The Wall. The Mug. The Door.

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 ruboxnning 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 deepbroken mug 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 mug returnedmy 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.

Photo by Captain Mike Fincken
Pho­to by Cap­tain Mike Finck­en

31 thoughts on “The Wall. The Mug. The Door.”

  1. Thanks for this tremen­dous­ly mov­ing post Bri­an, and to you for shar­ing it, Dun­can! It lit­er­al­ly leaves me wet eyed, and won­der­ing two things: Will I ever write any­thing half this good? and Where in the world is Kelly’s tat­too?

  2. I think I’m going to cry, …in fact I am. I am hum­bled by your words my dear friend. You know, all I ever want­ed or hoped for was to be of some inspi­ra­tion to you and those I came to believe in. I want to espe­cial­ly thank dear Karen Gal­lagher and John Novis, whose beau­ti­ful hearts had brought me to you and Green­peace many years ago. Many years ago when my grand­child was only 6 years old, I was talk­ing to her of jus­tice, and the injus­tice in this world, the poor and the help­less chil­dren, and the very few that real­ly cared. My lit­tle grand­child looked up at me and said, “Gram­pa, you can count on me.” All those years Bri­an, …the things you said and did and reflect on now, the beau­ti­ful things I saw inside your heart and the fruition of that Love, I became that child. …and now, for being able to serve this Love, I am your most grate­ful child, and to let you know, no mat­ter where you go from here, “Some­times you just have to lis­ten to your heart, let the uni­verse take the helm, and fol­low the rain­bow, …and to know, you can always count on me. God speed, and with the wind at your back.

    1. Thank you for always being so sup­port­ive, it meant a lot us onboard the Esper­an­za when I man­aged the ship blog years ago. All the best to you Grate­ful Child from Iréne

      1. Thank you Irene, …you all were so dear to me I only want­ed to stand by your side. I am so hon­ored I was able to give my even slight­est inspi­ra­tion to my great­est ever heroes. ♥ ♥ â™¥

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.