Why Greenpeace USA Seeks To Regain Its Radical Spark

Greenpeace is going back to basics.

More than a decade ago, it carved out a niche as one of the most radical environmental groups in America when members used themselves as human shields to protect whales from whalers. Since then, however, it has chosen a more mainstream path - trading in some of its extreme tactics for greater national clout, dozens of full-time staffers, and multimillion-dollar annual budgets.

Now, after years of financial difficulties and declining membership, the organization is struggling to regain its radical spark. While Greenpeace USA built its national prestige, smaller grass-roots groups like the Hawaii-based Greenpeace Foundation - unencumbered by the need to compromise or woo moderates for donations - have retaken the mantle of radicalism.

Greenpeace USA's move to close many of its offices around the country nearly one year ago may have signaled the first step in a return to the old ways. But its continuing efforts to define its role in a time when "green" causes seem to have lost some of their immediacy point out the quandary facing many national environmentalists today: Should you stay small and radical, or go moderate and grow?

As the names suggest, Greenpeace USA and the Greenpeace Foundation share the same origin. In the early 1980s, members of the Greenpeace Foundation broke off to form Greenpeace USA. Meanwhile, the Hawaii-based foundation stayed small, with a yearly budget of $100,000 and only a few staff members. Its continued radicalism has played out in controversial moves such as the decision by members to throw themselves into the water off Hawaii to stop the US Navy from testing a sonar system the foundation said was harmful to whales.

From a financial point of view, though, radical groups face a steep handicap. A 1994 study by Resources for the Future, a think tank in Washington, found that environmental groups involved in big public demonstrations generally had less fund-raising success than more conciliatory ones - such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).

What's more, the middle-of-the-road groups have formed alliances with corporate America that would have been unthinkable for Greenpeace USA because of its antibusiness reputation. For example, EDF worked with McDonald's to help reduce trash and boost recycling, and it has also received advice from experts on Wall Street.

Ironically, many radical environmentalists saw Greenpeace USA as growing too soft during this decade. "[Previously] they were known as a no-compromise group," says David Phillips, executive director of San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute. "They kind of wandered off that ideology and they became more known with compromise positions and lobbying in Washington."

For instance, Greenpeace Foundation board member Don White claims that "several of the largest environmental groups provided 'green cover' for the recent [weakening] of dolphin-protection laws by the US administration in exchange for unenforceable treaty 'victories' and favoritism on other issues."

The effect of all this may be to shift grass-roots participation in the environmental movement down to smaller groups. Indeed, a number of smaller radical groups are doing well. "There are more organizations. And as such, there is more competition out there," says Mr. Phillips. "But there is still an opportunity for the smaller activist-type group."

Observers say it is these smaller groups that may revitalize not just radical environmentalism but the entire movement - one that has clearly lost some steam in President Clinton's second term. Competition from smaller, scrappier, and more efficient environmental groups is forcing the big guys to minimize funds spent on bureaucracy and maximize funds spent on action.

Greenpeace USA executive director Kristen Engberg has enacted several reforms to try to return to the glory days.

"When you get big you get bureaucratic, and more energy is taken up with planning and paperwork than with inventing things," says Ms. Engberg. "If Greenpeace loses its inventiveness, then the world is in a lot of trouble."

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