On 23 May 2013 in an online meeting between Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org, and Greenpeace the relationship between the two groups was amazingly revealed to the world. Besides the admission of collusion, the most astonishing revelation was the recent effort by 350.org and Greenpeace to coordinate global protests and training of about 500 activists from 135 countries in Istanbul, Turkey. The trainees were drawn from 5,000 applicants for 10 days of full blown Direct Activist training. The aim of the training was to develop global crack teams to engage in Direct Action anywhere, anytime. The game changer of this new strategy is the rapid blurring of group boundaries to execute a common goal.
Taking the deadly civil unrest that commenced in Istanbul, Turkey on Friday, 31 May 2013 into account, this new coordinated strategy takes on a whole new meaning. The world is being led to believe that what rapidly morphed into nationwide, violent anti-government unrest began as an innocent, environmental protest by 50 people against government-backed plans to replace a park in central Istanbul with a military barracks and shopping center. Inexplicably, within 24 hours of the commencement of the “sit in” at the park, a total of 939 people had been taken into custody at anti-government protests in 48 provinces across the country, including Istanbul, Ankara, Antalya, Eskisehir, Izmir and Konya. By Sunday, 1 June 2013 more than 1,700 people had been detained. This begs the question of how a small, community “sit-in” at a local park could explode into some of the worst nationwide civil unrest experienced in Turkey in recent history. Did the protesters have some help?
The chain of events in Turkey, when coupled with the online discussion between Greenpeace and 350.org, provides a solid insight into the global shift of militant environmental activism. With Greenpeace and 350.org we are seeing a partnership between two militant groups, one well known, the other less so.
Greenpeace is a long-established Direct Action campaign organization, (in)famous for antics such as polar bear costume-wearing activists invading oil company executive offices, Spiderman-esque wall scaling for banner unfurlings, and forced occupations of marine vessels on the high seas. But just who is 350.org?
350.org was founded and is led by Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist and climate change activist who has written extensively on the impact of global warming. In 2009 350.org organized what some claim to be the largest ever globally coordinated rally of any kind, with 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries. The son of an anti-Vietnam War activist, McKibben, in the online discussion with Greenpeace (as well as in his writings), believes that a global mobilization of the masses is needed along the lines of the South African anti-apartheid movement from the 1980s. He credits the “Divestment from South Africa” campaign with ultimately leading to the dismantling of the apartheid system. Perhaps not so coincidently, the current head of Greenpeace was one of the central cast members of this campaign.
The anti-apartheid activist blueprint is easily transferrable to the environmental agenda. As we have seen, 350.org is accomplished at orchestrating mass mobilizations. The events in Turkey are eerily evocative of the 2009 global mobilization, albeit on a single-country scale. Part of this strategy is to use the moral urgency of the global endurance of unearned suffering (victimization), and expanding the game. We are already seeing the environmental movement moving towards an offensive campaign strategy permanently. Other components of this strategy are to raise the profile of climate issues around the world; target industries head on, full steam; and fight on a global scale. McKibbon specifically says groups need to fight on a global scale. The mobilization of the public is being pursued with an ideological, fanatical conviction to fight the global fight bravely and attempting to achieve critical mass.
In the divestment strategy, protests are formed to force public institutions to divest from “dirty companies” that resist climate change recommendations made by the environmental groups. This is straight out of the text book of the South African anti-apartheid campaign. The divestment focus can be directed against any extraction industry, including coal and fossil fuels, palm oil and logging, and precious metals mining. Companies are targeted through banks and institutions like pension plans or universities to divest themselves of their investments in companies deemed to be environmental violators. McKibbon has unequivocally stated that many of the revolutionary tactics applied by the anti-apartheid movement apply to the environmental agenda. To see how effective this strategy is we can look at the University of California, which divested about $3 billion in response to the anti-apartheid campaign. Nelson Mandela himself stated that the university’s divestment was particularly significant in abolishing white minority rule in South Africa.
The current divestment campaign, orchestrated and led by 350.org, is now the raging fad at almost 400 American universities, where students at schools such as Vassar, Harvard, Bryn Mawr, and Northwestern have passed resolutions supporting divestment. The overwhelming support for divestment speaks volumes about the political ideology of the majority of students at America’s universities. The Vassar resolution, for example, passed 23-1. (This just has to make one wonder how the social life of that poor lone holdout is faring at Vassar. Is he admired as a Kennedy-esque Profile in Courage or is he a social pariah? Judging from the narcissistic narrow-mindedness of most of those involved in extreme militant movements my guess is the latter.) While these student resolutions are only symbolic (as the Board of Trustees of any educational institution makes decisions on how endowment funds are allocated), continued egging-on by groups such as 350.org could lead to 1960s-style student unrest, which could in turn pressure universities to respond.
The call for a global fight by 350.org and Greenpeace is not an issue unique to the United States. The global interconnectivity of US-based movements appearing in Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, and other places are not merely peripheral struggles but part of a deeply held conviction by activists as fanatical and dedicated as jihadists. Although science is argued to be the foundation of the argument, political ideology actually drives the targeting campaigns against extraction companies by the exploitation of an apocalyptic notion that the world is coming to an end.
With increasing numbers of contrarian commentators opining that the environmental movement is “losing rather badly” in the battle, 350.org group and Greenpeace continue to argue the old saw, doomsday scenarios that drive the global environmental scene. One can only hope that reason will prevail. However, as the goal of 350.org and Greenpeace is a change in the power balance by mobilization of the masses and action & civil disobedience, reason is not likely to play a major part in the environmental war.
By: Scott H. Gray