This article appears in The Times today.
THE INTENTION of yesterday’s Greenpeace protest at the CBI conference was, the organisation’s spokesman said, “to stop Tony Blair delivering his speech”. Not since the author of Tarka the Otter, Henry Williamson, evangelised for the English landscape and wartime fascism has British political debate seen a more explicit identification of the ecological cause with contempt for democracy.
Some might be tempted to treat seriously Greenpeace’s objections to nuclear energy, or GM crops, while not necessarily endorsing its tactics. That is misguided. Greenpeace’s determination to shut down debate is not aberrant hotheadedness but deeply held conviction. Its is an obscurantist illiberalism more appropriate to a cult than a pressure group.
Democratic politics recognises that the things we value, such as liberty and justice, cannot all be attained and made compatible with each other. In the words of Sir Isaiah Berlin, “the very idea of the perfect world in which all good things are realised is incomprehensible, is in fact conceptually incoherent”. Economic policy deals with the central fact of scarcity, and our need to choose among competing claims to scarce resources. Most of us regard environmental protection as an important use for resources, and some rank it very high.
Greenpeace goes much further, believing that its own views on the environment are not mere preferences but moral imperatives. It short-circuits debate by declaring itself the winner, even in cases — such as its notorious campaign on the Brent Spar storage buoy — where its heedlessness of facts is no longer in dispute. Whereas the task of government is to trade off benefits against costs, including the opportunity costs of choices not taken, Greenpeace selects the benefits while paying no costs at all.
While all pressure groups are vulnerable to the charge that they advocate policy while insisting someone else picks up the tab, Greenpeace is a case apart. Its campaigning extends to vandalising GM crops and now a thuggish disregard for free speech. Another campaigning group, Fathers 4 Justice, neatly demonstrated, by hurling projectiles at the Prime Minister and handcuffing a minister, that some of its members were entirely unsuited to the responsibilities of fatherhood. Greenpeace has likewise given definitive evidence that its voice should be discounted and derided in public debate.
UPDATE: The number of people who have written to me demanding to know why I have presented as something sinister Greenpeace's stirring record of Non-Violent Direct Action (known to the elect as NVDA, I believe) causes me to regret having edited out one piece of information from my original draft on grounds of space. The agency report of the demonstration cited Greenpeace as declaring that its members "would heckle and throw missiles at Blair if [their demands] were refused". Heckling is neither here nor there (though would have been discourteous and inapt in this case, as opposed to a Commons or election speech). Throwing missiles to prevent someone from speaking is, on the other hand, a disgrace, and on no sensible criteria a nonviolent form of protest. Greenpeace's methods, ethos and ideology are anti-democratic, and democratic government should ignore its submissions.
UPDATE II: Greenpeace has contacted me to say that the agency report I have linked to is mistaken, and that its protestors made no threat to throw missiles at Tony Blair. I quoted the agency report in good faith, and after a similar report appeared in The Times yesterday, but I naturally accept Greenpeace's word on this point and am happy to post this correction. I do not, however, revise my judgements about the organisation in any way from those I published in The Times. I consider Greenpeace's conduct to be an affront to democratic politics and, by its deliberately coercive nature, far removed from any legitimate concept of nonviolent protest.