Greenpeace: Celebrating almost half a century of saving the planet

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Founded in 1971 by a small group of activists, Greenpeace now has a global presence in over 40 countries. Greenpeace aims to combat all forms of environmental abuse and is well-known for its high-profile and high-impact campaigns. It has been key to the almost complete eradication of whale hunting in the world and the ending of nuclear testing globally. With the current threat of climate change and biodiversity loss, Greenpeace is more relevant today than ever.

The clue is in the name. Greenpeace has believed for nearly 50 years that the possibility of a peaceful world and a green world have to come hand-in-hand. By staying independent, the organisation has ensured that they stay free from party politics and are not under the influence of corporations or governments. They are truly able to invest their efforts where they really matter, and in 2018, as ever, that means protecting the Earth – the only life support system we have.

In this most recent interview with Research Features, Greenpeace UK CEO John Sauven describes the birth of the organisation, the ‘David Attenborough effect’ and what strategies they employ to bring people together in direct action to save this fragile planet.

Protest against VW Diesel Cars at Sheerness Port in Kent . Photo credit: Will Rose / Greenpeace

Can you tell us a little bit about Greenpeace in terms of its mission, cause and heritage?
Greenpeace came out of several different movements, connected broadly to the environment and peace. In the early 1970s, the United States was testing nuclear weapons in the Aleutian Islands off Alaska, and there was a protest against the testing by a number of people. That movement inspired massive opposition to the testing of nuclear weapons. Ultimately, out of that group of people, some of whom were Quakers, some of whom were dodging the drafts of the Vietnam War, came the collective Greenpeace. The Quakers inspired the idea of bearing witness, of acting when you see a wrong happening and that gave rise to the idea of peaceful, non-violent direct action which Greenpeace became famous for.

Greenpeace ship MV Greenpeace in the Antarctic.
Photo credit: Greenpeace / Steve Morgan.

In terms of the big issues Greenpeace was working on in the 70s, some of these have not gone away and some of them have taken up a new form. Climate change and the ending of the fossil fuel age is now a much bigger issue. The other two big campaign areas are really about biodiversity, particularly deforestation, which is not only decimating the rainforests and leading to a huge loss of biodiversity but also has a huge impact on the climate. The other campaigns revolve around the oceans. One is about establishing marine-protected areas and that has recently focused on the Antarctic Oceans. The other is about ocean plastics which are causing devastation of the marine environment. About a truckload of plastic is put into the ocean every minute, leading to the death of millions of birds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals.

A core part of Greenpeace is its activists. We could not exist without them.

It is very impressive that Greenpeace is still independent and does not accept funding from corporations or communities. Can you tell us more about Greenpeace’s success by relying on individual supporters and foundations?
Greenpeace has always held onto its independence as absolutely key to its success. The fact that we have never accepted money from corporations, governments or governmental institutions has been very important. If you are paid to do your work by corporations or governments, you become constrained. Your independence is ultimately compromised because you are not able to look at the world in an objective way. If for example we were taking money from a bank like HSBC, we would not have been able to campaign against HSBC both in terms of their funding of companies involved in the destruction of the rainforest in Indonesia for palm oil, as well as their funding for tar sands pipelines in Canada, both of which we have and do campaign against. That does not mean we are anti-corporate or anti-government. We work with many corporations and governments and form many partnerships and alliances to deliver our mission. Independence gives us the freedom to operate; I always say to organisations: ‘Today we’re aligned on this issue, but tomorrow we might be non-aligned on another issue’.

Pongo Tapanuliensis in Northern Sumatra. Photo credit: James Askew / Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme / Greenpeace

Can you just provide us with a very brief overview of your role and responsibilities at Greenpeace UK?
I am the CEO of Greenpeace UK; the buck stops with me when anything goes wrong. We are carrying out a lot of high profile activities, and some of them do have personal safety or legal risks associated with them. As a CEO, you have to understand and manage those risks, and also make sure that you have training, policies and procedures in place. I also have to make bold decisions. We have to take risks if we are going to save the planet. We have got to be comfortable with sticking our head above the parapet. We have to make sure that we are effective and spending supporters money wisely, and that the supporters can see that their money is being used well. Greenpeace is a collective endeavour, but if something goes wrong, I take responsibility for it.

Emma Thompson and John Sauven at COP21 London March. Photo credit: John Cobb / Greenpeace.

Can you tell us more about Greenpeace’s work to help reduce our plastic footprint so far?
A couple of years ago we started running a successful ocean plastics campaign, engaging millions of people. Then along comes David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, and puts the issue into the homes of 17 million people in the UK. When we started the campaign we did not know David Attenborough was going to cover the issue and send things stratospheric. All of a sudden, corporations were falling over themselves to make promises and government ministers were making speeches on the issue. If you are present at these kinds of moments with a good campaign, you are able to more effectively use that situation. You have got to be agile in order to be able to use the leverage when events do happen in the external environment.

Destruction of Peat Land in Sumatra. Photo credit: Greenpeace.

Apart from oceans plastics, what other main priorities and campaigns are you focusing on?
Recently we have been doing a lot of work on the impact of deforestation for palm oil in Indonesia because as well as having a negative impact on biodiversity in general, there is a threat to iconic species like orangutans which depend on those rainforests for their survival. We need healthy rainforests for a healthy planet. When we destroy the rainforests we are causing a huge amount of emissions, leading to climate change. Around 20% of our oxygen comes from the rainforests (80% comes from the oceans), and they are important as a store for carbon. They are also critical in terms of global rainfall patterns; they produce large quantities of rain. We are tackling corporations and governments that are driving the destruction, and then more directly regarding climate change, we are doing a lot of work to get rid of fossil fuels. For example, we support renewable energy solutions and the take up of electric vehicles.

Deforested Area in the Amazon. Photo credit: Daniel Beltrá / Greenpeace.

What was the reason behind the Unearthed project and what has been its impact on Greenpeace so far?
We have always been involved quite extensively in investigations. About ten years ago, for example, we were involved in a campaign to stop soya, which is used in animal feed and is a driver of deforestation in the Amazon. We did a very extensive investigation looking at where the soya was coming from, who was producing it, who was trading it, where it was going. That investigation took 18 months and was very expensive. About five years ago we decided to look at these kinds of investigations in a more holistic way; we decided to publish them on a platform called Unearthed. We had a lot of support when we launched it, from people like David Attenborough, and it now has credibility as a serious platform for publishing investigative work. Many of the stories published on Unearthed are now published in national and even international newspapers.

Earth Day Break Free from Plastics Actions in UK. Photo credit: John Cobb / Greenpeace.

What is the Greenpeace network and have you found that these Greenspeakers have had a significant impact?
A core part of Greenpeace is its activists. We could not exist without our activists and supporters. They give us small sums of money each month, but our activists are also involved in many aspects of our work, including in our investigations and our actions. The Greenspeakers are several dozen people who are trained in giving talks to schools and community groups, getting people involved and helping people understand what we do and why. It enables us to really have a breadth and depth of presence in communities across the country, and a face-to-face connection which is important in the era of social media.

About a truckload of plastic is put into the ocean every minute, leading to the death of millions of birds and hundreds of thousands of marine mammals.

Could you just briefly give an overview of how people can get involved in helping the environment and helping to support Greenpeace.
People can support us financially which is really important, but people can help in whichever way they can, with their time and commitment as well. This can be online, sharing our petitions or writing letters, or it can go all the way to joining a local group, becoming a local activist, participating in our actions or joining other networks. People can become a Greenspeaker or join our lobbying network where they can lobby their MP. There are lots of different ways in which people can engage with Greenpeace, be part of Greenpeace and be part of the success of Greenpeace.

You can find out more about Greenpeace and how to get involved at

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