Before launching my own creative agency, Dancing Fox, Ltd., I was an activist and volunteer with Greenpeace for 34 years.
It was an amazing adventure. I flew over sagebrush desert in a hot air balloon. I stopped a nuclear weapons test for four days by hiding out near ground zero. I sailed to Iceland aboard a Greenpeace ship, where I caught a glimpse of a rare blue whale -- the largest creature to ever roam the Earth. I sailed the coast of India to oppose the deadly shipbreaking trade. I've been arrested for opposing cruise missiles and toxic waste, for raising an alarm about climate change, and other forms of cultural sedition. I've lived in five countries and visited or worked in twenty more, and helped open Greenpeace offices in the Soviet Union and Italy.
I'm a storyteller. I did many things with Greenpeace, but the work I'm proudest of was all about communications and innovation. I've witnessed in my lifetime the power of great storytelling to shift the status quo. At first in individual attitudes and behaviours which then, at some magical tipping point, turn into cultural change. I've seen or been involved with struggle after struggle that seemed impossible when they were begun, and inevitable when they were finished: from the overthrow of South African Apartheid to the opposition to above ground nuclear weapons testing, to marriage equality in the US. When enough people come to believe change is possible, change becomes possible. So what convinces us, one by one, that change is possible? Great stories: stories of heroism -- people who dare the unusual and the untried. Who suffer for what they believe. Who recruit people to their cause by the integrity of their actions. Who change our definition of what's possible.
Greenpeace changed my own definition of what was possible. I first stumbled upon their story in 1982, when I read a book, Bob Hunter's Warriors of the Rainbow, while snowbound one winter alone in a cabin in New Hampshire without electricity or running water. I was enchanted. I'd been a protestor against nuclear weapons, but here was a set of activists, who took a complex issue, be it whaling or nuclear weapons testing, and drew a black and white cartoon: Here's one group of human beings about to harpoon a whale. Here's another group that is willing to risk their lives to drive a tiny rubber boat into harms way to stop them. Here's Richard Nixon -- he wants to detonate a nuclear weapon over a fault line in Canada's back yard. Here's a group of people willing to sail a rusty fishing boat into the blast zone to stop it. What those actions did was set off a conversation -- in the international media, but more importantly in every member of the audience's head. You had to answer the question: Which side are you on? And by answering that question, you were transformed from an ignorant bystander to a witness, to someone with an opinion. And no matter how quietly it might sleep, a moral obligation. Because once you make the mental calculation that something is wrong, the next question is what are you going to do about it?
That question slumbered in my subconscious long after I closed Bob's book, left the cabin, and moved to Boston. But I eventually discovered an old friend who was working for " a group called Greenpeace" and who invited me to come by the office and become a door-to-door canvasser. I turned down that offer more than once, but when I at last walked into the Greenpeace office, in an old warehouse on Russia Wharf, I never looked back. Here are a few highlights of my adventure.
Jon Hinck, Harald Zindler, Ron Taylor, and myself were the first activists to occupy ground zero at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in 1983, delaying the test detonation of a nuclear weapon. We also unwittingly pioneered the use of mylar heat-retaining blankets as a counter-technology to infrared imaging, violated US national security when we spotted the first (then top-secret) Stealth bombers as we passed by Area 51, and set off an unfortunate rumor about UFOs when we later mentioned, in a Las Vegas bar, the strange craft we'd seen.
To mark the 40th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 1985, I organized a banner-hanging on the Statue of Liberty. There were only three television networks in the US in those days, and the action made the evening news on all three.
In 1985 I initiated the first trans-Atlantic email system for Greenpeace with the help of Greenpeace's über-geek, Dick Dillman. My "give it away free" policy at Greenpeace International led to that system spreading rapidly throughout the organization's global offices and becoming standard for the next eight years. It replaced the punched-tape telex we'd used for global communications until then, and provided us with communication in and out of Greenpeace's first non-western office, where an international telephone call took days to book and complete. Only eleven other non-soviet users were online in Moscow at the time, and ours was the first system for a Non-Governmental Organisation. We used 300 baud acoustic couplers attached to Bakelite phones to do this, in a time before spam.
In 1986, Duncan Currie, Steve Sawyer, and I did the heavy lifting for Greenpeace's arbitrated lawsuit against the French Government for the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. It was the first arbitration to put a Non-Governmental Organization on equal footing with a Sovereign State. The multi-million dollar settlement financed the replacement of the ship, and provided the sole source of Greenpeace International's reserve fund for nearly two decades.
In 1995, I shouldered the work of reforming Greenpeace's governance system according to a blueprint laid down by Thilo Bode and unanimously agreed by the organization. It took two years to implement and earned me a spot on the Greenpeace International Senior Management Team.
With the turn of the century, I drove the development of Greenpeace's online activism programme and a global content management system known as Greenpeace Planet. Greenpeace Planet, with a few national exceptions, standardized the look and feel of Greenpeace's websites worldwide and enabled a more globalized workflow. It was estimated at the time to have saved the organization around 2.3 million Euros a year.
I sailed with the Greenpeace ship Esperanza to save whales in Iceland. When Iceland announced a "scientific whaling" programme in 2003, it marked a return to a large-scale hunt which Greenpeace had largely stopped in the 1980s with a boycott on Icelandic fish. But that took years of effort, boycotts are hard to start and harder to stop, and we knew from years of taking on the Icelandic whaling fleet that aggressively targetting the whaling industry provided the whalers with an excellent means of drumming up support at home: national pride. In one of the best examples of inspired leadership I´ve ever seen, our Executive Director, Gerd Leipold, announced this decision would not stand -- and he ordered the Rainbow Warrior to turn around, set a course for Iceland, and be there within two weeks. He tasked a small team of us to come up with a plan within that time. Andrew Davies mentioned a "reverse boycott" -- a way people could promise to GO to Iceland if the government stopped whaling, and show their appreciation with tourist kroner. Frode Pleym, the campaign lead, loved this -- the tourist industry in Iceland is a powerful force within government, and making them allies in a domestic debate, rather than alienating the fishing industry and turning them against us, made strategic sense.
Alone among environmental groups in those days, we had an active online community that Kevin Jardine had provided with a forum, cloned from Slashdot, and we set them to work recruiting pledges. We announced a competition: recruit the most people to pledge to go to Iceland, and win a bunk on a Greenpeace ship. In no time at all, we'd garnered pledges worth more in potential tourist money than whaling had ever made, lined up the tourist industry in Iceland against whaling, recruited tens of thousands of new supporters to our online base, and forced the Icelandic government to back down from a planned quota of more than 500 whales to around 50.
The Green my Apple campaign was a total high. We set out to make an example of Apple for the entire industry and get them to take some leadership in phasing out certain chemicals that made Apple products deadly when they went into the e-waste stream. Not only did we win, but we set "a new standard for sophisticated use of internet, online advocacy and social media activism," according to Eva Applebaum, among other digirati (like Kathy Sierra, pictured right, who hugged her Mac in support of the campaign for me at the 2006 SXSW conference). I've written about it at length elsewhere, and it was the product of many hands and minds, but the part I played was coming up with a communications strategy that positioned Greenpeace among the Apple faithful -- then a very loyal and fierce niche -- instead of butting heads with Cupertino with a more conventional Greenpeace campaign message of "BAD company, BAD BAD BAD company." "I love my Mac, I just wish it came in green" was the strap line I wrote that summed it up, and we broke with traditional brand expectations when my copy for the Greenmyapple website began with the word "love:" "We love Apple." But once again, it was about harnessing a force -- and the force that Steve Jobs listened to was his consumer base: if we didn't win a critical mass of them to our side, it was game over. We channelled the love, we got Apple users writing to Steve and creating outrageously great ads, posters, and videos to goad the God of the Garage Geeks into going green.
Then, there's Mister Splashy Pants. When we launched a campaign to name a handful of humpbacks that we'd been satellite tracking in the Pacific, we got hundreds of worthy, mythical, sea-scented suggestions. And we got the insanely silly suggestion that we call one Mister Splashy Pants. Huge credit goes to Richard Hanson for rolling the whole thing along, and for not balking when I told him to damn the torpedos of internal oppostion and give Mister Splashy Pants a spot as afinalist, despite internal opposition, consternation that the name was beloved not only by whale supporters but by Reddit trolls, and the fear that --good heavens-- the name was too fun for such a majestic creature. The resulting competition took the internet by storm, drove unprecedented traffic to our site and the campaign, and turned into what advertising guru Russel Davies called "a defining moment in New Media marketing" in Campaign Magazine.
In this day and age, in which social media is a part of every organisation's campaign strategy, it seems strange to look back and remember how ground-shaking and controversial Greenpeace's earliest forays into digital activism were. Initially, computers were relatively rare, and the idea that change might be driven by "a bunch of geeks staring into computer screens" seemed impossible to many. What they missed was the wave that would drive that technology first to every desk, and then into most of the pockets on the planet.
I ran Greenpeace International's website and digital activism programme until 2014. We won awards, we won campaigns. As new digital tools arose, we figured out ways to bend them to our purposes. When I saw Twitter at the SXSW tech conference in 2007, I watched it expose the interior monologue of roomfuls of people, facilitating conversations and arguments that couldn't exist anywhere else. I saw conferees switching from one lecture hall to another as they got real-time reports of better things they were missing. In short, I watched it spread information that changed behaviour. I registered Greenpeace immediately.
Greenpeace is about boats, and I spent time (though never enough) at sea. I hired and trained some amazing people to fill a roll unique to Greenpeace: the "onboard webby." The onboard webby had to know their way around a ship, have skills in code and data transmission, be handy with a still and video camera, know something about audio, and on top of all that be a great story teller. I loved working with those folks, and I loved doing the job myself. It was my great privilege to sail on the third Rainbow Warrior's maiden voyage from Bremen to Hamburg to Amsterdam, London, and Stockholm.
When Jonah Sachs presented his "Winning the Story Wars" at a Greenpeace event I got my first glimpse of storytelling as a theory of change. It rocked my world. A small band of us coalesced around an idea hatched by Tommy Crawford that we needed to articulate an organisational story for Greenpeace. The effort took us to China, Brazil, and San Francisco. It drove us to read books about mythology, anthropology, morality, and the evolution of human cooperation. We teamed up with eatbigfish, a London Agency that specialised in challenger brands and encouraged rogue thinking by getting to know your inner rebel, the "pirate inside." Lucy Taylor brought her improv theatre skills to our workshops, which diverged, sometimes with breathtaking creativity, from the standard in-house meeting style. And we found ourselves, eventually, with a story whose moral both honoured Greenpeace's DNA and which set the stage for an evolutionary leap: "A billion acts of courage can spark a brighter tomorrow." We built it with enough room to flex so that it could be told in Beijing or Brunei, but enough fixed points that you'd know it was the same story. It was adopted into the Greenpeace's long term planning, along with a set of change objectives we called The Seven Shifts.
I've been watching and designing activist communications for decades. I've never been more excited by a way of thinking than I have been by the idea of story as theory of change. Everything that's holding back a more beautiful world is rooted in the common notion of what's possible, of the rules of how the world is supposed to work. The ability for new ideas to travel at the speed of thought in today's digitally networked world means an unprecedented opportunity to challenge the stories which are holding us back, to introduce a new story rooted in the triumph of human ingenuity, compassion, and vision -- a story unflinching in its optimism and promise. Tommy Crawford and I founded Dancing Fox, Ltd. to help changemakers write that story, and to help that story change the world.