Greenpeace and vandalism

In the light of the appalling vandalism undertaken by Greenpeace at Nazca in Peru, I thought I would repost this piece from 2011, published as Greenpeace, an enemy of science. I note that, as in the previous instance, those involved did not turn themselves in. In this case, they have apparently fled the country.

Greenpeace, an enemy of science

Tim Lambert comments on Greenpeace sabotage of a CSIRO experiment on GM crops. Sadly, Greenpeace has become an openly anti-science organisation.

I agree with everything Tim says, but I’d add something more on the politics of this action. This kind of criminal vandalism, in the “right” cause, appeals to the juvenile instincts that nearly all of us retain to some extent, but it has repeatedly proved disastrous for the left, and the environmental movement. It’s worth comparing this kind of action to civil disobedience protests, where people put themselves on the line and openly invite arrest. If these guys had any desire to promote genuine debate they would turn themselves in and defend their actions in open court.

Given the embrace of anti-science and anti-rational views by the political right, it is important that the left and the environmental movement should dissociate themselves entirely from this kind of action. It will be a long time before Greenpeace can regain my support, if they ever do.

70 thoughts on “Greenpeace and vandalism

  1. @John Quiggin

    In my opinion that is a genuinely “grey” area.

    I’m a bit surprised you don’t remember the “No War” slogan/protest/vandalism on the Sydney Opera House on the eve of the illegal war of aggression in March 2003. I remember it vividly.

    “We” were trying desperately to stop a war of choice that was obviously illegal and purportedly justified by lies. Everyone knew they were lies. “We” were trying to prevent, although we couldn’t be sure at the time, the destruction of a country, 1 million civilian deaths and the displacement of 4 million human beings.

    The largest anti-war protest in history had no effect as the establishment media and political class screamed the pro-war propaganda. The protest was also unique in that it happened before the war it was protesting.

    I fully accept that painting the Opera House with a blood-red “NO WAR” sign was ‘vandalism’. But I am surprised you describe it, in those circumstances, as “exactly the kind of juvenile stuff I deplored in the post”.

    From a piece on this blog [19th March 2003] titled “Iraq as a precedent” by JQ:

    The majority of the population in nearly all democratic countries has formed the judgement that the supposed justification of the US is not well-founded, but the attack is going ahead anyway.

    This brings me to one final point. There’s been a lot of discussion of the inadequacies of the UNSC, its unrepresentativeness etc, and in a sense all of this is true. The fact remains that the UNSC has responded to the considered opinion of the majority of the world’s population, while the ‘coalition of the willing’ has not.

    Granted, the “vandalism” didn’t prevent the war. But neither did anything else.

    And, to quote from the article you linked to:

    It also split the country between those shocked by the vandalism of a national icon, and others who supported the anti-war message.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but haven’t you placed yourself in the former category (ie ‘those shocked by the vandalism of a national icon) as opposed to the latter (others whos supported the message)?

  2. Criminal vandalism does not even come into consideration.

    According to here:

    Greenpeace only:

    lay a bright yellow banner urging a switch to renewable energy.

    and it was next to the geoglyph.

    CocaCola execuitives are probably thinking – Damn, why didn’t we think of that!

    Next year QANTAS may want to stick their choir there to call Australia Home.

    It is all a rabid over reaction by those with rings through their noses.

  3. @Megan

    I don’t see why I am supposed to pick sides based on some journalist’s dichotomy. I don’t imagine the vandalism had much effect, but any effect it did have was almost certainly to push some undecideds into the pro-war camp.


    Oddly enough, I was just wondering how commenters would react if the Peruvian government had sold Coca-Cola the rights to do this kind of stunt.

  4. The Nazca exercise can be criticised on the grounds of cultural values. But cultural values (as we’re so often reminded) are relative. They need to be weighed up against the merits of what’s being protested, and what and how it was achieved. Every situation is different. In the case of the Sea Shepherd, most people have agreed the cultural value of the Japanese being able to eat traditional whale meat doesn’t suffice. In the case of the attacks on the CSIRO’s GM research crops, most people (here at least, including myself) appear to have decided the opposite, regardless of their broader views of the agricultural science and food production industries.

    As far as the Nazca signs being vandalism, they might not have achieved much at all, but they didn’t destroy or deface anyone’s property. At worst they left a few footprints behind in the desert. Big whoop. If Coca-Cola were to lease out space at Nazca from the Peruvian government, and especially if the Peruvian people were offended by it, I think I’d find that a pretty easy one to weigh up in my head. I can even imagine Greenpeace travelling there to protest it, and I wouldn’t see that as hypocritical in the slightest.

  5. @John Quiggin

    Of course the establishment media’s false dichotomy is a trap.

    It was possible to be against the “vandalism” and ALSO against the War.

    But rather than that, you say:

    I don’t imagine the vandalism had much effect, but any effect it did have was almost certainly to push some undecideds into the pro-war camp.

    Almost certainly to push some “undecideds” into the pro-war camp???

    Right. So there I am, driving across the Harbour Bridge – or reading the Daily Rupert, or listening to Radio Rupert (the ABC) – in March 2003, and I’m thinking “Am I pro-war or anti-war? I wish I could decide.”

    And then I see/hear about these activists who climb the Opera House and paint “NO WAR” on it. So I – “almost certainly” – say, “That’s it. I’m all in favour of this war now.”?

    Would you frame your argument that way, or differently?

  6. This is just a general comment. Not directed at anyone in particular.

    I have noticed over the last few years that just as deciduous trees start to sprout leaves or flowers bloom at the end of winter, as we approach an election some people start to grow political blinkers.

    Otherwise logical people start to appear mentally/psychologically/morally/intellectually contorted as the prepare to do whatever is necessary to “back” their chosen tribe.

    Illogical criticism of greens and vanishing criticism of the ALP seem to be particular indicia amongst ALP supporters, in my observation.

  7. If you are pushed into supporting a war that killed a million people and spawned ISIS by some dudes painting an opera house, then you are a fool.

    John, I suggest you research the direct action tactics of australian anti wood chipping protesters a little more. Sabotage and vandalism was a part of the tactics. Also, why single out just them? Why ignore the alf, suffragettes and sea shepherds?

  8. If you are pushed into supporting a war that killed a million people and spawned ISIS by some dudes painting an opera house, then you are a fool.

    True, but at least as much so if you need something like that to convince you.

    As regards the forestry issue, here’s the case of Gunn’s using accusations of sabotage as a cover for attempts to suppress free speech. Had they been able to prove sabotage (as opposed to protests that disrupted operations) they would have had both a legal and PR victory.

    As I said last time you raised the suffragettes, this is an Australian blog. Australian women got the vote through peaceful agitation, which casts a lot of doubt on the claim that the tactics of the UK suffragists advanced their cause. The extension of suffrage came in 1918, after four years during which protest was almost entirely abandoned.

    On Sea Shepherd, they reject accusations of sabotage, and instead accuse Japan of engaging in sabotage against them. If you want to endorse the claims of the Institute of Cetacean Research, go right ahead

  9. @Megan

    John Quiggin did not assert that if a person was previously undecided, the painting of a sign on the Opera House would almost certainly push that person into supporting the war.

    What he did assert was that it would almost certainly have that effect on ‘some’ undecideds: not all, not most (and not you in particular), but some.

    It may be hard to imagine that the incident would push anybody into supporting the war; but to me, at least, it is even harder to imagine that it would push anybody into opposing the war. Probably (I think, and so, I gather, does John Quiggin) most people found their stance on the war unaffected: but of the tiny number whose stance did shift, John Quiggin estimates that practically all would have shifted towards support, not towards opposition. (I agree with this estimate.)

  10. @John Quiggin

    If Coca-Cola placed a advert there, commentators would congratulate them on their creativity and artistic flair. They may even get nominated for annual advertising industry creativity awards.

    However those opposed to global capitalist tax-dodging multinationals would complain about exploitation of indigenous culture, crass commercialism, and excess power of such corporations. If these activists tried to claim “criminal vandalism” etc, they would be regarded as extreme radical comments not worth considering.

    The current campaign is an opportunist flanking rightwing attack against Greenpeace, not a proportionate response drawn from common sense.

  11. Not directed at anyone in particular either, but I’m a Greens supporter (in both party political and general movement terms). That’s why I feel the need to criticise mistakes that are likely to harm the Green cause, rather than reflexively circling the wagons, and making the movement look even worse.

  12. @John Quiggin


    Spray painting is VERY, VERY, VERY different to “laying”.

    How much intellectual ability does it take to spot the difference.

    What charges were threatened or laid against those responsible.

    Did Coca-Cola give up their names?

  13. John, I have read watson’s biography. They made a name for themselves ramming ships and damaging property. They still do that in other campaigns (e.g. Against tuna fishing). A similar organization in Europe that raids fishing boats uncovered serious slavery that the EU institutions covering the industry were ignoring. Forest protection groups in Australia have long used sabotage, and as have anti war groups across the world. And suggesting activists should avoid things that might lead to legal defeat is useless as a tactic, as them coined duo discovered, and those people whose lives were ruined by undercover cops in the uk. Where major corporate interests act with impunity far from observation, direct action of the kind you describe doesn’t work. This is why animal rights activists and environmentalists have always used these tactics. You can’t hold a demonstration in the southern ocean, or a heavily protected research lab, and if no one knows what is happening in the lab because government and corporations guarantee secrecy, someone needs to break in and steal evidence. Opposition to vandalism per se (rather than just specific dumb examples) basically enervates environmental and animal rights protest.

  14. “Forest protection groups in Australia have long used sabotage,”

    So you keep saying. Evidence? Evidence where this tactic has succeeded?

    TWS and others repeatedly deny charges like those you are making, presenting them as frame-ups by the logging industry.

    If, as you say, the charges are actually true, despite the denials, how does this work? It’s not on a sufficient scale to affect the economics of logging, and the denials make it useless as publicity.

  15. @Megan
    I second your position that this is a grey area.

    On the one hand and to get it out of the way the Greenpeace subgroup who did this were morons. Conflict resolution 101 is don’t piss people off unnecessarily let alone stomp all over the locals knowledge and traditions. If only because your enemies will use this against you.

    Speaking to a colleague whose wife is Peruvian he told me the locals are as passionately proud and protective as catholics would be of the Sistine Chapel. Meanwhile environmental management 101 says holistically evaluate potential impacts of activities bearing in mind locale sensitivity.

    That Greenpeace failed on both counts AND failed to include locals is mindbogglingly stupid but not altogether surprising. One possible reason is intergenerational alienation or the generation gap. To illustrate a few years back while I was working at the local offices of a different older environmental NGO they received this delegation from the organisation of “Young Enviromentalists” (name modified). Anyway they proceeded to lecture about 20 seasoned compaigners and internationally recognised conservation academics. The latter listened with what can best be described as patient bemusement as they were told it was important to protect the natural environment. It was a great lesson in the need to constant repeating of old wisdoms and how easily they can be lost over the years.

    Unfortunately it is a truism that as a society we forget and so each generation has to relearn lessons. I think that may have happenned here. We have seen another example this week in Sydney. At least to judge by the media the suggestion seems to be such an event as Martin Place could never happen here…forgetting the various massacres in the 1980s and 1990s, the bombing of the Hilton Hotel, the attempts at destroying aboriginal culture and arguably the Bali Bombing to mention other traumatic events which are still within living memory but seem to have been forgotten by so many.

    Separately in large organizations at times its a fact that “Shit Happens” because “Life wasnt meant to be easy” to quote 2 coalition prime ministers.

    On the other side there is a need to understand why Greenpeace people do things which go beyond the pale at times and may do so increasingly and need to forgive the stuff ups or place them in proper perspective. Two years back a very large chunk of the Arctic Ocean melted way in advance of model predictions. Greenpeace to their credit which seems to have been forgotten here by many, publicized this through doing their own confirmatory measurements as posted in the Guardian for example. Without them I doubt the story and its significance would have got the public profile it did and continues to have.

    Yet in face of this full blown canary in the coal mine, that the hour is very late, Lima is still about making plans for making plans. If there is a need to damn anyone it is the need to damn governments and their representative especially the likes of Julie Bishop a troll of the first order (see recent Guardian deconstruction of her speech) who stand a good chance of being seen in the longer future as evil to a degree comparable to legendary historical monsters such as the Inquisition and WW1 generals of the Western Front who were simply applying current management theory.

    For these reasons and considering all the good Greenpeace and all other progressive environmental NGOs have done I find much of the above criticism on balance of this event and other protests that go wrong, disturbingly bourgeois in that they overlook the question – if we confine protest to ‘civilized forms’ can we expect real change sufficiently and in time? I think the answer is absolutely NO.

    Thus we may not always like what Greenpeace does to highlight unfolding environmental catastrophes. But I will always agree on balance they have style and we would be extremely worse off without them.

  16. I let my greens membership lapse because of the childish and illogical attitude of the party regarding genetic engineering. IT is silly to conflate anti-science vandalism with totally unrelated issues like forestry.

  17. Btw, what country has stopped whaling or tuna fishing or implementented a comprehensive and effective program to protect the world’s forests as a result of violent protests?

  18. What country has ever declared that their environmental legislation is due to a particular form of community action? We’re all just guessing at what works and what doesn’t. Paul Watson in his biography points out specific actions that the Sea Shepherds took and lays claim to legislative consequences such as the IWC being beefed up, changes to long line fishing practices, that sort of thing. A lot of the achievements that come from “criminal vandalism” are in smaller, regulatory fields rather than big practices. For example, no one ever signed national legislation outlawing animal testing because of what the ALF did, but there were sweeping changes to regulatory practices and ethics approval processes in the aftermath of their raids. The same with fur farming, chicken farming, feedlot practices, and so on. How do you think the live cattle trade to Indonesia was busted, by people staging die-ins? No, someone stole some footage.

    Big agricultural and woodchipping interests don’t reform because of demonstrations by a couple of hippies in Sydney and Melbourne. They reform because the cost of doing business goes up, and the risk of exposure increases. Increasing the cost of business means on the ground disruption and vandalism, and increased risk of exposure means trespass and theft. These may not always be the right tactical decisions, but much environmental, agricultural and animal welfare policy is driven by them, as are voluntary reforms by industry. If you oppose vandalism on a particular issue because you think they’re wrong about the issue, as John does with Greenpeace on GMOs, then argue about the issue, don’t try and discredit the organization by jumping up and down over a tactic that has a long track record of success.

    And certainly don’t conflate that tactic with a stupid mistake that was not intended to be vandalism, and which may not have done any damage at all!

  19. ” How do you think the live cattle trade to Indonesia was busted, by people staging die-ins? ”

    Busted? Where is the evidence that cattle now get better treated in Indonesia? I fail to see any evidence of any net gain.

    ” a stupid mistake that was not intended to be vandalism, and which may not have done any damage at all!”

    Frog droppings. How about I come to your place and do a nice big steaming stunt in your living room because you have a different opinion from mine? When I lived in Oz I supported positive environmental groups that make things happen, like Nature Conservancy, with cold hard cash and time. Greenpeace is an undemocratic corporate monolith that hoovers up hundreds of millions of dollars that would be better invested elsewhere.

    Bored now.

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