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4 times Greenpeace screwed up even worse than it did in Peru

The road to hell is paved with good intentions.


Gillian Branstetter

Internet Culture

There’s an old saying that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and last week, Greenpeace might smelled a little brimstone in Peru. According to the New York Times, Greenpeace activists “entered [a] restricted area, trampling ancient, undisturbed ground” in Peru’s famed Nazca lines, in order to erect a giant sign advertising renewable energy. The Nazca Lines are massive glyphs of creatures carved into the land itself by the ancient Nazca tribes, some measuring over 400 feet long, and an aerial photo, taken with a drone, shows that the message is placed right next to an ancient line drawing of a hummingbird.

A sacred site of pre-Columbian heritage for Peru, the site was likely chosen by Greenpeace due to the dangers erosion and heavy rains likely brought on by climate change, as well as to coincide with UN climate talks happening in Lima. The activists left footprints across the historic site, which is typically off-limits to tourists and foot traffic due to the structures’ fragility. The Peruvian government has promised to take legal action against Greenpeace for desecrating the landmark.

While their their general message of preserving natural life, saving endangered species, and fighting climate change are hard to disagree with, the group’s tactics tiptoe over the line into eco-terrorism. This is just one of many examples of Greenpeace doing more harm than good in the name of their cause.

1) Greenpeace fights DDT, accidentally promotes malaria.

Most would cite Rachel Carson’s seminal 1962 book Silent Spring as kicking off the modern environmentalist movement. The book, largely raging against the harmful use of the pesticide dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) in industrial farming, sparked a fresh look at the harm man-made chemicals can have on the environment at large and caused the widespread banning of DDT among farmers.

By the new millennium, Greenpeace had taken up the anti-DDT banner and successfully fought for the closing of the last major DDT factory in the world. This is all well and good, except this event also phased out the most effective and efficient weapon against malaria, one of the deadliest diseases in the world. A very small amount of DDT is necessary to keep malaria-carrying mosquitos at bay, and its use for this purpose was approved by green activists the world over, including Greenpeace. In the name of saving the environment, however, Greenpeace fought to decrease DDT production to miniscule levels.

The results have proven disastrous. When South Africa stopped using the pesticide in 1996, malaria deaths increased by one thousand percent (South Africa has since resumed DDT sprayings). Latin America saw an increase of 1.8 million malaria deaths in the 1980s and 1990s after dropping DDT.

While Greenpeace has said as recently as 2010 that they’ve always promoted the use of DDT against malaria, their fight against DDT’s use in agriculture—and their promotion of the Stockholm Convention, which encouraged countries to ban it altogether—undoubtedly made the useful chemical harder to obtain, costing millions of lives in the global South.

2) Greenpeace denies poor people food and nourishment for no real reason.

Genetically modified foods are an odd source of controversy, mostly due to a lack of scientific consensus on their supposed dangers. While many scientific studies have found no ill effects of GMOs, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine found that “it is biologically plausible for Genetically Modified Foods to cause adverse health effects in humans.”

One of the benefits of GMOs, however, has been to supply cheap nutrients to developing countries. Looking to fight against growing Vitamin A deficiencies, researchers developed “Golden Rice”, an easy-to-grow grain heavy in beta-carotenes which help the body produce and absorb the necessary nutrient.

Despite a lack of evidence showing any ill effects in humans, Greenpeace holds a staunch position against Golden Rice. Greenpeace states that “genetically-engineered rice is a technological fix that may generate new problems,” though the group fails to provide much evidence to that point. They also claim Golden Rice is being given to cultures that don’t want it, although the only evidence of that claim available is a single 2013 protest in the Philippines, an action rice farmers themselves refused to be a part of.

Much like the DDT/malaria controversy, Greenpeace is fighting against a modern solution on simply a knee-jerk basis. Vitamin A deficiency kills hundreds of thousands around the world, and Golden Rice is an affordable, healthy solution to this growing problem.

3) If the facts don’t fit your case, make your own facts.

The chemicals in many consumer electronics can wreak immense harm on the environment. So-called “e-waste” is pumped into the air as TVs, cellphones, and computers are incinerated at “recycling” plants across the world; the largest of these is a Chinese plant that exposes its 150,000 employees to carcinogens every day, while also doing little to prevent chemicals like lead and cadmium from finding their way into the local groundwater.

Looking to fight this growing concern, Greenpeace released an official ranking in 2006 that rated technology companies based on their environmental friendliness. Soon after, however, tech journalists took the report to task for relying too much on official information from the companies and containing little to no factual research, with Ars Technica dubbing the report a “fraud.”

Among the targets for ire were Greenpeace’s claim that Apple, which ranked 11th in eco-friendliness, used a harmful flame retardant called TBBPA in the manufacturing of their Mac products. While the chemical is used in in Apple computers, no study has found it harmful to humans or the environment, with the E.U. Scientific Committee on Health and Environmental Risks finding no real downside to the use of TBPPA.

In fact, Apple fans—notoriously religious towards their corporate icon—were the most incensed by Greenpeace’s false report, but their anger was short lived. An official EPA report on the ecology of major tech companies ranked Apple at the top of American electronics manufacturers.

Despite the about face, Greenpeace has done little to change their rankings system for their reports, issuing 15 editions in total. While the use and ill-moderated disposal of harmful chemicals used in electronics is a major problem, Greenpeace manages to make itself the focus of this story by simply bungling the facts, thereby diverting attention away from their original goal.

4) Greenpeace is so bad, they make people prefer an oil company.

The clubbing of baby seals is a pretty hallmark enemy of environmentalism. In fact, Norway just agreed this week to stop subsidizing their seal-hunting industry to the tune of $1.6 million, or 80 percent of that country’s seal hunting market.

For many indigenous peoples, however, seals are a traditional and vital part of their diet. The seal hunts of Inuit populations in Greenland have become a national tradition, highly praised at a time indigenous cultures are dwindling. In 1977, however, Greenpeace successfully fought for a ban of the sealskin trade the world over, angering many locals.

So when a dispute over a local natural gas well sprung up between Greenpeace and Cairn Energy in 2010, the Inuits sided with the gas company. Wanting to drill the newfound bounty, Cairn sent tankers and equipment to the area of Aasiaat, Greenland. The found themselves against a blockade by Greenpeace’s own ship, the Esperanza.

Despite relevant dangers to the environment, many locals told Al-Jazeera their grudge against Greenpeace led them to trust the energy company over the environmentalist group. Not great PR. Eventually, Cairn got to build their well and, in 2013, Greenpeace joined the World Wildlife Fund in condoning the annual seal hunt, as well as the trade of seal meat and furs.

Like losing a public relations war to an oil company, the idea of Greenpeace attempting to draw attention to the threats toward the Nazca Lines—only to cost further damage to them—illustrates the irony of the group’s activism. Greenpeace is the seminal example of why activists need to always question their methods and realize their interests do not exist in a vacuum. The risks associated with climate change, pollution, and endangered animals are very real and need any response should have the finesse of experts and scientific research, not the sloppy mishaps of protests gone awry.

If you find yourself paving the wrong road, maybe it’s time to finally head a different direction.

Photo via alicepopkorn/Flickr (CC BY S.A.-2.0)

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