Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ron Smith: Greenpeace and the Temptations of Utopianism

The Greenpeace response to the actions of the Russian authorities, following the invasion of their oil-drilling platform by Greenpeace activists, has been revealing and deeply ironic.  The Russian actions, they said, were an ‘assault on the very principle of peaceful protest.  Most pointedly, Greenpeace also said of the Russian tactics, that they were, ‘intimidatory’.

Of course, they were right in this latter comment.  What the Russians did (and are continuing to do) is indeed, intimidatory.  They are intent on putting up the price of the kind of ‘protest’ that is Greenpeace’s stock-in-trade.  And this is where the irony comes in.

The forcible obstruction by Greenpeace of activities of which they disapprove, is also intimidatory, and it is something that they have done over many years in relation to oil exploration (and extraction), whaling, certain kinds of forestry, nuclear power generation, to name but a few.

And the object of the exercise is to coerce the party concerned to stop doing what they are doing in order to avoid further action of the kind.  That is what the Russians are doing with the threat of serious and unpleasant jail-time, and it is what the Greenpeace activists are attempting to do when they chain themselves to railway lines (see my ‘Sheep and nuclear waste’, November 2010), or the superstructures of ships when nuclear materials are being carried. It is ‘intimidation’ (The word comes from the Latin for ‘threat’ and it means, ‘to force or deter with threats’.)

‘Protest’, in this context, is a weasel word.  The kind of activity exemplified here is not intended to be the mere expression of a point of view, but rather a means of coercion.  As the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out many years ago, there is a crucial distinction between methods of political advocacy which are essentially intended to be persuasive, and those that are essentially coercive.  In relation to the former, Popper envisages a process that utilises argument based on empirical data, logic and shared values, and the possibility that differences may remain un-reconciled.  In the case of the latter, (as Popper observes) the process proceeds by ‘intimidation and threat’ (Karl Popper, ‘Utopia and Violence’, in Conjectures and Refutations).

Given that the other side is intent on coercion, there is really nothing that a party subjected to this sort of tactic can do but, either cease the activity that is the subject of the protest, or resist the obstruction, with whatever force the situation seems to require.  Whatever else may be said about the tactic, it is not ‘peaceful’, since it is patently provocative of violence, and, indeed, may risk serious harm to those who may be put to defend the activities concerned.  It is also positively Orwellian to describe it as ‘peaceful protest’.

Greenpeace activists clearly have a very uncomplicated world view.  They are right and they couldn’t possibly be wrong, so it doesn’t matter if they are unwilling to engage in the democratic process, in the matter of burning fossil fuels, or utilising nuclear power.  This is where the utopianism of Popper’s title comes from.  As he recognised (although he had communists and fascists more in mind) people who have this kind of absolutist world-view tend also to have a simplistic ‘ends-justify-the-means’ mind-set.  They see causes that are so evidently worthy, that it is not necessary to reflect upon the means.  In the contemporary world, it is an attitude which environmental activists share with terrorists, who are also frequently driven by a view of the world as they would like it to be, and they cannot bear that it is not so.

For all that, the sort of activity that Greenpeace activists engaged in on 18 September isn’t obviously ‘piracy’, even when it concerns ships, or as in this case, maritime platforms.  According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, Piracy is, ‘any illegal acts of violence or detention, or any act of depredation committed for private ends …against property, outside the jurisdiction of any state’.  Clearly what Greenpeace does in this sort of case is not done for ‘private gain’ and arguably, the focus was not so much on ‘destruction’ (which is part of the meaning of ‘plunder’) as it was on obstruction.   On the other hand, it is not so obvious that the forced occupation of the property of another could not be considered an illegal act, or even (depending on your definition of ‘violence’) a violent act. 

We shall see how the Russian courts determine the matter.  A prison sentence for the Greenpeace activists beyond what has already been served (or will have been served by the time the matter comes to trial, if it does) would be manifestly inappropriate.  The purposes of counter-intimidation will have been well and truly served.  But it really is about time, that the Greenpeace organisation itself, recognised that many of the causes that they so unreflectively espouse are debatable and that they are not justified in simply attempting to coerce those with whom they disagree, and indeed, that such persistent extremist action may be considered to be unlawful behaviour, which more states determine to prosecute.


Brian said...
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Greenpeace and the Temptations of Utopianism.
A few letters against Greenpeace have surfaced in the N.Z. Herald over the last week. I agree with Dr. Smith in his analysis that the Greenpeace activists can hardly call the Russian counter to their “attempted” invasion of the oil platform as “Intimidatory”.
It is not the first time, or I suspect the last time Greenpeace will gain what was, in this case, World Wide Headlines. After all the destruction of the Rainbow Warrior caused a furore which lasts in our annuals. (A constant financial and space filling exercise for our media to this day.) It was followed up with the “trial” of the two French Agents after their subsequent apprehension and imprisonment.
However their gaol sentence in New Zealand must have seemed like blessing, instead of having to face the wrath of French Intelligence with such a botched failure.
When will the French learn to do a job properly?
Greenpeace let us face it, is nothing more than a terrorist organisation supported in the most part by naive environmentalists; who as Dr. Smith right points out are convinced that they are right, and the rest of us are wrong.
I have noticed that this summer in the Northern Hemisphere has, apart from the Russian incident, been somewhat ignored by the Greens. This might have been due to the fact that the pack ice around Northern Siberia and Canada has refused to melt to allow the passage of ships.
This is of course is the effect of the Human Global Warming, which is our fault as the Greens continue to tell us; helped by a bias media and reinforced as usual, by the United Nations Climate Change Boffins.

Dave said...
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Propaganda, and its brain washing effect is so very evident today, it might be man made climate change, or the "guilt trip" of on going treaty claims. It seems there are always masses of naive and ignorant who are all to willing to be sucked in by the mass hysteria and hype that an equally brainwashed naive media.
Hitlers propaganda minister Goebbles brainwashed a whole nation with the Nazi party's take on history.
Green Party leaders Norman and Turei have also come to realise the huge effective power of propaganda by gaining a significant party vote from the naive and not very bright New Zealand population.

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