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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Less Greenpeace, more green power

Things are looking bad for the (once) highly-respected environmental NGO Greenpeace. Recent leaks have shown that their finance department basically doesn’t know what it’s doing, stories have come out that they lost $3m through speculating on currency markets (a particularly bizarre scenario considering the general left-wing dislike of corporations and financial institutions), and they are now under fire again after it was revealed that one of their campaign directors used to fly to work from Luxembourg to Amsterdam – rather ironic for an NGO with ‘green’ in the very name.
It seems that everything that could go wrong is doing so, although this isn’t the first time – some of Greenpeace’s campaigns in recent years have also been flops. They pushed for the British Indian Ocean Territory to be made into a marine reserve, a decision which the Wikileaks cables later revealed to be exactly what the US and UK governments wanted – the marine reserve designation means the islands can continue to be used as a US military base, but massively reduces the chances of the indigenous people of those lands being allowed to return.
Some grassroots campaigners have also become increasingly disgruntled with Greenpeace’s increased focus on big, media-friendly stunts involving climbing buildings or invading oil rigs. This is a long way from the public goodwill that the organization built up in the 1960s and 70s, and when they sailed the world in the famous Rainbow Warrior boat that the French government eventually blew up because of the trouble it was causing them.
It’s a shame to see the downfall of a once great NGO, but despite the wishful thinking of some right-wingers and climate change deniers, it’s not the end of the world for the green movement – it simply shows the importance of having a powerful and organized grassroots movement as well as the more detached and professional NGOs and charities.
There is an argument that NGOs get more respect from politicians than grassroots movements do, and are therefore more likely to succeed in their aims. They know how to speak the same language as politicians, and to use the formal channels for doing so; they have the money to take out advertisements and run targeted campaigns that politicians understand; they often even look like politicians (the green NGOs in the west tend to be primarily staffed by white men, just like western governments).
But ultimately, the real power of any NGO comes from the implicit or explicit threat that they have a lot of people behind them who are willing to show their support for the cause. NGOs have money, but nowhere near as much as oil lobbyists or other corporations – they need to have the weight of numbers behind them to really scare politicians into listening to them. They also need a grassroots movement of ordinary people behind them simply to keep them sane – to tell them what policies they should be pursuing and which ones they should drop, and to make sure they don’t lose sight of their original ideals and literally turn into the boring, status quo politicians they are supposed to be opposing.
Grassroots movements like Occupy in the US and Climate Camp in the UK have managed to gain strong reactions from the state, even without organized NGOs to work with. The often violent reaction of police and politicians to these movements shows that they struck a nerve and had enough support to stimulate real change, even if they were eventually snuffed out by the power of the state. If we can keep building such movements in favor of social and environmental justice, we can change the world even without the help of increasingly wayward groups like Greenpeace.

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