Greenpeace Co-Founder Criticizes Its Reactionary Turn

October 2003

by Jon Entine

Profile of Patrick Moore, Co-founder, Greenpeace. Jon Entine discusses the views of a co-founder of the pioneering campaigning group on its current problematic attitudes and strategies.

Has the activist leadership of Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and other high-profile groups that presume to lobby on behalf of the environment taken a sharp turn into the reactionary ditch?

That's the conclusion of Patrick Moore, a Canadian environmentalist, who is fighting to bring sanity to the debate over some of the most pressing issues of our times. Who is Moore? Baby boomers may not know his name, but they certainly remember his picture. Back in 1978, he was arrested off Newfoundland trying to save a baby seal from being turned into a suburban housewife's winter coat. Moore's embrace of the embattled and soon-to-be-slaughtered seal appeared in more than 3,000 newspapers. The picture catalysed and came to symbolise the emerging environmental consciousness that has literally changed the world over the past generation.

Born and raised in a fishing village on the tip of Vancouver Island, Moore helped put Greenpeace and activist environmentalism on the map. The once idealistic group began in a church basement in Vancouver in 1971, when a group of like-minded radical ecologists gathered to plan a campaign to challenge US hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. The rag-tag protests they devised forced President Nixon to cancel four scheduled tests, marking the end of hydrogen bomb testing on earth. That victory was followed by successful campaigns against atmospheric nuclear testing by France in the Pacific and the factory slaughtering of sperm whales off California by Russians and Japanese.

By the mid-1980s, the organisation that he had co-founded had grown into a twenty-one country, US$100 million force. Although he treasured the early accomplishments at Greenpeace, Moore began to recognise that it was time for a change. "I had been against at least three or four things every day of my life for 15 years," he says. "I decided I'd like to be in favour of something for a change. I made the transition from the politics of confrontation to the politics of building consensus."

As Moore sees it, he was just responding to the trends in the world around him. He had witnessed ecology turn from a fringe movement into a mainstream consensus, embraced, however grudgingly, by government and corporations alike. Major health and environmental indices confirm his worldview: crop yields are rising, pollution is abating, deaths from disease and malnutrition are falling and life spans are increasing. Certainly there are serious environmental and health challenges before us and concerns remain about any number of issues, from global warming to AIDS. But only a hard-edged cynic would challenge the benefits that have resulted from the new world order where business, government and NGOs exist in a fitful relationship, sometimes even working together as partners.

In contrast, look at the nether world conjured up by cynics at today's Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth. While reformers like Moore recognise the enormous social and environmental benefits that could and have come from dialoguing with "the enemy", what Moore calls the "environmental extremists" at his old haunt have devolved into "scientific illiterates" who worship the primitive over progress, and confrontation over reform, even if that means freezing the developing world out of the benefits that industrialised countries take for granted.

These are incendiary indictments, but Moore issues them with the confidence of an insider who has witnessed progressive ideals being eroded by what he calls smug "obstructionists". Moore is particularly exorcised over the reactionary opposition to agricultural biotechnology by Greenpeace and its ideological allies on this issue, including the "social investment" community. "I cannot comprehend that anyone, let alone someone who fancies himself as progressive, would argue against pursuing research on putting a daffodil gene in rice that could boost its Vitamin A content and prevent a half million Asian and African children from developing blindness each year," he says. "Yet, that's just what they're doing. They even oppose basic research."

Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Action Aid and ethical investment campaigners among others have labelled life-giving Golden Rice a Frankenfood, dismissing it as a capitalist ploy that will threaten life as we know it if the project proceeds. This pious moralising rankles Moore. He notes the reaction of Swiss plant biologist Ingo Potrykus, one of the inventors of Golden Rice it was developed independent of any corporation and is being offered free to the developing world who is horrified at the reactionary stance of privileged environmentalists, accusing Greenpeace of "crimes against humanity".

"I agree with his disgust at the protests," says Moore. "The critics are unconscionable on this issue. Genetic modification is a form of biological rather than chemical intervention," he notes, adding that it also results in a reduction in the use of chemical fertilisers. "In other words, genetic engineering is an organic science. Why so-called 'organic' farming doesn't embrace GM rather than reject it outright more or less proves that organic is a political rather than a biological concept."

As he points out, even the sceptical European Commission, which has instituted tight regulation of GM crops, rejects Greenpeace's reactionary hysteria. In 2001 it released the results of 81 scientific studies on agricultural biotechnology conducted by 400 research teams. The conclusion mirrored that of every major world health organisation that has studied the issue: GM foods and crops have "not shown any new risks to human health or the environment, beyond the usual uncertainties of conventional plant breeding. Indeed, the use of more precise technology and the greater regulatory scrutiny probably make them even safer than conventional plants and foods."

Not only safer, Moore adds, but less costly for the developing world, which does not have the luxury to impose highly inefficient organic standards that are so popular in suburbia. Moore is particularly disheartened that the movement he helped found has lost touch with its original mission of helping the environmentally and socially distressed. "It's become an organisation of privilege. It lives for its campaigns, its tactics, not for solutions," he tells me.

Greenpeace's devolution into a caricature of its founding ideals reflects a corrupt turn in the NGO community. NGOs and non-profits emerged as public policy players in the 1970s in part in reaction to the growing power of corporations that exploited unsettled times to pursue parochial interests. The most successful NGOs, Greenpeace included, brought the promise of tangible benefits to people at the grassroots level. That's still the role that most NGOs still play: Human rights advocates, church groups, foundations and professional aid workers pour people and resources into ravaged places where shrinking foreign-aid budgets, geopolitical concerns and corrupt or failed local policies have left huge need gaps.

But a prominent slice of the NGO world activist NGOs such as Greenpeace that focus less on infrastructure and more on ideology have captured the lion's share of media attention by defining themselves by what they are against rather than what lives they can transform. Today's activist NGOs focus less on changing infrastructure. The less salutary of them seem obsessed with campaigning and are often at odds with the needs of local populations.

Moore is not the only reformist who has become disillusioned with the gap between rhetoric and reality at NGOs that focus more on ideology than nitty-gritty grassroots change. For example, John Elkington, founder of the London-based for-profit environmental research group Sustainability has expressed amazement at claims by Greenpeace UK executive director Stephen Tindale that Greenpeace is an open, transparent organisation in touch with its membership. "In terms of accountability, Greenpeace is one of the least transparent NGOs," Elkington recently told me. Such flagrant rejection of its historical mission cuts more personally for Moore, however. After all, his sapling had grown into a sturdy tree only to become corrupted at its roots. Agricultural biotechnology, a transformative science with enormous public benefits, weighs in the balance. "How is it that these charlatans continue to stymie progress on so many fronts when their arguments are nothing more than scary speculation," he muses. "They behave like mischievous school children, but their mischief causes human misery and prevents environmental improvements."

In a world in which an activist, obstructionist fringe has decided it must shout louder and act increasingly more irrational to keep the dollars (and pounds) flowing into campaign coffers, Moore is a breath of fresh air. We can only hope that Greenpeace and company breathe in a little bit of his wisdom and turn away from the politics of privilege that threaten to drive the environmental movement into the reactionary ditch.


Jon Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio) and adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jon is also an award-winning freelance journalist.

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