Greenpeace: a history of disruptive (and effective?) action

Greenpeace: perhaps the best-known environmental campaigning group in the UK and worldwide. When we think of Greenpeace, we might think of activists climbing oil rigs, boats preventing whaling or banners and marches. Their successes and failures have made headlines for over 50 years, but just how effective have they been as an organisation?

Greenpeace started from humble roots: in 1970, a meeting of the Don’t Make a Wave Committee in Vancouver decided to send a boat to Amchitka, an Alaskan island, where the United States Atomic Energy Commission had recently begun nuclear weapons testing.

On 15th September, 1971, a small boat named ‘the Greenpeace’ set out, manned by four crew. The boat never arrived at Amchitka because of weather conditions, and an underground atomic bomb was exploded in November of the same year. However, the crew’s storytelling about their experience ignited mass opposition to future nuclear weapons testing, and the US Atomic Energy Commission reluctantly agreed to abandon the Amchitka site.

These were Greenpeace’s beginnings as a global campaigning group: Greenpeace International was founded in 1979 and today, Greenpeace organisations exist in 57 countries worldwide and the group is a household name.

‘In the beginning, I think most of us were more interested in a global movement than in a global organisation. We wanted people to rise up everywhere and defend biodiversity and valuable ecosystems.’Rex Weyler, director of the original Greenpeace Foundation.

Weyler’s vision certainly came to fruition: Greenpeace have been involved in or responsible for many fundamental breakthroughs in environmental campaigning in their 50 years of action. Many of their campaigns have relied on Greenpeace’s famously evocative photography which made real to many the extent of damage being done to the environment. 

One of Greenpeace’s key early victories was the international commercial ban on whaling of 1982. Greenpeace had been campaigning for over a decade for the end of commercial whaling, often leading dangerous actions such as sailing their boats between whales and whalers and sharing evocative and horrifying images of whaling to spark a popular resistance movement.

In 1998, after years of Greenpeace campaigning with high-level political pressure, alongside direction action, the OSPAR Convention was adopted by 15 nations and representatives of the EU, to ban the dumping of toxic waste and industrial equipment into the North Sea. Greenpeace’s campaigning cumulated in the occupation of Shell’s Brent Spar platform, a floating oil storage tank which held up to 300,000 barrels of crude oil, as well as industrial and radioactive waste.  Greenpeace’s actions prevented the sinking of the platform in the North Sea – it was eventually towed to shore and recycled.

More recently, in 2015, Shell announced that it was giving up its plans to drill for oil in the Alaskan Arctic. This decision came after years of international Greenpeace protests, which built a popular movement of resistance to the proposed new oil drilling. Shell cited low oil prices and high costs as the primary reason for their decision, but also admitted the unexpected reputational damage caused by the protests and resistance.

Despite their extensive and grand-scale victories, Greenpeace is often associated with extremes of action, potentially damaging and dangerous, which for some don’t seem worth the result. Greenpeace campaigners made headlines for the wrong reasons in 2014, after damaging ancient earth markings on the Peruvian Nazca lines as part of a publicity stunt.

The public departure of Patrick Moore, an original member of Greenpeace, in 1986 also gave a bad name to the organisation. He accused the group of developing extremist attitudes and politically motivated agendas, which overshadowed the original peaceful and green roots of the organisation.

Today, Greenpeace identify as ‘a movement of people who are passionate about defending the natural world from destruction. Our vision is a greener, healthier and more peaceful planet, one that can sustain life for generations to come.’

The organisation pride themselves on their commitment to refuse any funding from governments, corporations or political parties, which allows them to remain independent and free to confront issues of commercial and industrial environmental degradation.

It’s clear that in the past Greenpeace have made some decisions which have had an unintended (negative) political or cultural impact. The goal which they as an organisation have set for themselves is huge – and many would argue that these impacts are an avoidable part of their work. And after all, the climate crisis will undoubtedly create far more chaos than Greenpeace have been responsible for.

(Image: Greenpeace Polska via Flickr.)

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