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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 meat.

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 decommissioning work.

The irrational aspect of Greenpeace's campaign against the dumping raises the question: why did so many intelligent people support them in defending 'the sea'?

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

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