Greenpeace Russia is celebrating the anniversary of its founding this week. Of course, when it was founded it wasn’t Greenpeace Russia, it was Greenpeace USSR: Gorbachev had just introduced glasnost but the cold war was still on and within Greenpeace, especially among our US colleagues, the idea of putting roots down in what Ronald Reagan had termed the “Evil Empire” was a very controversial move.
Which was probably part of the attraction for my boss at the time and the founder of Greenpeace in Russia, David McTaggart. There was nothing he loved better than a good scrap, whether it was taking his tiny ketch, Vega, into the French nuclear weapons test zone around Moruroa and then hammering the French for years until they gave in, or picking a fight when the organisation resisted his ideas. Sometimes he’d even manufacture or provoke dissent, to ensure a crisp battleline, an epic proportion, and a “which side are you on?” clarity.
It was Ted Turner that first got McT into Moscow as part of his “Goodwill Games,” a project the Turner had created to protest the cold-war politization of the Olympics, which had led to a US boycott of the 1980 Olympics in Moscow and the Soviet Union to counter boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Turner and McTaggart were two peas in a pod. Both empire builders, both difficult personalities, both autocrats, both fond of women and drink.
When they met they were both fond of smoke as well, though Turner gave up his cigars when he started dating Jane Fonda, banned smoking at CNN, and bet David a ridiculously large sum of money that he couldn’t quit the cigarettes. This tormented McTaggart for a couple years as his competitiveness drove him desperately to give up, his rebelliousness drove him to keep smoking, and the uneasy compromise he reached was to claim he had quit and just not smoke in front of Turner or any CNN employee, who McT was convinced were all in on the bet and monitoring his movements worldwide to catch him smoking. (Did I mention paranoia as one of his personality traits?)
Spending a week in Moscow with Turner was too much, though: he finally cracked and lit up, prompting Turner to double the stakes.
But if his first trip behind the iron curtain didn’t force David to quit smoking, it did lay the groundwork for Greenpeace in Russia. Which I guess I’ll need to write about tomorrow, as I’ve now rambled away my time, and there are kids to take to school. Let’s call this Part I, there’s a few stories to tell here.
I’m at the Greenpeace actions meeting today. This is the place where the folks who manage our Non Violent Direct Action work get together to share tips and tricks, systems, skills and gadgets. There is literally nothing like this anywhere in the world.
Yesterday we had a well-known journalist on a panel with a former McDonalds’ PR representative giving us an outside perspective on our campaign work. In the evening we had a demonstration of a video-equipped remote control drone/helicopter which was a candidate for clandestine sampling missions. Today there were workshops in placing tracking devices to follow e-waste around the world via satellite, alongside discussions about trainings in field scouting, technical climbing, and on-board campaign training. We heard from one of our divers turned aquanaut who had taken a one man submarine down 598 meters into the deepest canyon in the world, far below the bering sea, and saw the incredible images our scientists brought back of corals that had never been seen before alongside the strip-mined tracks left by bottom trawlers. We saw the results of feasibility studies for new action vehicles like hot-air zeppelins and ocean patrol jet skis.
If you think of Greenpeace in James Bond terms, this meeting is a combination of Q’s laboratory and a convention of double O agents.
We were honored with the presence of Harald Zindler, one of the great innovators of Greenpeace actions to come out of Greenpeace Germany in the 80s, still bubbling with ideas about sending smoke jumpers into the peat fires of Indonesia and planting a piss-off base camp on the Arctic ice to say the poles belong to no nation and the oil that lies below the seabed should stay there.
Our action folks are the ones who risk life and limb to find out what’s happening to illegally harvested timber, the ones who risk arrest and beatings when they chain themselves to things, the ones who zip around in rigid-hulled inflatables making security at G8 meetings look silly or who otherwise put themselves in harms way for the sake of the environment.
Our journalist guest had an interesting take on why we can engender so much ire among the envrionmental criminals that we cross: “Face it, they’re jealous. You’re doing the world good, and you’re having a good time doing it. The more laughs we get out of Greenpeace, the more joy the world gets out of Greenpeace, the better the world will be: because you celebrate nature by defending it, and you defend it with the passion which it deserves.”
Here’s a little behind-the-scenes glimpse of how one idea went from inception to implementation here at the Greenpeace secret mountain laboratory.This one began as a link that Gillo Cutrupi sent me a few months back to the vid above, something Google did to promote Gmail, passing their M-velope logo around the world in a collaborative video. It was a commercial viral, but Gillo saw the activist potential in it — inspiring, creativity-challenging, participatory stuff — and figured Greenpeace could do something with it.
I loved it, and tucked it into my “pending bright idea” folder.
At our Climate issue planning pow-wow, we were talking about the next big Kyoto protocol meeting in Bali and how hard it is to get a political meeting into the crosshairs of our supporters’ attention. We were talking potential action scenarios, and I was making one of my standard pitches about coming up with actions that our supporters could join in on — getting them INTO the inflatable boat instead of WATCHING the inflatable boat on TV. I suddenly flashed on the video Gillo had sent, and wondered what it would like as a Greenpeace action that our supporters carry forward, delivering a message en masse to the Bali conference.
During a break, I fired up my laptop and showed the Gmail viral to Agnes de Rooij and Nicky Davies. We started kicking ideas around for what kind of Greenpeace action might top and tail it, what object we might pass around the world, what we might message — we went right past “Is this a good idea” and into the “how can we make this even better” fastlane. We talked about globes or balls repsresenting the world (putting the planet in their hands), banners with “Just do it” on them, envelopes, documents, small dogs… Nicky gave me a 2 minute slot in the agenda to throw the concept up on a screen to see if it would stick. It stuck. Somehow in the midst of this meeting that was all about three year planning, highly general, helicopter-view stuff, the immediacy of something FUN we could get out the door and get people involved in was like a blast of fresh air.
And here’s the irony: so little of what this organisation does really really well is planned in those helicopter-view meetings. Much is, of course, but what astounds me is that we fail, year after year, to leave breathing room and capacity for sideways thinking, for putting creative people together to think outside the box, when we see the quality again and again of what happens without a mile long paper trail of documentation and consultation and compromise.
But throwing an idea out is easy. Implementing it is the hard bit. That’s where Tom Dowdall and Giona Barbera come in. Tom shepherded the project through brainstorm sessions and signoff procedures, shaping it and making sure that everybody that needed to have a some say over it had some say, and keeping those who didn’t need to at bay. (Too many cooks…)
Stephanie Tunmore, our lead lobby dog for the Kyoto work, came up with the excellent idea of making the object that got passed a message in a bottle (you can’t even say the words without hearing “Sending out and SOS, Sending out an SOS”).
Not to cast nasturtiums, but it must also be said that Steph came up with the hopelessly policy-wonky idea of kicking the video off with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri passing the bottle. My response was, unless he looks like a rock star, forget it.
Steph had actually worked out a really solid narrative: climate scientists passing a message to the politicians via the vox populi. But it was too thinky, and we’d use up the entire 1.7 seconds one gets to hook a YouTube audience’s attention just explaining who Pachauri was. We needed something that was visually exciting, rather than intellectually logical. Enter Giona. He tried to get some footage from the Rainbow Warrior, and when that didn’t work out he went down to the Dutch Action Warehouse and shot the sequences you see in the final cut.
Giona and Tom got the staff at headquarters doing test videos (that cute-as-all-get-out kid in the vid is my 3 year old, Dylan), Giona got Garage Band aficionado Michael Nagasaka to lay down the guitar and drum tracks, and then he hauled the whole shebang into Final Cut on his iBook and spent the weekend editing.
On Monday the link to the final product went out internally for review. I heard the sound track open on the desk behind me, where our acting Chief Editor, Andrew Kerr, sits. Andrew is a stickler, one of those editors who will spot an error that six other people have skimmed past, or take a sentence that looks perfectly fine and find a way to cut out half the words and make it clearer. He’s also one who likes to ensure that no product goes out without his blessing.
After he saw the video, he stood up and walked briskly over to the webbie corner. “Who’s responsible for that video?” he demanded. Giona stood up. Andrew cracked a smile, gave him a bear hug, and said “Well fucking done.” And so it was.
I complain about the meeting culture in Greenpeace, partially because complaining about our meeting culture is also part of our culture. We’re about ACTION, not words, after all.
But our global, “everybody gets to put a mark on it” planning process does have the advantage of bringing together some extraordinary people from all over the world, and there’s a lot to learn from a gathering like that. Here’s a couple nuggets of information, and one story, that I picked up at last week’s pow-wow of campaign directors from our 25 offices.
In the next 30 years, we will see more change to the marine environment than in the last 30 million years, and that change has already begun at the poles.
If Wal-Mart were a country, it would be China’s fifth largest trading partner.
In most sectors in Europe, CO2 emmissions have declined (in the five years, I believe), while emmissions from transport have increased by 22%.
Our Australian office got a 1.65% return rate on a cold mail shot focussing on climate — a sign that this issue is finally beginning to resonate enough with people to actually contribute to doing something about it. It doesn’t compare with the 2.6% we can get on a whale mail-out, but it’s heading the right direction.
And why is this story illustrated with our Naked Glacier action on climate change, you may ask? Well that’s the story, from Kaspar, the Executive Director of our Swiss office, who followed the leadership rule of never asking your supporters to do something you wouldn’t do yourself, and stripped down to stand on the ice as well.
“This was such a powerful experience — Spencer Tunick was totally focussed on moving people around, climbing all over the place, getting different perspectives, it was like he was painting with bodies. And all of us were silent as we watched this artist composing his work, and this silence just built and built, channelling the power of these mountains all around us and their own silence, and this just flowed through all of us like an energy that brought goose bumps to our flesh, not from cold, but from this feeling of nature and humanity just being silent together and feeling this force, this spirit, this silence.”
Here at the Greenpeace Planning Meeting, our mission is primarily to shape our 2008 programme in broad strokes. But as I take notes on the project specifications that get presented, I doodle — storyboards, campaign visualization ideas, cartoons, web banners, as my shorthand way of thinking about simple messaging. Unfortunately, I’m crap at drawing. Fortunately for those of us who are crap at drawing, there’s photoshop. The concept sketch above is something I knocked up this morning as a thinking aloud piece, which arose from a doodle adorning a conversation about how we are going to “blacken the face of coal and expose it as a climate criminal.” So we get a sculpotor, see, to actually MAKE a King Coal OUT of coal, see… I suspect that “King Coal” as a phrase only exists stateside, so this is probably going nowhere beyond this idle sketch.
Twittering humpbacks??? It’s true it’s true. We only have three whales left whose satellite tags are transmitting their locations to our google map, but they’re a talkative lot, and their voyage is being twittered.
I'm Brian Fitzgerald and this is my personal blog. I'm a digital rabblerouser at Greenpeace, where I've worked and volunteered for 30+ years, allowing me to combine my love of technology, globally people-powered trouble-making, hippy do-goodery, and boats.
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