Greenpeace under fire for cost-cutting closures

By Michael Collins

LA Weekly – August 15, 1997

Greenpeace fundraiser in Helsinki in 2010 -  courtesy Shubi
Greenpeace fundraiser in Helsinki in 2010 – courtesy Shubi

Environmental activists were in a state of shock last week when Greenpeace USA, the venerable ecowarrior organization, decided to close all its regional offices and hole up in its Washing¬ton, D.C., national headquarters. The July 30 press release announced the closure of 11 offices, in Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Boulder, Minneapolis, Chicago, Atlanta, Boston, and Amherst, Massachusetts. The total budget of Greenpeace USA has been cut from $29.5 million to $20.1 million,” the press release explained. “Resources previously spent on office infrastructure and overhead will allow Greenpeace to develop a more flexible and mobile approach to campaigning.” Barely two weeks later, on August 13, many staffers found themselves out of work.

It appears that the halcyon days of Greenpeace are over, as the organization has been in sharp decline for half a decade. “About five years ago, we had about 1.3 million supporters in the U.S., and now we have about 402,000,” says Deborah Rephan, assistant director of media in the D.C. headquarters. “A lot of the environmental groups experienced a downturn in membership over the last few years since the election of Clinton-Gore, under the false assumption, I believe, that they were going to-take care of a lot of things.”

The organization, which is headquartered in Holland and is active in 32 countries, with a worldwide membership of 2.9 million, plans to reduce its American staff from nearly 500 to just 65.

Those getting the ax are primarily canvassers — those responsible for personally interacting with citizens to educate, galvanize support and raise funds. Greenpeace now plans to hire telephone solicitors.

“We’re trying to, basically, avoid a disaster,” Rephan explains. “We will be reducing staff in some administrative areas as well, reducing staff in most all facets of Greenpeace, although the least reductions will be in the campaign staff.”

The decision by the elected eight-member national board took regional Greenpeacers by surprise: None of the 11 regional offices was consulted. ‘They’re pretty stunned,” says Mark Floegel, press officer of the Seattle office, who is one of those losing his job. Enraged by the decision, many of Greenpeace USA’s 172 eligible voters have signed a petition “which triggers a mandatory voting-member meeting, which has really a lot of bottom-line say about exactly how whatever happens happens,” says Bradley Angel, a campaigner in the San Francisco office. “So the verdict is still out.” Or is it? When asked if the members have sway over the board, Rephan sighed, “I doubt it “.The meeting is scheduled for mid-September.

Greenpeace’s restructuring reflects not only a financial necessity but, to some extent, a philosophical schism in the organization, between those who see it as a grassroots group and others who take a broader view. “In the old days, Greenpeace would go into communities, do these flashy hits and disappear,” says San Francisco staffer Angel, who is of the grassroots school. “But for over a decade now, Greenpeace has been in the trenches, working with community groups and not doing the super-high-profile actions as the only thing it does.”

But Mike Roselle, co-founder of Earth First! and a national Greenpeace board member who resigned August 1, disagrees. “Greenpeace has a higher calling,” he says. “Internationally, Greenpeace does not see itself as a grassroots environmental organization. They see themselves as an international pressure group.”

This move toward centralization, in which funds are directed away from local groups toward the national head¬quarters, is not unique to Greenpeace, The Nobel Peace Prize-winning anti-nuke group Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) moved to virtually defund its chapters in late 1995. Though the LA chapter thrives, many PSR offices have either closed their doors or curtailed staff to a minimum.

Not all environmental groups have suffered from restructuring. The Sierra Club decided to reduce its national campaigns in 1994 from nine to three, concentrating on clean water and wetlands, forests, and endangered species. “It has been very, very successful for the club,” says Sierra Club president Adam Werbach. The San Francisco-based organization, after a membership low in 1992 of about 450,000, is today near its historic high of 600,000.

Now, Greenpeace, too, is planning to reduce its 23 campaigns to just a handful. “The campaigns we work on are ocean ecology, toxics, climate-change and global-warming issues, and forests,” explains Rephan.

That reduced involvement comes as something of a relief to at least one veteran local activist from another environmental group, who claims that Greenpeace is “famous among local organizations for blasting into a situation and just taking over, doing their own thing, and then splitting.”

“Greenpeace can be a pain in the ass,” he says, pointing as evidence to an incident last year. In February 1996, Greenpeace’s San Francisco office shepherded a resolution before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors opposing the proposed nuclear-waste dump at Ward Valley. Supervisor Gloria Molina was asked to introduce the resolution after Greenpeace determined — without first consulting important Ward Valley opponents in the Los Angeles area — that the measure would easily pass. When supervisors Mike Antonovich and Deane Dana indicated they would instead support Governor Pete Wilson’s project, a major environmental defeat loomed large. If it were not for the political heat and persuasive testimony of several other organizations, the “resolution would have gone south,” notes a local organizer, By a 3-2 margin, the board moved to oppose Ward Valley.

Bradley Angel, however, angrily disagrees with that assessment. “The person who makes those charges is either dishonest or blatantly ignorant,” he says.

In truth, some eco-activists aren’t so chary of Green peace’s bloodletting. “This is just a sign of an organization that is getting itself healthy,” says Sierra Club’s Werbach. Others aren’t so sure, “It’s really a crushing blow for Greenpeace,” says a San Francisco staffer.