Greenpeace: Activities, Agendas, and Worldviews
By Jacob Laksin
Founded in 1970 as a loose assortment of Canadian anti-nuclear agitators, American expatriates and underground journalists calling themselves the Don’t Make a Wave Committee, Greenpeace is today the most influential group of the environmental Left. Greenpeace conceived its current name after one of its activists, Bob Hunter, had an epiphany. As Hunter tells the story on the organization’s web site, “Somebody flashed two fingers as we were leaving the church basement and said ‘Peace!’” When social worker and activist Bill Darnell added, “Let's make it a Green Peace,” the group’s founding members, mesmerized, immediately settled on a new name.
As its maiden act, the group of still-green activists set sail on a halibut trawler called the Phyllis McCormack. The crew—a motley collection of activists who shared a common affection for environmentalist rabble rousing—traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to Amchitka Island, a part of the Aleutian Island chain. As Bob Hunter explained in his chronicle of the journey, The Greenpeace to Amchitka: An Environmental Odyssey, “We had the biggest concentration of tree-huggers, radicalized students, garbage-dump stoppers, shit-disturbing unionists, freeway fighters, pot smokers and growers, aging Trotskyites, condo killers, farmland savers, fish preservationists, animal rights activists, back-to-the-landers, vegetarians, nudists, Buddhists, and anti-spraying, anti-pollution marchers and picketers in the country, per capita, in the world.”
Their intention was to disrupt an underground U.S. nuclear weapons test. “A boat on a nuclear test site—that's a clear message,” Rex Weyler, a draft dodger and journalist who wrote a reverent history of the group, called Greenpeace, later explained. It was also in line with the group’s core philosophy, a largely faith-based confection of pacifism and environmentalist ardor. Fundamentally opposed to nuclear weapons, Greenpeace activists also claimed that the testing of the weapons on Amchitka would exact irreparable harm to the local sea otter population.
On one level, the mission proved a failure. The bomb was successfully exploded before the Phyllis McCormack managed to sail into the sea off the island coast and prevent the testing. Not all was lost, however. In failing, Greenpeace had hit upon what would become its signature strategy in the succeeding years: manipulating, and often flat-out inventing the facts to suit its environmentalist agenda. Prior to the boat’s departure, Greenpeace floated the claim that the testing of a nuclear weapon off of Amchitka could trigger a powerful earthquake. In turn, this would unleash a tidal wave that, as Hunter put it, “would slam the lips of the Pacific rim like a series of karate chops.” Alarming on their face, such claims had no basis in fact, something Hunter would later confess in his book, The Greenpeace Chronicles. Wrote Hunter: “We painted a rather extravagant picture…tidal waves, earthquakes, radioactive death clouds, decimated fisheries, deformed babies. We never said that’s what would happen, only that it could happen.” Hunter nevertheless justified the organization’s calculated mendacity on the grounds that “children all over Canada were having dreams about bombs.” A lie was therefore justified by the greater environmentalist good. It would not be the last time that a Greenpeace activist would invoke that rule to justify a deceitful campaign.
When, in the wake of the nuclear test, the promised environmental horrors failed to materialize, Greenpeace casually manufactured new ones. Thus the group claimed that the explosion had resulted in the deaths of upward of 1,000 sea otters. That much of the evidence was speculative, and the organization’s only tangible proof – the bodies of 23 sea otters (with no conclusive information about the cause of death) – came nowhere near corroborating its inflated charges, did not hinder Greenpeace from confidently pronouncing the tests an unmitigated disaster for the island’s ecology. In a 1996 report, Greenpeace blamed the dearth of incriminating evidence on “weather conditions,” which the group insisted had “pushed carcasses away from the shore.” Stormy weather was also the organization’s culprit of choice to explain away its failure to measure the impact of the testing on other marine life. For all its apologias, the group now acknowledged that, despite its grim warnings to the contrary, “[i]n the long term, populations of animal species at Amchitka will recover from the direct physical impacts of the nuclear explosions…”
Back in the 1970s, Greenpeace was disinclined to dwell on such inconsistencies. The group had a reputation to build. Preferring to minimize its failure to stop the nuclear test, the organization and its sympathizers seized on the “Amchitka action” to announce Greenpeace as an environmentalist force to be reckoned with. “For us it was a sign of hope that people can change things,” one of the group’s co-founders, Jim Bohlen, later said. “And our action gave the entire ecology movement a new name: Green. That was better than ecology—a word hardly anyone understood.”
A word most everyone understood was intimidation, and Greenpeace has practiced it with unrelenting zeal throughout its controversial history. Where its environmental positions have been unfounded in substance—a not uncommon occurrence—Greenpeace has relied on scare tactics to right the balance. Indeed, as Rex Weyler, an American draft dodger and Greenpeace biographer has admitted, the forecasts of imminent environmental disaster with which the organization has come to be identified are often at sharp variance with scientific reality. “There's no clear evidence that people will die,” Weyler has said of the Greenpeace tendency to foment fear by invoking, on no sound evidence, the putative human threats of the various initiatives it has opposed.
Lack of evidence, however, has not stopped Greenpeace from propagating its radical agenda. In the early 1990s, for instance, after years of sustained attacks on the whaling and fishing industries, Greenpeace turned its sights on another supposed aquatic threat: chlorine. At the time, Greenpeace asserted that it would accept nothing less than the blanket prohibition of the hated element. “There are no uses of chlorine which we regard as safe,” declared Greenpeace activist Joe Thornton, the author of Pandora’s Poison, an environmentalist screed advocating a global ban on the use of chlorine. What Thornton and his Greenpeace cohorts chose to ignore was the demonstrable fact that chlorine, far from the uniquely dangerous threat of their imaginings, was one of the most important public health innovations in history, not least for its role in purifying and disinfecting water.
The consequences of the group’s scientifically illiterate campaign against chorine would prove grave. In 1999, Walkerton, Ontario, became a disaster scene when an outbreak of E. Coli bacteria gripped the small Canadian town. Subsequent investigation revealed that the town’s water wells were not outfitted with the standard chlorination systems. It later emerged that one reason for the tragic oversight was that the manager of Walkerton’s water works, one Stan Koebel, admitted to having “heard” that chorine was harmful—a claim that Greenpeace had spent the decade popularizing in Canada. Swayed by environmentalist fear mongering against chlorine, Koebel had failed to properly purify the town’s water supply. Contaminated manure from adjacent farms was thus allowed to leech into the town’s wells following the springtime rains. After drinking the water, seven Walkerton citizens died; as many as 2,000 reportedly became ill.
Equally misguided has been Greenpeace’s adamant hostility to biotechnological crops. Science is not on the organization’s side: Biotechnology not only allows for the manufacture of a greater quantity of food but also offers environmental benefits by reducing the use of chemical pesticides in food production. Impervious to that reality, Greenpeace has called for a global ban of biotech crops. Scare tactics are, typically, its preferred form of opposition. Under cover of “direct action,” Greenpeace has long vandalized private farms that use biotechnology to genetically modify foods. Rather than acknowledge their repeated violations of the law, Greenpeace members cloak their criminality in euphemism. Greenpeace press releases routinely describe vandalism of private farms thusly: "At 5:15 a.m. today in a peaceful direct action, a Greenpeace decontamination unit removed genetically modified pollution from the third farm-scale experiment to be disrupted in the U.K. over the last eight weeks." Through such linguistic alchemy is a transparently unlawful act transformed into “peaceful direct action.”
On occasion, Greenpeace has combined such direct action with disinformation campaigns. Among the most prominent examples in recent history was the organization’s attempt to lay siege—both literally and figuratively—to the Brent Spar oil tanker operated by the Shell oil company. When, in 1995, the tanker announced its intention to shuttle its disused platforms off the coast of Scotland, Greenpeace waged an international media campaign against the decision, which it characterized as an environmental tragedy in waiting. Not content to demand the worldwide boycott of all Shell fill-up stations, Greenpeace activists stormed the tanker and proceeded to occupy it for the duration of three weeks. Negative publicity sparked by the Greenpeace campaign coupled with well-justified concerns about a loss of revenue—in Germany, Shell stations reportedly suffered losses of up to fifty percent during the campaign—prompted Shell to abandon its plans for the Brent Spar. The environmentalist group hailed this decision as a “victory for the environment.”
But its elation was short-lived. A critical element of the Greenpeace campaign—its estimate of the amount of leftover oil in the tanker—collapsed under examination. Facing sudden skepticism, Greenpeace was compelled to admit that the 5,500 tons of oil it alleged remained in rig’s storage tanks was a gross exaggeration. Further inquiry revealed that Greenpeace had not actually sampled the Brent Spar’s storage tanks but had instead based its findings—and the crux of its campaign—on a sample taken from a vent pipe. At considerable cost to its reputation, Greenpeace was forced to acknowledge that its “improvised measurements had been taken from the wrong part of the Spar, resulting in a significant overestimation of the amount of oil left in the storage tanks.” Today, in a naked attempt to save face, Greenpeace claims that, even if had erred in publicizing erroneous claims about the environmental effects of scuttling the Brent Spar, it was nonetheless justified in waging its campaign against the decision on the grounds that it opposes any scuttling in the ocean—a statement far removed from its earlier efforts to cast Shell as an aggressive polluter eager to contaminate the seas with unused oil. Not for the first time in the organization’s history, larger environmentalist aims justified a factually dubious campaign.
Since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003, Greenpeace has focused its efforts on obstructing the efforts of the coalition that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. In January of 2003, a gang of 25 activists aboard the Greenpeace flagship Rainbow Warrior attempted to blockade a British military supply port. Leaving no doubt about the organization’s subversive agenda, a Greenpeace spokeswoman said of the blockade: “We want to cut the military supply chain to the war in Iraq.” Greenpeace staged a nearly identical action in March of 2003, when the Rainbow Warrior led a procession of activist-laden rafts in attempting to blockade a joint U.S.-Spanish naval base in southwestern Spain. Their mission: to prevent an American freighter from delivering supplies to coalition forces in the Gulf. Targeting yet another member of the military coalition, Greenpeace activists that same month attempted to block off the residence of Australian Prime Minister John Howard, citing Australia’s support for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein as their motivation. In the Netherlands, Greenpeace blockaded a ship transporting U.S. military equipment, which the group claimed was bound for Iraq.
Having militantly opposed the liberation of Iraq, Greenpeace today postures as a watchdog of Iraqi welfare. In particular, Greenpeace blames coalition forces for failing to prevent the looting of small amounts of enriched uranium following the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government. Refusing to acknowledge the benefits that have redounded to a newly democratic Iraq as a consequence of the war, Greenpeace persists in claiming that the “only winners in this story are those who are looking to capitalize on security failures by scoring loose nukes.”
Though it failed to prevent the ouster of Saddam Hussein, the browbeating tactics regularly deployed by Greenpeace have in the past been successful. Among the most notorious of its successes was the Greenpeace campaign against the healthcare company Novartis AG. In 1999, after getting word that the company was using biotech crops to produce its line of Gerber baby foods, Greenpeace activists faxed a menacing letter “To the CEO” (Greenpeace did not bother to find out who that was). Demanded the letter: “Does Gerber use genetically engineered products in its baby food? If so, which products? What steps have you taken, if any, to ensure that you are not using [biotech crops]?” Eager to avoid a damaging public relations row over the justice of using the crops, whose presence in the foods was perfectly safe, Novartis quickly capitulated, pledging to refrain from any future use of biotechnology in its food products. Intimidation tactics had once again triumphed over science.
In keeping with its dogmatic opposition to biotech foods, Greenpeace has positioned itself as a leading opponent of one of the most promising developments in food research: a particularly nutritious strain of rice, created by means of gene splicing, known as “yellow rice” or Golden rice (so called for the color of its grains). Following its creation in 2000, the rice, with its unusually high level of vitamin A, has emerged as a boon to developing countries, where malnutrition and vitamin deficiency are leading causes of common and often fatal ailments.
Greenpeace fiercely opposes it. As Greenpeace sees it, yellow rice is a deception perpetrated on the world by wealthy developers, a claim it attempts to bolster by contending that for the rice to have any nutritional benefits an adult "would have to eat around 9kg [19.8 pounds] of cooked rice daily to satisfy his/her daily need of vitamin A." But the claim is a willful misreading of the science evidence. Greenpeace’s allegations quite apart, even small servings of yellow rice are effective vitamin supplements. In developing countries, where the effects of poverty are felt most acutely, the rice literally saves lives. Nonetheless, Greenpeace, along with likeminded environmentalist groups and non-governmental organizations, is bent on impeding its further development. Benedikt Haerlin, an international coordinator for Greenpeace, has spearheaded the opposition, even threatening to carry out the organization’s patented “direct action” campaigns to destroy test plants.
Unwavering opposition to technological progress has driven many former Greenpeace activists from its ranks. Dr. William Plaxton, a professor of biochemistry at Queens University in Ontario and Dr. Barry Palevitz, a professor of botany at the University of Georgia, both terminated their Greenpeace membership in the late 1990s in protest against its unconsidered opposition to biotechnology.
Among the most prominent of the defectors is Patrick Moore. A co-founder of Greenpeace who has become a passionate critic of the group he parented, Moore takes particular exception to the Greenpeace position on biotech foods. “Greenpeace activists threaten to rip the biotech rice out of the fields if farmers dare to plant it,” Moore has said. “They have done everything they can to discredit the scientists and the technology.” Moore has also condemned the group’s attempts to obstruct the development of yellow rice, noting that the “risk of not allowing farmers in Africa and Asia to grow Golden Rice is that another 2.5 million children will probably go blind.” Moore, who parted ways with Greenpeace after 15 years, has also castigated the organization’s extreme political agenda. Commenting on the precipitous dwindling of Greenpeace membership in recent years—the organization’s membership has plummeted from a peak of one million in the early 1990s to around 300,000 by 2005—Moore has attributed the decline to the fact that Greenpeace has become “dominated by leftwingers and extremists who disregard science in the pursuit of environmental purity.”
Moore is hardly the only disaffected Greenpeace member to hold that view. Another outspoken critic of Greenpeace is Dr. Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish professor of statistics and a onetime Greenpeace member. Though Lomborg had grown skeptical of the organization’s dogmatic adherence to the gospel of environmentalism, his decisive break from Greenpeace came in August of 2002, when he published a book entitled The Skeptical Environmentalist. In it, Lomborg offered a rigorous debunking of environmentalist claims. Lomborg noted that, Greenpeace’s doom-saying notwithstanding, the world’s environmental resources were not being depleted; that the disastrous consequences of global warming were greatly exaggerated; and that the continued technological development of the world would improve the quality of life for all people without ushering in the environmental apocalypse long forecast by Greenpeace with Nostradamus-like conviction. Against Greenpeace’s frantic claim that the rain forests “are in crisis,” Lomborg sensibly explained that with the advancement of technological progress, developing countries would be able to devote more time and resources to environmental concerns. “It's a temporary problem,” wrote Lomborg. “We won't lose the rainforest forever." Lomborg’s amply-documented challenge to the ideology of environmentalism unsurprisingly earned him a swift excommunication.
Even within the structural hierarchy of Greenpeace, dissent has manifested itself. After a schism in the late 1970s, the various organizations originally comprising Greenpeace have today united into 41 affiliates and two main branches, Greenpeace USA and the Amsterdam-based Greenpeace International. One group that has bitterly parted ways with Greenpeace is the Hawaii-based Greenpeace Foundation, Inc. Indeed, the Greenpeace Foundation is today a prominent adversary of Greenpeace, deploring the organization’s descent into outright anti-Americanism—for instance, when Greenpeace took up the cause of Europe’s anti-American nuclear disarmament movement in the 1980s. Moreover, according to the Greenpeace Foundation, Greenpeace International has contemplated a campaign to shutter all American corporations that failed to provide it with donations. Another charge advanced by the Greenpeace Foundation is that Greenpeace has failed adequately to address the issue of wildlife preservation, especially with regard to the protection of dolphins. Perhaps the most serious of the charges that the Greenpeace Foundation has directed at its estranged relative is that the organization has made use of unethical fundraising methods. For instance, the Greenpeace Foundation notes that a San Francisco branch of Greenpeace used a national direct-mail fundraising scheme to solicit millions of dollars, which it declined to share with other Greenpeace groups.
A more extensive expose of the organization’s duplicitous fundraising practices was carried out in 2003 by Public Interest Watch (PIW), a nonprofit watchdog group. PIW conducted an in-depth investigation of the organization’s financial records and published a report disclosing that the organization takes advantage of its tax-exempt status to launder funds. “These funds,” PIW noted, “are then passed to other Greenpeace corporations that use them for non-exempt – and often illegal – purposes.” Specifically, PIW uncovered that Greenpeace uses its Greenpeace Fund, a tax-exempt entity debarred from engaging in political advocacy and lobbying under section (501)(c)(3) of the IRS tax code, to direct funds to Greenpeace Inc., a tax-exempt organization permitted to engage in lobbying and advocacy under section (501)(c)(4) of the tax code, but not to accept tax-deductible funds – such as it routinely accepted, in direct contravention of the law, from the Greenpeace Fund. PIW calculated that in 1999, some 30 percent of Greenpeace’s $14.2 million budget – $4.25 million – was provided by the Greenpeace Fund. That sum was exceeded the following year, when the Greenpeace Fund contributed $4.5 million to Greenpeace, Inc. In total, PIW estimated that between 1998 and 2000, Greenpeace disbursed $24 million to internal entities prohibited by the law from accepting tax-exempt contributions.
To obscure the legally dubious money trail, Greenpeace made a point on its tax forms of reporting the funds as intended for “general support,” a purposely vague description that revealed little about the purposes to which the funds were put. But PIW offered a clue by noting the following efforts undertaken by Greenpeace Inc. in previous years:
Nor was this the only instance in which Greenpeace activists had run afoul of the law. PIW adduced a long list of illegal activities involving the organization’s members over the years. It included:
According to a December 20, 2005 New York Times report ("F.B.I. Watched Activist Groups, New Files Show"), "the F.B.I. investigated possible financial ties between [Greenpeace] members and militant groups like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front."
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