1970s Greenpeace has been centralised, authoritarian and elitist. It has supporters whose sole role has been to raise the funds for campaigns, not members who are part of and have a say in running the organisation. The leadership justifies the structure claiming it is necessary for the organisation to pull off its actions quickly and secretly. In reality it means only the chosen few can take part in activities while the majority of supporters are asked to do little more than send in their own money or rattle a collecting tin on the high street.
The idea of this chosen few saving the environment for us reached ludicrous proportions in the South Pacific with Greenpeace bosses hiring ex SAS members and French Foreign Legionnaires to attempt to infiltrate Mururoa. Such politics and organisation have meant that while Greenpeace has helped contribute to mass environmental awareness, there is not a mass environmental movement in Britain.
As a result Greenpeace has found its income squeezed as the supporters it took for granted and patronised have drifted away. This year's major campaigns--against the Brent Spar and French tests--were an attempt to arrest the decline. So too was a decision to offer local Greenpeace groups a bigger, if strictly controlled, chance to take part in activities. The move came far too late for the nuclear tests campaign. When the French military seized its ships, Greenpeace found itself with no other resources.
Some environmentalist groups have tried to take the fight against the tests forward by calling for a boycott of French goods. But a boycott is the weakest of all possible ways to fight. We have less power as consumers than we do on the streets and much less than if we use our industrial muscle. Nevertheless, Greenpeace has even dismissed a boycott. Tjilo Bolde, Greenpeace International's new chief executive, said last month that the idea was considered and then dropped. He said Greenpeace had planned to offer French firms exemption from the boycott, if they would issue a statement against the tests. Unfortunately, he claimed, it would be impossible to tell the public which firms had been granted an exemption. Bolde also claimed that if the boycott was successful it might cause 'economic pain' and swing French public opinion in favour of President Chirac. It did not dawn on him that Chirac was causing pain to 'French public opinion' through unemployment and attacks on welfare spending, or that the five million public sector workers on strike last month against wage cuts were precisely the force that could stop Chirac's tests. Fortunately many of those on strike last month did draw the links between wage and welfare cuts and nuclear spending.
Greenpeace leaders were equally silent about the recent strikes on Tahiti which were against nuclear tests and for improved pay and welfare, and the organisation made little effort to influence the recent Australian TUC conference where socialists tried to push for industrial action against French companies and for blacking of uranium mining and export.
It is ironic, but not unique, that success should breed crisis in Greenpeace. Its development follows a very similar pattern to Friends of the Earth which grew rapidly in the 1970s, then split between 'activists' and 'modernisers' before becoming respectable and, in the words of one of its founders, 'being absorbed into the blotting paper of Whitehall'.
Greenpeace could already be going a similar way. It recently backed Tory plans to privatise the nuclear power industry in Britain. With a perverse logic it claimed privatisation would break up the cosy relationship between the nuclear industry and the government's safety inspectors.
The crisis in Greenpeace, that of Friends of the Earth a decade before, or the experience of the environmental movement since its birth 30 years ago, shows the limits of single issue, protest politics.
The system which produces environmental crisis and nuclear weapons also creates unemployment, starvation, racism and sexism. The job of socialists is to show how the fight against one particular horror of the system has to be linked to the fight against the system as a whole. It is a message which can convince many of those who want to fight the bomb and cannot understand why Greenpeace has not led thousands into action.