Hard Choices for the Environmental Movement…

I wrote this little polemic in 1994 after many years of fussing and fuming about the changes that had come over my beloved Greenpeace. In retrospect it seems a little harsh but it gets the point across. The essay was published in this form in Leadership Quarterly, 5(3/4), 1994

More than twenty years ago I was one of a dozen or so activists who founded Greenpeace in the basement of the Unitarian Church in Vancouver. The Vietnam war was raging and nuclear holocaust seemed closer every day. We linked peace, ecology, and a talent for media communications and went on to build the world’s largest environmental activist organization. By 1986 Greenpeace was established in 26 countries and had an income of over $100 million per year.

In 1986 the mainstream of western society was busy adopting the environmental agenda that was considered radical only fifteen years earlier. By 1989 the combined impact of Chernobyl, the Exxon Valdez, the threat of global warming and the ozone hole clinched the debate. All but a handful of reactionaries joined the call for sustainable development and environmental protection.

Whereas previously the leaders of the environmental movement found themselves on the outside railing at the gates of power, they were now invited to the table in boardrooms and caucuses around the world. For environmentalists, accustomed to the politics of confrontation, this new era of acceptance posed a challenge as great as any campaign to save the planet.

For me, Greenpeace is about ringing an ecological fire alarm, waking mass consciousness to the true dimensions of our global predicament, pointing out the problems and defining their nature. Greenpeace doesn’t necessarily have the solutions to those problems and certainly isn’t equipped to put them into practice. That requires the combined efforts of governments, corporations, public institutions and environmentalists. This demands a high degree of cooperation and collaboration. The politics of blame and shame must be replaced with the politics of working together and win-win.

Collaboration versus Confrontation

It was no coincidence that the round-table, consensus-based negotiation process was adopted by thousands of environmental leaders. It is the logical tool for working in the new spirit of green cooperation. It may not be a perfect system for decision-making, but like Churchill said about democracy, “It’s the worst form of government except for all the others”. A collaborative approach promises to give environmental issues their fair consideration in relation to the traditional economic and social priorities.
Some environmentalists didn’t see it that way. Indeed, there had always been a minority of extremists who took a “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Nature” position. They were the monkey-wrenchers, tree-spikers and boat scuttlers of the Earth First! and Paul Watson variety. Considered totally uncool by the largely pacifist, intellectual mainstream of the movement, they were a colorful but renegade element.

Since its founding in the late 60’s the modern environmental movement had created a vision that was international in scope and had room for people of all political persuasions. We prided ourselves in subscribing to a philosophy that was “trans-political, trans-ideological, and trans-national” in character. For Greenpeace, the Cree legend “Warriors of the Rainbow” referred to people of all colors and creeds, working together for a greener planet. The traditional sharp division between left and right was rendered meaningless by the common desire to protect our life support systems. Violence against people and property were the only taboos. Non-violent direct action and peaceful civil disobedience were the hallmarks of the movement. Truth mattered and science was respected for the knowledge it brought to the debate.

Now this broad-based vision is challenged by a new philosophy of radical environmentalism. In the name of “deep ecology” many environmentalists have taken a sharp turn to the ultra-left, ushering in a mood of extremism and intolerance. As a clear signal of this new agenda, in 1990 Greenpeace called for a “grassroots revolution against pragmatism and compromise”.

As an environmentalist in the political center I now find myself branded a traitor and a sellout by this new breed of saviors. My name appears in Greenpeace’s “Guide to Anti-Environmental Organizations”. Even fellow Greenpeace founder and campaign comrade, Bob Hunter, refers to me as the “eco-Judas”. Yes, I am trying to help the Canadian forest industry improve its performance so we might be proud of it again. As chair of the Forest Practices Committee of the Forest Alliance of B.C. I have lead the process of drafting and implementing the Principles of Sustainable Forestry that have been adopted by a majority of the industry. These Principles establish goals for environmental protection, forest management and public involvement. They are providing a framework for dialogue and action towards improvements in forest proactices. Why shouldn’t I make a contribution to environmental reform in the industry my grandfather and father have worked in for over 90 years?

It’s not that I don’t think the environment is in deep trouble. The hole in the ozone is real and we are overpopulating and overexploiting many of the earth’s most productive ecosystems. I believe this is all the more reason to hang on to ideas like freedom, democracy, internationalism, and one-human-family. Our species is probably in for a pretty rough ride during the coming decades. It would be nice to think we could maintain a semblance of civilization while we work through these difficult times.

The Rise of Eco-Extremism

Two profound events triggered the split between those advocating a pragmatic or “liberal” approach to ecology and the new “zero-tolerance” attitude of the extremists. The first event, mentioned previously, was the widespread adoption of the environmental agenda by the mainstream of business and government. This left environmentalists with the choice of either being drawn into collaboration with their former “enemies” or of taking ever more extreme positions. Many environmentalists chose the latter route. They rejected the concept of “sustainable development” and took a strong “anti-development” stance.
Surprisingly enough the second event that caused the environmental movement to veer to the left was the fall of the Berlin Wall. Suddenly the international peace movement had a lot less to do. Pro-Soviet groups in the West were discredited. Many of their members moved into the environmental movement bringing with them their eco-Marxism and pro-Sandinista sentiments.

These factors have contributed to a new variant of the environmental movement that is so extreme that many people, including myself, believe its agenda is a greater threat to the global environment than that posed by mainstream society. Some of the features of eco-extremism are:

It is anti-human. The human species is characterized as a “cancer” on the face of the earth. The extremists perpetuate the belief that all human activity is negative whereas the rest of nature is good. This results in alienation from nature and subverts the most important lesson of ecology; that we are all part of nature and interdependent with it. This aspect of environmental extremism leads to disdain and disrespect for fellow humans and the belief that it would be “good” if a disease such as AIDS were to wipe out most of the population.

· It is anti-technology and anti-science. Eco-extremists dream of returning to some kind of technologically primitive society. Horse-logging is the only kind of forestry they can fully support. All large machines are seen as inherently destructive and “unnatural’. The Sierra Club’s recent book, “Clearcut: the Tradgedy of Industrial Forestry”, is an excellent example of this perspective. “Western industrial society” is rejected in its entirety as is nearly every known forestry system including shelterwood, seed tree and small group selection. The word “Nature” is capitalized every time it is used and we are encouraged to “find our place” in the world through “shamanic journeying” and “swaying with the trees”. Science is invoked only as a means of justifying the adoption of beliefs that have no basis in science to begin with.

· It is anti-organization. Environmental extremists tend to expect the whole world to adopt anarchism as the model for individual behavior. This is expressed in their dislike of national governments, multinational corporations, and large institutions of all kinds. It would seem that this critique applies to all organizations except the environmental movement itself. Corporations are critisized for taking profits made in one country and investing them in other countries, this being proof that they have no “allegiance” to local communities. Where is the international environmental movements allegiance to local communities? How much of the money raised in the name of aboriginal peoples has been distributed to them? How much is dedicated to helping loggers thrown out of work by environmental campaigns? How much to research silvicultural systems that are environmentally and economically superior?

· It is anti-trade. Eco-extremists are not only opposed to “free trade” but to international trade in general. This is based on the belief that each “bioregion” should be self-sufficient in all its material needs. If it’s too cold to grow bananas – – too bad. Certainly anyone who studies ecology comes to realize the importance of natural geographic units such as watersheds, islands, and estuaries. As foolish as it is to ignore ecosystems it is adsurd to put fences around them as if they were independent of their neighbours. In its extreme version, bioregionalism is just another form of ultra-nationalism and gives rise to the same excesses of intolerance and xenophobia.

· It is anti-free enterprise. Despite the fact that communism and state socialism has failed, eco-extremists are basically anti-business. They dislike “competition” and are definitely opposed to profits. Anyone engaging in private business, particularly if they are sucessful, is characterized as greedy and lacking in morality. The extremists do not seem to find it necessary to put forward an alternative system of organization that would prove efficient at meeting the material needs of society. They are content to set themselves up as the critics of international free enterprise while offering nothing but idealistic platitudes in its place.

· It is anti-democratic. This is perhaps the most dangerous aspect of radical environmentalism. The very foundation of our society, liberal representative democracy, is rejected as being too “human-centered”. In the name of “speaking for the trees and other species” we are faced with a movement that would usher in an era of eco-fascism. The “planetary police” would “answer to no one but Mother Earth herself”.

· It is basically anti-civilization. In its essence, eco-extremism rejects virtually everything about modern life. We are told that nothing short of returning to primitive tribal society can save the earth from ecological collapse. No more cities, no more airplanes, no more polyester suits. It is a naive vision of a return to the Garden of Eden.

As a result of the rise of environmental extremism it has become difficult for the public, government agencies and industry to determine which demands are reasonable and which are not. It’s almost as if the person or group that makes the most outrageous accusations and demands is automatically called “the environmentalist” in the news story. Industry, no matter how sincere in its efforts to satisfy legitimate environmental concerns, is branded “the threat to the environment”. Let me give you a few brief examples.

The Brent Spar

In 1995, Shell Oil was granted permission by the British Environment Ministry to dispose of the oil rig “Brent Spar” in deep water in the North Sea. Greenpeace immediately accused Shell of using the sea as a “dustbin”. Greenpeace campaigners maintained that there were hundreds of tonnes of petroleum wastes on board the Brent Spar and that some of these were radioactive. They organized a consumer boycott of Shell service stations, costing the company millions in sales. German Chancellor Helmut Kohl denounced the British government’s decision to allow the dumping. Caught completely off guard, Shell ordered the tug that was already towing the rig to its burial site to turn back. They then announced they had abandoned the plan for deep-sea disposal. This angered British Prime Minister, John Major.

it remains to this day. Independent investigation revealed that the rig had been properly cleaned and did not contain the toxic and radioactive waste claimed by Greenpeace. Greenpeace wrote to Shell apologizing for the factual error. But they did not change their position on deep-sea disposal despite the fact that on-land disposal will cause far greater environmental impact.

During all the public outrage directed against Shell for daring to sink a large piece of steel and concrete it was never noted that Greenpeace had purposely sunk its own ship off the coast of New Zealand in 1986. When the French government bombed and sunk the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour in 1985, the vessel was permanently disabled. It was later re-floated, patched up, cleaned and towed to a marine park where it was sunk in shallow water as a dive site. Greenpeace said the ship would be an artificial reef and would support increased marine life.

The Brent Spar and the Rainbow Warrior are in no way fundamentally different from one another. The sinking of the Brent Spar could also be rationalized as providing habitat for marine creatures. It’s just that the public relations people at Shell are not as clever as those at Greenpeace. And in this case Greenpeace got away with using misinformation even though they had to admit their error after the fact.

WWF and Species Extinction

In March, 1996, the International Panel on Forests of the United Nations held its first meeting in Geneva. The media paid little attention to what appeared to be one more ponderous assemblage of delegates speaking in unintelligible UNese. As it turned out, the big story to emerge from the meeting had nothing to do with the Panel on Forests itself. In what has become a common practice, The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) chose to use the occasion of the UN meeting as a platform for its own news release.
The WWF news release, which was widely picked up by the international media, made three basic points. They claimed that species were going extinct at a faster rate now than at any time since the dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago. They said that 50,000 species were now becoming extinct each year due to human activity. But of most significance to the subject of forests, WWF claimed that the main cause of species extinction was “commercial logging”, that is, the forest industry. They provided absolutely no evidence for this so-called fact about logging and the media asked no hard questions. The next day newspapers around the world proclaimed the forest industry to be the main destroyer of species.

Since that announcement I have asked on numerous occasions for the name of a single species that has been rendered extinct due to forestry, particularly in my home country, Canada. Not one Latin name has been provided. It is widely known that human activity has been responsible for the extinction of many species down through history. These extinctions have been caused by hunting, the conversion of forest and grassland to farming and human settlement, and the introduction of exotic diseases and predators. Today, the main cause of species extinction is deforestation, over 90% of which is caused by agriculture and urban development. Why is WWF telling the public that logging is the main cause of species extinction?

While I do not wish to guess at the WWF’s motivation, it is instructional to consider the question from a different angle. That is, if forestry does not generally cause species extinction, what other compelling reason is there to be against it? Surely the fact that logging is unsightly for a few years after the trees are cut is not sufficient reason to curtail Canada’s most important industry.

Despite the WWF’s failure to support its accusations, the myth that forestry causes widespread species extinction lives on. How can a largely urban public be convinced that this is not the case? The challenge is a daunting one for an industry that has been cast in the role of Darth Vadar when it should be recognized for growing trees and providing wood, the most renewable material used in human civilization.

Chlorine in Manufacturing

I don’t mean to pick on Greenpeace but they are close to my heart and have strayed farther from the truth than I can tolerate. In this case the issue is chlorine, an element that is used in a wide variety of industrial, medical, and agricultural applications. In 1985 Greenpeace took up the campaign to eliminate chlorine from all industrial processes, to essentially remove it from human use despite its enormous benefits to society.
The basis of the campaign was the discovery that the use of chlorine as a bleaching agent in the pulp and paper industry resulted in the production of minute quantities of dioxin, some of which ended up in waste water. The industry responded quickly and within five years of the discovery had virtually eliminated dioxins by switching to a different form of chlorine or eliminating chlorine altogether. The addition of secondary treatment resulted in further improvements. Independent scientists demonstrated that after these measures were taken, pulp mills using chlorine had no more environmental impact than those that used no chlorine. Did Greenpeace accept the science? No, they tried to discredit the scientists and to this day continue a campaign that is based more on fear than fact. Its as if chlorine should be banned from the periodic table of elements altogether so future generations won’t know it exists.


This critique of radical environmentalism is nowhere more appropriate than in the present debate over managing our forests and manufacturing forest products. Human management of forests is portrayed as somehow “unnatural”. As mentioned before, horse-logging appeals to the extremists because it uses less technology. My response to this idea is that it would make more sense for the city people to use horses to get their 150 pound bodies to work in the morning and let the loggers have the engines from their cars so they can move the heavy loads in the forest. I suppose this is a result of my twisted country perspective.
For Greenpeace the zero chlorine campaign was just the beginning. Now Greenpeace Germany is leading a campaign for a global ban on clearcutting in any forest. They want lumber and paper manufacturers to use a label that states their product is “clearcut-free”. Canada has been chosen as the target for consumer boycotts because it uses clearcutting in forestry. It doesn’t matter that the world’s most knowledgeable silviculturists believe that clearcutting is the most appropriate form of harvesting in many types of forest. It doesn’t matter that most forestry in Germany is by the clearcut method, they want to boycott us anyway. What matters is that it makes a good fundraising campaign in Europe.

The public is unaware of the basic flaws in the Greenpeace campaign to end clearcutting worldwide. They do not realize that there is no clear definition of the term “clearcutting” and that Greenpeace refuses to engage in a dialoque to determine the precise nature of what it is they are opposed to. It is also not widely realized that there is no such thing as a supply of pulp and paper that is “clearcut-free”. The practice of clearcutting is so widespread that it would be impossible to obtain a supply of wood chips that came from forests where only single-tree selection forestry is practised.

Perhaps the most cynical aspect of the Greenpeace campaign is their assertion that forests are clearcut in British Columbia to make tissue paper and toilet paper for Europeans. They use the slogan “When you blow your nose in Europe you are blowing away the ancient forests of Canada” to imply that Europeans could save Canadian forests if they would stop buying tissue made from Canadian pulp. Everyone who has studied Canadian forestry, including Greenpeace, knows that the pulp and paper industry in British Columbia is based entirely on the waste products of the sawmilling industry. The forests are harvested to supply high value solid wood for furniture, interior woodwork and construction. Only the wastes from making lumber and those logs that are unsuitable for sawmilling are made into pulp. If we did not make pulp from these wastes they would have to be burned or left to rot as was the case in the past.

Rather than promoting unilateral boycotts that are based on misinformation and coercion, organizations like Greenpeace should recognize the need for internationally accepted criteria for sustainable forestry and forest products manufacturing. Through dialogue and international cooperation it would be possible to achieve agreement and end the unfair practice of singling out an individual nation for sanctions. Unfortunately they have now joined in the effort to spoil an International Convention on Forests. Their reasons for opposing a convention are not valid and amount to a transparent front for a strong anti-forestry attitude.


It is not reasonable to expect the environmental movement to drop its extremist agenda overnight. The rise of extremism is a major feature of the movement’s evolution and is now deeply embedded in its political structure. We can hope that as time passes the movement will be retaken by more politically centrist, science-based leaders and that the extreme wing will be marginalized. At the same time, we must remember that most of the larger environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council etc. do have many members and campaign teams that are reasonable and based on good science. It’s just that for the time being, major elements of their organizations have been hi-jacked by people who are politically motivated, lack science, and are often using the rhetoric of environmentalism to promote other causes such as class struggle and anti-corporatism.
The only way industry can successfully help to promote a more pragmatic and reasonable environmental movement is to prove that it is willing and able to avoid future damage to the environment and to correct past abuses. In other words, if your house is in order, there will be little or nothing for extremists to use as a reason for taking an essentially “anti-industry” position.

The challenge for environmental leaders is to resist the path of ever increasing extremism and to know when to talk rather than fight. To remain credible and effective they must reject the anti-human, anarchistic approach. This is made difficult by the fact that many individuals and their messengers, the media, are naturally attracted to confrontation and sensation. It isn’t easy to get excited about a committee meeting when you could be bringing the state to its knees at a blockade.

The best approach to our present predicament is to recognize the validity of both the bioregional and the global visions for social and environmental sustainability. Issues such as overpopulation and sustainable forest practices require international agreements. Composting of food wastes and bicycle repairs are best accomplished locally. We must think and act both globally and locally, always cognizant of impacts at one level caused by actions at another. Extremism that rejects this approach will only bring disaster to all species, including humans.

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