It’s all the most terrible news on Greenpeace Canada’s homepage. “The Arctic is in danger. The ice is retreating at an increasing speed, clearing the path for greedy oil companies that see this catastrophe as a business opportunity.” Good heavens. Also, “recent reports warn that sea life faces the next mass extinction.” Oh no!
Nuclear power “poses a serious threat to … humanity.” Yikes! And most of the planet’s “ancient” forests are “lost or degraded” and the rest are next. Things back home in Canada are dreadful, too, as oilsands pipelines “threaten thousands of rivers and streams,” tankers carrying their oil “threaten our coastlines” and their emissions “fuel climate change.” God help us all.
What a relief to hear that Greenpeace now says that we shouldn’t seriously believe its claims. We’re not actually meant to take what it says literally. Perhaps it should also mention that to the millions of donors whose fear over such exaggerated environmental claims funds its $350-million budget. And to the government ministries, which Greenpeace lobbies to rein in those greedy oil producers and forestry companies to restrict pipelines and tanker shipments, and to shutter nuclear power plants.
But Greenpeace isn’t advertising the admission that it doesn’t trade in facts. Instead, it revealed it in recent court filings defending itself against a U.S. lawsuit by Canada’s Resolute Forest Products. After enduring a years-long campaign where Greenpeace publicly trashed Resolute’s reputation and intimidated its customers into cancelling their paper-supply contracts, the Montreal-based forestry company began fighting back with lawyers, alleging Greenpeace is a “global fraud” that “duped” its donors with “materially false and misleading claims.” In the U.S., Resolute sued using the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), which was both a strikingly menacing tactic and an absolutely inspired idea. Since a racketeering suit can bring triple damages, and since Resolute claims Greenpeace’s harassment campaign has cost it upwards of $100 million, the gravity of the threat has motivated Greenpeace to come up with the best defence it can muster.
Turns out that includes telling the court that its claims about Resolute being “forest destroyers,” responsible for a “caribou death spiral and extinction” and myriad other vilifications, were all just marketing hype. “The challenged statements are no more than opinion based on disclosed facts,” Greenpeace International’s lawyers explained in their latest motion to dismiss the RICO suit. Greenpeace, like anyone protected by constitutional free speech, will “often use forceful language to make their point. They do not hew to strict literalisms or scientific precision, but regularly use words ‘in a loose, figurative sense’ to express ‘strong disagreement,’ and attack their intellectual opponents through ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ or ‘vigorous epithet(s).’”
Calling Resolute “forest destroyers,” the lawyers continue, doesn’t have to mean that the company is actually “destroying Canada’s boreal forest” as Greenpeace’s campaign literature claimed. Rather, the motion explains, it “can be describing figurative, rather than literal destruction.” What court could possibly disprove that Resolute is destroying “figurative” forests, since by definition, those forests don’t actually exist?
It seems only fair that Greenpeace should seek shelter behind America’s strong First Amendment protections, since that’s what they’re there for. And Greenpeace continues to maintain that its defence doesn’t mean its claims are lies. But Resolute’s allegation — which hasn’t been proven in court — is that the group is practicing a form of fraud, by lying about companies to squeeze more money from donors, to its own enrichment. It’s worth noting that Greenpeace has long had trouble proving that its work is all that altruistic: Several countries (although not the U.S.) have revoked its charitable status, including Canada, where government officials determined its activities serve “no public benefit” but its anti-development activism might well compound poverty.
It has unquestionably cost Canadian jobs through its relentless public punishment of Resolute, which is why the conflict has created an unlikely alliance in Quebec of union leaders, First Nations chiefs and government officials, all lined up against Greenpeace’s crusade. Free speech is a vital protection that even propagandists must enjoy, but mau-mauing a company’s customers for fundraising purposes, as Greenpeace did to Resolute — leading to cancelled contracts for flyers with huge U.S. chains like Rite Aid and Best Buy, where protestors even hassled shoppers at the storefront — might be where a court sees a bigger role for civil damages than for the First Amendment.
Organizations don’t naturally benefit from speech rights, after all. Resolute certainly doesn’t. Whether communicating to investors, the community or to customers, a ring-fence of regulations, civil claims and industry standards make sure companies carefully watch what they say. Spreading fictions about their products’ benefits, its risks, or their sales figures or financial situation if they’re publicly traded, can get a corporation fined, sued and sanctioned, while its officials face career-ending censure if not retributive fines and jail time.
Meanwhile, activist NGOs like Greenpeace have enjoyed the freedom to spread exaggerations, deceptions and outright lies in ways that the resource companies they target could never get away with, all to raise money from credulous donors who are victimized, too, fooled by “rhetorical hyperbole” into worrying that things they genuinely care about, like, say, the boreal forest, are really being destroyed. Stressing out compassionate people with overwrought scare tactics is a squalid and ghoulish trade, but, hey, it keeps those cheques coming in.
And surveys show Canadians still trust NGOs far more than they trust businesses: As many politicians will attest, it’s easier to deceive people into trusting you than to actually earn it. But Greenpeace’s admissions make it clear that environmentalists will spout baloney — in the “loose, figurative sense” — to make money in ways that no major company would dare. Businesses face real risks for being deceptive. But the incentive to gain for fear-mongering environmentalists is to distort reality so extremely that forests are made “figurative” and the truth becomes unrecognizable.