Greenpeace: scaling new heights of vacuity

The attempt by Greenpeace members to climb London’s tallest building as a ‘protest’ was about as radical as a sponsored fun run.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Politics

‘It’s been interesting that the focus has been on us, rather than why we did it.’ So complained one of the six female Greenpeace protesters who climbed up the Shard, London’s tallest building, last Friday as part of a stunt that gained widespread UK media coverage.

But is it really such a shock that the media focused on the climbers rather than on the supposed content of their stunt? The complaint might have a little more credence if it didn’t come at the end of an interview with the Guardian that focused solely on whether the climber/protester in question felt scared, how she couldn’t sleep the night before, and how mentally and physically challenging she found the climb. This followed a personal blog post in which she wrote about the mantra she chanted when scared and the sores she had on her shoulders. You would think she’d been competing in the Olympics or climbing the Himalayas, not attempting to make a serious political point.

From the outset, the stunt was all about the protesters not the message. In order to campaign against oil company Shell – which is what Greenpeace said the Shard stunt was about – the protesters decided not to scale one of Shell’s own buildings but to climb a totally unrelated one. The tenuous link is that the Shard is ‘in the shadow’ of Shell’s offices – true only to the extent that the climb took place in the shadow of hundreds of London offices; Shell’s main offices are almost two miles away from the Shard, on the South Bank.

Maybe the ‘massive art installation’ the protesters had planned to unveil at the top, which aimed to ‘move’ even the evil Shell to change its diabolical ways, would have made the content clearer. But the protesters decided it was too late in the day to unfurl it, because their climb had taken longer than planned.

The real reason for the climb seems to have been to maximise media coverage of Brand Greenpeace and to garner some Twitter flattery. No Logo author Naomi Klein declared on Twitter that ‘these women r awesome’. Publicist Mark Borkowski said the climb deserved ‘old skool respect’. The Guardian managed a massive 14 pieces of coverage – and counting – from the above interview to op-eds with headlines like ‘The Shard protesters also struck a blow against macho activism’ and ‘Greenpeace’s Shard ascent reminds us of the power of civil disobedience’.

But what blow, exactly, is being struck here? Sure, the Shard is high, and no mean feat to climb, but each of the six women were all experienced climbers and were carefully roped together in a way that would minimise the chance of accident. In response to criticisms that protesters were being endangered, Greenpeace pointed out how safe the whole thing was. Even Prince Andrew abseiled down the Shard last September, to raise money for charity.

The only real difference with the Greenpeace climbers is that they didn’t ask permission of the Shard’s owners (who, rather than criticising them for closing the building, issued press releases claiming, ‘we are in constant discussion with the Greenpeace representatives to ensure [their] safety’). Emily Davison stepping in front of King George V’s horse this was not. In fact, the Shard climb was so tame the climbers could probably add it to their CVs as an example of some interesting activity they have carried out.

What Greenpeace’s stunt failed to inspire (even in the Guardian’s dozen-plus puff pieces about it) is any serious discussion of the political motivations for the action. But why would anyone expect six people climbing a building to achieve that anyway? Greenpeace’s Shard stunt is a clear example of the extent to which modern campaigning measures success by the number of retweets it gets and how much press hype it receives, rather than by whether it wins true public support or builds a new movement for change. 

Mercifully, the protesters decided to forgo any superhero fancy dress on the climb, but in all other ways this stunt was straight out of the Fathers4Justice book of protest: make a public spectacle of yourself to demonstrate you are still here and not going away. When the aim of a protest becomes so focused on individual achievement, so akin to a sponsored charity event, perhaps Greenpeace should consider quitting the attention-seeking activities and just enter its campaigners in the London Marathon instead.

Patrick Hayes is a columnist for spiked.

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Topics Politics


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