It's No Fluke: Infighting and funding problems at Greenpeace could spell disaster for the world's largest environmental organization.
It's not easy being Green(peace) in this day and age
By Don Hazen
GREENPEACE USA, the immensely popular and influential environmental organization known for its aggressive direct-action campaign and promotional flair, is in turmoil. In a drastic move that has the environmental world's tongues wagging, the Washington, D.C.based organization plans to reduce its 400-person staff to a mere 65 and will close down at least five of its 10 field offices across the country, a downsizing of unprecedented scope in the environmental movement.
The layoffs, dubbed a "restructuring" by Greenpeace representatives, essentially cut the heart out of the group's grassroots operations--eliminating its field offices and effectively halting its long-established door-to-door canvassing operation. This dramatic move was made by the Greenpeace USA board of directors, reportedly under strong pressure from Thilo Bode, executive director of Greenpeace International and the former head of Greenpeace Germany.
Direct Action--Da! High-profile, heroic acts of civil disobedience, like this run against a Russian whaling ship, are winning out over grassroots organizing.
The portentous restructuring decision was blamed on nagging budget problems that apparently have plagued Greenpeace for years, exacerbated by declining fundraising in the Clinton era and perhaps a faded Greenpeace image. In the face of growing deficits, the group's $29.5 million annual budget will be slashed to $20.1 million.
But under the surface burns a fundamental fissure in the far-flung Greenpeace family: a culture clash between the old-style European-initiated model of direct action and focus on large-scale international issues of the global climate change and ancient forests (embraced by Greenpeace International and Bode), and more recent efforts by Greenpeace USA at grassroots environmental organizing, making connections between local and national and international issues.
The contrast is between macho, but effective symbolic actions--saving whales, fighting nuclear testing, and struggling against drift-net fishing--vs. Greenpeace USA's long evolution into a multifaceted organization deeply concerned with toxics dumps in poor communities and environmental justice.
While the turmoil is far from over, it appears that a return to the dominance of the traditional direct-action model has the upper hand as a three-person transition team--seemingly sympathetic to Bode's position--takes charge.
What these changes mean to Greenpeace and the environmental movement as a whole are open to debate. But this much is evident: The era of Greenpeace USA as a large-scale, free-spending, diverse organization grappling with the full plate of U.S. environmental problems is over.
One Greenpeace insider suggested that the restructuring has the makings of a new leaner, meaner machine focused on its traditional bread and butter--political campaigns with clearly defined targets. Others are far less certain what the future will bring.
European Greenpeace groups have much easier access to and influence over legislators in their countries than Greenpeace does in the United States. "These guys have a hard time understanding why Greenpeace USA needed to be mucking around at the grassroots," says former Greenpeace USA Media Director Bill Walker.
Photo by Ken Hardouin/Greenpeace
Is Smaller Better?
THE UPHEAVAL at Greenpeace included the May resignation of Executive Director Barbara Dudley, who served five difficult years at the helm. And in August, in the wake of the layoffs, legendary Greenpeace activist, Earth First! founder, and Dudley antagonist Mike Roselle angrily resigned from the Greenpeace board of directors.
Dudley said she resigned exhausted from years of crisis management. "A week didn't go by without personnel problems, international political problems, fundraising problems. I'm just worn out and want to be an activist again instead of an administrator of a huge organization." Nevertheless, in major ways, the restructuring underway undermines much of what Dudley worked for. As one former high-ranking insider put it, "There's been a fight for Greenpeace's USA's soul--and the soul lost."
In many ways Dudley and Roselle are symbols of the schisms within Greenpeace. Roselle, who has twice worked at Greenpeace, is famous for organizing in-your-face direct actions, which often garner inspirational media coverage. Recently he and other veterans independently organized the Ruckus Society, an effort that has trained more than 500 of the next generation in direct-action tactics à la Greenpeace.
After three tries, Roselle finally was elected to the Greenpeace board in an attempt to influence Greenpeace from within, an organization he felt "was completely staff-driven." Long critical of the Dudley direction, Roselle calls himself an "internationalist now and always," a position that made him a minority on the board, but an advocate for intervention by Greenpeace International.
One of the internal questions that continually has dogged Greenpeace USA has been its relationship to the International, headquartered in Amsterdam. Is Greenpeace an international organization with offices in 32 different countries or a federation of semi-autonomous organizations forged in an international alliance?
This issue has never been resolved, but the point was rendered moot as Greenpeace USA's success over the last decade enabled it to keep Greenpeace International somewhat at arm's length. (In 1991, with Peter Bahouth in the director's chair, Greenpeace USA had more than 2 million members and a budget in the neighborhood of $50 million.) However, its steadily declining economic fortune and dwindling membership--currently down to 450,000--made it vulnerable to Greenpeace International's increased influence.
Another factor for the split between the U.S. and International organizations, according to former Greenpeace USA Media Director Bill Walker, is that European Greenpeace groups have much easier access to and influence over legislators in their countries than Greenpeace does in the United States. "These guys have a hard time understanding why Greenpeace USA needed to be mucking around at the grassroots."
But Greenpeace was victorious in such battles as pressing the House to pass a ban on factory trawlers in Eastern Atlantic waters. Board member Harriet Barlow called the unexpected trawler ban one of Greenpeace's biggest recent victories: "When lately has Congress voted against organized corporate interests, siding with small communities?"
In this uphill struggle, Greenpeace was aligned with New England fishing communities, whose waters had been raped continuously by these monster ships, against such companies as Tyson Foods Inc., a huge producer of fish sticks, along with all those chickens.
THE EXTENT of Greenpeace's actual financial crisis is open to debate. While the restructuring axed more than $9 million from the fiscal budget, one board member suggests that the projected deficit for the year was close to 10 percent of the overall budget, not a shocking position for difficult fundraising times.
In fact, according to sources within Greenpeace, similar deficit projections last year were overcome, ending the year with a slight surplus.
Former board member Roselle, on the other hand, says that these budget figures are misleading. "The deficit would have been $7 million and Greenpeace USA would not have been able to send its $3.5 million to the International, hurting the entire organization and justifying intervention from the International." In fact, Roselle feels that, overall, Greenpeace USA has just not been supportive of the International's activities, especially in the priority areas of fisheries, climate, and forests. "Thilo Bode is the only person who can save Greenpeace," he adds.
Roselle said he quit the board because he couldn't assure financial accountability and he couldn't organize while being on the inside. Describing the board process as "chaotic," he maintained that "the board lacked honor; it was like the Village of the Damned." And besides, Thilo Bode had demanded that the entire Greenpeace board resign, Roselle claims, and he complied.
The rest of the board, however, hasn't resigned, although the board is not proceeding with business as usual. Running the organization is a transitional team made up of board chair Joanne Kliejunas; Seattle Regional Director Bill Keller, who represents staff; and international representative Kristen Engberg. Kliejunas, who was brought onto the board to help with management advice, has ended up in the hot power seat.
While rumors abound that other board members likely will be ousted under continued pressure from Bode, Kliejunas says that although changes are being "actively discussed" within the organization, nothing has been finalized.
Show Us the Money
IN THE LARGER SENSE, no one disagrees that Greenpeace was struggling financially. What brought Greenpeace to this point, in part, reflects many of the problems facing large membership advocacy groups in the United States today. In Greenpeace's case, trying to combine a grassroots operation with a direct-mail and telemarketing membership base was a constant balancing act. Greenpeace always has been very proud that almost all of its funding came from "the people," via door-to-door canvassing and direct mail. Only 2 percent of its budget came from foundation grants.
By seeking more foundation support and phasing out the canvassing earlier, Greenpeace USA likely wouldn't be facing this crisis. But Greenpeace USA saw the values of independence from foundations and a continuous grassroots presence as essential to its character, probably no less so than Greenpeace veterans see direct action as fundamental to their vision. (It is important to note that direct action has continuously been a strategy for Greenpeace USA all along, particularly in its toxics organizing.)
In fact, financially, the canvass operation, which included many of the staff people laid off, was at best a break-even proposition. And as Greenpeace board member Barlow explained, it was Greenpeace's commitment to pay canvassers a living wage and benefits that somewhat contributed to its budget woes.
At the same time, direct mail was slow. With a Democrat in the White House, and the ability of Clinton/Gore to project a green-washed image--particularly through its Environmental Protection Agency Director Carol Browner--direct mail, which works best with an identified enemy or crisis, continued to drop off.
WHAT THE TRANSITIONAL team means for the future is a wide-open question. The Greenpeace community has petitioned for a voting members' meeting with the board, scheduled for Sept. 13. Greenpeace has a unique form of internal democracy: Current and former staff members who have worked for more than six years make up the official community and vote for the board of directors. Currently, there are more than 170 members of that community, and many of them--including some in the recently laid-off canvassing operation--are angry.
One of those staffers with serious questions for the Greenpeace board is current Southwest Toxics campaigner Bradley Angel. Bradley is confident that voting membership will succeed in preserving some of Greenpeace USA's current focus. "We look forward to a constructive meeting among voting members--both current and former staff. I think having 172 people there, we're in a very good position to come up with alternative proposals."
The role of--and the power wielded by--that community, however, is unclear in this battle. Board chair Kliejunas emphasized that only the board can determine how the resources are allocated. No doubt the meeting will produce a lot of fireworks.
The turmoil at Greenpeace is bound to have repercussions in movement politics. Thousands of activists in organizations around the world in addition to the current staff have cut their organizing teeth at Greenpeace. Greenpeace has been the model of bold, media-savvy actions that encouraged hope and conscience in many. Will the activist diaspora and the laid-off staff mark this difficult moment in Greenpeace history as a huge defeat or as a chance to return to the Greenpeace roots?
Longtime activist and board member Barlow was upbeat, saying this move might very well save Greenpeace in the long run. "While this reorganization is tough on everybody, it does offer us an important opportunity. The future of Greenpeace rests on the ability to liberate Greenpeace campaign activities and allow staff to do what Greenpeace does best. Greenpeace staff won't be stuck in D.C. They will go where the action is. There has been a pattern of layoffs for several years, and that has had a eroding psychological effect on everyone in the organization.
"Hopefully, a new spirit, a new board, and a new executive director will bring us into a new era."
From former director Dudley's perspective, she offered just one sentiment for the future. "Whatever they do, they should move out of Washington. If Greenpeace is to have an effective role in the future, it shouldn't be walking the halls inside the Beltway."
Don Hazen is the executive director of the Institute for Alternative Journalism and former publisher of Mother Jones.
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From the Aug. 27-Sept. 3, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.