Flair for Publicity : Greenpeace: A Maverick Protest Group

Times Staff Writer

In the first days after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the British chapter of the environmental group Greenpeace was deluged by anxious callers seeking information.

Well before the British government published its guidelines for a worried public, Greenpeace organizers had contacted their own scientific advisers and were offering guidance.

“We handled thousands of calls,” Sue Elvidge, a member of the group’s London office, told a reporter.

The political fallout from Chernobyl and the heightened public concern about nuclear power that has followed in its wake are the latest in a series of events that have catapulted Greenpeace into the limelight, transforming it from a small Canadian protest group into one of the most formidable, and unusual, international environmental organizations.

Persistent Lobbying

Greenpeace, with more than a million dues-paying members, four ocean-going vessels and national campaigns in 17 countries, has in recent years coupled a flair for publicity with persistent,543516262about a ban on dumping nuclear waste at sea, a moratorium on commercial whaling and an end to the annual slaughter of Canadian seal pups.


These successes have made Greenpeace an important and influential force in global environmental affairs. Its aggressive tactics have generated controversy, but its record shows that it cannot be ignored.

“They have shown they can get the job done on some issues, and they are treated with a certain amount of caution and grudging respect because of it,” said Leonard Spector, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and a recognized expert in the field of nuclear non-proliferation. “They are smart politically and use the media well.”

‘Better Organized’

Roger Cohen, spokesman for the International Maritime Organization, who watched Greenpeace lobby for last year’s decision by the London Dumping Convention to ban the disposal of nuclear waste at sea, said, that in comparison with other environmental groups: “They were better organized, better informed and more persistent. They were very effective.”

Last July, the French government took Greenpeace seriously enough to send agents to New Zealand to blow up the group’s flagship, the Rainbow Warrior, before it could start a protest voyage into France’s Pacific nuclear test zone. The incident, which killed a Greenpeace photographer, led directly to the resignation of French Defense Minister Charles Hernu and deeply embarrassed the government of President Francois Mitterrand. But it added enormously to Greenpeace’s prestige.

The group had already outflanked the French government the previous year, challenging an official denial that the Mont Louis, a cargo ship sunk in the English Channel, was carrying French nuclear material.

High Profile

But Greenpeace has generated attention mainly through a series of highly visible, often risky stunts that have become a kind of trademark.

Critics, particularly the advocates of nuclear power, have dismissed the group as irresponsible and dangerous, but even Greenpeace’s opponents admit that it is an effective attention-getter. In recent years, Greenpeace activists have:

--Unfurled banners from the Statue of Liberty and London’s Big Ben, bombarded the citizens of Leningrad with thousands of messages, piloted a balloon over the Berlin Wall and sailed into the French Pacific nuclear test zone--all to generate publicity for its campaign to halt nuclear testing.

--Climbed simultaneously smokestacks at power plants in eight European countries to unfurl banners protesting acid rain. The two climbers assigned to the lone East Bloc plant, in Czechoslovakia, were shot at by security guards, arrested and expelled from the country.

--Manned rubber dinghies and placed themselves between Soviet whaling vessels and their catch, taken up positions beneath the cranes of a Dutch freighter to prevent it from dumping barrels of nuclear waste into the Atlantic and sailed into waters where commercial dumping of chemicals was about to take place.

Doctrine of Nonviolence

Such action, directed at East Bloc as well as Western countries, reflects both the group’s doctrine of aggressive but nonviolent action and its desire to remain above politics.

The organization’s chairman and chief strategist, 53-year-old Canadian businessman David McTaggart, likes to think the stunts also have a grain or two of humor.

“Many of them are done a bit tongue-in-cheek,” he said in an interview, breaking into a smile as he described the double-decker bus rigged with a pneumatic ladder that was used to scale Big Ben. “They were caught so off guard, the bus just drove off after it was over.”

Government authorities often fail to appreciate the funny side of Greenpeace.

Inventive Getaways

Greenpeace ships have been seized by Spanish and Belgian authorities in recent years--but escaped on both occasions, once by smuggling fuel aboard in soft drink containers and once by slipping away at night after cutting off the ship’s main mast to enable it to pass under drawbridges.

Greenpeace traces its origins to a technically inept but politically successful campaign in 1971 mounted by a group of Canadians to stop U.S. nuclear tests in the Aleutian Islands. Although neither of the two ships that set sail for the test site from Vancouver reached the destination, the effort contributed to a wave of protest that eventually led to cancellation of the tests.

The following year, a 20-year-old New Zealand woman with links to the Canadian group persuaded McTaggart to sail his 42-foot ketch into the French nuclear test area off the Pacific island of Mururoa, a tiny atoll 780 miles southeast of Tahiti.

Protesting French Tests

The voyage delayed the tests, angered the French and committed McTaggart to the Greenpeace cause. On a return trip the following year, McTaggart was beaten by a French boarding party, but his presence, coupled with other protest actions, led to France’s abandoning atmospheric testing.

Today, as chairman of the Greenpeace International Board, McTaggart directs the movement from international headquarters in this seaside town in the south of England.

The power to make decisions at Greenpeace is highly concentrated in a few individuals, including McTaggart, and the extent of his personal dominance has generated resentment in the movement. But he argues that the quick decisions and fast reactions that come from centralized authority are what separate Greenpeace from other environmental groups.

“You have to make decisions and get on with things because the people you’re going after are making decisions in a helluvva hurry,” McTaggart said. “Consensus decision-making isn’t worth a . . . .”

Limited Range of Targets

McTaggart’s influence has also concentrated the group’s limited resources on a handful of specific issues, chosen as much for the prospect of success as for their content.

“Take the difference between the nuclear freeze movement and our call for a moratorium on testing,” McTaggart said. “The freeze is a great idea, but it’s fairy-tale land. Our work is too hard to put into something that will never happen.”

Its current campaign against nuclear power has featured a two-pronged attack on nuclear waste disposal and uranium mining.

“You can’t get into a nuclear plant,” Greenpeace spokesman Brian Fitzgerald said, “and there’s not much to see if you could, but waste dumping is tied to ocean pollution and that’s already an issue.”

Fitzgerald pointed out that in Australia, the source of much of the world’s uranium, mining has become an emotional issue that Greenpeace has attempted to exploit.

Building Expertise

Although publicity stunts continue, Greenpeace has in recent years tried to strengthen its scientific and lobbying expertise.

“At the beginning,” John Frizell, the Greenpeace executive director, said, “we paid little attention to these factors. But this is now a priority.”

Outsiders familiar with Greenpeace give the group mixed reviews on its technical and lobbying competence. Those who witnessed their work in lobbying the International Whaling Commission and the London Dumping Convention described Greenpeace representatives as professionals who know political pressure points and how to exploit them.

But in other areas Greenpeace’s efforts have been criticized as sloppy, at times counterproductive.

Credibility Damaged

The organization’s credibility was seriously damaged by a charge it made before a committee of the British Parliament--a charge that later proved to be false--that a government body had suggested feeding children near the Sellafield reprocessing plant in northwest England with contaminated fish on an experimental basis.

“That was a major mistake and we’ve taken a lot of heat for it,” Fitzgerald said.

Nuclear expert Spector described as politically insensitive and potentially destructive the efforts by Greenpeace last September to force substantive changes at a review conference on the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

“The U.S. position was so obviously rigid just two months before . . . yet (Greenpeace leaders) seemed willing to bring the whole conference down,” he said. “I found their position troubling.”

Seen as Counterproductive

Some people also see the group’s penchant for stunts as counterproductive in efforts to lobby moderate scientists.

“The organization needs to sustain itself with media coverage,” said Peter Taylor, an Oxford-educated scientist retained by Greenpeace to help argue the case for a ban on nuclear dumping at sea. This, he added, can make the role of scientists on the Greenpeace staff very difficult.

“Scientists abhor those kinds of things,” he said.

In fact, Greenpeace is such a pariah among academicians in Britain that McTaggart declined to provide the names of prominent scientists he says have helped the group. He said that to do so could make their lives difficult.

Capitalizing on New Mood

But with the weight of public opinion shifting after the Chernobyl accident, McTaggart indicated that Greenpeace will move quickly to capitalize on the new mood.

The other day, activists from the Greenpeace ship Sirius boarded a ship in the Mediterranean carrying spent nuclear fuel from an Italian nuclear reactor south of Rome. Greenpeace contends t1751217184span and should have been closed down three years ago.

Meanwhile, workers at Greenpeace headquarters in Lewes compiled a list of reactors around the world with characteristics similar to those of the reactor involved in the accident at Chernobyl.

“We want to point out to people in each country that there are power plants just as bad as Chernobyl,” McTaggart said.

He and others at Greenpeace see Chernobyl as one of a series of disasters pushing events in their direction.

“Bhopal, Challenger, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl . . . science hasn’t had a good run recently,” McTaggart said. “I think time is on our side.”