Three NGOs in search of a cooler future - WWF, Greenpeace and 350.org

So far, this project has mainly focused on the history of science, with some global politics around the edges. But the growth of civil society institutions as part this story too.

So here’s a short sketch of three - WWF, Greenpeace and 350.org. It’s just those three, and it’s just a sketch, but I’ve picked them to bring out different parts of the broader picture, and I hope they say something climate movement at large.

So, starting with the youngest and working backwards:
 

350.org

350 is often associated with the writer Bill McKibben, but it’s never just been about him.

As the strapline on the website describes it, 350 was ‘founded by a group of university friends’. To add some detail, as their executive director May Boeve describes it, they were coming to the end of her undergraduate degree in the early 00s, and planning ways to play a role in helping the climate movement up its game. There’s a sweet and very 2000s story of how they made a GIS map overlaying coal reserves, wind energy potential and microbreweries (the latter being a proxy for somewhere they wanted to live) and settled on Billings, Montana as a place to build a base. Then Bill McKibben came to down, with a 5 day walk across the state of Vermont. He asked them if they’d be up for building a national version of this. The Billings idea got shelved, and Step it Up 2007 was formed, with 350.org established from it, in 2008.

These were relatively heady days for the climate change movement, in the run up to the 2009 UN talks in Copenhagen. 350 was fuelled by a sense that even avowed environmentalists were not taking the huge challenge of climate change seriously and it was time to wake up from such complacency. But they weren’t alone in feeling this, and people were at least talking about climate change a fair bit at the time. Still, although 350s was forged in pre-Copenhagen energy (dubbed Hopenhagen at its most crass), the bulk of their successes happened later, in the wake of Copenhagen’s failure. Indeed, it could be argued that 350 is very much a post-Copenhagen NGO. Or, at least, we should credit them with building momentum when many others in the climate movement had retreated to lick their wounds (literally in the case of some activists). While others were weighed down by their own histories of hope, these younger, fresher upstarts not only kept the movement running, they brought in new participants and took it in whole new directions.

The .org in the name dates them a bit as a 00s project too. A lot of there work is online but - again, arguably, characteristic of a late 00s group - it’s always been about mixing digital with an investment in offline interaction. The org in 350.org is maybe better understood as embodying the spirit of web culture as connected, networked, and international. Boeve puts it well when she talks of 350 as “less on central control and more interconnectedness among networks.” These are all attributes of many environmental groups - long before the web, let alone before 350 (Friends of the Earth being an obvious example) - and many older organisations have grown as leaders in digital campaigning, but 350 personifies it particularly strongly.

Another way in which 350 is rather 21st century organisation is their connection with the mantra ‘keep it in the ground’. Articulated so iconically in Mckibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone essay, Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math, this puts the focus very squarely on the burning of fossil fuels. Crucially, the problem isn’t a sense that we’ll run out of oil, coal or gas - the 70s idea that we’re too speedily ripping through the planet’s resources and so need ‘renewable’ fuels instead - but that we can’t burn even the stocks we have relatively easy access too.

The 350 in 350.org is a nod to 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (as measured on Dr Keeling’s graph) as a 'safe upper limit'. We were already hurtling 400ppm by the time it was founded. In fact, some of the younger members of 350’s staff have probably always lived in a world over 350. That doesn’t dampen their enthusiasm for action, if anything it helps power it.

 

Greenpeace

A lot of the modern green movement can trace some of its history to the late 60s/ early 1970s. The civil rights, women’s rights and anti-war movements all influenced activists, as did anti-colonial struggles and principles of nonviolent direct action.

The newer social movements of the time often celebrated notions of change coming from the bottom up and/ or developing shared power (even if this was sometimes little more lip service). A network of groups would work on a local level to take action and raise awareness. They might also fundraise to help support a national office which would, in turn, coordinate actions, offer administrative support, work to seed new local groups, develop relationships with the press and possibly politicians, run investigations and develop expertise. National offices would sometimes also be subsidised by further fundraising efforts - either from very rich individuals or trusts and foundations. Unlike the workers movement, these groups would work in social spaces outside of the cultures of work, and focus on cultural and social change, rather than just an economic lens.

Greenpeace is one of these movements. Friends of the Earth is a good example too, one I wish I had space to discuss on it’s own. There’s a great story about a building in Poland Street, Soho, funded by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust to offer office space for a mix of single-issue pressure groups, including Friends of the Earth, which was dubbed by the papers ‘the counter-civil service’ (and, I’m guessing, was heavily bugged). But that’s for another time.

Greenpeace started in 1971, infamously, in a fishing boat off the coast of Vancouver. In fact, Greenpeace was, initially, just the name of the boat, funded from a benefit concert to campaign against nuclear weapons testing.

There is some controversy over who exactly was part of this first group, with the role of Paul Watson (who founded Sea Shepherd) and Patrick Moore (not the astronomer, later somewhat controversial in environmentalist circles) particularly contested. Names that often get mentioned include Dorothy and Irving Stowe, Marie and Jim Bohlen, Ben and Dorothy Metcalfe, Bill Darnell and Robert Hunter. If anything, Greenpeace itself celebrates the ambiguity of its origins - joking that you can walk into any bar in Vancouver and meet someone who claims to have founded Greenpeace - it doesn’t belong to one individual or another, it’s always been about collecting around the cause.

The campaign itself was the ‘Don't Make a Wave Committee’. Specifally, they were opposed to the US testing nuclear weapons near the Alaskan island of Amchitka. People had been worried the nuclear explosion would trigger a tsunami, hence ‘don’t make a wave’. Frustrated that large, established environmental organisations - like the Sierra Club - weren’t doing enough, they’d taken matters into their own hands. There’s a story that at one of the early planning meetings, Irving Stowe flashed the peace sign (something he did a lot) and the usually quiet ecologist Bill Darnell replied, offhand: "Make it a green peace." When they tried to put both words on the 25c badges they were selling for the fundraiser, there wasn’t room, so they cut the space and merged them: Green Peace became Greenpeace.

They wanted to let the US military know that even if they were going to go ahead with this test, the campaigners weren’t happy about it. They’d turn up, get in the way and be seen. But the voyage wasn't exactly a success. There was bad weather. And they were tiny, up against military tech. Plus the activists fell out. As Marie Bohlen put it later, "Here we were, supposedly saving the world through our moral example, emulating the Quakers, no less, when in reality we spent most of our time at each other's throats, egos clashing, the group fatally divided from start to finish."

Still, it created media interest. And off the back of that, they built a global movement. First shifting focus from Alaska to French nuclear testing at the Moruroa Atoll and then, later, to include whaling. By the mid 1970s there nearly 20 greenpeace groups around the world.

It took until the 1990s before they really got active on climate change, though it’s now a core part of their work. Still, in contrast to climate specific NGOs like 350, it does sit within a broader range of campaigns, saving forests and oceans, for example, for the sake of forests and oceans, rather than just their ability to help us sequester carbon (and having a very particular historical relationship to nuclear).

Greenpeace is sometimes criticised for putting climate behind other environmental issues - climate change might be the reasons for action, but it’ll hide behind a polar bear or a gorilla. It’s more save the Narwhal, than carbon. Still, this critique doesn’t always ring true, but it is part of what makes them a bit more akin to 20th century environmentalist or conservationist groups like the Sierra Club or WWF, compared to 350.

Greenpeace’s calling card has always been the ability to generate a spectacle, be it in the form of a surprise stunt - sometimes artistic, and only built in high secrecy - or, increasingly in recent years, a well plotted investigation. Although most other NGOs use these tactics too (and Greenpeace itself has more strings in its bow) this is where their expertise really shines.

 

The World Wildlife Fund

If the civil rights movement and anti-war protests set the scene for Greenpeace, then the World Wildlife Fund (usually known as WWF, or sometimes as the Pandas) is a bit more of a post-War beast, even if it wasn’t founded until 1961.

A key character in the formation of WWF was one Julian Huxley. Yep, one of those Huxleys - his granddad was the chap with the sideburns that gets talked about in histories of Darwin/ Victorian science education reform, and his little brother wrote Brave New World. Julian was an evolutionary biologist and writer. Before the Second World War, he'd run London Zoo, and is sometimes credited for helping make it more child friendly. He also coined the term transhumanism, was a massive eugenicist and, after witnessing the treatment of geneticists in the USSR, a vocal critic of Stalin. But those are stories for another time.

Post war, Huxley was appointed as the first director general of UNESCO. Although this was meant to be a six year term, it was cut to only two in his case (his politics annoyed the Americans, so the story goes). Still, Huxley had a key role in setting UNESCO’s philosophical underpinnings, and was influential in setting up the International Union for Conservation of Nature (ICUN) - the people who draw up that annual 'red list' of threatened species.

Jump to 1960, and Huxley got back from an UNESCO trip in Africa, shocked and angered by the destruction of wildlife. Being the opinionated and well connected man he was, he turned this anger into a trio of articles for Sunday newspaper, the Observer.  

A reader, businessman Victor Stolan, read it and, sitting in his home in South Kensington, penned a letter to Huxley, arguing they needed to set up an international fundraising organisation. Huxley replied, fixing him up with Max Nicholson, who had worked on the ICUN, and they took advice from ad man Guy Mountfort, as well as Godfrey Rockefeller (yep, one of those Rockefellers, albeit a slightly less oily end of the family) and ornithologist Peter Scott (who was another one with a famous family, his father was ‘of the Antarctic fame’).

Along the way, they dropped Stolan - according to the Observer, this was possibly due to snobbishness around his work as a hotelier and status as a Czechoslovakian refugee - something Stolan was apparently less than happy about.

After a handful of meetings they had a plan - the Morges Manifesto, named so because it was set up at IUCN's headquarters in Morges, Switzerland - and a name for the organisation, the World Wildlife Fund. It was launched at the Royal Society of Arts, London in September 1961, with the Duke of Edinburgh as the first president of the British appeal.

Today, as with Greenpeace, climate change is a big part of their work, but often hides behind some form of charismatic megafauna or another (panda or otherwise). They are sometimes criticised for being too eager to work with the sorts of corporations others in the green movement are fighting against. At the same time, some would argue this is their strength, or at least they are needed in the ecosystem of green NGOs, alongside more radical voices. The approach to corporate relationships is, arguably, the big distinction between WWF and Greenpeace (though, interestingly, they both recently partnered on an offshore wind campaign in the UK which included companies you really wouldn’t expect Greenpeace to work with).

And the panda? It was inspired by Chi-Chi, a giant panda that had arrived at London Zoo that year. It was appealing, in danger and black and white (i.e. cheaper to print).  

 

We can see legacies of these histories still at play today. If 350 is about grassroots organising - often digital - for large scale change, and Greenpeace is about spectacle and mischievously disrupting the status quo, WWF works within large and established pools of political, scientific and corporate power. In practise all three of these organisations are mature and complex enough to use a mix of tactics, and sometimes overlap. But their histories all still have an imprint, making them different from one another, and reflecting the mix of different approaches, relationships and ideologies which have built the modern green movement. It’s easy to lump climate campaigners together - and it’s true that they can be complicit in this, presenting an image of working together - but it’s always been a lot more complex than that.