A long time ago, when the web was young, a mysterious box arrived at the secret mountain headquarters of Greenpeace International. I was working then as the director of what we called “New Media.” New Media was anything that involved a computer, and I and a team of freshly minted digital ninjas were running around with our hair on fire telling anyone who would listen that this “World Wide Web thing” was going to be HUGE if we could all collectively get over the idea that it was just a new way to deliver press releases.
The box was addressed to Karen & Ludmilla, the inseparable duo who made up our Supporter Services team. Karen recognised the name on the return address: it was from “Grateful Child,” a frequent correspondent, contributor to our online bulletin board and commenter on our website. Wes, as we eventually came to know him, was one of those voices that was consistently positive and upbeat and helpful. He’d field questions about the organisation from other posters knowledgeably, bring context to a discussion with a nugget of activist history or eastern philosophy, provide a deep link into our website when someone wanted to know more, and post wonderful, hippy-themed promotions of our content and online actions at his own website. In short, he was one of those supporters who crossed over that weird imaginary barrier all of us who work for organisations draw up between “us” — the folks within the bricks and mortar of an organisation — and “them,” the audience and supporters that we speak to when we blog, create web content, send press releases, talk at from the other side of a lens.
Let’s call it The Wall.
The mysterious box was a breach in The Wall. It was a love bomb, cast over the ramparts from “outside.” Wes had put it together to say “Thank You” to supporter services, the web team, and John Novis, our head of photography — for the website, the questions answered, the images, the things that were our jobs. There were custom mousepads done up with images from our campaigns, and personalised mugs for each of us bearing our names and images from our work. We had never seen anything like it: we sometimes felt we were shouting into the empty universe with our website, in those early, underpopulated days — but here was the universe, answering back.
Over the next decade, Wes’ mug went with me everywhere. It was useful, for a start. It held a massive quantity of coffee, my fuel of choice, and came in handy at meeting venues where coffee consumption was economised with teensy-weensy cups that wouldn’t have elbow room for a ping-pong ball. But it was also a political prop. Greenpeace was just waking up to the idea that the broadcast era was over, and I and my team were yammering on about opening the organisation, about the vast untapped sources of people power that we could inspire, engage, and mobilise with our new digital reach. And I could point to my mug: “This came from a supporter to say thank you for involving him in our work, for making him feel a part of the IDEA of Greenpeace, even if he wasn’t part of the bricks and mortar.” I was making the case that there were millions and millions of people out there who, if simply invited, would jump at the chance to be a part of Greenpeace. They might do nothing more than share a link to an online video or start a conversation at work about composting or they might sign a petition or decide to eat less meat or buy no plastic for a day. Or they might run a campaign to divest an entire university from fossil fuels. They might forge a volunteer group that stops a city council from using chemical herbicides on municipal property. They might get a string of nightclubs off the grid with premium admissions to raves dedicated to renewable energy investment.
So the mug and I went a lot of places over the years. And it went with me, just two months ago, to Taiwan, where I was joining the Rainbow Warrior as an onboard communications trainer. Stepping onto the gangplank was a bittersweet moment. I’d made a difficult decision, a few months before, to leave Greenpeace and co-found an agency dedicated to disruptive ideas for a more beautiful world. It was a continuation of work a couple colleagues and I had begun at Greenpeace as a pirate project, outside our job descriptions, to hone a unifying organisational story. We’d gone down a magical rabbit hole, and we wanted to keep exploring.
But I’d been tethered to Greenpeace for 35 years, and I was keenly aware this could be one of the last times I joined a Greenpeace ship. I loved the fact that it was this one: the tall-masted, sail-powered Rainbow Warrior. Whose second incarnation Duncan Currie and I had helped pay for with a two year dog-and-bone, multi-million dollar lawsuit against the French Government for the sinking of her predecessor. She was a lesson in persistence, in the futility of violence against ideas: you can’t sink a rainbow.
Stepping aboard was like stepping into my own memory palace: I thought about the day I first walked into a Greenpeace office in Boston in 1982 and the feeling of finding home — of finding my tribe — among the hoop-shooting philosopher warrior hippies and yuppies that made up the door to door canvass and volunteer core of the office. I remembered a note from Steve Sawyer the day I got hired as a disarmament campaigner –my first real job with The Firm. I remembered meeting Bob Hunter, drinking with David McTaggart (repeat, repeat, repeat): names that were once legends in our shared mythology and origin story. Watching Elaine Lawrence, Cornelia Durrant, and Sebia Hawkins work a room full of aging diplomats at the UN in Geneva, all sugar and spice until they got down to business and asked what the hell they were doing about their commitment under the test ban treaty to get rid of nuclear weapons. Being arrested hanging a banner from the Canadian embassy in Boston. Being arrested with Kelly Rigg for occupying a field being watered by toxic waste sprinklers (I kid you not. It was an evil loophole in regulations against dumping it in the river. Memorable awkward moment, Kelly saying: “umm, err yes, officer I do have a tattoo” …). Installing email in Moscow in 1986 when it was still the Soviet Union and the whoop of joy at punching through the iron curtain, where an international call took 48 hours to book. Being arrested after six days in the Nevada desert with Jon Hinck and Harald Zindler and that first, wonderful taste of jailhouse coffee. Standing on the Great Wall of China with my story team pals reciting poetry. Being woken up at midnight by an Executive Director demanding I remove content from “that damned new fangled web page thing you run” because it used humour and humour was not appropriate to serious issues. The web team — the amazing individuals that got me into trouble like that again and again and again as we invented a new form of activism communication and bulled our way through the china shop of regulated traditional media best practice. I remembered crusty old activists who mentored me. Shiny young activists I mentored. And best of all, shiny young activists who mentored crusty old me. I remembered watching flying fish leaping at dawn over the bow of the second Rainbow Warrior as we crossed the Bay of Bengal. Hawks circling below me in the Santa Monica mountains as I trained to pilot a hot air balloon. The eye of a humpback whale calf off Georgia Banks, not a meter away, as she curiously regarded the human beings clustered at the rail watching her watching us watching her. The rare blue whale I saw from the deck of the Esperanza in Iceland, lone, magnificent, among the last of her kind, the largest animal to ever roam the Earth.
I went down to my cabin, with all these memories swirling inside my head. And I was careless. I dropped my duffel down on the deck. And that’s when I heard it. A muffled clunk, that I recognised with dread. I opened the bag, and there was the mug, after all these years, on the eve of my departure, broken. In that moment, something broke inside me too.
As I wrote to Wes: “It was a moment of deep sadness. The joy and excitement I genuinely feel about my new adventure suddenly gave way to grief: here, truly, was an ending.” Yes, it was just a mug. But it brought up a sudden flood of emotion. My decision to leave Greenpeace had been excruciating. On the one hand, the story work I was doing was soaring high and burrowing deep into the organisational loam: it was some of the best work I’d ever done. It had sparked a children’s book, a culture agenda, there were offices applying it to everything from campaign communications to HR practices. On the other hand, I was watching so much that I’d built get torn down as we dissolved the digital team at Greenpeace International in favour of a distributed model, and removed layer upon layer of innovation and leadership structures to reposition the office as a secretariat. And no matter how much I might endorse many of the principles of the restructuring, principles are one thing: watching good people depart a good ship is hard on the heart. Watching things you’ve built get dismantled is hard on the heart. Watching nationalism move out of the crosshairs of our explicit targets to a foundational structure was hard on the heart. What I was feeling in that moment, as I held the broken shards of a mug, was mourning: for a time of my life, for departed and departing friends, for ships that sailed long ago without me, and for ships I’d sailed upon that were no more. I shared that moment with Wes, knowing grief reveals what we value, what we love. We share it to remind ourselves, collectively, to hold it close while we have it, to make the best of it while it lasts.
Wes was having none of this finality. “That mug came with a lifetime guarantee” he wrote. And a few days ago, at my doorstep, I opened a mysterious box to find my mug, as it once was, made whole. Risen from its wreckage like the Rainbow Warrior emblazoned upon her enamel.
Wes’ gift become stronger for being broken. It now has a powerful, magic story of return, just like the ship featured on her. I’ll take Wes’ mug with me tomorrow, my last day after 34 years and 350 days, through the door at Greenpeace, out beyond The Wall, into the outer ring where volunteers, former staff, and supporters like Wes are bound together not by the bricks and mortar of Greenpeace the institution, but by the idea of Greenpeace, the belief that a better world is possible, and the conviction that brave individual and collective actions not only can make it a reality, but already are. And like Wes, I’m going to be treating that Wall as if it weren’t there, lobbing things over, testing the organisation’s commitment to opening up, to bringing that wall down, to harnessing, aggregating, and unleashing the incredible energy and creativity and will of everyone who believes in that dream, whether they’re inside or outside The Wall.
Because really, there is no wall. There is no door. We’re all in the same boat — the crew of a a tree-masted planet sailing across space, navigating without a reliable chart or known destination. The trick is to let go, as Greenpeace’s hippy founders did, of believing we’re going to find it with a rational plan a few of us cook up in our heads. Sometimes you just have to listen to your heart, let the universe take the helm, and follow the rainbow.