Of mice and whales

Feature story - 1 June, 2004
They go by aliases and real names: Echo. Bluplanet. Ann Novek. Tig3933.Chris99. They stop nuclear reprocessing plants, save forests and whales, hound corporations and hold the feet of bureaucrats to the fire. Who ARE these people? They're a non-violent army, a rowdy herd of mice, hundreds of thousands of web-savvy internet inhabitants who ask the question "Why just surf... when you can make waves?"

Your travel plans can save a whale.

It's the Greenpeace Cyberactivist Community. On their list of targets right now is Icelandic whaling, and the topic of discussion is which of them is going to join a Greenpeace ship later this month to carry our message direct to the Icelandic government.

Numbering more than 300,000 people worldwide, our cyberspace activists hail from 228 countries and territories, including such unexpected bastions of international activism as Monaco and the Vatican.

They become cyberactivists by signing up for a free monthly newsletter listing online activities they can participate in; from joining discussions at act.greenpeace.org to sending e-cards and letters, to volunteering time or skills.

They've got a few notches in their mice, having forced Coca-Cola, McDonald's, Finnish Foresters, and not a few governments and UN agencies to end such environmentally destructive practices as using climate-killing refrigerants and genetically modified products, logging in pristine ancient forests, and permitting rust-bucket oil tankers from sailing in ecologically sensitive areas.

They work alongside our real world activists, in their own virtual style. While television cameras are trained on climbers blockading a dangerously old oil tanker, a worldwide network of connected keyboards may be pounding the ship owners or the International Maritime Organisation with emails and faxes.

Saving whales in Iceland

Last year, we set out to prove that whales are worth more to Iceland alive than dead. But we decided the Icelandic government shouldn't just take our word for it. The cyberactivists mobilised to create a different kind of petition -- a petition which is currently worth more than $US 62 million.

Join the Greenpeace cyberactivist community and start making waves.

We asked people to do more than sign an angry statement. We asked them to pledge a trip to Iceland if the government stops whaling. Iceland's tourism and whale-watching industries have been fast-growing sectors of the economy -- and outspoken critics of the decision to relaunch a whaling programme. Many of the people who visit Iceland do so because they love nature, and because they want to see whales in the wild, alive.

We wanted to prove that just as deciding to kill whales brings a negative impact -- whale-watch bookings in Iceland for this spring are down ten-fold over last year -- a decision to do the right thing could bring massive goodwill. If the government would give up whaling, we offered to promote Iceland as a tourist destination and allow the Icelandic tourist association to do a one-time mailing to our list of cyberactivist pledgers.

Wanted: 50,000 travellers

We wanted 50,000 people to make the pledge. We asked for suggestions from our cyberactivists about how to get the word out. "Bugbabe" suggested that we charter a ship to Iceland and fill it with people who've made the pledge. This sparked against an old idea from somebody here in our "Secret Mountain Web Laboratory": why not run a friend-tell-a-friend contest and offer a bunk on one of our ships as the prize for the hardest working cyberactivist? It worked. Within a short time of announcing the competition our numbers began to climb, and soon we had added 12,000 pledges as a result of the challenge and met our 50,000 overall target a month early.

Our German supporters were encouraged to write directly to individuals in Iceland letting them know how strongly they felt about whaling, and their support for the pledge concept. By the end of the campaign, they will have written to a quarter of the Icelandic population. One couple wrote us that they had won a free trip to Reykjavik on Icelandair as part of a travel agent's promotion. But they returned the voucher to Icelandair in protest of the whale hunt.

On average, a tourist in Iceland will spend $US 1,169 in food, lodging, transport, and entertainment. So our 50,000 pledgers represent more than $US 62 million in potential income. Stack that up against the $US 3-4 million in value generated by whaling in its heyday, and the conclusion is obvious: harming whales harms tourist income.

Arguments about whaling in Iceland in the past have centred on disagreements about ethics and sustainability, and have been charged with high emotions: nationalist patriotism and environmentalist passion alike. The pledge reduces the argument to an economic one, and one which we hope the Icelandic government can listen to: whales are simply worth more to them alive than dead.

Who will our ambassador be?

But who is going to take that message to Iceland for us? We'd already agreed we would select the winner of our challenge from the top ten recruiters. Of those, only five could travel on the dates in question or had otherwise qualified for the bunk.

We sent out a questionnaire to all of them to evaluate who would be the best choice based on ability to communicate the issue, fit in with our crew, and best represent our cyberactivists worldwide. But we couldn't eliminate any of our five finalists on the basis of those criteria: they were an extraordinary group of people.

Should we choose Drizzt? He's a veterinarian in Spain studying to be a marine biologist. He volunteers to protect sea turtles and helped with the cleanup of the Prestige oil spill. He promoted the pledge by creating a public MSN messenger account with a nickname of "I save whales... Ask me how you can too!"
Should we send Lizardfish? She helped study Right Whales at sea with the Woods Hole institute, and runs an environmental website in Bermuda which helped stop seismic experiments which were threatening local whale populations. Lizardfish promoted the pledge at her website, sent impassioned messages to friends, and had a party where she spent the evening steering people over to her computer to sign up.
What about Maarten? A student from Belgium, he's studying engineering in applied biological sciences, with a specialty in forests. He has studied the water cycle of Chilean forests, and has always dreamed of working for Greenpeace. He promoted the pledge with his village and family.
And then there's Marnee. Marnee's just finishing up a masters in Environmental Policy. She loves rock climbing, skiing, mountain biking, hiking, sea kayaking, and camping, and has titled her thesis "A Scathing Indictment of George W. Bush's Environmental Policies." She promoted the pledge with individual messages and phone calls... and "threatened bodily harm" to anyone who didn't sign up!
But what about Tomakint? Google Tomakint and you'll see he's an environmental activist in Nigeria, and he's a frequent and articulate participant in discussions at the Greenpeace cybercentre. He travelled 170 kilometers to Lagos to put a piece of paper on a bulletin board at a cyber-cafe -- a low-tech version of viral marketing campaign. He also distributed an appeal to his network, but said he had some trouble with people not believing him, since he comes from the e-mail scam capital of the world.
We opened the question up to our cyberactivist community, looking for their opinions about who should go. Within days we had more than 300 posts championing one or another candidate, and more than a few requests to send all five.

Penny, one of our crew members, stated it best in her post:

I have been lucky enough to sail on and off with Greenpeace for the last 4 years, and have, during that time, come to really appreciate the great work of our cyberactivist community. You guy's really do make a big difference. Thank you.

Good luck to all the finalists, I would be honoured to sail with every one of you.

Take action

Take the pledge to visit Iceland if the government stops whaling.