McLuhan's Children:
The Greenpeace Message & the Media

192 pages,
ISBN: 1896357040

Post Your Opinion
How to Hype Whales
by Peter Steven

A dinosaur of the seventies, a victim of its own success, or a model for environmental and opposition groups worldwide? Stephen Dale's new book offers strong proof that Greenpeace is all three.
Founded in Vancouver in 1971, Greenpeace quickly emerged as the world's most successful fighter for the environment. From its first triumph in drawing attention to the U.S. Navy's nuclear tests in the Amchitka Islands, to the savagely effective campaign to eliminate the Newfoundland seal hunt, Greenpeace has become a household word in North America and Western Europe. In the Netherlands, Greenpeace "Save the Whales" stickers from the seventies still adorn thousands of household windows. And after the 1985 sinking by French commandos of the Greenpeace ship "Rainbow Warrior", in New Zealand, donations to the organization skyrocketed. "None of this," writes Dale, "is to say that underdog status implies sainthood."
This fascinating, well-researched book follows the mix of anarchy and planning behind the key Greenpeace campaigns. Bob Hunter, a founder and early president, explains how their dramatic, often dangerous actions had two philosophical bases. "One was the Quaker idea of `bearing witness'-which is supposed to change the observer and increase their level of activism, compassion, anger, whatever it is. The other was to focus the mass media on the issue, which is otherwise like a mugging going off in a back alley." He claims that the twelve members of the crew of the original ship Greenpeace fought constantly and "some teetered on the brink of madness." Hunter, like most Greenpeace leaders in the past three decades, has shuttled in and out of the media machine all his life. In the early seventies he keenly promoted the emerging group through his columns in the Vancouver Sun. Today he works as an environment reporter at that pinnacle of sound-bite news, Toronto's CITY TV.
Another founder, Ben Metcalfe, described the early Greenpeace as "an absurd, pathetic little group", which, writes Dale, was "free to attempt the impossible since it was composed of people who had given up...hope and so felt that they had nothing to lose." Metcalfe's words "carry a sustained note of defiance," says Dale. His "insistent tone contains in itself a revolutionary statement: that an individual citizen has the right to demand answers from those in power." "We insisted," says Metcalfe, "that the game was far too urgent to touch the forelock and bend the knee and say, `Excuse me sir, please listen to me sir.'"
A very different, and far more controversial figure, whose antics colour the entire book, is David McTaggart. Many observers of Greenpeace have seen him as a big source of trouble-as an aggressive, lone wheeler-dealer. According to Ben Metcalfe, it's people like McTaggart that "hijacked" the organization and turned it into a "money-making machine". A recent Danish film looked at the organization under McTaggart and according to Dale "came up with something like the Canterbury Tales: a narrative of corruption, deceit, and ambition hiding beneath a veil of ecological righteousness." The film claimed to uncover secret bank accounts, disgruntled business partners, even a wronged ex-mother-in-law in California, left on the hook for a $120,000 bank loan. Throughout this narrative Dale remains calm. He adds other damaging evidence brought forward by articles in Forbes and Canadian Dimension (a strikingly unlikely pair of magazines). But he also gives time to those supporters of McTaggart who recount his achievements and explain the complexities of handling a financially successful international organization. Another former heavyweight at Greenpeace puts his finger on a major cause for the bad reputation it developed with some: "the serious male ego problem", the aggressive, who's-in-charge types. That was a characteristic of politics in the seventies, not just in Greenpeace. Unfortunately, the book does not develop this theme. Was there, for instance, a structural link between the success and failures of Greenpeace and the macho politics? Given the loud and prolonged criticism over the years, by women both in and out of the group, it's a rather serious omission.
Fortunately, Dale at least keeps these egos in check by shifting focus to a more worthwhile challenge facing Greenpeace in the 1990s. The goal now is to carry a green message onto the international stage, especially beyond the industrial North. In South America, Greenpeace had earlier been labelled as a mouthpiece for U.S. trade interests, and a front for the CIA. As Dale shows, the outfit has changed and made significant strides in developing true partnerships with Southern environmental groups. Their combined efforts to place green issues into the context of Southern economic and social forces have led to effective campaigns to block North-to-South toxic dumping. Interviews with two women activists working for Greenpeace in Guatemala and Brazil help to sketch a new, more mature profile for the organization. We finally move beyond the "boys in boats" scenarios.
McLuhan's Children promises in its introduction to deal primarily with the media. It's not a history of Greenpeace, it's a study of how Greenpeace has handled the press, the wire services, and television news. The flair of their campaigns, says Dale, may well stem from a knowledgeable and realistic approach to media structures, both technical and corporate. Here, then, was a group that really took to heart the statement that "the medium is the message." Dangerous, photogenic protest actions, like the buzzing of warships from rubber rafts, based on simple messages, such as "Save the Whales," snared the attention of TV editors, and a huge audience. "The message was all the more powerful because it appeared on TV, normally the conduit for sitcoms, cop and lawyer shows, and, in general, celebrations of suburban complacency." Show it and outrage will follow. That was the strategy.
But there's a problem. Many activists whom Dale interviews contend that such dramatic actions as these often wrap themselves in simple solutions. Thus the 1970s "ban-the-seal-hunt"-certainly a crystal-clear media strategy-left no room for the devastated Inuit communities engaged in small-scale hunting, using rifles, not the bludgeons seen on TV. This tragedy for the Inuit provoked considerable grief among some of Greenpeace's Canadian leaders, but, says Bob Hunter, attempts to find a negotiated solution were rejected as a sell-out by the group's urban supporters. So the campaign rolled on.
Since the UN's 1992 Environment and Development conference in Rio, Greenpeace has tried to inject a more sophisticated analysis into their media messages, often delving into the politics of international trade. Television news editors, it seems, couldn't care less.
Dale writes at length about the problems in simplifying an oppositional message in order to get covered in the media. One campaign that proved too complex was an anti-car initiative. It was quietly dropped after strong opposition from Greenpeace USA. Yet the book practises more than a little flattening and simplifying of its own, especially in discussing the role of television. Dale provides this summary: "Greenpeace also lives in the shadowland of the mass media: a one-dimensional world of phantom television images and raw emotion, a place of good versus evil, a place of simple stories and unambiguous endings. Sometimes, to the chagrin of organizers and organized alike, it is hard to tell where these two worlds intersect." The book thus centres on the strategic merits of a simple versus a complex message. There is little argument about the nature of television itself.
Dale seems unaware of the heated yet fruitful debates, especially in Britain, about the character of TV audiences. Are we as viewers really so passive, or do we not twitch with occasional fits and starts of mental activity while watching those phantom images? His statements that "TV is incapable of complexity" and "inherently ahistorical" can't be proclaimed quite so simply. They need to be proved. Perhaps by soaking himself in the heady brew of McLuhan's flatly declarative statements on the media Dale's normally tough observations have gone a little soft.
The success and failures of Greenpeace, "its considerable crisis of history and rebirth," and the constant ebb and flow of its international public image, make this an important work of journalism. Dale sets high standards for the people involved in green politics because he sees environmentalism as an "antidote" to larger problems: "If any group of people can effectively and coherently challenge the prevailing logic of an economic system that, in the search for ever-increasing trade, has been willing to subjugate human, community, and natural values to a few abstract economic equations-if anyone can offer an antidote to the religion of consumerism that has swept the globe-it is environmentalists." Here's a book for all people trying to publicize their message and change the world-not just green it.

The most recent of Peter Steven's four books is Brink of Reality: New Canadian Documentary Film and Video.


Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us