The buck starts here
23 August 2014 03:25 (South Africa)
Opinionista Ivo Vegter

Kumi Naidoo is no hero

  • Ivo Vegter
Poetic justice is not dead. The head of Greenpeace is in a prison in Greenland. This is the latest in what is turning out to be an epic spat between Cairn Energy and the eco-activists that threaten its civil and commercial rights. Luckily, Cairn is winning.

It's not like he wasn't warned. Kumi Naidoo, the jet-setting South African who heads Greenpeace, has been arrested after he violated a court injunction to stay away from a target for what the environmental group euphemistically terms “direct action”.

What they mean by that is that if someone does something they don't like, and they don't stop just because an activist tells them to, Greenpeace is entitled to use illegal means such as trespass, vandalism, and physical force to impose their will on the offending party.

One hopes the Danish gaols of Greenland are more pleasant than those in South Africa, because gaol is certainly where Naidoo belongs. There are peaceful, legal ways to deal with disagreements, and Greenpeace has overstepped the bounds in many respects. At the very least, it is guilty of trespass and contempt of court. Cairn Energy, which owns the Arctic oil rig at the receiving end of the group's unwelcome attention, has levelled more serious charges. It says that the group's actions threaten the safety of operations and personnel in what are, plainly, harsh working conditions.

Moreover, Cairn's appeal to the courts involved financial damages that would have bankrupted the group, an achievement that certainly would have made an attractive splash in the annual report to shareholders. The court went easy on Greenpeace, and issued an injunction barring it from any further interference with the Cairn platform, and promising a €50,000 a day fine for violations of the order.

In an amusing piece of premature exultation by Greenpeace, it claimed victory before getting slapped down by the judge.

The behaviour of Greenpeace and its international executive director, Naidoo, reflects the messianic ego and the depth of self-delusion that is so characteristic of activists on the extreme fringe.

“For me this is one of the defining environmental battles of our age,” Naidoo said, quoted on the Greenpeace website. Good for you, St Kumi. Your passion is commendable. But here's the problem. For me, it isn't. In fact, for me, arguing against your kind of politics and your style of imposing it on others is one of the defining battles of our age. May I come and invade your boat, and stop you by force? Or am I to observe the civilised limits imposed by, say, the rule of law and the right to free expression?

(Unfortunately, Naidoo being incarcerated, this question will remain entirely rhetorical.)

Quoth he: “It’s a fight for sanity against the madness...” (I think you're mad too, but I didn't think it a particularly rational argument so say so) “...of a mindset that sees the melting of the Arctic sea ice as a good thing.”

What mindset is that, then?

“As the ice retreats the oil companies want to send the rigs in and drill for the fossil fuels that got us into this mess in the first place. We have to stop them.”

It seems that the Danish navy and the Dutch courts, neither of which are notorious for their anti-environmentalism, disagree.

“It goes right to the heart of the kind of world we want and the one which we want to pass onto our children,” says Kumi, stirringly.

As stirringly as a toddler stamping his feet: “We want.” Most of us have grown up and no longer resort to violence when we don't get what we want. Also, who is this “we”? I want something else entirely. I want a world with affordable energy, in which people are free to produce and trade to increase their prosperity, and live without fear of vandalism and coercion.

He continues: “The Arctic oil rush is such a serious threat to the climate and to this beautiful fragile environment that I felt Greenpeace had no choice but to return, so I volunteered to do it myself. Cairn has something to hide, it won’t publish its plan to clean up an oil spill here in the Arctic, and that’s because it can’t be done.”

You may have a point there, St Kumi (or should I say prisoner number whatever it is), but that wasn't the point you were making earlier. You said you had to stop them, because they were producing fossil fuels that you think cause global warming. Now it's about pollution, all of a sudden?

“I’m going onto that rig to give them the names of fifty thousand people who’ve emailed them to demand they publish their plan, and I won’t leave until I have it in my hands.”

That is a core problem with this kind of activism. Greenpeace did not conduct an independent survey to determine what people want. For all its ritualistic bows to science, the science of statistical research is too high a hurdle. No, it just found a certain number of people who agree, and presented that list as if it means anything. There are 7 billion people on the planet. Greenpeace got 50,000 signatures. Big deal.

If people can get others to sign petitions to End Women's Suffrage, or better yet, to declare “I Am A Moron”, I'm not so sure Cairn Energy's directors would be fulfilling their fiduciary duty by packing up their rig, and starting a butterfly farm to try to destroy the planet.

Besides, where I can I sign to register my opposition? Will you present my opposition to your campaign to the master when you illegally board his vessel too? Or do you expect me to bring my own boat, so I can dodge the navy, disregard the courts, and illegally board the vessel from the other side, thereby splitting the forces of the oil workers who are just trying to make a living in tough conditions without having to deal with assaults on their workplace by mad petition writers?

That doesn't mean environmentalists are always wrong. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day. The judge who issued the injunction against Greenpeace said: “[I]t must be conceded to Greenpeace International that the oil disaster which occurred in the Gulf of Mexico showed the great risk of drilling at great depths. Capricorn [a fully owned subsidiary of Cairn Energy] has not disputed that if a similar scenario were to develop at the drilling locations at issue, it would be very difficult due to the climactic circumstances in the area, which permit navigation for only a few months a year due to the formation of ice, to stem an oil spill. A leak of this kind could indeed have major consequences for humans, wildlife and the environment in a large region… The injunction judge has taken note of the fact that Capricorn is not willing to publish its oil spill plan.”

Quite so. Although the fact that it has permission to drill where it is drilling suggests that Cairn does have an oil spill response plan that satisfies the Greenland regulators, it is hard to see why the company cannot make it public. It certainly doesn't instil confidence in the company's claims to “operate in a safe and prudent manner.”

Admittedly, Cairn cannot satisfy Greenpeace, no matter what the plan says. After all, it will concede that a spill will be, well, a spill. Any risk, however unlikely, is a risk too far for an organisation whose political aim – to quote William F. Buckley – is to stand athwart history to yell, “stop,” at any and all fossil fuel resource development.

Like anyone else, Greenpeace has the right to advocate its position about oil drilling. It is welcome to convince people to invest in, or buy from, alternative energy suppliers. It is free to pursue legal action when it believes lives, health or property are being risked through negligence or recklessness. It is not, however, entitled to invade other people's property while doing so, and forcing them bodily to submit. Nor is it free to put their lives and livelihoods at risk, as it does with “direct action” such as this.

Naidoo can be thankful that the Danish navy doesn't deal more harshly with people like him. It used to be routine to sink pirate ships, and hang the survivors from the yard-arm. DM

  • Ivo Vegter
IvoVegterBW

Ivo Vegter is a columnist and the author of Extreme Environment, a book on environmental exaggeration and how it harms emerging economies. He approaches issues from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. He grew up in the deep south of Johannesburg, and learnt his politics reading the Weekly Mail and Vrye Weekblad at Wits University during the early years of the country's transition to democracy. He recently left the city for the lower cost of living of Knysna, where he continues to write about everything under the sun. He is always right.

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