After Internal Turmoil, a More Focused Greenpeace is Back Fighting Polluters
A growling dump truck stopped in front of the Naval Observatory, just a few feet from Vice President Dick Cheney"s residence. The truck"s back hatch opened, emptying five tons of coal onto the street courtesy of the direct-action group Greenpeace. One coal dumper told reporters, "The Bush/Cheney energy plan is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem." Greenpeace"s protest (which resulted in no arrests after activists cleaned up the coal) carried a message not only of opposition to oil-company hegemony, but also that the once-struggling organization was back in full force.
John Passacantando, Greenpeace’s new executive director, says the direct action group needs to be in top form to confront “the face of a thousand opponents” in George W. Bush’s White House. Showing his dedication, Passacantando, chained himself to the EPA’s front entrance.
Greenpeace"s U.S. membership, which peaked at one million in the early 1990s, dropped to 300,000 by 2000. Meanwhile, Greenpeace"s international headquarters in Amsterdam began insisting that each national group start making a profit or be shut down, and the closure of the Ukraine chapter soon followed. Internal unrest about Greenpeace USA"s management culminated in the resignation of the entire board of directors. Greenpeace desperately needed someone to rebuild an aggressive team to shift the focus away from insider feuds and back to the environmental campaigns for which it was famous.
Last September, a few months after the board walked out, John Passacantando became Greenpeace USA"s new executive director. Many environmentalists say it wasn"t a moment too soon. As Passacantando himself puts it, "With Mr. Bush—this "face of a thousand opponents"—representing the oil, coal, plutonium, auto and gas industries, Greenpeace needed to be operating at its best." Passacantando, who co-founded Ozone Action in 1993, merged that group into Greenpeace, allowing him to put the force of a global network behind his work on climate change.
Despite its past staff and membership woes, Greenpeace has come a long way since its 12-member crew set out on September 15, 1971 to confront nuclear testing in the Aleutian Islands. Greenpeace now has nearly three million members, offices in 30 countries and an international net income of more than $107 million, 81 percent of which comes from individual donations.
Staffers describe Greenpeace USA"s current finances as "stable," and internal morale has been lifted by both the change in the group"s leadership and by the sense of urgency the Bush Administration has created in environmental groups worldwide. As more politicians are acting like middlemen for industry, Passacantando says the best way to protect the environment is to go after the perpetrators themselves—global corporations.
Jerry Taylor, director of natural resource studies at the Cato Institute, says that Greenpeace is not effective in changing public policy because politicians care only about swing voters, most of whom view the environment as a low priority. But he admits that when trying to change the minds of corporations, direct-action tactics work. "Despite what the left thinks, the corporate community wants to be loved," says Taylor. "They see activists as potential consumers, so they are hesitant to fight these campaigns."
Under Passacantando, Greenpeace has called on leaders of Fortune 100 companies to clarify their position on the Kyoto Protocol. About 30 percent of the firms have responded with varying degrees of interest. One of Passacantando"s first executive decisions brought a network of 225 students to the Hague climate meeting last November. In April, he was arrested, along with Randy Hayes, president of Rainforest Action Network, for locking himself inside the Environmental Protection Agency"s main entrance to protest the greenwashing of Bush"s anti-environmental plans. Though the group works on quieter research, consumer and educational campaigns, it"s Greenpeace"s high-profile tactics—such as the coal dump—that continue to make headlines and woo members.
Greenpeace is not without its critics. Co-founder Paul Watson, who broke from the group in 1977 to found the more aggressive Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, considers Greenpeace itself to be a corporation bent on growth and profit. He likens it to Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, saying Greenpeace takes money and publicity away from smaller grassroots groups and inadvertently discourages activism. "People don"t get involved individually because they think by giving a few hundred bucks a year to Greenpeace, they help save the environment," says Watson.
Greenpeace may be bigger than some of the corporations it campaigns against, but it"s hard to dismiss the work being done, often alongside smaller grassroots groups, by its researchers, staff and volunteers. (Though Watson also criticizes Greenpeace"s coalitions, saying the group sometimes takes credit for work others perform.)
"The energy policy debate, to our eyes, is the global warming policy," says Climate Campaign Coordinator Kert Davies, "because the U.S. is responsible for 25 percent of global warming." Greenpeace"s political and science units are encouraging other nations to move forward on the Kyoto Protocol without the U.S. if the Bush Administration persists in its efforts to derail the negotiations. Greenpeace has also launched the CleanEnergyNow.org website with local grassroots groups in California to work toward sustainable energy.
To make the point that the Bush Administration’s energy policy is a disaster for Ameerica, Greenpeace activists dumped five tons of coal on the doorstep of the energy plan’s chief architect, Vice President Dick Cheney.
In Louisiana"s "Cancer Alley," home to 10 of the 15 U.S. plants producing polyvinyl chloride (PVC), Toxics Campaigner Damu Smith has helped spearhead an energized environmental justice movement. He is working with community groups and residents to fight proposals on PVC, a poisonous, dioxin-leaching plastic found in vinyl and some toy, home, medical and wood products. The campaign is partnering with the Healthy Building Network to motivate consumers and manufacturers to switch to safer materials.
Working with local groups, Greenpeace"s forest campaigners are working to uncover illegal instances of logging in the Amazon. According to the Brazilian government, 80 percent of the logging in Brazil is in defiance of the law. "The U.S. is the largest export market for Brazilian Amazon wood, most of which goes into expensive furniture," says Forest Campaign Coordinator Mike Roselle. "We"re trying to get consumers and customers of timber companies to stop purchasing it, and we are pressuring the Brazilian government to enforce their timber regulations."
The campaign to protect whales from Japanese and Norwegian fisheries is one even the Bush Administration says it supports. Whale meat is worth millions of dollars on the delicacy market in Japan, leading many in the international community to question the legitimac
y of Japan"s lethal scientific whaling program. Greenpeace is trying to convince President Bush to enact the Pelly Amendment, which could impose sanctions on Japan for its whaling practices.
Given Monsanto"s ties to a number of Bush officials, Greenpeace biotechnology campaigners have largely abandoned political lobbying, instead pressuring food manufacturers through consumer action and boycotts. Greenpeace"s online True Food Network (www.truefoodnow.com) connects activists nationwide to food labeling and consumer action campaigns.
Though Greenpeace campaigners have their work cut out for them, and the group itself continues to evolve, Passacantando says the outlook for both Greenpeace and the environmental movement is positive. "Greenpeace is an extension of the imagination of millions of people around the world who want the Earth protected," he says. "So when you have this kind of struggle, Greenpeace is perfectly suited for it. I came here for this struggle."