09/15/2011 07:20 EDT | Updated 11/15/2011 05:12 EST

Greenpeace 'genius' turns media spectacle into action

Greenpeace's 40-year history is studded with outrageous stunts, from acting as human shields protecting whales to hanging protest slogans from iconic landmarks. Love them or hate them, those spectacles have turned Greenpeace into one of the most recognizable names in the global environmental movement.

“That is the genius that Greenpeace has always had, with scaling buildings and going out whaling and putting themselves between the harpoons and the whales — getting themselves into the news media,” says Douglas Macdonald, senior lecturer at the Centre for the Environment at the University of Toronto.

"We wouldn’t see the kind of action by governments that we've had in the last 40 years if you hadn’t had that kind of pressure applied by the environmental movement."

Sept. 15, 1971, is cited as the beginning of Greenpeace, the day a group of anti-nuclear activists in Vancouver called the Don’t Make a Wave Committee chartered a ship with the aim of heading off underground nuclear tests by the U.S. government on the remote Alaskan island of Amchitka. In anticipation of the protest, the vessel, Phyllis Cormack, was renamed Greenpeace, a term coined by activist Bill Darnell.

The ship was ultimately blocked by the U.S. Coast Guard before it could reach Amchitka, and the scheduled tests went ahead as planned. But the protest aroused significant public interest in the group, which was renamed Greenpeace International in 1972.

While Greenpeace continued its anti-nuclear efforts in the early 1970s — protesting French nuclear tests in the Moruroa Atoll in French Polynesia, for example — by the end of the decade it had expanded its mandate to include whaling, toxic waste and the commercial seal hunt.

Today, Greenpeace draws attention to almost every environmental issue conceivable. Earlier this year, it launched the Dirty Laundry campaign, which urges major clothing manufacturers to stop the use of hazardous chemicals in their apparel.

"We've become more professional in our approach to campaigns. I think part of our success with Greenpeace has been our ability to change with the times," explains Bruce Cox, Greenpeace Canada's executive director.

To many in the environmental movement that is a signal that Greenpeace has compromised its ideals. Some activists cite the group's willingness to enter into negotiations with multinational corporations, like paper giant Kimberley Clark, as an example of this. Cox disagrees.

"For every person that says we've sold out, I tell you there are 10 that say we are a radical organization that can't be dealt with."

Greenpeace claims not to have had a single founder, but its foundations were largely laid out in Vancouver by U.S. Navy veteran Jim Bohlen and Irving and Dorothy Stowe, who were one-time members of the Sierra Club Canada.

Greenpeace is wholly funded by individual donors and foundations, and had 2008 revenues of approximately 196 million euros.

Headquartered in Amsterdam, Holland, the organization has 28 regional offices covering 45 countries. The current executive director is South African-born Kumi Naidoo, who oversees a staff of 2,400 and 15,000 volunteers.

Unlike many environmental groups, which adopt a democratic approach and often don’t even have a designated leader, Greenpeace is a top-down organization, “basically modelling their internal decision-making on corporations or the military,” says Macdonald. This has allowed them to co-ordinate their protest actions and environmental strategy with great efficiency, he says.

What also distinguishes Greenpeace from other non-governmental organizations is that it has been much less willing to enter into the negotiation process with governments, says Macdonald.

“The general tactic that they used was raising the issue through media awareness, appeals for public support, staking out a position that might be a more hard-line position but never compromising that position. The environmental movement on the whole gets its strength from having someone on the outside who wasn’t in the room negotiating, and the implicit message always was: ‘If you don’t negotiate with us, the compromisers, you’ll have to deal with the more extreme — namely Greenpeace.’”

Over the years, Greenpeace has claimed victory on a number of issues, from France’s decision to halt nuclear testing in the South Pacific to the European Union’s resolution to phase out drift net fishing.

Cox believes you can't achieve anything without talking to big polluters and what he calls "resource extractors" - but not without a little arm-twisting.

"Sometimes, in order to make those companies ... in order to bring those governments to the table, you have to turn up the heat. And that might require direct action and at times breaking the law."

Greenpeace's strategies remain as extreme as ever. This past June, Naidoo spent four days in a Greenland prison after illegally climbing an oil platform owned by the Scottish oil company Cairn Energy, a stunt intended to bring attention to Greenpeace’s “Go Beyond Oil” campaign.

“Its modus operandi and its function is to get issues into the news media,” says Macdonald. “Of course, some people are going to think it’s too extreme, they shouldn’t be doing these things, but I don’t think that limits its effectiveness, because its effectiveness doesn’t flow from popular support.

“Where you cross that line is going from non-violence to a willingness to engage in violent tactics. But Greenpeace has never crossed that line.”