The Greenpeace Message and the Media
McLuhan's Children: The Greenpeace Message and the Media
Between The Lines, 1996, 220pp, $19.95, ISBN 1-896357-04-0
Reviewed by Kirsten Cowan
Stephen Dales' McLuhan's Children is not a chronicle of Greenpeace's
life as the world's best known environmental activist group. Rather,
it is an examination of how that success has been due to an uncanny
ability to exploit the realities of the modern media.
Greenpeace has achieved a unique symbiosis with the media, argues
Dale, predicated on an understanding of the power of the visual
image. Greenpeace has grown from a small group of idealists influenced
by the spiritual traditions of First Nations peoples into a world-wide
institution. This transformation did not take place without conflict.
"[T]he Save the Seals campaign brought into sharp relief two
key but inherently contradictory aspects of Greenpeace's nature:
the intense spiritual commitment of many of its members, and the
organization's alliance with the mass media - that fickle, superficial,
unforgiving appendage of the consumer society that we all know and
sometimes hate." p. 93
That Greenpeace's message has been so successful is a tribute to
the organization's intuitive understanding of Marshall McLuhan's
theories about modern communication. Rather than relying on the
logic chain thinking of written communication, Greenpeace makes
its mark with powerful images in the modern medium of television.
Baby seals being clubbed, brave eco-warriors standing up to whaling
ships -- this instinctive understanding of the new visual currency
has turned Greenpeace into an international force to be reckoned
Dale's book does an excellent job of revealing the complexities
of both the issues involved in global environmental activism, and
of the ethical quandaries posed to those who would make a difference
in that field. Greenpeace has learned the hard way, argues Dale,
of the dangerous oversimplifications spawned by the seductive, emotive,
visual image. After the international boycott on seal pelts spelled
devastation for many Native livelihoods, many in Greenpeace looked
anew at the consequences of the uni-dimensional arguments put forward
by sound-bite activism. How could the complexity of international
environmental issues, linked in so many cases not by cuddly animals
but by economic systems of domination and control, be expressed
to a TV-viewing audience?
The image of today's Greenpeace which emerges from McLuhan's
Children is of a two-sided organization. Greenpeace has struggled
to integrate the lessons of three decades of both love-affair and
betrayal in its alliance with modern media. On the one hand, it
remains a media-savvy global organizer, fomenting public outrage
through carefully controlled media placements, able to ride that
tide of public opinion into the back rooms of international commissions
and regulations councils. On the other hand is the unsung hero of
both Greenpeace and the larger world of activism and grassroots
organizing. The community-level co-operation and aid which Greenpeace
provides are documented here by Dale, revealing an insight into
a truth about the modern world. In order to make change, we operate
in two worlds, the sleek, high-colour glow of television, where
we passively absorb a simplified reality, and the daily, human interaction
of community and connection, where we grapple with the contradictions
and complexities of life.
I suspect that Stephen Dale's hypotheses about Greenpeace's relationship
with McLuhan would be better understood by a student of communications
than the lay reader such as myself. This is not a criticism of the
book. McLuhan's Children is a fascinating, approachable and
engaging read for environmentalists, community activists, journalists,
history buffs, ethicists and communications theorists alike.
Kirsten Cowan is Promotions Co-ordinator for Sources.
Published in Sources,
Number 42, Summer 1998.
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