Sitting in a shack in an eco-village in Mexico in early 2010, arguing with a German guy and a girl from California who grew up on a weed farm, I realised something sinister about Hippies. Some of them at least, I wouldn’t want to make outrageous generalisations (as fun as that is) for I myself am something of a Hippy, and always have been. I have long hair, partly with dreadlocks, partly shaved, I have been a life long vegetarian, I am found of psychedelic drugs, and much of the music of the late sixties/early seventies.
But I am also, crucially, not in favour of the deaths of billions of the poorest people in the world. I just don’t think it would be that… you know, groovy, or whatever. Some of these Hippy types, though, with the long hair, colourful clothes and permanent fake grin on their faces, they actually do long for most of the human population to be wiped out.
That’s what this German guy was saying anyway. I was trying in vain to convince these people of why it was worthwhile and in fact vitally necessary to build a radical mass movement of the global working class to achieve the kinds of revolutionary changes necessary to save humanity from the effects of climate change.
The German guy said that he had already tried that and that it didn’t work. Now he had a smug and patronising expression, as if I were a naive child clinging on to foolish and outdated notions he’d long since given up on.
Some might find it hard to believe that this one man, in his early thirties, could have successfully rallied up a mass movement of 99% of humanity and led them nearly to victory before suffering some terrible defeat, and yet still be so unknown that even I cannot remember his name. But of course, this is not what he meant.
In fact, as he went on to explain, what he meant was that he had once worked for Greenpeace as a street fundraiser, and found that many people had simply walked past him. This he had taken as proof that the ‘masses’ were hopelessly unenlightened, a lost cause, and that true environmentalists’ role should be to retreat to the eco-villages on the fringes of society and simply wait for Gaia, the earth goddess, to do her work of killing off everyone else.
This was supposed to happen on the winter solstice of 2012, but of course it didn’t. I happened to be in the Atlas mountains of Morocco on that date with a bunch of other Hippies who believed in The Prophesy, and didn’t witness any apocalyptic events, just Hippies getting stoned, singing, doing yoga and trying to shag each other.
Fast forward to September 2016 and I am entering the Greenpeace UK headquarters in Islington, London, to begin my training as a Door to Door Fundraiser. Would I suffer the same fate as the German guy and become a cynical, patronising old bastard with no faith in humanity?
For years I had been banging on about the need for us radical activist types to get out of our own little subcultural bubbles and start ‘engaging with the working class’, but I had done very little to actually practice what I preached, being myself a middle-class Hippy, hopelessly removed from the everyday struggles of most working class people.
This was my big chance to finally get some experience under my belt of going outside of my comfort zone, talking to people who read the Daily Mail and other hate-filled rags spewing divisive lies for the benefit of millionaires, and actually try to win them over to progressive politics.
It’s true that I would only be talking about environmental issues, rather than those such as migration, social services and workers’ rights, which would have been much tougher to argue with hardened Tories and UKIPers about, but still, I was looking forward to the challenge.
One of the reasons I had never done much of the type of activism which leads you to knock on random strangers doors and to discuss serious political issues with them, was quite frankly because I was too afraid to. I am now no longer so afraid, which is something at least, and I even felt I had some successes in changing a few people’s minds.
I managed to get about 35 people to join Greenpeace, over the course of about 10 weeks. Keen mathematicians will note that this is an average rate of 3 per week, whereas the target was 6 a week, which is why much of this article is written in the past tense.
Unlike my last job, which I describe in the article ‘Betraying my Principles for Money’ this was not a job in which I felt my ethics were constantly at odds with what I was doing, but instead the ethical dilemmas I faced were far more complex. There was one the one hand a tension between being a good environmental activist and being a good Greenpeace employee, on the other a tension between being a good Greenpeace employee and a good class warrior, and on a freakish ‘third hand’ a tension between being a good Greenpeace employee and being an honest, compassionate person.
Charity fundraising is a highly precarious form of work, in which workers are often treated like complete shit. You can usually be fired without any notice (which is in fact what happened to me), and are often expected to work far more hours than you actually get paid for. As a socialist, of the anarchist tendency no less, and a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, I felt duty bound to do what I could to fight against these injustices from within.
To this end, I tried to get to know my fellow workers as best as I could, to develop as friendly relations as possible with them, ask what they thought about these types of problems, and encourage them to join the IWW with me. I thought perhaps the union might give us advice on how to start some kind of campaign for changes from below, and I would have kept on working on this if I’d ended up lasting longer.
Normally when I am working a job in which I feel the bosses are exploiting me and denying me my legal rights I react by working as slowly as I can get away with. On a charity fundraising job though, you have to meet targets, which you will not do without actually trying.
As someone who is genuinely concerned with the issues, I liked the fact that my job involved talking to people about them, and I had some really fascinating interactions with people. Some were people who didn’t know much at all, which meant I had to explain various things as simply as possible, which I feel I am fairly good at so long as people are in the mood to actually learn something.
Others were people who thought they knew a lot but had actually had their heads filled with nonsense by newspapers owned by shareholders in the very corporations responsible for destroying the environment. These were harder to talk to, as they often were quite hostile, having been misled into thinking that Greenpeace activists were all idiots hell-bent on destroying their way of life for no good reason.
A really surprising amount of people seemed to have confused Greenpeace for some sort of Terrorist group, thinking that Greenpeace had sunk ships, whereas in fact it had been one of Greenpeace’s own ships, the Rainbow Worrier, which had been sunk by the French secret service in 1985 in Auckland, causing the death of a Portuguese activist. Many others had simply mistaken Greenpeace for other groups such as Earth First! and the Earth/Animal Liberation Front.
It felt like I was betraying my comrades in these organisations to play along with the ‘Good protester/Bad protester’ divide and smugly reassure these people that Greenpeace was 100% committed to non-violence, when in fact I have often actively advocated insurrectionist tactics, but that’s what I did.
The third category of people I met were those who already knew about the issues and agreed with the aims of radical environmentalists, but who had simply lost faith in the idea doing anything about it. These were the people I wanted to speak to the most, because it meant speaking about the psychological barriers stopping them from taking action, which is now my favourite topic.
Why do so many people who already have left-wing and environmental views fail to go out and argue against the lies of the corporate media? There are millions of progressive people in the UK alone, but they are not organised into a movement that is capable of going out and convincing the rest of the population, despite the fact they have all the arguments and evidence on their side. This is a topic I have already written about and will probably continue to write about forever.
But the point is, I wasn’t able to carry on these conversations as long as I would like to. At the risk of sounding overconfident, I feel I could have convinced a lot of people to become more engaged that they already were, and to have set a lot of people straight on things they had been lied to about. But that wasn’t really what I was being paid to do, just something I wanted to do because of my silly unpopular obsession with the future survival of humanity.
What I was being paid to do was to convince people to join Greenpeace, and to do it then and there, on their doorstep. If people were obviously not going to do that, I was not supposed to waste time talking to them, but instead to move on to try and find others who would. This is the tension between being a good fundraiser and a good environmentalist.
Did I really believe that raising money for Greenpeace was more important than talking to people about the issues directly? No. That would be insane, but it’s what you have to tell yourself if you want to stay sane doing a job like that. You have to convince yourself that actually you were helping protect the environment more by raising money for this particular organisation than by talking to people in your own city, even though you knew how much the organisation wasted money on stupid bullshit.
I don’t want to slag off Greenpeace too much here, because they have achieved a lot, and are still actively campaigning on many issues which I really hope they are successful with. But the fact is that someone paying the standard amount of ten pounds per month would have to be signed up for a year just to cover the administration costs of signing them up.
On top of that Greenpeace pays it’s higher level staff far above the living wage, which to me is simply unacceptable for any organisation that claims to be progressive and to care about social justice. So many people are out their risking arrest and even death in order to protect the environment without getting paid for it at all, so the head of Greenpeace UK really doesn’t need to be earning 76 grand a year.
Frankly, I don’t believe in hierarchical society or class division at all, and think everyone should get paid the same, or better yet, just receive the basic necessities of life for free, and if we want to achieve that we need to live according to those principles right now, not reproduce hierarchical class relations in our own organisations.
Then there are all the tasty vegan treats, unnecessary travel expenses and shiny gadgets which the Greenpeace organisation spends money on. For me as someone used to the world of protest camps and squats full of broke unpaid activists eating food from bins, it was a joke.
This is related to the tension between being a good fundraiser and being an honest, compassionate person. I think that people who are successful at being fundraisers are doing something objectively quite good and morally correct in the sense that they are indirectly helping various organisations do good work (minus all the administration fees and stupid salaries of executives). However they are also clearly good at manipulating people into doing things they wouldn’t otherwise do.
You don’t convince someone with logic, that’s what I was doing wrong. You don’t try to actually get them to see the world in a different way, even if the way they see the world right now is terrible and likely to cause them and others suffering. Good fundraisers just somehow make people feel happy, and lure them into doing something using their natural charisma. If you are an attractive young woman, you can flirt your way to success. If you are an authoritative older man, you can tap into people’s unconscious fear of authority. You can do all kinds of shit. But I can’t.
Maybe some younger girls did sign up because they thought I was hot, and maybe some younger guys did too. Maybe some older women thought I was a loveable young scamp and some older men thought I reminded them of themselves. Who the fuck knows. They might have actually listened to what I was saying and thought it made sense. But whatever it was, I wasn’t good at bringing it out.
If people don’t want to sign up, but you feel like they are teetering on the edge, you are supposed to keep on trying different tactics until you get them to do it. Even if they don’t want to talk to you at all at the beginning, you have to somehow just ignore them and keep on talking till you win them over. This requires a lot of mentally blocking out whatever they are saying to you, and basically, not sympathising with their situation, just pretending to for the purposes of manipulating them into something they don’t want to do.
I am not trying to say that I was bad at my job because I am too nice, because a lot of the time I actually probably wasn’t nice enough. I tend to get annoyed at people for being stupid, apathetic and arrogant, which rules out most of the people you are likely to meet, and I am not very good at disguising my annoyance. But the thing is, I don’t really like to bother people too much, because I myself don’t like to be bothered.
When I heard people say they didn’t want to sign up right then and there but might do it another time, or that they didn’t feel they could afford it, a voice in my head said ‘fair enough’. This is not how you are going to win this game. You have to really believe that people all should sign up and that they are just giving you silly excuses which you will eventually be able to break down.
Basically, it means having a very poor view of humanity and a very arrogant attitude regarding your own organisation and abilities. When I heard other fundraisers talking like that, it always made me slightly disgusted, which brings me to the third tension: between being a good Greenpeace employee and a good class warrior.
It’s pretty hard to unite with your fellow workers in struggle against the bosses if they seem to either actively hate you or not consider you worthy of even a feigned interest. I am not talking here of the majority of my fellow workers, just the two who were ‘team leaders’ I had to work with.
To me the invention of the category of ‘team leader’ is such an obvious attempt to divide the workers by appealing to crass egotism on their part that I am shocked anyone would fall for it. But then again, I’m pretty shocked by most things. I have a type of brain which constantly attempts to order the universe I observe into rational patterns which the Universe seams to delight in proving false, which is both a blessing and a curse.
I had worked with team leaders in the past who seemed to get that their job was mainly just to keep their workers happy. When you deal with angry members of the public all the time and constantly feel emotionally drained as a result, you are much less likely to simply give up in despair if you have colleagues around you who you feel care about you and actively try to keep your spirits up.
Everyone I met in the interview and training was so bubbly, caring and positive, in true annoying hippy fashion, that I had assumed that this aspect of the job was something I could take for granted. The very first time I spoke to my team leader, however, this illusion was shattered.
Now, I am not going to launch into a big rant about this person, because I don’t have any reason to. I am a pretty anti-social person myself, and sometimes I am too caught up in my own head to pay proper attention to the feelings of those around me. I certainly can empathise with someone else being shit at social skills. It’s just that if that person’s job is to be good at keeping me motivated, I probably wont be very motivated.
Very often I would find myself spending most of the day trudging around streets completely by myself, gradually losing the will to live, and then when it would come time for a break or to meet at the end of the day to go home, would not be cheered up at all to find my team leader invariably in a foul mood and not seeming to be interested in how I was feeling, or indeed, anything about me other than how many people I’d signed up.
When I was struggling, it didn’t seem that my team leader felt it was their responsibility to help me, other than to the extent they’d been ordered to by the higher-ups. Rather, I seemed to be an object of contempt for not being as good at my job as they were, though they never said this out loud. It was all in the eyes.
Nonetheless I ploughed on with my attempts to build some kind of relationship of solidarity with them, listening to their various grievances against the management and patiently suggesting ways we could resolve them. Eventually they even joined the IWW and I set up a meeting with a trained representative from our branch to explore what our options might be.
On that same week, however, for three days in a row my team leader fell sick and without notice just left me and the other two employees, both of whom had only just started, to work completely on our own, and as the most senior person there, despite only having worked less than three months, I tried my best to encourage them and explain what they should do that day.
Then when the team leader came back, the first thing they did was berate me down the phone for not following their instructions to the very finest detail, which was the last straw to me, and caused me to do what I had been trying not to: tell the higher-ups the truth.
This is the tension between being loyal to your fellow workers vs being a good employee. I was fired the next working day, supposedly for my low scores. The team leader sent me a sarcastic text the next day accusing me of having lost them their job as well, which of course made me feel guilty but I later found out wasn’t exactly true: the managers had tried to find a solution but the team leader had just stormed out angrily at quit, being apparently unable to take criticism.
This made me not feel guilty any more, as I had not directly gotten them sacked, and had, after all, tried my best to be on their side against the management first of all. But it was not the only way in which working for Greenpeace created a tension for me regarding my views on class struggle.
For one thing, Greenpeace is not an anti-capitalist organisation, but one that works with transnational corporations on a case by case basis to try and convince them to destroy the environment a little bit less each time. This does not make Greenpeace part of the ‘Class Enemy’ in my view, though it might in some people’s eyes. I feel that the small victories that Greenpeace regularly has in influencing the policies of governments and corporations are worthwhile ones, which cause less animals, plants and humans to die than would otherwise. Saving lives is clearly more important than ideological orthodoxy, unless you have no empathy whatsoever and are some kind of Marxist robot.
These campaigns, however, do not on the whole help to empower the global working class in ways consistent with ecological ethics. It is clear that there is an urgent need for decentralisation of agricultural, electrical and industrial production if they are to become both ecologically sustainable and democratically controlled by working class people.
When electricity generators, land, greenhouses, factories and workshops are mainly producing for the needs of the local population, there is not only less need for polluting and destructive forms of transport, but also there is greater potential for the local population to be able to exercise power over them.
A shift to a global economy based on decentralised units producing mainly for local populations and only secondarily for those further afield, and then as locally as possible, is consistent both with Anarchist-Socialist and ecological ethics.
This shift can not happen over night, but requires decades of campaigning at all levels of society, but most importantly among the lowest ranks. Unless the poorest people of the world actively want such a society, to the extent that they will be prepared to protest, take direct action, and potentially risk arrest, violence or death, for decades, such a society will never come about because it simply cannot be imposed from above.
Therefore, it is my opinion that environmentalists must focus on political education and agitation among the global poor, to unite struggles for basic survival with those of ecological sustainability. It is a huge task and one which no-where near enough effort is being made by even the most radical environmentalist organisations, such as Greenpeace, Earth First! and ELF/ALF.
Trades unions, community groups, landless peasants movements, and other organisations of the global working class should be equally committed to this shift towards a decentralised, democratically controlled and ecologically sustainable mode of production. It requires challenging vested interests, including the multinational corporations and banks, but also the land-owning classes throughout the world. It requires class struggle.
Class struggle means saying to the exploiting classes “you don’t have a right to exploit us any more”, and to the land owning classes “this is not your land any more”. Monoculture farming would not be possible without the monopoly of violence by the state. Companies are able to use the land in destructive ways because the State lets them. The State has the power to let them or not because it has the means to inflict violence on anyone who disagrees with it.
When people try to take land away from landowners, they often get shot in the head. Sometimes mass movements are able to use non-violent direct action to achieve things. Non-violent direct action has achieved a lot of progressive change over the years. It has also led to lots of people getting shot in the head.
Sometimes when people take up arms and take the land, to collectivise it and bring it under control of the local people who will then use it in ecologically sustainable ways, it works. The Zapatistas for example, have been going for over 20 years.
Sometimes armed movements get repressed and everyone gets shot it the head. There is no catch-all solution to not getting shot in the head.
I advocate a diversity of tactics; use non-violence when it is likely to work, use violence when it is more likely to. Either way, you risk dying. But you also risk dying if you do nothing at let capitalists destroy the earth and exploit you to death.
The ‘Reds’ and the ‘Greens’ are still not united enough for either to be successful. If I want to help play my own little part in bringing them together, its not going to be as a Greenpeace activist