Greenpeace is a citizen's action organization founded in 1971 in British Columbia, Canada. Since that time, it has grown into a transnational Non Governmental Organization (NGO) with offices in more than thirty countries; headquarters are located in Amsterdam since 1989.
The organization now counts around three million donors around the world. Its aim is to act where the environment is threatened by human activities as well as denounce, inform and promote changes needed. In order to achieve its goals, Greenpeace has to challenge the nation-states as well as companies when they threaten to harm the environment. In order to act effectively, Greenpeace 's structures have grown throughout the world, making it one of the largest existing NGOs.
Greenpeace started with the will of a few Americans and Canadians to oppose American nuclear testing in Alaska in 1971. Under the organization name Don't Make a Wave, they sailed to the island of Amchitka with their boat the Greenpeace to prevent the explosion of the bomb. Although they did not succeed at first, the media largely diffused their action throughout the world. A year later, the United States gave up on their nuclear tests. Their victory led them to start in 1973 a similar campaign against the French atmospheric nuclear tests.
From pacifist concerns, the organization has later evolved towards broader environmental concerns. Today, their stated goals are to stop climate change, protect ancient forests, save the oceans, stop whaling, fight genetic engineering, advocate nuclear disarmament, eliminate toxic chemicals and encourage sustainable trade.
Greenpeace's preferred strategy is to take personal direct action by demonstrating against projects, boycotting products, and intervening directly against companies and governments that engage in environmentally damaging activities. For example, Greenpeace is famous for sending small rubber inflatable boats into the path of whaling vessels to deter them from their prey. Greenpeace boats also fight the disposal of radioactive and other toxic material in the oceans. Overall, Greenpeace is known for organizing commando operations where members do not hesitate to take risks, although their action remains non-violent.
The organization also uses the media to their advantage, for instance bringing press members on their boats during their missions. That way, their action is made visible very quickly to the rest of the world.
Greenpeace relies on networks of activists around the world who are able to provide the organization with the needed information: scientists, journalists, members of governments and companies help organize effectively-targeted action.
Furthermore, in order to stay independent from the influence of states and corporations, Greenpeace relies entirely on funding from their members and foundation grants.
The organization of Greenpeace is based upon decentralization, with important decisions supposedly being made at the grassroots level. Its membership is therefore diverse, with some groups being more militant than others; they also have various levels of commitment to ecology.
This strategy of direct action against companies and states has caused much tension. Various governments have retaliated against Greenpeace protests. In 1980, Spain held the vessel the Rainbow Warrior for five months after it had interfered with whaling. The British attempted to sink the Zodiac and the USSR towed the Sirius out of Leningrad. On July 10th 1985, the French government blew up the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, killing one Greenpeace member. The vessel was soon to be on its way to Mururoa, where the French nuclear testing took place: two French secret service members were found guilty. Furthermore, the scandal forced the French minister of Defence Charles Hernu to leave office. The French government also had to pay Greenpeace more than 7 millions of dollars.
Today, Greenpeace strives for more recognition on behalf of the international community. During the 1972 and 1992 United Nations Conferences on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Stockholm and Rio de Janeiro, the NGO, along with many others, were allowed to attend discussions but not to participate. While nation-states were still dominating deliberations, NGOs organized both times parallel conferences nearby: the Global Forums, which succeeded in getting the media's attention.
Greenpeace presently promotes a Global Green Constitution which would reduce the sovereignty of states on environmental concerns. If the United Nations agreed to defend it, any country breaking the rules would face collective sanctions from other nations. The organization also lobbies actively in favour of the ratification of the Kyoto protocol.
Today, Greenpeace is the most influential environmental NGO of the world. In order to gain this status however, critics argue (see Olivier Vermont's book) that the organization had to break or compromise with a few of their principles.
First, decision-making in Greenpeace is often made at the headquarters of Greenpeace-International in Amsterdam, and very little initiative is in fact left to national and especially local groups.
Furthermore, Greenpeace is not as independent as it seems from other actors in the international scene: the nation-states and multinational companies. It sometimes work together with political parties and deals personally with governments on certain issues. Also, the chief executive of Greenpeace –International, Thilo Bode, has promoted the strategy of temporary coalitions, whereby the organization is associated to an industrial firm in a specific project. For instance, the NGO took part in selling ecological Greenpeace-Fridges with the German brand Foron. It also worked with IKEA on PVC free furniture (although IKEA is known to use wood from endangered forests from Northern Europe). All of these actions were supposedly made to enhance Greenpeace's image and indeed accelerated gifts from donors to the NGO.
Although Greenpeace's status as an NGO prohibits it to make any benefits, it is supposed to have built up secret financial reserves amounting to around a hundred million euros in 1996. The secrecy that surrounds Greenpeace-International finances is reinforced by the fact that top-managers have to sign a confidentiality clause upon leaving office.
Also, Greenpeace's accounting statements reveal that only a very small portion of the finances is dedicated to actual campaigns: 6% for Greenpeace-France in 1995. The same year, 56% of Greenpeace-International budget was spent on media and communication.
Greenpeace thus uses sensationalism in the media to increase their visibility and appeal to potential donors, sometimes manipulating images in their advertisements (as revealed by the Icelandic filmmaker Magnus Gudmunsson's documentaries).
Aside from images, the organization has also already manipulated scientific information to increase support. As a consequence, in 1995, Thilo Bode had to publicly apologize to Shell for forcing them not to sink the Brent Spar, an oil barge in English seas, on false grounds.
Last, Greenpeace is suspected to have ties with terrorist organizations based on nationalist claims (such as the Bretons or the Basques), thus putting in doubt the sincerity of its non-violent theories.
The main criticism that could therefore be made to Greenpeace is their concern with money, which has allegedly brought them to manipulate information and misguide the public on the use of their gifts. It has been argued that today, the NGO is managed just like an multinational firm. However, it cannot be denied that Greenpeace has earned success in obtaining a voice in world politics by using the media to their advantage and helping a global civil society, made up of politically aware world citizens, express itself.
Barry (John), Frankland (E.Gene), International Encyclopaedia of environmental politics, Routledge, London, 2002.
Rubio (François), Dictionnaire pratique des ONG, Ellipses, Paris, 2004.
Bohlen (Jim), Making Wakes, The Origins and Future of Greenpeace, Black Rose Books, Montreal/London/New York, 2001.
Vermont (Olivier), La Face cachée de Greenpeace, Infiltration au sein de l'Internationale écologiste, Albin Michel, Paris, 1997.