The most difficult challenge facing humanity is not devising solutions to the energy crisis or climate crisis or population crisis; rather, it is bringing images and stories of the human journey into our collective awareness that empower us to look beyond a future of great adversity and to see a future of great opportunity. -Duane Elgin
That was the note on which we started, the pitch pipe to which 30 people in the room adjusted their frequencies as we began a four day adventure into the unknown. Our band of adventurers included the usual suspects: the marine biologists, ex-fisherman, political judoists, an activist climber, a volunteer coördinator, sailors and salty dogs, the people you would expect Greenpeace to gather to plan some creative mischief in the name of Mother Ocean. But on this trip, we brought other adventurer-guides: a poet, a visual artist, some storytellers, and a beekeeper.
We had things we usually don’t have at Greenpeace meetings: we had visual art, we had music, we had shaker eggs: the audible “twinkle hands” which allow you to rebel against silence when you agree or love something, without interrupting a speaker.
And in the spirit of using nature as a model, John Poore, our Beekeeper facilitator brought us lessons from the 40-million-year-old decision-making process that honeybees use to agree a new home: the democracy of the waggle dance. When bees need to find a new home, it’s not the Queen that makes the decision. Dozens of scouts head out to find a place which is exacting in its specifications: a small entrance, a 40 litre cavity, high enough off the ground that Winnie the Pooh can’t get in without effort, near to food sources, facing away from prevailing winds, etc etc etc. All of this information is conveyed in the waggle dance that the scout does on return. Scouts dance their findings — which also convey the precise location, so other scouts can fly out to compare, who then come back and dance the winner. At some magical point, enough of the scouts are reporting the same location that the entire hive swarms out to their new home. They make the right choice among available options 90% of the time.
But if we pedal that organisational metaphor back, I want to know how honeybees arrive at the decision that it’s time to move in the first place? How do they agree it’s time to send out scouts at all? It’s hard to communicate to anyone outside Greenpeace how much courage it takes for a leader to step away from our conventions. By so many measures, Greenpeace is an effective and successful organisation: and yet the death of so many effective and successful organisations is that they repeat themselves endlessly. And for an organisation dedicated to challenging the status quo, we can be remarkably resistant and hostile to change. You can see the antibodies swarm around those who are the first to bring new thinking to the table. The thing that has kept me going for 30 years is the long view of having witnessed how the organisation will eventually embrace and welcome those same ideas it fights at first.
Part of what made this meeting different from thousands of others whose bones litter the vast savannah was a story. We were living a story about a billion acts of courage delivering a better world, and articulating not only what a better world looks like, but what it feels like to work for an organisation that can genuinely deliver on it; an organisation that recognises the very first thing I learned when I picked up a clipboard 30 years ago to knock on doors as a canvasser: we will inspire nobody unless we ourselves are inspired. We will convince nobody unless we ourselves are convinced.
And that in a world in which there is no shortage of nightmares, the greatest act of courage is to dream.
Among the people gathered to talk about the future of the oceans campaign and the future of the organisation, more than a few of us needed a bit of inspiration and courage and a dream. As Greenpeace embarks upon new changes designed to shift resources to the places where the planet’s future will be decided — China, Africa, India, Brazil, Russia, South East Asia, and the US — many of us have received redundancy notices, many of us have parted ways, many of us are moulting into new forms.
The job I’ve loved for many years now as Head of Digital Networking and Mobilisation no longer exists as our International office in Amsterdam shifts from a content and campaign lead role to one of support for those functions. We can, and we will, debate the finer points of how effectively our new structure will satisfy Greenpeace’s ambitions to be both a globally coördinated force and a locally unfettered and nimble collective. We seem every five years or so to change up the formula by which we pursue that ambition. But no matter how much we argue about how to get it right, the ambition remains a worthy one. Nationalism is never going to save the world — but too few people have yet learned to speak universalism.
What I saw over the course of this meeting was a way this organisation can be in the future that would make all the pain and uncertainty that I’ve felt over the last year worthwhile, whether I’ll be a part of the organisation that I got a taste of or not. It was an organisation committed to people-power. One that actively nurtured its people and their talents. A less egocentric, more network-centric organisation. An organisation that cherished creativity and knew a trick or two about how to draw it out. An organisation that knew that how you make a decision can be as important as the decision you make. An organisation that values the power of art and culture and knows the secret of changing society is not to mainstream your organisation, but to mainstream your ideas. An organisation that embraces and champions a radically positive vision of the future and puts all its energy into building the new instead of fighting the old. An organisation which doesn’t forget to dream.
This was one of many waggle dances we will do over this time of change. I loved the new home that we scouted. It’s one that would serve the planet, the oceans, and the beautiful creative ingenuity of the human species well.
The poet who joined us at the meeting, Drew Dillinger, sketched the nightmare perfectly:
it’s 3:23 in the morning
and I’m awake
because my great great grandchildren
won’t let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
I want to answer that I helped build a better dream.