On the morning of Sept. 18, activists from Greenpeace attempted to scale an oil platform belonging to Russian energy corporation Gazprom, the first company to start drilling above the Arctic Circle, which is considered fragile and pristine. Even though the activists were protesting in international waters, the Russian coast guard fired 11 warning shots across the bow of the activists’ ship, Arctic Sunrise, and blasted water cannons at two clambering activists. All the Greenpeace protesters, two of whom were Canadian, were detained under gunpoint by the coast guard. Russia officially condemned them as aggressive and provocative. This intense incident shed light on not only Russia’s protection of its energy companies, but also the protest direction of Greenpeace activists.
Greenpeace has been criticized for eye-catching demonstration tactics, which are considered to be disruptive to companies. Some of their memorable protests include painting “Hazardous Products” in enormous letters on the roof of Hewlett-Packard global headquarters, dumping a huge whale carcass in front of the Japanese embassy in Berlin as an anti-whaling protest, and cutting down government-approved, genetically modified maize in England.
The organization’s media-targeted imagery and perilous demonstrations make us ask to what extent direct actions are allowed in environmental protests, especially when we see that Greenpeace is now using some tactics it used to shun before. In 1977, the group banished one of its founding members, Paul Watson, due to his extreme strategies. Paul Watson parted ways and founded Sea Shepherd, an ocean activism organization which was declared as “pirates” in a U.S. court ruling, due to its direct, violent actions, including colliding with Japanese whaling vessels and damaging their propellers.
Although Greenpeace applies more peaceful tactics than Sea Shepherd, Greenpeace members often seem to push for what gives them a sense of accomplishment, instead of detailed discussions or research. Protests need to be backed up by strong organizational muscle to do anything. Activists should value steps in the right direction as improvement, even if it’s not 100 per cent what they want, since some progress is better than none. A good example is the 1963 march on Washington by Martin Luther King Jr., which was backed by the organizational power of Bayard Rustin (who was recently given the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and collaboration with government and existing powers. Each great cause has its watershed moments, but progress has starts and stops, moments to seize and moments of idleness.
Nevertheless, Greenpeace’s frequently controversial activities have often successfully enacted social changes. In 2012, Greenpeace was able to pressure the world’s largest fashion retailer, Zara, to pledge it will eliminate release of hazardous chemicals through its supply chain by 2020. And, this July, they created a striking image of protesters climbing The Shard, Britain’s highest building, to deter Shell from its involvement in Arctic drilling.
The fact that Greenpeace exists at all shows what major frustrations certain individuals feel in relation to the lack of control normal citizens have on the environment. We are told as citizens to do our part for the planet: recycle, don’t idle our cars, don’t litter. But in contrast to the oilsands pumping out large amounts of emissions, those small actions don’t really seem like much. Although nothing is impossible, it’s a safe guess that normal “No more oilsands” protests or petitions wouldn’t do much to close a large section of Alberta’s oil industry. Whether the more drastic protests were a response to arrests even at non-violent demonstrations, or a result of setting their ideals as a priority before anything else, Greenpeace’s recent tactics still provoke the question of whether their actions should be glorified and justified by their cause.
As for the oil platform incident in Russia, there is something to be said about inability to save the planet while you are being detained at gunpoint. With radical activists such as Greenpeace, there must be a middle ground between pushing ideas past normal conventions and not going to extremes that result in disabling yourself from pursuing your cause.