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We can’t let 30 people be our conscience

The Arctic Sunrise at the top of the Nares Strait, 2009

The Arctic Sunrise at the top of the Nares Strait, 2009
Photo: © Dave Walsh/Greenpeace

Three weeks ago, I gave a speech to a room in Brussels. It was, I hoped, a rallying cry; it was at least a rant in support of 30 Greenpeace activists from the Arctic Sunrise, locked up in prisons in or around Murmansk by the Russian authorities for the last 50 days.

Twenty days later, I did not expect to be still worrying about the Arctic 30, many of whom are friends of mine. I thought they would be free by now, and we would be celebrating. Instead, I today watched Greenpeace counsel Daniel Simons give evidence at the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea, during a case the Netherlands is taking against Russia for its unlawful seizing of the ship and crew. Russia didn’t even show up.

After I spoke on October 17, my friend Mark Breddy tweeted something I said.

Mark Breddy ‏@str8_bananas
“We can’t let 30 people be our conscience.” @davewalshphoto at Brussels #FreeTheArctic30 solidarity event”

I did say these words, but it was Mark’s tweet that set me thinking about them more. On that night, October 17th, we were in a beautiful room in the Bibliotheque de Laeken, in northwest Brussels. It was the closing night of an exhibition of my Arctic photographs “The Arctic: Another World?”, hosted and supported by Greenpeace Belgium and the Ville de Bruxelles.

When the library offered to open up the exhibition for an evening event, we decided to make it big. Three speakers were billed for Arctic Nocturne: Greenpeace polar policy expert Neil Hamilton, IPCC contributor Philippe Huybrechts, a Professor of Climatology and Glaciology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel and myself.

In a way, I had it easy – Neil spoke to a packed room on the threats facing the Arctic, the context of the Greenpeace action in the Russian Arctic, and the plight of the 30 activists then absurdly accused of piracy (as of October 30, they had also been charged with hooliganism, and there’s talks of them being moved to St. Petersburg). Philippe deconstructed the climate science, and demonstrated the incontrovertible facts – our planet is warming, and we’re to blame.

Before I took the microphone I had already said something about the Arctic – my photographs were hanging in the room. Many of these images were made while I was sailing on board the Arctic Sunrise, with the same captain that is now behind bars in Russia, American Pete Willcox, and the same first mate, Canadian Paul Ruzycki and Kiwi boat mechanic Jon Beauchamp during an epic trip to the Arctic in 2009. One of the images – the blue iceberg with the shadows – was made one late one evening, while exploring in a small inflatable with Pete, in Kane Basin, in the far northwest of Greenland. The picture of the bear was taken from the bridge wing of the sunrise, in the same area.

I sailed with Pete on the Sunrise again in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, when we worked with independent scientists on an investigation the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – so that’s about six months or so, between 2009 and 2010 alone. I like to think of Greenpeace ship as theatrical stages – the theatre remains the same, but the production and the backdrop changes. There are recurring members of the cast, and new ones appear along the way. Often you know you’ve been part of a performance with someone, on a ship, but for the life of you, you cannot remember where.

I sailed with Ana Paula Alminhana from Brazil in 2010, when I made some of the other Arctic photographs. I’ve sailed various places with Aussie radio operator Colin Russell – the North Atlantic and the Antarctic, I think. Mannes Ubels too, the boss of engine rooms and Greenpeace ship fitness training – we’ve sailed together, all over the place. Dima, Russian, Bronxian, Swedish Dima, we’ve shared a ship’s cabin full of overturned furniture during ridiculous November weather somewhere north west of Ireland. I’ve worked in the snowy woodlands of Finnish lapland with Sini Saarela, to successfully protect 40,000 the last boreal reindeer herding forest in Europe. David Haussman, or Haussy, we’ve done a few trips together on the previous Rainbow Warrior, and on other adventures.

These are not terrorists, pirates, or hooligans. They are not only people of integrity, they’re the kind of friends you’d want to bring home to meet your mother. Unlike, say, Vladimir Putin, who would likely freak out your parents, by taking his shirt off and trying to wrestle the cat.

They activists locked up in Murmansk my friends, and yes, they are heroes. They are prisoners of conscience – our conscience, they are taking a stand against the destruction of our environment.

As the damp days of winter kicks here, in my neck of the northern hemisphere, it’s reassuring that there are people out there being our conscience, while we continue with life as usual.

There are six billion people on this planet. 6,000,000,000 of us. Thirty stood up for the destruction of Earth’s environment, and were slapped down for their audacity; they are now are paying for it with jail time, and an uncertain future.

This is not good enough, not by any stretch of the imagination. It is not acceptable to let 30 people confront the perpetrators of the environmental crimes, while we stay at home, burning gas, coal and oil to heat and light our homes, and fuel our cars and trucks and planes, aiding and abetting the villains we’re disgusted by. The corporations, Gazprom, Shell and their like are looking to make a quick, or not so quick buck through the difficult extraction Arctic oil. But they would not be going to the Arctic if people like you and me, and the people sitting in traffic jams and in airport lounges and in overlit and overheated houses, buying shit from the far side of the world on the power-hungry internet were not creating that demand.

These corporations thrive not only on demand, but the prospect of future demands. They make weasel words about new energy sources, but really, they want, and need, to milk every last drop of the sacred cow of fossil fuels. And these corporations are staffed by people, like you and me and members of our family. People working for big companies don’t see themselves as the bad guys – very few people do. It’s more comforting to think of yourself as a moderating influence inside big business. There’s a paradox – individually, we entertain the fallacy that we cannot do much damage, yet, as one person we can change the course of an entire corporation. There’s the root of some societal cognitive dissonance here, which people far more qualified than I can further dissect.

As Eldridge Cleaver put it. “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem” (note: I’m aware of Cleaver’s deplorable dark side – clearly he spent a lot of time being part of the problem).

It is not good enough to expect thirty dedicated people to challenge environmental threats to our planet, and to demand solutions, while we engage in some mild clicktivism, continuing on just like before. It’s not good enough to say “I’m just one person, driving my car or taking a flight doesn’t do THAT much damage”. It’s not good enough to say “I’m just one person, I can’t save the world.” We don’t have the option of letting others suffer for our sins by letting them take the rap, or the option of waiting around for others to fix the problems. Stop complaining about the government, be the government.

We all have responsibility for dealing with the world’s problems, and we have a responsibility to each other. We are all one person, but together we are six billion. The first step is to recognise this solidarity we share. Most of us want security, food, a roof over our family’s heads. The second is recognise the common good in not walking over the heads of one’s neighbour in order to provide a better life for one’s own.

It is not good to enough to pay lip service to the work of the Arctic 30, to fetishise their plight and as a result, lose sight of the goal – putting a stop to the environmental destruction of the Arctic, and by extension, our planet. This story is not simply about Russia, about protest, about Greenpeace, or even about the Arctic. It’s about what we’re doing to our planet, and the mess we may leave behind for future generations to clear up.

So why protest in the Arctic anyway? Well, how we use energy, and where we source our energy at home, in our cars and planes has a direct effect on the Arctic, both in the release of CO2 – which creates global warming and ocean acidification, and in the release of black carbon, which reduces the albedo, or reflectivity of ice, making it more susceptible to melting. As a result, the Arctic is changing – the Greenland ice cap is pushing fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean, which affects currents and weather. Arctic sea ice extent is on a downward trend. Less white sea ice, means dark open water, which promotes more warming. Arctic shipping is up, with more ships taking the shortcut over the top of Russia between the Atlantic and the Pacific than ever before. This is far faster, cheaper, and for now, riskier than using the Suez Canal.

What happens in the Arctic affects how we live farther south. Last month, it was reported that Dr James Screen from the University of Exeter had found that melting Arctic sea ice could increase summer rainfall in northwest Europe (just when we thought this was impossible!). WHO has recently reported on effects of pollution on health, and how it causes cancer. We burn fossil fuels, the Arctic melts. Nothing happens in isolation, everything is connected. Resettling on Mars is neither feasible nor attractive.

Three numbers and the stupid test

Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben talks about “3 numbers”. The first one is 2.

We can’t go above 2 degrees celsius of global warming if we want to we need to avoid catastrophic climate change.

The second number is 565.

If we put 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we will exceed the two degrees temperature rise.

The third number is 2795.

2795 gigatons is the amount of carbon dioxide emitted if we burn up the planet’s current reserves of fossil fuels.

What does this tell us? Well, it tells us that if we continue on like we’re going, we are quite frankly, fucked. Maybe not tomorrow or next week, but soon. Don’t get too comfortable.

Some of our fossil fuel reserves are tougher to access. The easy stuff has been extracted. So, now, with the Arctic warming up oil companies are heading there to attempt to extract the same stuff that’s causing the melting in the first place. And if it goes wrong – well, you’ve heard about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Imagine that taking place in subzero temperatures, with no response infrastructure in place. Imagine an oil company waiting six months for winter to end before plugging an oil well that’s spewing into the Arctic marine environment. All in order to get more of oil to burn, to keep the planet warming.

That ladies, and gentlemen, is how stupid we humans are. Most other animals do not shit in their own nest. We seem to think it’s ok. We are failing the stupid test.

So, please, do not give in to that warm feeling you may get by supporting the Arctic 30. Yes, it feels good to help in some way. They need our help to get out of jail. But they also need our help to wake up the 99% of six billion people on this planet to not just the challenges we face, but to the power we all possess. Change must come from within.


What you can do to Free the Arctic 30

More reading:

Rex Wyler: Gazprom vs Greenpeace Arctic 30
Video: When you add up these three numbers you don’t get a sum, you get a disaster
Oil on the sea of our souls – the delusion of deep sea drilling


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