Environmental History paper Three Organizations and their brand of Direct Action pa 395 Non Profits and the Environment

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Environmental History paper – Three Organizations and their brand of Direct Action

PA 395 – Non Profits and the Environment

Trevor M. Lashua
The image is stirring. A small rubber raft races across a stretch of ocean, heading directly towards a much, much, larger vessel as fast as it can. A single, solitary driver at the controls of the raft, his focus and his will locked intensely on his goal. Suddenly, four large barrels of toxic waste are pushed of the deck of the larger vessel, headed for their final resting place on the bottom of the ocean floor, miles and miles away from land.

Just before they hit the water, the small rubber raft appears underneath them, and like a centerfielder making a shoestring grab, the raft catches the barrels before they crash down into the ocean. The weight that suddenly hit the back end of the raft lifts the front end – and the driver – into the air with a mighty splash.

All of this is, of course, is caught on film.

Large plastic cracks on the Glen Canyon Dam, banners hung from Ford Motors headquarters, a whaling ship being rammed by a smaller vessel (its stern packed full of concrete) – these are the images of the environmental movement that draw more attention than the lobbying that goes on in a Washington hallway. These images garner a reaction, good or bad.

The theory is one of direct action. Employed by organizations such as Greenpeace, EarthFirst!, and the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) among others, direct action provides the public with the most moving images of the battles between environmental groups and the governments, corporations and other interests whose actions seem to run counter to their beliefs.

Direct action, and its more radical methods employed by so-called splinter groups, grew from the concepts of civil disobedience once laid out by Henry David Thoreau and the tactics employed in both the Ghandhian philosophy of non-violence and the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Direct action primarily focuses on the use of such tactics as planned demonstrations, in which participants are thoroughly briefed on all of the aspects of demonstrating (social and legal implications of civil disobedience, how to form affinity groups, how affinity groups make decisions, and so on).

There is also a more radical wing of the direct action movement that involves activities that may loosely be defined as “guerilla” in nature. Regardless of the strain of direct action taken, nearly everything is recorded in some form, primarily on film (photographic stills and videotape). This tactic has proven that it can produce both positive and negative ramifications for an organization or a movement. The press/exposure can bring the world’s attention away from its day-to-day activities to the attention of an environmental/social issue that may have been neglected by governments or media outlets.

However, as we’ve seen in the past, particularly with the large scale demonstrations such as the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999, direct action groups can sometimes become unruly and difficult (or impossible) to control. As a result, situations can escalate beyond the control of organizers and those with only the best of intentions. The images of people linked arm in arm, marching peacefully along streets lined with police are quickly replaced with images of wanton recklessness, violence, and unnecessary destruction. The result of that latter set of images is a backlash in public opinion, as the press attention given to their cause backfires in that barrage of images of looting and rioting instantly beamed into the living rooms of America.

Many groups, however, have experienced success with direct action methods. Greenpeace has grown in to a role as the major environmental organization on the international scene. Smaller, less well-known groups such as EarthFirst! have experienced their own levels of success and captured the minds and imaginations of a more radical set.

Founded by a trio of Canadians in 1971, Greenpeace wasted no time launching its own unique brand of direct action, making their first act of environmentalism a memorable one.

With a small amount of money they received from a Joni Mitchell/James Taylor benefit concert, Jim Bohlen, Paul Cote, and Irving Stowe obtained a boat named the Phyllis Cormack. Gathering together a crew of 12, they embarked from a harbor in Greenpeace’s birthplace of Vancouver and headed north to the Aleutian Islands, where the United States was conducting nuclear weapons testing.

Citing “political and other reasons”, the United States government ceased its nuclear weapons testing in the Aleutians in February of 1972, not even an half a year after the Phyllis Cormack cast off from Vancouver. In its first time out, Greenpeace had taken on one of the world’s superpowers and survived to see its goal achieved.

In 1985, Greenpeace took its brand of direct action to an amazing humanitarian level, accomplishing what governments, in this case the United States, were not willing to do: they relocated the remaining population of the Pacific island of Rongelap to another island.

In 1954, the United States government detonated the first hydrogen bomb, a device significantly more powerful (750 times more powerful) than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a little less than a decade earlier. Shortly after the detonation of the 15-megaton bomb, the wind blew a white, ashen powder, described as being snow-like, onto Rongelap. At first some islanders thought it was snow, and children even played in the fallout. As a result, the people of Rongelap have suffered unusually high levels of cancer and birth defects.

The fallout has necessitated that the island’s population be evacuated on three occasions, with Greenpeace’s 1985 evacuation being the most recent, after the Reagan administration refused to do it or allocate the funds for it.

Later that same year, the Rainbow Warrior, Greenpeace’s trademark ocean vessel (which had been used to evacuate the population of Rongelap) met its untimely demise. The French Secret Service planted a bomb on the boat while it sat in a New Zealand harbor, killing photographer Fernando Pereira and causing a scandal within the French government.

Greenpeace still engages in its direct action campaigns, as well as less visually dramatic activities such as media manipulation (advertising, etc.) and mailing efforts. With 2.5 million members (an estimated 250,000 American citizens among them), Greenpeace is an international organization that has had a great deal of success – and failures – with its direct action tactics. In some aspects of its mission, however, it may be hard to fully quantify what is a success and what is not, since many of Greenpeace’s goals involve long-term objectives such as ending the nuclear age and stopping global warming. They keep on going, undeterred by the often slow pace of change, especially when dealing with reluctant governments who have tied themselves to certain industries whose missions run counter to Greenpeace’s objectives.

Some mainstream environmental groups accept money from corporate sources such as Coca-Cola, General Electric, Ford, and Waste Management, Inc. The Group of Ten, featuring the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and the National Wildlife Federation, all accept corporate donations and those donations make up a significant portion of their budgets (Merchant, 159-161). Greenpeace, however, is adamant about not accepting money from corporations or governments, so it relies on member giving, donations, and proceeds from merchandise as primary sources of its revenue.


Drawing upon the vivid imagery of eco-sabotage in Edward Abbey’s 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, EarthFirst! takes direct action to another level. Not really a formal movement, EarthFirst! operates as a loose consortium of individuals, known to one another as “earth warriors”, who operate under the belief that they should accept, “no compromise in defense of Mother Earth” (Merchant, 173).

The group was founded by Dave Foreman, a former Wilderness Society employee who became disenfranchised by mainstream environmentalism during the Carter administration. With a twist of irony, Foreman worked within the “system” to get an admitted conservationist into the White House, only to have Carter’s administration disappoint him with its second Road Area Review and Evaluation (RARE II). Foreman and other environmentalists were disappointed when it was revealed that out of 36 million acres of land that could potentially be designated as wilderness, less than half of it was actually designated (15 million).

With a nod to Abbey (who attended) and his novel’s protagonist, Hayduke, EarthFirst! burst on to the national scene at the Glen Canyon Dam in 1981 when they draped a 300 foot black plastic tarp with a crack on it across the dam’s surface. They were combining direct action with what has been described as “guerilla theater” (Rothman, 183) in an attempt to defend the planet against the governments and corporations that attempted to pillage and plunder it.

EarthFirst!’s “earth warriors” began spiking trees with long nails (to prevent them from being cut), blocking bulldozers with their bodies, and chaining themselves to trees in areas set aside by the federal agencies that administered land. EarthFirst! is also affiliated with the form of direct action known generally as “tree sitting”, where an activist lives on a platform in tree in an old growth forest to prevent it from being harvested by logging crews.

Above all else, and like the other environmental movements embracing the tenets of direct action, EarthFirst! stresses non-violent action. It offers training to some of the activists…bridge to next Para.

When EarthFirst! started, its membership, if it could be called that since the organization was not a formalized institution at that point, was eclectic to say the least. Abbey would later describe an EarthFirst! meeting loosely presided over by a beer-guzzling Foreman in his novel, Hayduke Lives, the sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang.

“They straggled in from everywhere that’s dim, obscure, unsavory, crawling from the woodwork and creeping out from beneath stones, coming by jeep and bus and horse and bicycle and pickup truck and railroad boxcar and Cadillac convertible from Barton, Vermont to San Diego, California, from Key Largo, Florida to Homer, Alaska, a motley crude Coxey’s army of the malcontent, the discontent, the madly visionary,” Abbey wrote.


Of all of the methods available to today’s individual environmentalists or environmental groups, direct action is the one that seems to truly garner the public’s attention. The Sierra Club, conservative by Greenpeace and EarthFirst! standards, was one of the first to use direct action in its campaign against what it viewed as excessive damming along the Colorado River. The club ran full-page advertisements in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post directed at the Bureau of Land Management’s plans and arguments for their plans (the view of the Grand Canyon would be better from the man-made lakes behind the dams). The ads asked, “Should we also flood the Sistine Chapel so that tourists can get nearer the ceiling?” (Rothman, 76).

Direct action can backfire, and the WTO protests in Seattle are a fine example of what can happen when good intentions go bad. And when things go bad, as they did in Seattle, public opinion can turn in an instant. The media component which so often works so well for groups using direct action tactics can, ironically, be the very thing that turns people against them. However, environmentalists and environmental groups make the argument that the cause – saving the planet – far outweighs any public perception problems or risks associated with their actions.

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