Wishing Greenpeace an unhappy birthday

For 40 years, big green NGOs have helped to denigrate democracy and stand in the way of progress.

Ben Pile

Topics Science & Tech

The growth of environmental non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over the past 50 years has been extraordinary. Starting from humble beginnings and means, organisations like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, which are both celebrating their fortieth anniversaries this year, and the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF), which opened its first office 50 years ago, now command budgets of hundreds of millions of dollars. But while the organic champagne may be flowing in the green camp, what does the rest of the world have to celebrate about the rise and rise of the Big Green NGO?

Greenpeace emerged when tensions between East and West dominated global politics. In September 1971, a boat full of activists set out from Vancouver in Canada to interrupt a US nuclear weapons test. A founding member of Greenpeace told the world: ‘We call our ship the Greenpeace because that’s the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world… We do not consider ourselves to be radicals. We are conservatives, who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations.’

The first Greenpeace mission failed to stop the escalation of the arms race, but it gave the organisation its trademark style of direct action. Big-scale stunts would ensure media attention for decades to come, but they also epitomised environmentalists’ shrill and uncompromising tone. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, NGOs grew in prominence and number, but it wasn’t until the Cold War drew to a close that NGOs really became global players.

Some have sought to explain the ascendency of the NGO as the regrouping of various left agendas after the disintegration of communism. Founding member turned critic of Greenpeace, Patrick Moore, fuels this perception, claiming that ‘pro-Soviet groups in the West were discredited’, thus they ‘moved into the environmental movement bringing with them their eco-Marxism and pro-Sandinista sentiments’. While there may be some truth to this claim, its significance is questionable. Moore seems to forget that his erstwhile comrades had identified themselves as ‘conservatives’. There were few organisations or individuals in the USSR, never mind in the West, that could be accurately described as ‘pro-Soviet’ at the time.

Moreover, environmental issues had been established on the international agenda long before the collapse of communism. Former Norwegian prime minister Gro Harlem Brundtland began compiling her UN World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) report in 1983. Our Common Future, published in 1987, became the blueprint for ‘sustainable development’ and proposed the ‘marriage of economy and ecology’. The NGOs we know today are the chimera produced by this ugly union.

Brundtland noted that NGOs had ‘played a major part in the environmental movement’ and were pioneers ‘in the creation of public awareness and political pressures that stimulated governments to act’. Accordingly, she saw in NGOs the potential to drive the sustainability agenda, in spite of public and governmental indifference. NGOs should be better funded and given access ‘to participate in decision-making’. They could ‘provide an efficient and effective alternative to public agencies’, in both the design and delivery of international and national policies.

Brundtland preferred that undemocratic and unaccountable NGOs keep national governments in check. They were handed the kind of tasks that the voting public might have once been expected to decide on through the ballot box. Concerns about ‘eco-Marxists’ or the left generally gaining power through the backdoor not only miss the point of Brundtland’s contempt for democratic politics – they also miss the real context of the NGOs’ ascendency: a post-political (or ‘post-ideological’) era.

Far from pitching governments against NGOs, this mode of politics has come to the rescue of politicians. In an era when suspicion of ‘ideology’ and of the public abounds, political leaders have been eager to prove their sympathy to the causes embraced by NGOs. Here, for instance, is David Cameron – then the opposition leader in the UK – holding a press conference about his energy policy at Greenpeace’s London offices.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the Brundtland report was the singular cause of the elevation of NGOs and the decline of democratic politics. But Brundtland nonetheless epitomises the desire for an organising basis for political institutions that transcends ‘ideology’. Soviet tyranny had come to an end, but so had faith in the idea that liberal democracies could be sustained by popular mandate. Scientists, with their immunity from ideology guaranteed by the objectivity of science, and NGOs, with their unimpeachable moral perspective, would determine the priorities that ought to drive policy and rescue the political establishment from its disorientation and disconnectedness.

Far from transcending ideology, however, the compact between institutions of power and NGOs created a new kind of politics, as revealed in their treatment of the issues they claim to be concerned with. With regards to the depletion of fish stocks, for instance, Greenpeace emphasises the need for regulation and the creation of international agreements and agencies to prevent over-fishing. But, as Rob Lyons has argued previously on spiked, a more sensible approach would be to find better ways of producing fish for ourselves, rather than depending on nature to produce limited amounts. The sustainability agenda, however, does not permit our independence from natural processes. After all, overcoming natural limits would deprive the arrangement between NGOs and the state of its moral basis: the limits of the natural world become the organising principle of the human world, as though the facts themselves had spoken to us and told us how to live.

But facts do not speak to us. They are interpreted through prejudices and are coloured by harrowing images of ecological degradation and suffering – the NGO’s primary mode of advancing its agenda. The NGOs’ mode of engagement is confined to the realm of emotions. Donating assuages individual guilt, and by hitching themselves to the NGO, otherwise redundant politicians hope to demonstrate that they are responding to the world’s problems. It is all very ‘ethical’ – if ethics is about nothing more than mere gestures intended to convey the existence of a moral conscience – but there is little discussion about what kind of world the NGOs and the UN’s approach to development is striving to create: in other words, the politics remains obscured. NGOs turn naive sympathy and emotional self-indulgence into political power.

This is seen most acutely where development and environmental agendas converge. In the West, and in wealthier countries, NGOs’ influence over the political agenda is mediated, of course. But where economies and political systems are less robust, the NGOs’ power is greater. On the basis that pastoral societies are ‘sustainable’, development and aid NGO Oxfam has determined that it should campaign for the preservation of ‘traditional society’ in the developing world. Oxfam’s head of research, Duncan Green, recently argued that, despite there being no obvious connection between climate change and the drought in the Horn of Africa, ‘smallholder agriculture and pastoralism… have shown they can provide a decent life for millions of east Africans’.

In 2008, a paper published by Oxfam about the virtues of pastoral society revealed the organisation’s limited faith in the possibilities of development. ‘Forward-looking traditionalists’, it said, could enjoy the fruits of modern industrial society, but only to the extent that ‘satellite and mobile phones would enable herders to check on market prices or disease outbreaks’. Never mind the ambitions that any person enduring life in ‘pastoral society’ might have about accessing communications technology like the rest of us do; Oxfam has decided his interests are best served by a lifestyle that no Oxfam worker in the UK would tolerate at home.

It is difficult to estimate the actual power that NGOs wield. There is no adequate definition of an NGO, no formal or legal definition of their relationship with official power. Nonetheless, Greenpeace, which claims to have 2.9million supporters around the world, has had an indubitable influence over the remaining 99.96 per cent of the world’s population. The Greenpeace website boasts about victories over plans to build airports, dams, mines, oil wells, factories and power stations, and in securing national and international regulation or bans on chemicals and industrial processes, fishing, the disposal of toxic substances, the exploitation of natural wilderness, genetically modified crop production and experimentation, and so on.

Green NGOs have assumed increasingly political roles, as para-governmental agencies, as PR campaign agencies for government and intergovernmental institutions and their policies, as outsourced research and lobbying outfits, and by assuming to be ‘above’ politics. Literally, in the case of this rooftop protest at the Palace of Westminster:

NGOs – unaccountable, undemocratic, unchecked and self-appointed organisations – occupy space created by the political establishment’s increasing distance from the public. However, they do nothing to bring either national or global politics closer to us. In fact, they make it more remote. There is no formal way to challenge the influence, agenda or ideas of NGOs. They claim to best represent the facts, the issues the world faces, and to represent ‘stakeholders’ and the ‘voiceless’, but have begun to displace the public from politics. Hence we see them straddling the Houses of Parliament, demanding that MPs ‘change the politics’. But nobody ever voted for Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth or Oxfam.

NGOs seem to have been established to challenge the problems the world faces and their influence is legitimised on that basis. In reality, they have ended up securing the foundations of existing political institutions, helping them appear responsive to ‘the issues’ while bypassing the will of the voting public. NGOs have escaped criticism because to take issue with them is equated to taking issue with polar bears, starving babies, trees and other voiceless ‘stakeholders’. However, these only serve as a fig leaf, behind which the politics really were changed, just as Greenpeace demanded.

Ben Pile blogs at Climate-Resistance.

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Topics Science & Tech


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