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.