The Greenpeace Media Machine
issue 171 - May 1987
Greenpeace has built a worldwide reputation through
high-profile direct action. But do dramatic TV pictures overly
lull the audience into a mass of passive spectators. Eric Draper
assesses the environmental theatre approach to Green politics.
Four years ago I stood with a group of citizens and environmental activists in front of a burned-out hazardous waste dump in Jacksonville, Florida. Scorched, twisted metal, ruptured tanks and idle earth-movers provided a perfect backdrop for our message - a call for stronger toxic waste laws.
An audience of television cameras and newspaper correspondents had gathered to record our message. But as we started to speak, the site workers raced the engines of their heavy equipment. The noise drowned out our carefully practised comments.
It was yet another insult from the company, American Electric. Previously their managers had started a fire while illegally mixing gasoline with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) for resale as fuel oil. The blaze showered the westside neighbourhood with thick, oily soot laced with dioxin - a deadly product of partially combusted PCBs.
We shouted to be heard above the diesels' din, but the camera-operators already looking bored were dismantling their recorders. Then two members of our group, campaigners from Greenpeace, vaulted the yellow cordon that surrounded the site and attempted to plant our banner in the toxic-saturated soil. Guards quickly dragged them off site, but the image of confrontation was permanently recorded.
With this dramatic piece of environmental theatre, the Greenpeacers stole the show. Our sincere-sounding pledges to organize grassroots support to stop the threat of toxics were barely audible over the noise of racing engines that night on the Jacksonville TV News. The next day's paper buried our 'content' message beneath the confrontation photo that drew all the attention. After millions of signatures, hundreds of public events, scores of news conferences and four laws - I am still searching for the lessons of that day.
As organizers, we needed media coverage to help send a message to area residents that a community response to the disaster was possible and necessary: to let them know that we would be knocking on doors, prodding people into action, finding and supporting neighbourhood leaders.
Yet the event, as retold by photo editors, took on a different cast. Lost was the challenge to the authorities at the site. Lost was the statement by neighbourhood residents that they, as injured persons, no longer trusted the health authorities' bland reassurances. Lost was the connection that the people saw between their local struggle and the broader national movement against toxics. Instead our audience got videos of a barricade stand-off.
Planners of ecological campaigns inevitably face questions of how to stop imminent threats to health and the environment while building long-term support for permanent solutions. These two generally exclusive goals demand opposite organizing strategies.
Putting an end to toxic dumping at a particular site may mean getting a few heroic individuals to throw themselves in front of the trucks creating 'propaganda of the deed' in order to make the evening news. Success is measured in news-show minutes, 'above-the-fold' newspaper photos and captions. The almost certain public response can be puffed up to bludgeon officials into considering the demands.
But putting an end to unsafe toxic dumping everywhere is much more complex. It means mobilizing consistent support that can be reflected in public meetings, letters and phone calls and votes on election day. This support means a change in the policies and laws that govern industrial and commercial practices. It also means that many individual citizens participate; become proactive instead of reactive.
The tradeoff between 'mediagenic' short-term actions and long-term movement-building does not have to be so direct - one can complement the other. But the role of the press with its insatiable appetite for colour does often dictate the way environmentalists plan their campaigns. As we compete with football teams for public attention, however, we have to be certain that we are not just helping create a mass audience of spectators. We face the danger that the 'green base' is an armchair army of temporarily-concerned people.
Greenpeace is one of the most successful environmental groups. It has successfully used media images to achieve results. Through heroic direct actions against whalers and sealers, Greenpeace has evoked a new public sense of conservation. By throwing themselves between hunter and hunted, the group's campaigners have built a world consensus for ocean conservation.
The victorious media-oriented campaign to stop the annual hunt of baby harp seals on the ice off Newfoundland is a good example. Millions of Europeans and North Americans responded with shock to pictures of defenseless newborn seals being bludgeoned with 'hakkapiks'*. Nowhere has blood seemed more gory than smeared on the white coats of the pups and spilled on to the sub-arctic ice.
The campaign has effectively destroyed the market for seal pelts. Few changes were made in laws limiting the harvest. But actions by the EEC and widespread consumer horror have reduced the economic incentive for the hunts. Annual treks to the ice have become a decade-long media spectacle.
Greenpeace still offers this victory as a substantive reason for supporting their work. Over the course of the campaign, two French film stars, a group of airline stewardesses and numerous 'Rainbow Warriors' shielded baby seals. Millions responded to these images and wrote postcards that helped build a successful consumer boycott. The killing of seal pups is nearly over. And we can all rejoice over that fact as we dine on veal tonight. In addition, the campaign brought in hundreds of thousands of members and millions of dollars into Greenpeace's coffers.
But the baby seal campaign also illustrates the problem of Greenpeace's organizing 'through the camera' approach. That death from a hakkapik is worse than being swallowed by a shark or a bear (the fate of many a seal pup) is media-engendered speculation. And Greenpeace was never able to establish that there was a threat to the seal population at all. They justified the call for preservation with statistics of severe population declines from the 1950s - before the Canadian Government had imposed limits restricting the numbers killed. Today Atlantic coast fishermen complain that seal overpopulation is playing havoc with fish stocks.
Greenpeace is world famous for its work in the north. But don't mention the word Greenpeace in Newfoundland - Canada's poorest province. Rich and poor, Left and Right, the populace of the island is united in contempt for the maligning they suffered at the hands of the Greenpeace media machine. Greenpeace in Newfoundland is synonymous with the destruction of an important tradition and livelihood. Greenpeace's use of 'good guy/bad guy' media images has alienated a group that ought to be part of the constituency for change. Considered 'meddlesome mainlanders' they recently became a whipping boy for reactionary elements in the province when word leaked that Innu Indians of Labrador had requested Greenpeace help to resist expansion of a NATO air combat training base that is threatening the Innu way of life. 'Greenpeace will do to the economy of Goose Bay what it did to the Newfoundland seal hunt,' one politician cried.
But Greenpeace hasn't always acted this way. Campaigns against nuclear testing in the Pacific have reflected more sympathy for affected persons. Greenpeace helped islanders from the Rongelap Atoll escape to Mejato Island. The islanders were unwilling victims of radioactive fallout from US nuclear tests. The anti-testing campaign was politically successful as well. It inspired the sometimes lacklustre peace movement to seriously challenge nuclear testing - particularly that carried out by France in their South Pacific colonies.
Media-oriented tactics have a place on the environmental agenda. If Greenpeace strikes terror into the polluters' hearts, the movement is likely to seek and sometimes find high-profile shortcuts. But we must be on guard against tactics that betray weakness and lack of faith in the community. The politics of symbols and their manipulation is an appealing tactic to the powerless. But the environmental movement is not weak and isolated.
A look at the recent US election reveals that even the most pro-business candidates ran as conservationists, albeit phony ones, and some environmental candidates like Senator Harry Reid of Nevada overcame serious odds to win on environmental platforms. The US environmental movement has systematically defeated Ronald Reagan's policies and won serious reforms in laws dealing with water and toxic wastes. Groups have more members and there is a sense of local activism that stretches from saving a local trout stream (my neighbourhood's environmental issue) to converting ranchland to parkland.
High on the Green agenda should be translating this popular support into radical policy changes before it is placated with measures that mitigate, but don't stop, environmental destruction. We do need to roll back the ecological assault; whether the cause is saving the rainforest or the whales; or whether it is saving our world ecosystem, and humankind with it, by limiting climate changes and avoiding nuclear war. But the key to change is to organize public support into an effective political force.
Television is a passivity-reinforcing mechanism which rewards viewers for sitting down and doing nothing other than watching. Greenpeace bears to the right when it just 'bears witness' (the official ideology of change for the group). To base our hopes on television is to leave our movement vulnerable to changing tastes and escalating demands for more entertaining actions.
Successful environmental organizing lies in uniting communities around commonly felt threats and translating the support into political power. The alternative is to let the folks stay happily planted on the couch, safe in the knowledge that the whales are being taken care of. It's right there on the tube.
* Instrument for clubbing in the Newfoundland seal hunt.
Eric Draper co-ordinates campaign for Clean Water Action in Washington.
Anyone who thinks that Greens are just wimps and pushovers should read a copy of Earth First! The Arizona-based newspaper is the house organ of a movement of cowboy environmentalists who operate mostly in the Western states of the US. The symbol of the Earth First movement is a tomahawk crossed with a monkey wrench and the slogan ''no compromise' in the defense of Mother Earth' is never far away.
Earth First is crammed with stories of civil disobedience or 'ecotage' - the sabotage of heavy equipment like tractors or tree harvesters - in order to defend some of the last unspoilt watershed, desert and forest areas in the United States. Earth First ideas have an unfamiliar but defiant ring - recommendations for a 'March for the Bears' at the Yellowstone National Park or demands for technology-free zones. One article on bears in a recent issue is sub-titled 'Will the real predators stand up so I can get a decent shot'. There is a special column called 'Ask Ned Ludd' to give advice to those who want 'creative means of effective defense against the forces of industrial totalitarianism'. Earth First draws its inspiration from Edward Abbey's best-selling novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, the story of a happy-go-lucky foursome who go on a rampage of destruction against the forces of growth and progress.
Earth First! Combines militant fun with some thoughtful analysis of the problems of wilderness parks or the necessity of sustaining biodiversity. The movement is part of that wing of North American Green thinking that calls itself 'Deep Ecology' and believes that we must do away with the present industrial system and replace it with something more compatible with the natural environment. But while you're waiting you can order your 'American Wilderness; Love it or Leave it Alone' T-shirt or 'Resist Much, obey little' bumper sticker from the folks at Earth First!
Earth First! POB 5781, Tucson, Arizona, US 85703