I was reminded by a friend of this email, written by David McTaggart in 1992 and sent widely throughout Greenpeace at the time. The internal squabble it was intended to address is long a thing of the past, but the summation he gives of the organisation’s early strategy and development and founding principles has some unique value. It’s something that struck a chord with many people, and I’ve been asked periodically to dig it out for internal use for almost two decades now.
I believe this is the first time it’s been let out in its entirety in public – the laundry here is old enough now that it won’t mind an airing, and I’m glad to say there’s nothing here that would be read as heresy in the Greenpeace of today – in fact, we may be more aligned at this moment with some of David’s thinking than we have been at many times in the years since he wrote this.
David was Greenpeace’s chairman from 1979 until 1991, the year before this was written. More than anyone, he was responsible for keeping the organisation together in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, and he created an international structure which, with some bumps, served us well back then, and components of which are still present in our governance structure today.
2011 will mark the 20th year since David retired from active chairmanship of Greenpeace. He was a mercurial, charismatic, unpredictable, charming and infuriating guy — I worked with him for ten years and few days went by that he didn’t try the patience of everyone around him. But re-reading this reminded me of what a privilege it was to be a part of his story arc, the things he set in motion, and the vision that he set forth for Greenpeace.
To: Greenpeace Offices (List), Allships (List),
To: Executive Directors (List), Campaign Directors (List),
To: Trustees (List), Atmosphere Campaign (List), Whales (List),
To: Nukes (List), MEDTOTAL (List), Toxics Project Coordinators (List),
To: Canvass (List), Greenpeace Board (List)
From: David McTaggart
Date: TUE 18-AUG-92 20:59:15 GMT
I’d like to offer my best wishes and support to all of you during this difficult time of changes. In my current role as Honorary Chairman of the International organization, I’d like to take this opportunity to offer some observations about the original ideas about where we wanted to go and how we wanted to get there. Perhaps these ideas will help you to focus your thoughts as you face the difficult decisions which will confront you at this crossroads.
I am no longer directly involved in shaping the future of the organization. I will continue in the background, quietly helping reach specific campaign goals with my political contacts, but I have no intention of getting directly involved again: I am now sixty years old, and I think my twenty years with Greenpeace added thirty years to my age. Enough.
But I can’t stop caring deeply about Greenpeace and where it is going, and I’ve been watching from the sidelines for a long time with increasing concern.
Rightly or wrongly, the organization has strayed from the original concepts which I and a handful of others once hoped would guide us. Perhaps the original ideas were wrong. That’s for you and the future to decide. But for the benefit of those who were not around (and some who were), I’d like to summarize a few of the most important ideas which I thought should guide our growth:
1. To work internationally;
2. To have fast decision-making and strong leadership: From the National Boards to the International Board to the Executive;
3. To concentrate our best efforts on two and maybe three major international problems, and to complement these with a single national campaign to build local support;
4. To work on one or possibly two soft issues;
5. To be financially stable on an international basis, with money put away for emergencies;
6. To stay out of party politics;
7. To remain non-violent.
That sounds pretty simple, I know, and we can all probably agree on the general ideas represented above. All the same…
1) Working Internationally
Some 15 years ago, there were a lot of environmental groups surfacing within the boundaries of many countries, but none were working internationally.
The goal in building Greenpeace was to build it internationally – to not allow it to fall into the trap of the many groups which tried to forge so called “International” organisations without paying attention to centralized decision making. Yes, I know: we don’t like the words “centralized decision making.” But the multinational corporations and governments whose policies we are trying to change fear those words in the context of mass movements and opposition.
I won’t name it, but one organization that tried and failed had no international structure to turn to for conflict resolution and leadership. They were underfunded in poor countries and sitting on money in rich countries, who argued that they should not have to share it since they had raised it.
While they still have a few strong offices that do good work nationally, they spun out of effective existence years ago on the international scene.
We did it right. We first built our membership in Europe and North America, with the object of seeing if we could get a factionalized group across two continents to sit down together and win a couple issues. We built a communication network which allowed us to exchange information and ideas across borders in a matter of hours rather than weeks. We agreed to expand slowly, out from the centre, and to forge a single image all over the world: One united organization working on the same issues and sitting down together to work out our priorities, our goals, and, most importantly, our differences.
I for one never had any delusions that there would not be differences. This was and still is our biggest challenge: forgetting centuries of nationalism, fences, histories, religions, philosophies, competition, misunderstanding, and hatred, and learning to work together.
We made a major mistake early on in 1979, giving every country a veto vote. It was a very fast lesson in the limits of consensus decision-making and how it stifles action and slows you down. We agreed to get rid of it. We set up Council, declared we would make decisions by 3/4s majority, set up a majority vote for the Board. We argued, we disagreed, we voted. But once a decision was made, we all accepted it and worked together. That was the key.
When we wanted to open an office in Germany, it was fought against tooth and nail by our Netherlands office, our UK office, and our French office. If we had been operating by consensus back then, one of our largest and most effective offices probably would not even have been started. The struggle to open offices in the Nordic Bloc, the Med, Latin America, and the Soviet Union are further examples of the same thing more recently.
2) Fast Decision, Strong Leadership
To be international we agreed there was a need for a simple leadership structure that combined fast decision making with wide accountability to the whole organization: leadership that supported the Greenpeace world without favouritism. We needed strong national boards to appoint a strong international board to appoint a strong Executive. We agreed that by funneling accountability in that way, we avoided the impossible situation of an international Executive answering to more than a dozen bosses.
The leaders of the organization were supposed to keep us focussed and effective. They were supposed to keep us away from diluting our issues and message with items that other groups were working on. They were supposed to be capable of delegating responsibilities. They were supposed to have the authority to give a campaigner a mandate to do a job and keep them away from the paper-pushing and meetings, meetings, meetings, that are symptomatic of having to please too many people. They were supposed to be able to work with scientists, politicians, and action people alike. And they had to be able to take some heat, because this was not intended to be a consensus organisation.
Any group of homogeneous, like-minded people who can all agree on everything is living in twinkie land. That’s for the Moonies and the Scientologists and the Flat Earth Society and all the other groups that are doomed to the fringe, where they can talk to themselves and the people who agree with them and nobody else. Consensus is not the way to build a massive international movement. It needs the bitter, cold-blooded natural selection of argument and debate, not molasses, compromise, and dilution.
3) International & National Campaigns
Concentrating on two or three issues was more than a way to focus limited resources. It was also an attempt to build a record of success by declaring a goal, pressing it hard, declaring the victory and moving up to the next rung.
No campaign should be begun without clear goals. No campaign should be begun unless there is a possibility that it can be won. No campaign should be begun unless you intend to finish it off.
Naturally, we were set up to be prepared for major international crises.
Our early formula was simple and still sound: Basic research to find the weak points, quiet approach to government and industry outlining our concerns and possible responses if those concerns are not met. A sincere attempt to win without going to war. If no response, WHAM: hit them with everything we have: Mail Outs, members, actions, media, letters, votes, boycotts, ads, articles, all in a coordinated way: if it wasn’t hard enough to hurt them, better not to bother.
Look at Greenpeace today. Imagine if we could concentrate today’s staff and funding and campaign tools the way we once did, when the entire organization had a stake in how a single campaign was going. All it takes is agreeing the goals without spending thousands of hours in meetings, then giving somebody the authority to make fast decisions toward reaching those goals and staying out of their way. It ain’t complicated.
Ironically, we are better equipped now to concentrate our international efforts then we ever have been. We have our largest grass-roots membership ever (for a while, anyway), better communications, better access to information, and a bigger name. Yet we find ourselves compartmentalized and competing within the organization. We shouldn’t be meeting over campaign funding and regionalism and voting structures and representation and structures and structures and structures and all that crap. We should be putting our energy into tactics, targets, strategies.
4) Soft Issues
We must have at least one soft issue to draw the public’s awareness, to take the edge off our “whack-em” image, and to show the positive side of what we are fighting for. Anybody who has ever tried to sell Greenpeace to the public knows that dreams are better than nightmares at winning people over. The campaigns to save the whales and to preserve Antarctica are good examples of winning people in to the fold and then slowly leading them into one or two other heavy issues. Hundreds of thousands of people who may have been ambivalent about nuclear power joined Greenpeace to save the whales. Who knows how many of them heard the message about nukes?
5) Financial Stability
We set out to have a strong and broad-based financial basis so we could work internationally without fear of being controlled by high donors, large corporations, foundation grants, etc, who could make us dependent on their funding and then step in to shape our course. We also set out to have enough money put away that we could make it through a cataclysmic loss in income – either as a result of an unpopular action by ourselves, a ghastly mistake, or the concerted attempt by a group of governments or industries to shut us down.
Most of you who were around know that I tried to force this issue time and time again. However, while many national offices built up significant and healthy reserves, international was never “allowed” such reserves. This points out a severe structural weakness in the way our finances are organized, and one for which I take full responsibility. National offices should never have been allowed to have full control over the funds they raised. Again, it is my own fault, but it contradicts everything we were working for to build an international organization which is dependent for its income on its national offices.
Please do not misunderstand: I am not pointing any fingers and for the most part the national offices today are cooperating internationally admirably. But take this as a warning for the future; unless Greenpeace collectively controls the funds raised in national offices, you will always face the possibility of renegade offices and the spectre of subtle economic blackmail by the rich and the few.
6) Party Politics
Our agreement to stay out of party politics was an attempt to maintain a hard-line, outside the compromises of the political world. It was also intended to ensure our appeal to a wide range of people across traditional political lines. It should also have meant an agreement to stay out of human rights, political philosophies, economic theory, advocation of anybody’s ball-of-wax Agenda for a New World Utopia. There are plenty of other groups doing excellent work on hunger, abortion, women’s rights, aboriginal rights and all the rest. We are not out to save anybody’s version of democracy or justice or fair play: because our membership can agree to disagree on all of that if they want, as long as we keep the number one goal in mind: We have to get our world into the 21st Century in one piece. Fuck everything else. If you want to build an international movement, and you want it to be as strong as possible, you have to accept everybody. You can’t stand at the door and examine their voting record and how they feel about men’s rights or women’s rights or father’s rights or mother’s rights or or Communism or Democracy or Republicans or Tories or Christian Democrats or or AIDS or farms subsidies or abortion or vegetarianism or Jesus Christ or Mohammed or Buddha and turn them away if they give you an answer you don’t like. Make no mistake, there are thousands of important issues in the world today that require urgent attention, but we can’t do it all. And if we try, we won’t get any of it done.
The original idea was to keep it simple: to limit ourselves to a handful of important environmental goals without compromise or complications: to just get on with it.
There is a gray area between violence and non-violence. Years ago, once we decided a specific campaign goal, the most intense debate usually centred on how far we could take our actions and still remain non-violent. We need to reopen this discussion, I believe, and investigate ways of making our activist campaigns heavier. Don’t misunderstand, I am not suggesting we go violent, but we need to look at new ways to spur action and concern.
As I said earlier, I decided to step out of the picture to let new minds and new ideas begin to shape the Greenpeace that will see the beginning of the 21st century. I still have some suggestions, though, and I’m happy to elaborate if anyone is interested in bringing the organization back closer to its roots.
To my thinking, the key issue facing Greenpeace right now is focussing the enormous resources out there on a simpler, clearer, slimmed down number of campaigns, ones with goals that the public can readily grasp. If there is a “process” you need to be concentrating on, I would say it is finding the fastest and most efficient way of doing that.
I respectfully submit these thoughts primarily for the benefit of the newer folks, the grass roots people who want to see some leadership and fast decisions, the activists who are looking to get a job done rather than arguments about how many administrators it takes to do it, and the old-timers (the few remaining) who shared the excitement and satisfaction of helping build this ship called Greenpeace.
I wish you all the best,