Outside magazine, November 1997
Melanie Duchin's most recent campaign for Greenpeace USA didn't come off quite the way she'd hoped. As part of the group's advance crew for a million-dollar campaign against oil drilling off Alaska's northern coast, Duchin had spent about ten days on Egg Island, a barren two-mile-long spit in the Beaufort Sea, keeping her eye on a drilling rig that ARCO was moving into position just outside the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Then, in late July, bad news rolled in from the home office in D.C.: Greenpeace USA was closing offices in ten cities, cutting 85 percent of its 400-strong staff, and eliminating its renowned canvass, in which earnest twentysomethings travel door-to-door to sign up new members and spread the green gospel. The group also gutted major campaigns, including Duchin's own toxics job in Seattle. "It was very surreal," she says.
But Duchin was comforted by the fact that she'd have one final hurrah. In mid-August, her crew finally joined activists aboard the Arctic Sunrise, Greenpeace USA's 165-foot icebreaker. For four glorious days, they pulled classic Greenpeace stunts, chaining themselves to the rig's platform, blocking the tugboats from transporting it, and hanging banners reading stop oil go solar. "We'd been staring at this drill rig for weeks, and now, finally, we had an opportunity to actively oppose it," she says. Alas, the fun was short-lived. ARCO and the State of Alaska slapped Greenpeace USA with a damages suit, and federal marshals served the flushed activists with a restraining order, putting an anticlimactic end to a campaign nine months in the making. When push came to shove, says Greenpeace USA board chair Joanne Kliejunas, the group was unwilling to face the prospect of having its assets frozen by an unsympathetic judge. ARCO's rig steamed ahead, and few Americans noticed the brief heroics.
The episode illustrates Greenpeace USA's problems of late: an underwhelmed public, financial mismanagement, and internal strife that — despite the group's left-wing orientation — includes veiled accusations of racism. Since its budgetary peak in 1991, Greenpeace USA's revenues have dropped by about 10 percent a year, from a high of more than $60 million to the $20.1 million budgeted for 1997, ending most of the years in between firmly in the red. Even during the Gingrich-inspired boom of 1994 and 1995, when the Sierra Club hit a fund-raising peak and the Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society, and other organizations finally recovered from their early-nineties slumps, Greenpeace USA continued to nosedive. This year, which the group projects it will finish more than $3 million in the hole, it's even struggling to pay its dues to Greenpeace International, the Amsterdam-based mother ship of a 32-nation fleet.
What happened? The simple answer, much embraced by the media in recent months, is that the American public has become bored with Greenpeace's high-profile, in-your-face tactics. Somewhere along the line, people stopped renewing their memberships and new recruits were harder to come by. And because the organization never accepted corporate support and receives minimal foundation money, Greenpeace USA has had no other revenue streams to fall back on. "These unimaginative and redundant direct-action campaigns are a big part of the problem," says Mark Dowie, a former Greenpeace USA board member and author of Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century. "There's a place for confrontation, but it has to be done in new and creative ways, not just hanging yet another banner off yet another oil tank in yet another city."
While some observers both inside and outside the organization have been echoing Dowie's complaints, others — most significantly the powers-that-be at Greenpeace International — maintain that Greenpeace USA hasn't been doing enough direct action, that it has become distracted by its recent focus on small local issues and environmental-justice campaigns. "Given the globalization of corporate activity, direct action is critical," says James Roof, head of Greenpeace International's action and marine division. "We need to remain true to a tactic and a philosophy that's a strong tradition of ours, and no one does it as well as Greenpeace. I've been hearing for ten years that it's a tired strategy. But people questioned Gandhi, too."
Hyperbolic references to pacifist visionaries aside, this pro-shenanigans faction does seem to be regaining control of the organization. One of its first strikes came in January, when Mike Roselle was elected to Greenpeace USA's board of directors on his fourth try. Roselle, cofounder of Earth First! and a direct-action pioneer, soon became a favorite of Greenpeace International's executive director, German Thilo Bode. For years, say insiders, Bode had been haranguing Greenpeace USA to eliminate the canvass, streamline operations, and get in line with the international program, which largely attempts to focus the public's attention on global warming and forest issues via direct-action campaigns. "I am definitely in sync with Thilo Bode," says Roselle. "Greenpeace is not about community organizing or going door-to-door. It's about raising hell and getting things done. I was trying to get this organization back on track, and I think we've done it."
Barbara Dudley, who resigned as Greenpeace USA's executive director in May, often had her differences with Roselle. "I thought the board would at least fight to keep the canvass," she says, "but the board got bulldozed." Bode, charges Dowie, is "a willful Teutonic guy who never liked Greenpeace USA's quasi-anarchist culture and passionate interest in justice and environmental racism." In September, according to Dudley, Greenpeace International agreed to bail out Greenpeace USA with a $4 million loan, but only on the condition that longtime board member Andr‰ Carothers and Dudley sympathizers Winona LaDuke and Ron Daniels — the board's only members of color and strong proponents of the group's environmental-justice work — step down immediately. By February, she says, the rest of the board, save newcomer Harriet Barlow, will also be sent packing.
"They forced me out," says LaDuke, an Anishinabekwe Indian who bitterly regrets the gutting of campaigns against pesticides, dioxins, and PCBs, many of which pollute poor communities. "I supported cutting the budget, but did I support using that as an excuse to hide a political takeover? No. Greenpeace International is running the organization by force, intimidation, and
coercion." Meanwhile, a number of current
Whether or not that proves to be the case, Greenpeace USA's new era has begun. Funding has increased for protests tied to international campaigns, and though Roselle resigned from the board in August ("I did what I set out to do," he says), he plans to become involved in the group's upcoming forest actions. As for Duchin, she's been able to keep a job but has been reassigned from toxics to climate change. "Some of these recent decisions have been really difficult to understand," she says, "but I guess I have to trust that it's all for the best."
Illustrations by Bob Hambly; Mark Matcho
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