An Ashamed Greenpeace

This week, Greenpeace won a case in the Philippine Supreme Court to suspend the sale and production of the recently authorised golden rice and a modified eggplant. But rather than the usual celebrations where the NGO gloats to their donors and followers about another great victory, for four days the Greenpeace websites and social media accounts have not mentioned this news at all. This was a more curious point than any legal victory in a corrupted judicial system.

After decades of fighting the commercialisation of golden rice (a grain supplemented with beta carotene), Greenpeace was seen to be unsympathetic to the malnourished in developing countries at risk from Vitamin A Deficiency (VAD), an affliction that kills millions and causes up to 500,000 children to go blind annually (source: Johns Hopkins). They also campaigned against the authorisation of an eggplant (Bt brinjal) that removed the necessity for smallholders to regularly apply pesticides to keep the brinjal fruit borer under control. This technology led to better work conditions for farmers and a more abundantly available vegetable staple in poor regions of the developing world. Both of these life-saving, empowering innovations went against Greenpeace’s anti-technology orthodoxy and for more than two decades they have been relentlessly trying to block their developments.

Greenpeace is fully aware of how socially unjust these campaigns have been, how it portrays the organisation as a cosmopolitan elite Western alliance trying to impose their affluent values on the poorest and most vulnerable in developing countries and how factually baseless their anti-biotech fear campaign has been. Years of constant criticism at the highest levels (including a letter signed by 110 Nobel laureates likening their golden rice campaign to crimes against humanity) has made it clear to Greenpeace that their actions against golden rice and Bt brinjal were destructive and unwelcome.

This hollow victory in the Philippine Supreme Court could only then be seen as a stain on Greenpeace’s social justice credentials and helps explain why they were rightly too embarrassed to publicly acknowledge their dreadful actions against humanity’s most fragile and precarious populations. So they stayed silent and pretended such a move to interfere with man’s fight against poverty and malnutrition was not of their doing.

If Greenpeace was so ashamed of winning in the Philippine Supreme Court, then why did they pursue this case in the first place?

The Nature of the Beast?

A typical Risk-Monger reaction would be: “Well, these are eco-religious zealots. They don’t give a damn about the consequences their narrow-minded actions have on human health and the environment. It’s all about winning for these horrid dogmatic fundamentalists.” But winning by imposing a colonial, elitist culture on the world’s most vulnerable populations, mostly children, is too odious of a crime against humanity even for this monstrous beast. There must be something else going on here.

Greenpeace has as many internal factions as the US Republican Party and keeping a tight ship with a common message is becoming well-nigh impossible for the NGO. The good ones committed to sustainability get frustrated and leave; those who don’t, lose their idealism and let cynicism take over. But activist campaigns will only succeed when there is a simple, common solution so a clear message, universally communicated is essential. This leads to their attempts to paper over the organisation’s caverns of dissent and disagreement.

There was no choice for Greenpeace but to contest the recent biotech authorisations in the Philippines to appease their internal, militant anti-GMO wing. But at the same time, they chose not to communicate this “victory” to avoid enraging their social justice and development factions. They had a similar muted celebration several weeks ago in Germany as the last three nuclear reactors were shut down (in the midst of an energy crisis leading to an increase in energy impoverishment and an expansion of coal-fired power plants).

But couldn’t the NGO just tell their militant zealots to go hang themselves? They did that once, and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was born, leading them to cannibalise the whaling issue and delegitimise the role Greenpeace tried to assume in the wider fisheries debate. According to Roger Hallam, Extinction Rebellion was essentially born out of the inaction and inefficacy of the existing climate NGOs. On the biotech debate, there are so many anti-corporate militants ready to act (and an abundance of US tort law industry funding), that any backtracking by Greenpeace would create an opportunity for a schism and loss of further influence for the NGO in the lucrative anti-agri-tech game.

So Greenpeace is left with little choice but to present a common front, appease their militants (like the case they took to the Philippine Supreme Court on golden rice and Bt brinjal) while the organisation gradually rots from the inside, losing more good people and creating an internal culture of cynicism.

Shouldn’t other activist groups speak up and give Greenpeace a shake? No. NGOs never publicly disagree with other NGOs, no matter how heinous or unethical an organisation’s actions might be. While most of them don’t have ethical codes of conduct, they share a sort of “Bro Code” where they never speak ill of other NGOs. So when groups like Extinction Rebellion were disrupting public bus services or using children in their campaigns, everyone stayed silent. When activist scientists were secretly taking money from US tort law firms to campaign against glyphosate, the activists sat beside them in the European Parliament and just avoided eye contact. When a popular firebrand guru equated the use of pesticides to rape, no NGOs spoke up. When Greenpeace won a decision to make farmers stop growing Bt brinjal and golden rice, they stayed silent and so did every other NGO. It’s the code.

A Leaderless, Rudderless Sinking Ship

It doesn’t help matters that Greenpeace has not had an effective leader for more than a year now since Jennifer Morgan accepted the role of Climate Czar for the German government while not technically resigning her post (as she said on Bloomberg during the COP27, she is in a stronger position now to impress their position on the climate debate). So with its de facto executive director touring the world as a global climate diplomat for Germany, Greenpeace is slowly consuming itself from the inside. It has only now recognised this problem and just yesterday finally decided to start looking to recruit a new leader. (Maybe the Risk-Monger should apply).

While the image of Greenpeace is global, the organisation functions with a light international office in Amsterdam and certain strong national organisations fighting for influence and funding on a wide variety of issues in very different political arenas. To add to the “halo-halo”, the group has a curious mix of strong local characters with their own ways of doing things (like the “Stuffy” Annie Leonard from Greenpeace USA) and who may not be interested in listening to others or letting the “corporates” onto their turf.

As environmental issues are local, this wide variation of interests, funds, personalities and policy issues further weakens the central core. I once had a public debate with the former head of communications for Greenpeace International and she could not contain her frustration with the group’s insistence on running the Save the Arctic campaign.

To make matters worse, by any corporate calculation, the NGO is bankrupt (not just morally, but also financially). Their membership and donation structure was built pre-Internet and fundraising costs consume the equivalent of two-thirds of every campaign euro spent. They completely missed the micro-donation, crowdfunding approach of social-media organisations that are generating most of the online activist engagement and campaign rhetoric.

Unless they are functioning like cadres in a civil service, the Greenpeace directors in Amsterdam must be morally exhausted.

Time to Clean House

If an organisation is ashamed of its actions, rife with cynicism, financially unstable and haemorrhaging talent, it is time for a restructuring. But that requires leadership so Greenpeace will need to appoint a new full-time executive director who can strengthen the centre and enforce change on the wily national organisations. It will be messy (but not as bad as the mess Kumi Naidoo had left behind). On the financial front, they need to sink their remaining fleet of ships. The world has changed and these dinosaurs are sucking up much more than all of their campaign resources combined.

The NGO has lost membership and credibility due to their intransigent, anti-scientific positions on nuclear energy and biotechnology. Both of these campaigns should be retired. Free the militants up to start their own campaigns under other new organisations and use that as an opportunity to clean out the zealots. Humility would make the reorganisation process easier so maybe a public apology will go far in mending the fences.

Greenpeace will need to recognise reality. A recent internal document from a group of German anti-biotech activists (as militant as they come) recognised that they could not win against the clear science on plant gene editing. For the last three decades, these NGOs admitted, they have been flogging a dead horse, the public is not buying their argument and they need to reframe the narrative. If such radical course correction is possible by these militants, then that should be reason enough for Greenpeace to initiate an internal “delousing” of their militants.

Greenpeace cannot continue to be seen to be carelessly shitting on the world’s most vulnerable with narrow-minded, elitist policies that expose these populations to fatal illnesses, continued poverty and malnutrition. If they are too ashamed to publicly admit what they have done to farmers and poor communities across the Philippines, then they have to face their moral bankruptcy. They need to either change their ways or prepare for greater public outrage and further staff departures.

Being immobilised by their shame is what cowards do.

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