Dump the Greenpeace platform
In its campaign to stop the dumping of the Brent
Spar oil platform, Greenpeace has shown scant regard for the real problems
facing humanity, argue John Gillott and Nick Thwaites
Greenpeace hit the front pages in June when its campaign to prevent the
Brent Spar oil platform being scuttled in the Atlantic Ocean led to a humiliating
retreat by Shell. Buoyed by this success, Greenpeace went into battle the
following month against the French government's plans to carry out nuclear
tests on Mururoa in the South Pacific.
For many people concerned about the environment in which we live, Greenpeace
appears an attractive and dynamic force. Its activists go where ordinary
mortals fear to tread, embarrassing the powers that be. Its scientists raise
doubts about the claims of corporations and governments. Newsweek summed
up the image Greenpeace likes to project: 'Action. Melodrama. Suspense.
Brave renegades fight for a better, cleaner, greener world against faceless
corporations and the military-industrial elite.' It is a David and Goliath
story, in which the champion of the environment is armed with nothing more
than ingenuity and public opinion.
Some have questioned the David and Goliath imagery, pointing out that Greenpeace
itself is a multinational institution with an annual income of £100m.
But what about Greenpeace's actions, ideas, objectives? Are these likely
to help bring about a 'better world'? Its approach to the question of what
to do with the Brent Spar oil platform suggests not. When it comes to addressing
the problems facing people, the politics and practice of Greenpeace leave
a lot to be desired.
Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore's reaction to the Shell climbdown
was typical. Greenpeace, she said, 'has saved the sea'. A bold claim, although
a natural conclusion to draw after Greenpeace's adverts warned of the danger
posed to 'all marine and human life' by sea dumping of platforms and rigs.
A bold claim, but a false one. A totally false one. What the ecomoralists
ignore is that the seas are full of the substances contained in the Brent
Spar. If it had been dumped according to plan, the oceans would not have
noticed the addition. Dumping the platform in the deep Atlantic Ocean would
have ensured that its toxic contents were slowly dispersed, first within
the deep ocean by the currents prevailing there, and, second, after centuries,
throughout the oceans as a whole.
To put things in perspective: the Brent Spar platform is estimated to contain
40 tonnes of oil, 100 tonnes of silt, a few hundred kilograms of toxic heavy
metals such as cadmium, mercury and lead, and small amounts of radioactive
materials. That is, literally, a drop in the ocean. The world's oceans already
contain massively larger amounts of these elements: around 13.2m tonnes
of mercury and 2.6m tonnes of lead, for example. Every year, a hydrothermal
vent in the ocean near to the proposed dumping ground pumps out much more
of these substances than is contained in the Brent Spar. The deep sea currents
would have easily dispersed the relatively insignificant amounts of toxic
material in the platform, rendering them harmless.
The materials on the Brent Spar pose no threat to life in the oceans. What
is more, they would not even have destroyed life in the immediate area of
the dump site. The consensus among scientists is that, at worst, the materials
contained in the Brent Spar could have helped out one species at the expense
of another in the particular dumping location.
According to EG Nisbet and CMR Fowler, the materials in Brent Spar might
actually have been good for most life on the ocean bed ('Is metal disposal
toxic to deep oceans?, Nature, 29 June 1995). Their research suggests
that the strange bacteria which live in the deep oceans would regard Brent
Spar as manna from heaven rather than a lethal bomb from above. In the total
absence of sunlight, bacterial mats on the ocean floor around mid-ocean
ridges seem to use dissolved minerals or solid metal sulphides as their
energy source. To assume that what is harmful to our ecosystem is harmful
in another is simply a prejudice: one man's poison is another bacterium's
A posse of scientists did write to Nature to challenge Nisbet and
Fowler. They argued that the life forms Nisbet and Fowler cited were localised
around the mid-ocean ridges. Other life forms might not do so well feeding
on the Brent Spar, in which case the dumping could lead to the replacement
of the local life forms by 'specialists better adapted to the changed conditions'
(Nature, 20 July 1995).
So, there you have it: while Greenpeace talks about a threat to all marine
life, the true 'worst-case scenario' is that one form of deep-sea life might
be replaced by another in a particular area. And that is all. This is the
normal way of things - human activity, like natural processes, may damage
some species in an ecosystem, while helping others.
The facts of the Brent Spar case highlight the problems which arise when
threats to 'the environment' are proclaimed. Invariably, what is at issue
is a threat to a particular species. And given that nature itself develops
through a process of creation and destruction of life (remember, 99.9 per
cent of all > species that ever lived are now extinct), it would surely
be perverse to judge human activity as wrong if it damaged one form of life
and helped another. Consequently there can be no environmental objection
to the deepsea dumping of Brent Spar.
What should matter to us is the effects of our activity on humans, not
deep-sea bacteria. All the evidence suggests that dumping the Brent Spar
would have made no difference to humans or to the ecosystems on which we
live or depend. The deep sea currents would have kept any pollutants down
below, and then slowly dispersed them. What is more, no food chain could
have taken the hazardous elements contained in the Brent Spar to within
reach of the mouth of any human being. The deep-sea ecosystem is relatively
self-contained, and in any case, marine animals familiar to us do not metabolise
the elements concerned.
All in all, it is fair to say that Greenpeace's campaign was based on dogma.
And that was wilful. Greenpeace spokesmen make a virtue out of emphasising
what they consider the destructive aspects of human activity, while ignoring
the good news. They see it as their job only to highlight the damage people
do (Motto: Always look on the dark side of life). In the case of the Brent
Spar, this led them to miss the best news of all - that deepsea dumping posed
no noticeable threat to humans.
Greenpeace's long-standing myopic approach has been reinforced by a strategic
review it undertook at the end of last year. Worried about being seen to
cosy up to the establishment too much, Greenpeace self-consciously sought
to go back to its roots and reaffirm its commitment to activism. Hence the
protests over Brent Spar and nuclear testing. Unfortunately, the emphasis
on campaigning is justified in the most mindless way. Greenpeace campaign
director Chris Rose spells out the new thinking: 'Our new strategy relies
on forcing solutions, conducting investigations, challenging science, changing
politics and communicating directly. In the past we have used scientists
in media debates: ours versus theirs. Now we must challenge science itself
to prevent its continued use to justify environmental pollution.' (Independent,
21 November 1994)
'Challenge science'? This kind of celebration of ignorance can only hinder
the search for solutions to real problems - like what to do with toxic wastes.
A scientific approach to matters does not mean taking Shell at its word,
but it does imply a belief in the possibility of finding the best available
option. And that option appears, on all the evidence, to be deep-sea dumping.
The other option, dismantling on land, poses obvious risks to the workers
involved and could endanger fresh water supplies.
A scientific attitude also means carrying out real-life experiments to see
what the results are - and then drawing appropriate lessons. That is how
knowledge advances. Tony Rice, head of sea floor biology at the Institute
of Oceanographic sciences, is furious with Greenpeace. As he points out,
not sinking the Brent Spar has scuttled our chances of seeing exactly what
the effects of deep-sea dumping are. There are many more structures to be
dismantled, and we could have done with the evidence as a guide to future
The irrational aspect of Greenpeace's campaign against the dumping raises
the question: why did so many intelligent people support them in defending
Suzanne Moore comments: 'In the depths strange species lurk and though we
may never see them, we feel in our hearts that they should be left alone.'
Our immediate response to that was: you cannot be serious! Take a look at
some of the pictures of the horrible beasts down there in the July issue
ofScientific American. But that riposte fails to appreciate the powerful
emotional forces which drive environmental protest today.
Much of the emotive appeal of Greenpeace's case rested on the idea that
humans should clean up their act. We should, it said, stop wanton destruction
and show more respect for the environment around us. In this sense, the
Brent Spar episode is paradigmatic for much of contemporary environmental
protest. It is driven by a gut feeling that humanity is messing up, and
this feeling is in no mood to be countered by scientific evidence which
shows that these campaigns are based on nonsense.
Such was the strength of this emotion, that people could be drawn to the
cause in ignorance of the facts. Indeed, after the event, when the facts
were known, it was still argued that it was a good thing to have stopped
the sinking, because, claimed aGuardian editorial, it showed that
'people still count'. Or more bluntly, having just claimed Greenpeace had
'saved the sea', Suzanne Moore went on to argue that 'technically the protesters
may have got it wrong.... That is why this is not a victory for the environment,
but for the politics of refusal'.
'The politics of refusal' is an apt description of the contemporary mood
of protest. There is anger. There is militancy at times. But the underlying
sentiment is regressive. We must 'refuse' to examine the facts; we must
'refuse' to trust in people's ability to do the right thing; we should 'refuse'
to look at what is best for humanity, and instead rail against our supposed
violation of pristine nature. 'The politics of refusal' is about thinking
that the best we can do is to reduce our impact on the world, to cut back,
to impose new limits. This is a common theme in many of the protests today - from
animal rights, to anti-roads, to the Brent Spar campaign.
The protesters celebrate activism, 'people power', and claim a victory for
democracy. Shell's climbdown was celebrated by many as a victory because
they were happy to see a major company and a minor prime minister with egg
on their faces. But appearances can be deceptive. Behind the radical protests,
the mournful defence of nature reveals not a vibrant new force in politics,
but a bleak perspective on the prospects for human improvement. And while
we can all smile at Shell's and John Major's embarrassment, it is a sad
reflection on radical politics that we are supposed to go into battle in
favour of ignorance and dogma.
A final point: it is doubtful that Greenpeace was even responsible for Shell's
climbdown. The issue was orchestrated by the German government - with the
aim of gaining moral authority at home and abroad. The first act was the
criticism of Shell and Britain by Chancellor Kohl at the G7 summit in Halifax,
Nova Scotia, in mid-June. The second act was the refusal of the German government
to support Shell at the critical moment in late June, despite the fact that
it had raised no objections to deep-sea dumping when the issue was discussed
eight months previously.
The German government's professed concerns about poisoning of the seas are
not to be taken seriously - every few minutes Europe's rivers pour the equivalent
of a Brent Spar in heavy metals into the North Sea, and German industry
is a major contributor. Kohl cynically manipulated the issue to affirm Germany's
leadership in Europe and put Britain in its place. That he was able to do
so is proof that Greenpeace's 'politics of refusal' are essentially harmless
to the powers that be.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 82, September 1995