Interview with John Mead of Greenpeace
Progression: What exactly do you do in Greenpeace?
John: I do direct actions mainly.
Progression: What kind of roll do you take in the direct actions?
John: Well I've been a climber since I was about ten so I'm usually involved with climbing buildings or cranes and I'm a qualified boat driver so take part in the inflatables at sea too.
Progression: So you've done a lot of actions over the years.
John: umm... (laughs) yes. Mostly in Europe.
Progression: So you don't mind getting high up in the air in precarious places?
John: No not really, Its no worse than climbing mountains.
Progression: And you do quite a bit of that too recreationally.
John: Yes, the difference with actions is, you're in a controlled environment until another person arrives ie: a policeman, or a dock worker or whoever. And that is the added risk to doing this because you don't know what their reaction is going to be.
Progression: You also climb mountains, so you're an experienced climber...
John: Yeh, I mean that's where I guess I get my appreciation for the natural environment...
Progression: You also have to I suppose get arrested from time to time.
John: Yeh I certainly do, I was arrested four days ago in fact. And I've been charged (laughs), under the British criminal justice bill. Its for aggravated trespass and failing to respond to the threat of aggravated trespass.
Progression: Why the two charges?
John: I means they're trying me for the same thing twice (laughs). Basically it means somebody was very annoyed with us and wanted to do as much as they could to...
Progression: Tell me a bit about this particular action, what was it about?
John: Well it involved trying to stop a genetically engineered shipment of soya beans arriving in the country, the first shipment from America to arrive in Britain. It arrived at Liverpool docks.
Progression: So that's where the action was.
John: Yeh it was both water based and land based. There was a large vessel coming in, about 180 meters roughly, and that got caught by us blockading a lock as they tried to get through to the docks. Meanwhile, myself and a few other climbers from: Denmark, England and Holland, scaled cranes on the dock the shipment was due to be unloaded on. Once of course climbers are positioned in the cranes, its very difficult to get them out, plus its too risky for them to use the cranes so it prevents them from unloading the boat.
Progression: And so the police came along and arrested you eventually, as they do.
John: Well we were in fact in a strong good position as we managed to barricade the top of the crane. We were well over a hundred feet up, it was very difficult to get us down.
When we came down of our own accord, it was a planned part of the campaign. We planned for the first part of the action to lead on to the second part, where 75 Sainsburys store were being targeted, specifically because supermarkets sell a lot of soya bean derivatives in approximately 60 percent of their processed foods. With Sainsburys in particular, part of their advertising blurb is that the customer has the right to choose. And of course because these genetically engineered soya beans are not segregated from the normal soya beans, they're all processed together, the customer doesn't have the choice whether or not they buy the genetically engineered beans or not.
Progression: Why are these genetically engineered soya beans being produced, and what exactly is the problem with them?
John: That is the question! No body really knows what the effects will be. Previously they added a Brazil nut gene to soya beans, and to everyone's surprise, people with nut allergies started reacting to eating soya beans.
Progression: I understand that this time they added genes from a virus, a bacteria and a petunia.
John: Yes, basically, they're using us as an experiment. If these soya beans were a medicine for example, they would not be allowed to put them on the market without doing research and extensive testing. But because its a food, that research is not legally needed. Nobody knows how these beans will affect the soya gene pool or how it will affect the people who eat them in the short or long term. And that's the biggest worry.
Obviously from Greenpeace's point of view, we'd rather they didn't produce genetically engineered beans at all. But if they are going to, we think that the public should at least have the right to choose whether, they eat the engineered beans or not.
Progression: So there is no way of knowing what sort of long term affect the introduction of these genetically engineered beans might have.
Progression: But what is known, is that the complexity of the way things like gene pools and the effects of genetically engineered species work, is beyond sciences ability to understand anyway. The immensely complex way all these things interact with the environment and other species, like humans for example, makes understanding its effects impossible.
John: Well that's right and BSE is a very good example of the last time an "experiment" was done... on feeding processed farm animals to other farm animals who normally eat grass.
I mean to me... its common sense that that's not a healthy thing to do. I couldn't have predicted exactly what would happen before it did, but to me it makes sense that it would have at least been sensible to have done some research on it, because it s not a very healthy state of affairs. But they didn't, and we ended up with BSE.
Progression: Nature has evolved all its genetic pools and food chains over millions of years, and we're just going in and playing about with it and seeing what happens.
John: Well some scientists like to think they know more about it than that. But since little research into the effects of releasing genetically engineered food has been done, I don't think they can know.
Progression: My guess is that, with the myriad of different genes and chemical systems interacting on the earth, that it may be a lot like the wheather: it may be impossible to predict. However much science knows.
Progression: But, why, why are they producing these genetically engineered beans?
John: Its controlled by a multinational company called Monsanto who see it as another way to make money. Because they have genetically engineered the bean so that it is immune to their own weed killer called "Roundup". Basically it means that they can monopolise the market by selling the immune seed and more of their weed killer.
There's no telling what effect this will have on people or the environment.
Progression: How do you see Greenpeace's progress over the past 10 years.
John: Well this is my own personal view. I think to an extent after the French sinking of the Warrior (Greenpeace ship the Rainbow Worrier), they got a very big influx of support and money which meant they could rapidly expand and become the multinational organisation that they are today. In the beginning that meant that we could do a lot more direct actions. Now as well as the direct actions, the organisation is influencing things in other ways. Which over the years has become a more prominent aspect for some of the people within the organisation, but not so obvious to the public who support us. I don't know whether this is necessarily a good thing.
I feel that the only way you can change the decisions that the multinational companies, who are degrading the environment make, is by the general public becoming aware of the power they hold over these companies as consumers. Because what controls these companies is market forces.
Progression: So people can effect the decisions these multinational companies make by what they choose to buy.
John: That's right. But for the public to use their power over these multinationals they must be informed of what these companies are doing. Generally the only thing that gets large amounts of media is direct actions.
Progression: I think a lot of people around the world look to Greenpeace as an organisation that is daring enough to go and do the direct actions we all know about, and also professional enough to carry them out well. But I think people also look to Greenpeace as an organisation that seems to be on the leading edge of what's going on environmentally. Therefore if Greenpeace does an action on something, people assume it is something we should be concerned about. In a lot of ways Greenpeace has helped lead public awareness on environmental issues just simply because of its status. Not that I think this is a bad thing myself.
Do you think that this is still what Greenpeace sees as its main role?
John: To an extent yes.
Progression: Do you think that the mistake in their research Greenpeace made during the Brent Spa incident, was damaging to their credibility or not significant?
John: Perhaps not to the public, but to a small extent within the British press it did some damage, therefore influencing the public. I think maybe it also in some way frightened perhaps certain people in the the organisation.
Progression: Probably just a temporary thing though.
John: Hopefully yes. We got a reasonable amount of press on this last action. It was a pretty hard action.
There are different levels of actions. There are "demonstrations", there are what I call "hard demonstrations", and then there are "soft actions" and "hard actions".
This last action was a relatively hard one, we were actually blockading a ship. We managed to stop it being unloaded for 25 and a half hours. In very cold windy conditions (laughs).
Progression: How do you see Greenpeace in terms of world history? One of the biggest changes in modern times is the arrival of mass communication, and now of course the internet is another very powerful way of connecting people. People are watching the same TV programs, listening to a lot of the same music all over the globe. Greenpeace could be seen as a global force that could only exist at this time in history with all these global communications. Do you see Greenpeace as a new phenomenon historically which might have a future that is hard to predict, or do you think there are historical presidents for organisations like Greenpeace?
John: To an extent that depends on how the future unfolds. History always depends on the state of affairs in the here and now, and to an extent previous to now, Greenpeace have been operating under forms of threat. Saying unless you stop producing (for example) CFCs the ozone layer is going to be seriously depleted. There's a threat that something is going to happen in the future. That's why it depends so much how the environmental conditions of the future unfold as to Greenpeace's role in history unfolds. I think that within the next 10 or so years we're going to start to see some of these threats actualising. The ozone layer for example, is one of the things that is rapidly becoming a problem in many parts of the world. When all the things Greenpeace has been talking about over the years start to happen, then of course that may make the organisation stand out in history.
Progression: Do you enjoy doing the actions or do you find them a difficult thing which you do because you have to?
John: I'd certainly rather not have to do it. I'd rather (laughs) the problems weren't there for me to have to react to in the first place. But its both really, there is a certain amount of excitement and a certain amount of adrenalin flowing when you start an action. And this helps overcome some of the difficulties. It partly depends on the action of course.
Progression: There must be a lot of camaraderie between the activists. An action like the actions Greenpeace does, rely on a high degree of competence, skill, and professionalism in the people taking part, so you must all have to really trust and depend on each other to get these actions to work, some of them are obviously quite dangerous.
John: Well yes, there is a lot of camaraderie. For instance this last weekend, you got a big over all team of people for the whole action and then that's subdivided into boat crews, support team and people who are climbing the cranes who are climbers, mountaineers and so fourth. So as climbers and as a climbing team, within an operation there is a certain amount of camaraderie definitely.
Progression: Tell me a bit about your personal motivation for being in Greenpeace.
John: A lot of the reason I'm in Greenpeace is because I feel I'm part of the society that has corrupted the natural environment, and I'm not very proud of what its done to that environment. So I am hopefully, taking part in altering how this society sees and therefore uses the environment. That's certainly one level of it, in a way its easing my conscience for being part of this society. But mainly because I want our environment to be protected. What we're doing as a race, is committing suicide, what we're going to do is damage the environment to an extent where it can no longer support our form of life. Given a few thousand years and the earth will heal itself, but we'll of been wiped off the face of it.
Progression: I think there are a lot of people who would agree with that, yet when it comes to it, they do very little if anything at all, to try and change the situation.
John: It is much easier to ignore it and put it to one side than to take responcibility and actually go out and do something about it.
Progression: I think a lot of people feel a certain apathy, a feeling that they won't be able to make any difference. And yet at the same time, when people see Greenpeace doing an action, they say: "Yeh, great, Greenpeace is doing it, it can be done". But there seems to be a gulf between this sort of enthusiasm and people thinking its all hopeless.
John: Yeh. All Greenpeace is trying to do, is to get these same people to do something themselves. The only way we can change things is through a collective consciousness.
Progression: I think that a lot of people wish they could do something, but they don't know what they can do, they haven't got the skills to be in something like Greenpeace. So what is Greenpeace actually trying to get people to do. Should they go out and demonstrate, or is it much more around how they live their lives and what they buy?
John: Well basically it boils down to market forces. The multinationals are only there making lots of money in environmentally destructive ways because people, whether they're conscious of it or not, are buying products and using products that damage the environment.
Progression: And often there are alternatives available.
John: There are alternatives available. The problem with that is that they can be more expensive.
Progression: And yet people are willing to go and pay a bit extra and buy a CD instead of a tape or buy that slightly better stereo than they could have bought.
I guess a lot of people are buying with the environment in mind, but obviously not enough.
Progression: So people do really have a lot more power than perhaps they realise, if they're just willing to make informed choices about what they buy.
John: Yes that's right.
There are other ways too of course. I couldn't have gone out there and did the action this weekend without the support of Greenpeace members who donate money to us. They are obviously a very vital link in the chain, because without them, Greenpeace wouldn't exist at all.
Progression: Let's talk a little more about you then. You're a climber and you also train people for Greenpeace to climb.
John: Yeh I have done.
Progression: is that a fun thing, an interesting experience?
John: It is yeh, oh yeh sure, it fun. Its obviously very vital, there's a big difference between climbing a rock face and hanging a banner in a strong wind, different skills are needed. People see images of, brief flashes on the news of people doing what they perceive to be dangerous things. What they may not realise is the amount of effort and research and training that has gone into that action, before they get to see it on the media.
Progression: So you don't just get an idea in your head and turn up and do it spontaneously.
John: Um... no (smiles)
Progression: Greenpeace must be pretty clever at secrecy, planning and making sure that things go off without interference from the powers that be.
John: To an extent yes. Sometimes there are leaks. There was a leak about this weekend, the police knew that we were coming because the BBC camera team were trying to get into the dock to film it, and they told the police that that's why they were trying to get in (laughs). So the police did know that we were coming but luckily didn't catch on to what exactly we were going to do or how we were going to do it, and there fore weren't able to stop us.
Progression: You must have quite a lot of funny stories about things that have happened in actions.
John: Um... yeh (laughs) Because you can never do 100 percent research before you carry out the action.
There was one time where we actually got discovered researching a building. Although they didn't say anything at the time, but when we had a meeting with the company management they warned us that they (puts on a funny voice) "knew we were coming", and that there was no way we were going to be able to do anything to their building. And they were right it was very difficult building. We wanted to get onto the roof to hang a banner.
So we decided that the only way to do it was to jump out of an aeroplane (laughs).
Progression: Oh my god (laughs)
John: Which is what we did. We free fell from an aeroplane and then parachuted onto the roof of the building. Due to the wind direction and the shape of the building, I actually missed.
Progression: You parachuted?
John: It was a tandem jump so we were actually strapped to a professional parachuter. He only just got us onto the roof. We were about two foot lower than the top, so we nearly slammed into the side of the building basically (laughs). Luckily we just sort of leapfrogged (laughs) over the edge of it and safely onto the roof.
Progression: That's incredible (laughs). So the action was a success.
John: The action was a success yeh, we managed to hang the banner.
Progression: That's a great one!
John: Another time we were doing a demonstration about Norwegian whaling. So we targeted a Norwegian ferry taking tourists over to Norway. We got on the ferry and as it was leaving port, we planned to hang a banner down the side of it. But of course we had to be in disguise, so all our climbing equipment was carefully hidden under clothing we already had on. So we stood at the railings looking out to sea with our backs to the other passengers behind us. The thing is, that I had to get a carabena (metal clip used for climbing) out from the flies of my trousers, so we could attach ourselves to the rope and jump over the side of the ferry. Due to tight clothing and lots of equipment, it was quite difficult to find this specific carabena. (laughs)
And so I was fiddling around in the flies of my trousers, while two old ladies stood behind me in a state of of total disbelief. I didn't actually see their faces when I jumped over the side but hopefully, all was revealed... (laughs)... at that point in time.
Progression: Well I'm sure you have more stories John, but we'll leave that for another interview.
Progression: Perhaps you could tell me a bit more about what you do in your spare time, specifically your photography.
John: Yeh, sure. Personally I find the need to escape our Western society. I'm sure many people would value being able to do that. Any way I disappear for most of the winter to the Himalayas. The beauty there, the people there, its very rejuvenating. I am a photographer and gain lots of inspiration in this amazing environment.
Progression: If you'd like to see an exhibition of some of John's photographs, click here.
Progression: Thanks very much for talking to us, I'm sure you'll keep us up to date on what's happening with Greenpeace as time goes on.
John: My pleasure, will do.
Some of the opinions expressed here are those of John Mead and not necessarily those of Greenpeace as a whole.