26 February 2007

Environmental stunts: do they help?

Sometimes I wonder whether the environmental movement is so much posturing; an exercise in belonging, rather than an expression of concern for the environment.

Demonstrating against coal-fired power, nine Greenpeace protesters scaled a 150 metre high chimney stack at Huntly Power Station, in New Zealand’s North Island yesterday. It appears the protestors did some minor damage to the stack.

I wonder what they are trying to prove with these puerile, illegal stunts. Their cause may be good, but their actions will do a lot to alienate much of the public from the entire environmental agenda – well, that’s what I think. As the spokesman for the power company puts it:

There are 1.3 million people who get their power from this station in the upper North Island and if we cut this station off now there would be a lot of people who [will be] cold and in the dark this winter. Source
It’s all part of the politicization of the environment. We need to recognize that we are all beneficiaries of the damage that power plants and much other infrastructure do to the environment. We are all in this together. Sure, the protestors probably do have a smaller environmental ‘footprint’ than most of the rest of us. But they need us on their side if we are to improve environmental outcomes – as against the media profile of Greenpeace. Stunts like smack of sanctimony and smugness. They don’t help.


Frank said...

Hi Ronnie,

Over the last decades Greenpeace and other groups have raised a lot of awareness about environmental problems with their non-violent protests. I am not sure about the New Zealand public, but in Europe this is certainly the case.
A lot of environmentally destructive practices are used because the wider public is either not aware of them or not aware of how damaging they are, as I am sure is the case with the Huntly power station.
What alienates the people is the spin from the power company "if we cut this station off _now_", etc. Well, nobody demands the station to be shut off now. That's not what this protest action was about.
Also I am suspicious of Genesis' claim that 1.3 million people (about a third of the total population) get their power of this one 1000MW station such that they depend on it to keep warm. I could not find figures to back this suspicion - or prove it wrong, other than the fact that Genesis Power generates about 14% of New Zealands power.
Anyway, I think that "environmental stunts" are an important part of what groups like Greenpeace have done and still do.


Ronnie Horesh said...

Hi Frank and thanks for your comment. I share your suspicions about the self-serving claims of the power company. But I still think that actions such as this Greenpeace protest do much to alienate people from environmental concerns. Of course, my view is subjective and anecdotal. I have a couple of close friends who are socially aware and contribute a lot of time and energy to good causes, and who are quite repelled by stunts like this particular one, which are in their view unnecessary and provocative. In New Zealand we are lucky in that there are many ways of protesting and raising awareness that are perfectly legal. We have Green Members of Parliament. There are legitimate channels of protest that will not alienate anybody, and I am sure that the environmental movement - most of it - uses them - most of the time. In these fortunate circumstances illegal and destructive stunts, in my view, are unnecessarily provocative. They make it easier for most of us, who don't particularly want to change or to pay higher prices for power, to dismiss green concerns as those of a lunatic fringe. They smack of smugness and self-indulgence. They are an 'us versus them' statement and 'we' are the good guys. Well, that is how it looks to those of us who aren't involved and are now less likely to become so. In my view again, they are driven by the internal dynamic of the organisations involved, rather than wider environmental concerns. I almost wonder whether such stunts are sponsored by the power companies themselves, who can now depict themselves as victims and who are surely their largest beneficiaries. I just wish the media discussion were framed in terms of environmental outcomes and goals, rather than the antics of a few people at the margin and the reaction they provoke.

Perhaps we shall have to agree to disagree on this one, as we are mainly talking about attitudes and subjective matters, though I do think that in a genuinely democratic country, like New Zealand, protesting illegally and aggressively for any reason is a loss to us all. Whether it blights the prospects for the environment (my view) or not is more debatable and I thank you for your contribution to the debate.