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Greenpeace’s Midlife Crisis

Peter Robison and Monte Reel, Bloomberg

Familiar tactics against savvier corporate targets have made life harder for the environmental icon

Greenpeace’s account of its mission to board and occupy an enormous oil-drilling rig in the middle of the Pacific evoked a familiar image of daring environmental activists confronting determined opposition from a corporate titan. The six people who used ropes and harnesses last week to scale the Royal Dutch Shell rig from inflatable rafts dodged “jets of water from high-powered hoses aimed at them by the rig’s crew.” There was only one problem: The encounter involved no hoses. In fact, as a later clarification from Greenpeace made clear, the activists met no resistance at all. 

It was a small but telling slip-up for Greenpeace, which has been mired in an internal debate over how far to go to capture the public’s attention at a time when its traditional stunts often seem familiar. Many corporate targets are now savvy enough to avoid the confrontations that hand Greenpeace camera-ready scenes to generate publicity and support.  “It’s no longer maybe the mind-blowing tactics that it was in the ’70s or ’80s to go out and take some pictures,” says Laura Kenyon, a Greenpeace campaigner who participated in the latest effort to shadow the Artic-bound Shell rig across the Pacific. “People now expect things from Greenpeace.”

It seems scaling a moving oil rig in the middle of an ocean isn’t enough to guarantee attention. The activists managed to spend almost a week aboard Shell’s Polar Pioneer before departing over the weekend. In that time Kenyon’s colleagues set up camp, unfurled a “Save the Arctic” banner, and shot videos of themselves. Shell made no physical attempt to dislodge the Greenpeace team—some crew members could be seen waving to them. Shell sought a restraining order to keep the activists away, and a federal judge in Alaska granted the measure on April 11.

Procter & Gamble was similarly unruffled last year when a Greenpeace team, including one in a tiger suit, used zip lines to hang a banner between two of the company’s Cincinnati office towers in a bid to draw attention to the use of palm oil from rain forests in shampoos. A local police officer rapped on a window and calmly asked the activists when they would be done. Later, in a sign of just how far corporate targets can take nonconfrontational tactics, P&G even persuaded prosecutors to reduce the charges against the activists from felony vandalism and burglary to misdemeanor trespassing.

“The case against Greenpeace was brought by the prosecutor, and we appreciated his decision to reconsider the charges,” says P&G spokesman Paul Fox. “What is now important is that P&G and Greenpeace continue to work together to eliminate deforestation in the palm supply chain.”

Greenpeace Executive Director Kumi Naidoo, hired in 2009 to inject fresh vigor into the 44-year-old organization, has tried to strike a balance between its militant early days and the sort of advocacy campaigns befitting an organization with an annual budget topping $300 million and 2.8 million global members. That tension boiled over late last year in one of Greenpeace’s most embarrassing episodes. Activists tromped onto the grounds of the Nazca Lines in Peru to leave a climate-change message, and their tracks disturbed the 1,500-year-old cultural site and outraged an entire country.

Last month, Naidoo announced he would be leaving Greenpeace by the end of the year. He has said the decision to step down is unrelated to the Peru incident.

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