Friday, June 16, 2006

fight not to win, but because we should

Been thinking some more about one of those astonishing quotes from Greenpeace staff in the Iceland article.

Greenpeace's Frode Pleym said, ‘the reason for not getting involved in the dam issue was that we felt that the decision making process had gone too far.’ And now there’s a direct action campaign, Greenpeace is still staying out.

Ignoring the fact that the planning process is only decided on for one of the dozen dams, let’s deal with the point of principle. Supporting those who resist ecological devastation used to be part of Greenpeace’s work, irrespective of the immediate chances of winning.

Greenpeace gave some help to the anti-roads campaigns in the mid-90s, in terms of public statements of support and direct practical assistance on the ground with media training and materials. There was never any real chance that the individual roads being targeted would be stopped, but that was not the point. The benefit came in raising the issues, giving space to different ideas and priorities that did win the day, and the government’s roads budget was slashed to a tiny fraction of what was planned.

We did not fight at Newbury to win there, but because of that inevitably defeated campaign we didn’t have to fight at Salisbury or any of the dozens of other places threatened by schemes that were swiftly abandoned.

When Greenpeace sent ships to French nuclear tests in the Pacific, there was no real prospect that they would stop the tests. The decision making process was too far gone. When they blocked the Sellafield outflow pipe in the Irish Sea, Sellafield was already up and running, it was not going to be stopped.

By Frode Pleym’s explanation of Greenpeace’s rationale, none of these actions should have happened. They were contradictory to the idea that it’s not worth raising your voice if a planning process is too far gone. Either Greenpeace should not have been supporting those campaigns, or else it should be supporting the Icelandic dam campaign. There is no other consistent position.

So either Pleym is a liar, or Greenpeace has retreated from its radical tradition (or both).

Greenpeace was founded – and is funded by subscribers who want to see it continue – on the premise that somebody gives resistance. They get in the way and attempt to stop things not just when there’s a good chance of winning, but because these things should be challenged on principle.

But we don’t just oppose on principle, though that in itself is reason enough. We oppose because we often can’t tell how possible or realistic our aspirations are. Many of us who remember the 1980s never really believed apartheid or the Soviet Bloc would be gone in our lifetimes. Political change doesn’t happen in steady, visible increments. It often seems like there are only a few fringe nutters who are bothered and then - bam! - out of apparently impossible situations huge victories are won. And even when we fail, we have left seeds of inspiration behind in the hands of those who will come after us and succeed.

The activists who started the suffragettes, the anti-apartheid campaign and innumerable anti-colonial independence movements began struggles decades long that many of them never lived to see the end of. How thankful we should be they never entered into deal-making with their opponents, accepting their power and merely looking for ways of mitigating some of the wrong. The people committing unconscionable acts should not be allowed to do so unopposed, and a public who would agree with us should be made aware.

These actions make people ask why we are objecting, and in giving powerful, informed answers we make it more likely that future projects will be stopped. It is quite frequently not about winning on the ground where we are fighting, but about preventing the battles in future, sowing the seeds for a lasting victory later on.

Two centuries ago anti-slavery campaigners could have sought compromise with the slave traders and owners. There could have been improved conditions for slaves offered, and any anti-slaver would have felt bad turning it down out of some pig-headed adherence to moral absolutes. How easy for the well-fed white idealists to refuse the compromises offered of longer chains and less whipping. It would have been unreasonable and unrealistic to expect such a huge industry on which so much of the economy relied to be eradicated. Even if that were a long term goal, surely some short term gains in the conditions of slaves would be welcome.

But no. The core activities of the slave trade were unacceptable. To lend support to some slavers or some of what they did implies they have a good moral disposition in general. To see them as someone with whom we do deals means we accept their position and power. It lends their existence a legitimacy it does not deserve, it would actually reinforce them and makes it less likely that they’d be abolished.

Doing deals to curb certain areas of an opponents activity has the effect of not challenging the rest of their activity, it affirms the legitimacy of what is not being challenged. With an oil company, with an aluminium smelter, with an airline or a nuclear installation there is no compromise to be had, no core activity to be endorsed.

As the world’s ecological crisis worsens many of the organisations we’ve trusted to fight the destruction are effectively reinforcing the power of the destructive corporations. As our need for change becomes ever more urgent and so the solutions needed are ever more drastic, some of the larger NGOs find themselves actually asking for less and less change.


LeeSun said...

great post! i heartily agree! Frode's statement on behalf of Greenpeace is absolutely ridiculous. check out this magazine -- warning, these articles are not exactly soothing.

LeeSun said...

oops, meant to say check out the magazine aforementioned for more reporting on big NGO's and the huge compromises many of them are making, to the detriment of the international social justice movement.