On its 40th anniversary, Greenpeace looks toward the future
On September 15, 1971, an old halibut seiner renamed Greenpeace sailed off from Vancouver and into history.
In the years that followed, Greenpeace grew to become the biggest environmental organization in the world. It has won many significant battles along the way, from eventually stopping U.S. nuclear testing at Amchitka Island in Alaska in the ’70s and the whaling moratorium in the 1980s to the prohibition of mineral exploitation in the Antarctic in the 1990s and the preservation of Canada’s boreal forest near the end of the first decade of the new millennium.
As it turns 40 this year, one of its former Canadian campaigners says Greenpeace International has come to embody “radical environmentalism without a radical economics”.
According to David Peerla, the international group needs to develop a new economic analysis if it is to successfully confront climate change, which many consider the biggest threat to humanity.
“The usual Greenpeace way was to say: ‘We’re neutral on the question of corporate rule. We believe corporations can be part of the reform,’ whereas a radical economics says economic systems, world economic systems, the structure of that system is at the core of the problem,” Peerla told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Ontario. “Unless we have an alternative economics to challenge these fundamental relationships, then we’re not going to have the changes that are going to lead to the end of the climate catastrophe.”
The Thunder Bay–based Peerla occasionally teaches sociology at Ontario’s Lakehead University. An advocate of First Nations rights, he wrote about Greenpeace tactics in his 1997 doctoral dissertation at the University of California.
Peerla said that current economic systems that demand constant and infinite growth on a planet with finite resources are what drive climate change.
He also suggested that as Greenpeace expands its presence in developing countries, it faces a key challenge. “Can it join the environmental-justice movement and the social-justice movement as it moves into the global south?” Peerla asked.
There’s no doubt in the mind of Greenpeace International executive director Kumi Naidoo that the world needs a drastic overhaul.
“There has to be a significant socioeconomic paradigm shift that can ensure human sustainability,” Naidoo told the Straight in a phone interview from Montreal, where he had been attending an international conference. “The current economic model is broken. It’s bankrupt. It drives destruction of the environment. And it is deepening inequality to a point of absolute unsustainability.”
Greenpeace has made climate change its priority issue, declaring that this menace will wipe out many of the gains made by the environmental movement during the previous decades.
It has put forward a number of ambitious recommendations to avert a catastrophe. It suggests that developed countries should cut carbon emissions by up to 40 percent of their 1990 levels by 2020. Developing countries should reduce their emissions by 15 to 30 percent of that benchmark by the same year. Dirty fossil-fuel energy should be replaced with renewable sources like wind and solar.
The existing socioeconomic systems that Naidoo said must be revisited are unlikely to deliver on those targets to contain climate change. But the Greenpeace leader said his group isn’t about to present an “ideological package like ‘Capitalism is all bad and socialism is all good,’ because we know that there had been weaknesses in all systems that have been there”.
“What shape and form exactly that takes is, I think, a matter of more global public conversation that needs to happen,” Naidoo said about what new order must be established. “And we, as Greenpeace, are wanting to be part of that conversation without necessarily presenting a prescriptive blueprint.”
Greenpeace celebrates its 40th anniversary with a free, family-friendly festival at Vancouver’s Jericho Beach from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday (September 17).