“My task is to convince you that we are NOT all tree huggers” Saskia began “but sometimes this helps us as people underestimate our political power”. Nevertheless, Greenpeace does have its origins in the ‘Hippy Movement’ of the 1970s when a group of activists chartered a fishing boat to “bear witness” against nuclear testing off the West Coast of Alaska. Since then, it has grown into a huge movement working in around 50 countries with just under 3 million supporters worldwide. Their staff includes legal, economic and communication experts besides political campaigners. Such expertise counters the popular notion that Greenpeace’s trademark visual demonstrations are spontaneous, publicity-seeking stunts. Rather, as Saskia explained, instead of being done “willy-nilly”, every act is carefully thought out beforehand, with the location and date chosen strategically. Meanwhile, much of Greenpeace’s work actually takes place behind the scenes, including drafting environmental reports and advising politicians.
Which is where Saskia comes in. As Deputy Director of the European Unit based in Brussels, her role is to ensure that the Greenpeace voice is heard in EU Parliamentary debates. It’s a strategic position, especially as “most of the EU’s environmental regulations, and 70% of the UK’s, originate from decisions made in Brussels”. To have an influence in this, Greenpeace mainly works by preparing advisory material for the EU Commission, which drafts proposals for policy and legislation for the EU Parliament and Council. The EU Commission is made up of 28 Commissioners, one from each member state, who lead project groups that focus on specific areas, such as climate change or jobs and investment. These are further divided into expert groups which draw advice from industry representatives, academics and external organisations. “This is a structure that has grown organically” as Saskia described it. “People have identified gaps and patched them up”.
But how can you get EU politicians to listen to such a ‘radical’ organisation such as Greenpeace? “We use our own in-house science to add weight and credibility to our work” Saskia explained. In fact, Greenpeace have their very own laboratory (based at Exeter University), where they conduct their own research into monitoring human effects on the environment. Their rigorous studies have been used in the past to shape critical reports on topics including pollution from electronic waste and the lingering traces of radioactivity from the Chernobyl disaster. It has also helped to justify some of their more controversial work; for instance, when the organisation placed large boulders on the sea bed of ‘theoretically’ protected marine reserves. Outraged fishermen took them to court as they were now unable to use their damaging bottom-dredging nets. However, the judge ruled in Greenpeace’s favour, because they had the scientific evidence that preventing these fishing methods allowed natural populations to recover.
One would hope that evidence is already at the heart of all parliamentary debate, but sometimes even good science is not enough to stand on its own, especially in a climate where so much of politics is driven by big business. “We sometimes find ourselves filling a role to advocate scientific facts” Saskia remarked. Consequently, the organisation often has to adopt a “lobbying” approach to ensure that key evidence is not missed off the agenda, but this can draw criticism. “We can be accused of being anti-science for “dumbing things down’ but sometimes it is necessary, just to get a dialogue started” Saskia said. She used the example of Greenpeace’s work to promote fishing methods that stay well within the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) for each species. After presenting peer-reviewed scientific literature, writing letters and bringing politicians and scientists together in workshops, Greenpeace eventually resorted to writing a “Dummies Guide to MSY”. Even then, things only gained momentum when they produced a mug with the phrase “To MSY and Beyond!” styled on the Buzz Lightyear slogan. “Everyone wanted one” Saskia said “and finally people knew what MSY meant, or at least that it had something to do with fish”.
So instead of tree-hugging hippies, here we have an organisation that combines scientific evidence with strategic, confrontational campaigning. As Saskia concluded “We are a dedicated public group that wants and cares about environmental protection that is not constrained by national politics”. As the threats to the natural environment only increase, such work will surely only become more crucial in the future.
Written by Caroline Wood, PhD student in the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences and SiP committee member
See more of Caroline's work on her blog http://scienceasadestiny.blogspot.co.uk/