Controversial Hire is an Opportunity to Start Building a Democratic Environmental Movement
Greenpeace’s Corporate Overreach
By DRU OJA JAY
Greenpeace has come a long way since the Rainbow Warrior, the retrofitted trawler used to challenge nuclear testing and whaling, was enough of a threat that the French government dispatched commandoes to sink her in 1985.
On February 13th, Greenpeace International announced that was hiring ForestEthics founder Tzeporah Berman as director of its global climate and energy campaign. The move has provoked intense outrage among many Greenpeace supporters, staff and activists. The conflict raging within Greenpeace has the potential to be an important first step in addressing two heretofore taboo subjects in the environmental movement: the corrupting influence of corporate cash and the absence of democratic structures.
The announcement marked an acceleration of a long-term drift away from Greenpeace’s origins in direct action environmental and anti-war work. Back in 2007, Greenpeace lauded Coca-Cola for its “commitment to use climate-friendly coolers and vending machines.” (The same year, campaigns against Coke’s complicity in paramilitary assassination of union leaders in Colombia were in full swing, while a year earlier, the government of Kerala had banned Coca-Cola after a revolt over overuse and pollution of groundwater.)
If the Coke deal was Greenpeace testing the waters of corporate collaboration, hiring Berman is Greenpeace jumping in.
The hire marks a full-circle return for Berman, who rose to prominence within Greenpeace but left in 2000 to found ForestEthics, where she broke new ground in the “collaborative approach” to conservation. According to Berman’s ethos, “the notion of activists vs. corporations, of good vs. evil, no longer applies… It’s about creating dialogue, and finding the solutions that will be mutually beneficial to all.”
While heading up ForestEthics, Berman undertook a series of collaborations with companies like Home Depot, Dell, Staples and most recently General Electric. Immediately before being hired by Greenpeace, Berman headed PowerUp Canada, an initiative funded mostly by the Tides and Ivey Foundations that pushed the privatization of British Columbia’s rivers in the name of green energy. She has since backed away from the fruits of her efforts, claiming she does not support the privatization of “all” rivers in BC.
Grassroots environmentalists in Canada were furious at Berman long before she took the Greenpeace job, starting with the elimination of public oversight during her stint as lead negotiator of the Great Bear Rainforest deal. (In the deal that was finally signed, only 32 per cent of the rainforest was protected.)
Berman’s return to Greenpeace as it approaches its 40th year of existence has stoked the ire of the organization’s supporters to white-hot levels.
In an email that has made the rounds of Canadian environmental lists, Greenpeace International co-founder Rex Weyler called Berman’s hire “an all-out betrayal of environmentalism, of the groups and activists who built the environmental movement in Canada and in the world, and a betrayal of the Earth itself.”
70 people have signed a statement calling on Greenpeace to rescind Berman’s hire and “renounce collaboration and partnership with destructive corporations”.
Greenpeace staffers and activists in Canada — where Berman is well-known, and where Greenpeace has a high-profile anti-tar sands campaign underway — have privately expressed a mix of bafflement and rage at the decision.
One anonymous “Greenpeace activist or staff” remarked in testimony posted to http://www.SaveGreenpeace.org: “Greenpeace actually started the Kyoto Plus campaign to battle Power Up, the organization that Tzeporah started. And now they’re hiring her. The hypocrisy blows my mind. It’s astonishing. It’s like they just hired the devil. No one will take us seriously… with decisions like this.”
Greenpeace’s decision comes at a point when questions about Environmental organizations lack of democracy or accountability, and their corresponding closeness with corporations involved in environmental destruction, are looming larger than ever.
A recent report in The Nation ends with a 30-year veteran of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) stating outright: “We’re close to a civil war in the environmental movement. For too long, all the oxygen in the room has been sucked out by this beast of these insider groups, who achieve almost nothing…. We need to create new organizations that represent the fundamentals of environmentalism and have real goals.”
The report, whose author was subsequently interviewed on Democracy Now!, raises issues that are echoed in the anonymous testimonies of disgruntled Greenpeacers. Phrases like “disenfranchised,” “no consultation,” “no transparency,” “more concerned with getting a ‘seat at the table,'” point repeatedly to the same pair of problems: addiction to corporate and foundation cash and a total lack of democracy.
While the debate rages inside Greenpeace, early reports seem to indicate that many on the inside are channeling their frustration at the lack of consultation and their own disempowerment into rage against the small number of people willing to publicly oppose the Berman hire and discuss her record.
The frustration is understandable, but if the goal is a strong, democratic environmental movement, there are much better targets for their rage.
The overreach of Greenpeace’s turn towards corporate collaboration and the ensuing grassroots backlash affords the rarest of moments: an opportunity to articulate and push for demands that normally bounce harmlessly off of the bureaucratic carapace of big organizations like Greenpeace.
It’s an opportunity to demand an end to corporate collaboration, but it’s also an opportunity to demand democratic accountability to a supporting membership that is there because of the organization’s forty years of direct action. Small-scale financial supporters, volunteer activists and staff alike have no formal say in Greenpeace’s strategic direction. Nearly all of their complaints emanate from the frustration created by that contradiction.
At a moment where tensions are at their highest, the irony of an NRDC functionary describing “civil war” and calling for “new organizations that represent the fundamentals of environmentalism and have real goals” while Greenpeacers seethe, lash out at those pointing to Berman’s record, or quit, should not be lost on anyone.
Greenpeace International’s head office has raised the stakes. If the resistance to Berman’s hire is broken, the descent of the organization will be far swifter than the Coked-up years leading to its fortieth birthday. If the resistance continues to grow and spreads to supporters of other unaccountable, corporate-partnered big greens, then we’ll win with Greenpeace or without it.
If Greenpeace’s transformation into another public relations contractor for corporations and foundations is allowed to continue, everyone loses.
Corporate collaboration will never do more than slightly curtail environmental destruction. In many cases, the results of collaboration have been disastrous. The only things that can stop it are organizations rooted in communities and grassroots movements that are immune to “leaders” selling them out for money and ego.
If that’s what folks working with and supporting Greenpeace want, they won’t get a better shot at it than this one.
Tzeporah Berman is slated to start work in April.
Dru Oja Jay is co-author of the report Offsetting Resistance: The effects of foundation funding from the Great Bear Rainforest to the Athabasca River. He is a member of the editorial collective of the Dominion, and lives in Montreal.