Concerning Brian

Brian Fitzgerald, image by AeiouxDon’t you hate writ­ing your own Bio? I like duck­ing behind the third per­son and pre­tend­ing it’s the Ency­clo­pe­dia Brit­tan­i­ca say­ing “Bri­an Fitzger­ald mon­key­wrenched a nuclear weapons test det­o­na­tion with three oth­er activists in 1983 by play­ing Boy Scout and camp­ing out near ground zero for three days” and stuff like that. But a friend calls me on this and says I should say it in my own voice. Cripes. More work.

I’ve been on an adven­ture with Green­peace since 1982. In that time, I’ve flown over sage­brush desert in a hot air bal­loon to oppose nuclear weapons. Watched a blue whale breach off the coast of Ice­land on a mis­sion to save whales. Sailed the coast of India to oppose the dead­ly ship­break­ing trade. Been arrest­ed for oppos­ing tox­ic waste, say­ing the killing of harp seal pups is a bad idea, and oth­er forms of cul­tur­al sedi­tion. I’ve lived in five coun­tries and vis­it­ed or worked in twen­ty more.

I’m mar­ried with two and don’t own a car.

I love: the nov­els of Thomas Pyn­chon and Don DeLil­lo; the poet­ry of James Wright and William But­ler Yeats; read­ing every page of The New York­er; hik­ing out over the rail of a sail­boat in a scream­ing wind; pound­ing the day­lights out of my aging knees in a mogul field; play­ing with my kids on “Dad­der­day”; the Music of the Decem­berists, the Free­lance Whales, The Clash, His Bob­ness, and too many more to name.

I hate: scal­lops, suits, and argyle sweaters.

I miss the days when the Usenet had an entire dis­cus­sion thread ded­i­cat­ed to the mis­use of the apos­tro­phe with the pos­ses­sive neuter pro­noun.

I cur­rent­ly harumpf loud­ly about the state of the world while run­ning Green­peace International’s online com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

Been, Done

I arrived at Green­peace via a book, Bob Hunter’s War­riors of the Rain­bow, which I read while snow­bound one win­ter in a cab­in in New Hamp­shire with­out elec­tric­i­ty or run­ning water. (Call it my Thore­au peri­od) When spring came, I went to Boston where I ran into an old friend, Cathy Dees, who was can­vass­ing for the orga­ni­za­tion I’d just read about in said book. Bells went off. Signs appeared. I went door to door for three years, and spent more and more time vol­un­teer­ing in the office to cook up action plans and do dis­ar­ma­ment work. I even­tu­al­ly quit my day job.

Over Yucca Flats, Nevada Nuclear Test Site

Jon Hinck, Har­ald Zindler, Ron Tay­lor, and myself were the first activists to pen­e­trate secu­ri­ty at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site all the way to ground zero in 1983, delay­ing the test det­o­na­tion of a nuclear weapon. We also unwit­ting­ly pio­neered the use of mylar heat-retain­ing blan­kets as a coun­ter-tech­nol­o­gy to infrared imag­ing, vio­lat­ed US nation­al secu­ri­ty when we spot­ted the first (then top-secret) Stealth bombers as we passed by Area 51, and set off an unfor­tu­nate rumor about UFOs when we lat­er men­tioned, in a Las Veg­as bar, the strange craft we’d seen.

Statue of Liberty BannerTo mark the 40th anniver­sary of the bomb­ing of Hiroshi­ma in 1985, I orga­nized a ban­ner-hang­ing on the Stat­ue of Lib­er­ty. There were only three tele­vi­sion net­works in the US in those days, and the action made the evening news on all three. Green­peace in the US only achieved a sweep one oth­er time in its his­to­ry, when Green­peace anti-whal­ing activists were arrest­ed by Sovi­et bor­der guards in the USSR.

In 1985 I ini­ti­at­ed the first trans-Atlantic email sys­tem for Green­peace with the help of Greenpeace’s über-geek, Dick Dill­man. My “give it away free” pol­i­cy at Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al led to that sys­tem spread­ing rapid­ly through­out the organization’s glob­al offices and becom­ing stan­dard for the next eight years. It replaced the punched-tape telex we’d used for glob­al com­mu­ni­ca­tions until then, and pro­vid­ed David McTag­gart and myself with com­mu­ni­ca­tion in and out of the Sovi­et Union at a time when we were set­ting up Greenpeace’s first non-west­ern office, and when an inter­na­tion­al tele­phone call took days to book and com­plete. Brian Fitzgerald logs on with acoustic couplers from a swiss chalet Only eleven oth­er non-sovi­et users were online in Moscow at the time, and ours was the first sys­tem for a Non-Gov­ern­men­tal Organ­i­sa­tion. We used 300 baud acoustic cou­plers attached to Bake­lite phones to do this, in a time before spam.

In 1986, Dun­can Cur­rie, Steve Sawyer, and I did the heavy lift­ing for Greenpeace’s arbi­trat­ed law­suit again­st the French Gov­ern­ment for the sink­ing of the Rain­bow War­rior. It was the first arbi­tra­tion to put a Non-Gov­ern­men­tal Orga­ni­za­tion on equal foot­ing with a Sov­er­eign State. The mul­ti-mil­lion dol­lar set­tle­ment financed the replace­ment of the ship, and pro­vid­ed the sole source of Green­peace International’s reserve fund for near­ly two decades.

In 1995, I shoul­dered the work of reform­ing Greenpeace’s gov­er­nance sys­tem accord­ing to a blue­print laid down by Thilo Bode and unan­i­mous­ly agreed by the orga­ni­za­tion. It took two years to imple­ment and earned me a spot on the Green­peace Inter­na­tion­al Senior Man­age­ment Team.

WebTeam 2001
With the turn of the cen­tu­ry, I began dri­ving the devel­op­ment of Greenpeace’s online activism pro­gram and a glob­al con­tent man­age­ment sys­tem known as Green­peace Plan­et. Green­peace Plan­et, with a few nation­al excep­tions, stan­dard­ized the look and feel of Greenpeace’s web­sites world­wide and enabled a more glob­al­ized work­flow. It is esti­mat­ed to be sav­ing the orga­ni­za­tion around 2.3 mil­lion Euros a year.

Like many organ­i­sa­tions, Green­peace has been strug­gling with the struc­tural ques­tion of where its webteam belongs organ­i­sa­tion­al­ly: is it a cam­paign tool, a fundrais­ing and out­reach oper­a­tion, a com­mu­ni­ca­tion func­tion, a floor wax, or a desert top­ping? Well, it´s all of the above, and I’ve been through chop and change restruc­tur­ings of the depart­ment since we start­ed, but despite the inter­nal shenani­gans, my teams and I have man­aged to aggre­gate traf­fic to the domain to make it the num­ber one most vis­it­ed web prop­er­ty of any envi­ron­men­tal non-gov­ern­men­tal organ­i­sa­tions (NGOs), and in the top 5 of all NGOs full stop. Of course, ´m boast­ing about being the first of a slow pack, and there are sites like Care2 and Tree­hug­ger that are rein­vent­ing the con­cept of envi­ron­men­tal advo­ca­cy, and which blow us away in traf­fic terms. Still, this is a van­i­ty page, dammit, so ´m focussing on the but­ton-pop­ping stuff.

And when it comes to that, three high points of my online advo­ca­cy career stand out.

One is the Ice­land Whales Pledge, a con­cept invent­ed by Andrew Davies. When Ice­land announced a “sci­en­tific whal­ing” pro­gram­me in 2003, it marked a return to a large-scale hunt which Green­peace had large­ly stopped in the 1980s with a boy­cott on Ice­landic fish. But that took years of effort, boy­cotts are hard to start and hard­er to stop, and we knew from years of tak­ing on the Ice­landic whal­ing fleet head on in the North Atlantic that aggres­sive­ly tar­get­ting the whal­ing indus­try pro­vid­ed the whalers with an excel­lent means of drum­ming up sup­port at home: nation­al pride and the dis­taste for for­eign­ers telling them what to do. In one of the best exam­ples of inspired lead­er­ship ´ve ever seen, our Exec­u­tive Direc­tor, Gerd Leipold, announced this deci­sion would not stand — and he ordered the Rain­bow War­rior to turn around, set a course for Ice­land, and be there with­in two weeks. He tasked a small team of us to come up with a plan with­in that time. Andrew men­tioned a “reverse boy­cott” — a way peo­ple could promise to GO to Ice­land if the gov­ern­ment stopped whal­ing, and show their appre­ci­a­tion with tourist kro­ner. Frode Pleym, the cam­paign lead, loved this — the tourist indus­try in Ice­land is a pow­er­ful force with­in gov­ern­ment, and mak­ing them allies in a domes­tic debate, rather than alien­at­ing the fish­ing indus­try and turn­ing them again­st us, made strate­gic sense.

Alone among envi­ron­men­tal groups in those days, we had an active online com­mu­ni­ty that Kev­in Jar­dine had pro­vid­ed with a forum, cloned from Slash­dot, and we set them to work recruit­ing pledges. We announced a com­pe­ti­tion: recruit the most peo­ple to pledge to go to Ice­land, and win a bunk on a Green­peace ship. In no time at all, we’d gar­nered pledges worth more in poten­tial tourist mon­ey than whal­ing had ever made, lined up the tourist indus­try in Ice­land again­st whal­ing, recruit­ed tens of thou­sands of new sup­port­ers to our online base, and forced the Ice­landic gov­ern­ment to back down from a planned quo­ta of more than 500 whales to around 50. Whal­ing in Ice­land con­tin­ues at a trick­le, but as a com­mu­ni­ty, we’d saved hun­dreds of whales with mere mouseclicks. Iron­i­cal­ly, this was a cam­paign which I had to foist on an unwill­ing organ­i­sa­tion. The con­cept of peo­ple pow­er can run afoul of Greenpeace’s some­times elit­ist atti­tude toward cam­paign­ing, and the idea that we’d har­ness sup­port­ers to take action sug­gest­ed to some that we were abro­gat­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty. Huh.

The Green my Apple cam­paign was a total high. We set out to make an exam­ple of Apple for the entire indus­try and get them to take some lead­er­ship in phas­ing out cer­tain chem­i­cals that made Apple prod­ucts dead­ly when they went into the e-waste stream. Not only did we win, but we set “a new stan­dard for sophis­ti­cat­ed use of inter­net, online advo­ca­cy and social media activism,” accord­ing to Eva Apple­baum, among oth­er digi­rati (like Kathy Sier­ra, pic­tured right, who hugged her Mac in sup­port of the cam­paign for me at the 2006 SXSW con­fer­ence).Kathy Sierra loves her mac, and wishes it came in green. I’ve writ­ten about it at length else­where, and it was the pro­duct of many hands and minds, but the part I played was com­ing up with a com­mu­ni­ca­tions strat­e­gy that posi­tioned Green­peace among the Apple faith­ful instead of butting Cuper­ti­no head on with a more con­ven­tion­al Green­peace cam­paign mes­sage of “BAD com­pa­ny, BAD BAD BAD com­pa­ny.” “I love my Mac, I just wish it came in green” was the strap line I wrote that summed it up, and many com­ment­ed on how far we broke with tra­di­tion­al brand expec­ta­tions when my copy for the Green­myap­ple web­site began, “We love Apple.” But once again, it was about har­ness­ing a force — and the force that Steve Jobs lis­tened to was his con­sumer base: if we didn’t win a crit­i­cal mass of them to our side, it was game over. We chan­nelled the love, we got Apple users writ­ing to Steve and cre­at­ing out­ra­geous­ly great ads, posters, and videos to goad the God of the Garage Geeks into going green.

And final­ly, there´s Mis­ter Splashy Pants. When we launched a cam­paign to name a hand­ful of hump­backs that we’d been satel­lite track­ing in the Paci­fic, we got hun­dreds of wor­thy, myth­i­cal, sea-scent­ed sug­ges­tions. And we got the insane­ly sil­ly sug­ges­tion that we call one Mis­ter Splashy Pants. Huge cred­it goes to Richard Han­son for rolling the whole thing along, and for not balk­ing when I as one of the judges for which names would be vot­ed on told him that we HAD to put the Mis­ter Splashy Pants in as a final­ist, despite inter­nal oppo­si­tion and the fear that –good heav­ens– we were being made fun of. The result­ing com­pe­ti­tion took the inter­net by storm, drove unprece­dent­ed traf­fic to our site and the infor­ma­tion about the cam­paign, and turned into what adver­tis­ing guru Rus­sel Davies called “a defin­ing moment in New Media mar­ket­ing” in Cam­paign Mag­a­zine.

It’s been a real priv­i­lege to watch Green­peace evolve from a hip­py child of the tele­vi­sion era to an inter­net-savvy cam­paign machine, and to have been able to play a part in that tran­si­tion.

But most inspir­ing has been that the orga­ni­za­tion has stuck to its roots, and con­tin­ues to attract extra­or­di­nary peo­ple who, despite all the dif­fer­ences that make for our stub­born, bull-head­ed, con­fronta­tion­al inter­nal cul­ture, all share the same core belief. That a tiny boat can stop a nuclear war machine. That any­one can stand in front of a har­poon and save a whale. That indi­vid­u­al choic­es can change the world.