Last week, Greenpeace celebrated its 40th anniversary. The occasion was marked in the media by a good deal of well-earned retrospective backpatting by current and former members. Some of the best stuff came out of Vancouver, where Greenpeace was born in 1971 as a single anti-nuclear campaign before rapidly expanding into one of the first modern global environmental organizations and possibly the world’s most recognized environmentalist brand.
My favorite slice of Greenpeace nostalgia was a fantastic article and gallery published by the indispensable western Canadian news site, The Tyee. The words are by longtime senior Greenpeace official and in-house historian Rex Weyler, and the pictures are a treasure trove of intimate images from the group’s many successful campaigns.
There’s a lot to wonder at, but what struck me was actually not the changes but the continuities. At the ripe old age of 40, a Greenpeace protest event today still looks remarkably like it did in the 1970s. Somewhere in the wild or in a busy urban space, you find banners unfurled by a cadre of passionate activists, sometimes accompanied by a larger crowd or by a sort of playact depicting the impact of the activities of the targeted ecological criminal.
This is worth chewing over a bit. We are now as far away from the year of Greenpeace’s birth as that year was from the onset of the Great Depression, from the time when protest meant the sort of itinerant work camp activism and brutally violent suppression depicted in Steinbeck’s "Grapes of Wrath." Our time is to Greenpeace’s founding as their time was to the birth of radio and home refrigeration.
As Rex Weyler explains in his Tyee retrospective, Greenpeace’s founders recognized from the start that they were playing on a whole new psychological and ecological terrain, requiring fundamentally different tools and tactics from those used by previous generations of protesters. Weyler notes that there were as many seasoned journalists as rabble rousers in Greenpeace’s founding ranks, and they understood instinctively that they were designing a new activism for the age of television.
In particular, they were looking to create what Greenpeace co-founder Bob Hunter called a “Mind Bomb” — a media image so vivid, startling, and damning that it incited immediate action wherever it appeared, regardless of context. Think of the bloody carcasses of whales and the bloodstained fur coats of baby harp seals, the tiny inflatable zodiac in the shadow of some Goliath-sized vessel, the iconic banner unfurled from the top of some highly visible structure. These were Greenpeace’s mind bombs, and they were remarkably effective, allowing the organization and its allies to set much of the environmental agenda worldwide for the final decades of the 20th century.
And what about today? Greenpeace’s birth is as accurate a marker as any for the dawn of modern environmentalism. Where does green activism stand, then, as environmentalism itself turns 40?
Alas, I’d argue it stands mostly still, stuck in the past, convinced as only Baby Boomers can be that every good idea worth pursuing was hatched when they wore their hair long. Consider two recent cases in point, both of them high-profile climate actions led by longtime activist icons – the Keystone XL pipeline protest (launched by Bill McKibben and his colleagues at 350.org and beyond) and Al Gore’s “24 Hours of Reality.”
I’m sure organizers of both events would be quick to tout their 21st century bonafides, pointing to their use of social media and live online video streaming and scores of other digital-age tricks to spread the message. And they’d be right, to a point. The trouble, really, is with what’s being spread, which is largely a good old-fashioned environmental awareness campaign, still nowhere near properly calibrated to the global scope and complexity of the climate crisis.
First, let’s look at the Keystone protest. Now, to be fair, it was put together by a group with dot-org in its name, and it did a pretty impressive job of getting high-profile press for an arcane piece of oil-industry infrastructure. Never before have oil pipeline approvals been a protest flashpoint. On that front, Keystone scores highly.
But in what game did it score? Against whom? It was a sit-in at the White House against a pipeline in the Midwest carrying Canadian oil to the Gulf of Mexico. Was its enemy oil in general? Alberta’s oil exclusively? Just the fraction of Alberta’s output destined for the Keystone pipe? Even by Greenpeace’s old mind bomb standards, the action lacked clarity, needing as it did to equate one pipeline with the entire tar sands operation in northern Alberta and then equating that with the entirety of our fossil fuel addiction.
You see a bloodied harp seal, your mind screeches STOP, and then you demand – bodily, if necessary – that this particular slaughter cease. What does your mind instinctively say when you see a gaggle of protesters being led by police away from the White House? When the news reports about the action reveal that the protesters were singing that old protest ditty that starts “Hey-hey, ho-ho”? (And by rights should continue thusly: This tired old chant has got to go / Hey-hey, ho-ho . . .) I can tell you what mine reflexively mutters: Old news. And I’m coming to that news with more context than probably 99 percent of its intended audience (presuming its organizers could even identify their intended audience, which is the kind of thing no self-respecting modern marketing company would launch a campaign without first identifying).
And what about Al Gore’s world-spanning day in the real life of the climate? Well, I’ll be honest, I only tuned in a couple of times, but each time I saw a handful of technocratic types on auditorium stages earnestly presenting or discussing the hard data of climate change. With the sound off, it was almost like watching a worldwide serial re-enactment of "The Inconvenient Truth" itself. Which, to be fair, is precisely how Gore originally startled us – by turning a dry PowerPoint presentation in a generic auditorium into something dynamic, gripping, alarming. In the tradition of TED talks and the like, Gore’s "Inconvenient Truth" was a well-constructed and expertly detonated digital mind bomb.
The media moves lightning quick today, though, and even a five-year-old movie can seem just as old news as hey-hey-ho-hoing on the White House lawn. Five years after his first mind bomb, with the climate conversation never less coherent – in North America, at least – Gore decided to meet our confusion with more science. More presentations, more PowerPoints, a whole worldwide web of talking heads wielding bar graphs and reasoned argumentation and an overarching message of impending doom.
Before we even get to whether the hard facts grow more or less convincing to the unconvinced if you repeat them over and over again (the answer to which appears to be an emphatic Vaderesque Noooooooo!), someone should’ve put on their strategic thinking cap and asked: Can you think of anyone who does not already agree with Al Gore who is going to tune into something called “Al Gore’s 24 Hours of Reality”? (The likely answer – again: Noooooooo! – was more eloquently articulated by Leo Hickman at The Guardian.)
So where does that leave us, 40 years after Greenpeace’s founding? Well, never has the threat been greater, never more relevant. Some might be able shrug and say what are a few whales or an irradiated Pacific atoll in the name of progress – the kinds of issues Greenpeace first made its name on – but climate affects everyone. The would-be leaders of this global debate in the environmental movement seem to understand that the medium has changed – they surely tweet their thumbs off – but their message and strategy are still stuck in the age of hey-hey-ho-ho.
David Roberts at Grist wrote a great piece about the importance of activist Tim DeChristopher – the economics student who wandered into an oil-lease auction and walked out with several million worth of them to his name and a folk hero’s legacy. His key point is that DeChristopher’s simple act of civil disobedience was powerful because it was unprecedented, unexpected, closer to a "Colbert Report" prank than a civil-rights-era sit-in. It was, in Roberts’ phrase, “badass.”
One more example: last week, I received a very official looking press release linking to Environment Canada’s website and purporting to hail the re-launch of a 1995 children’s education campaign on climate change called What A Difference A Degree Makes. For a time, the government department’s own homepage appeared to be touting this re-release, and then the rote condemnation of the hoax arrived – which also turned out to be part of the hoax. The perpetrators turned out to be the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition, who surely did more to raise the visibility of their own work than a thousand carefully argued pressers could’ve mustered. And in so doing, they made a clear and sharp point about the fact that the Canadian government today still has yet to learn the lessons it tried to teach under other leadership 15 years ago. Which, you’ll surely agree, is a pretty badass way to alert the media to your youth-oriented climate campaign.
I’m not sure what an action like this would look like at Keystone XL scale. What I do know is that no one’s tried it. There seems to be widespread recognition among environmentalism’s old guard that they need to use up-to-the-minute communications tools, but little understanding that you also have to craft up-to-the-minute messages. Old news is still old news, even if it’s tweeted.
To change the climate conversation 140 characters at a time, follow me on Twitter: @theturner.
Also on MNN: 40 years of eco-activism, animated